Gasper Jemec’s Terra Nuova in Venice


Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,

Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,

And hasten while her penniless rich palms

Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,—

Hasten, while they are true,—sleep, death, desire,

Close round one instant in one floating flower.

--Hart Crane, Voyages II


A charming and authentic Venetian townhouse, just across a charming stone bridge from the church of Santa Maria Assunta with its masterworks by Titian, Andrea dall'Aquila and Tintoretto, is invaded by an archipelago of green moss. Its silhouette echoes the ripple of sunlight on the lagoon wavelets outside. Who could have done this? If you knew the site-specific poetry of Gasper Jemec, whose magic has transformed curious spaces from New York to London to Barcelona, you might have guessed.

Gasper Jemec cleared the central hall of the Fallani print laboratory and installed Terra Nuova, his latest work, on a stage about five centimeters above the to offer the illusion that it is floating just like the natural and man-made islands in the lagoon of Venice itself. Metaphors move from the metaphysical to the physical in Jemec’s hands. The idea is to lift “dialogue” to a new and literal platform, constructed of wood. Although it will seem flat from a distance, it will feature “little hills made of moss” that offer a three-dimensional embodiment of the island forms in drawings (wonderfully fluvial pieces with such a light touch) he made in 2009 when visiting the Long Island neighborhood made famous by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As the artist points out, “I love the possible vision of a ground or platform where substance, an illusion, can come alive and exist. Venice is also an America, one of best examples in history of terra nuova. Its artificial nature expands our understanding of what is real so all the visions I have created refer to a real, existing situation, just not discovered yet.” All the materials are natural in the sense that the moss, which can absorb liquid up to twenty times its weight, is commonly found growing on the stone steps, piers, wooden piles and docks of Venice, a powerful natural force that shapes the city in its own indomitable way. What is best kept out of doors in this city is now invited in to become the star of the show.

Fiercely independent and “purely visual” even within the realms of painting, sculpture and installation where he should probably be categorized (good luck with that, critics!), the voluble Jemec bucks trends including the rhetoric of politics and identity that blares from so many events of this kind. “I never change or adopt themes from curators. I just follow my individual progressive standards and expanding talents. First I envision the project, then I do it and later I can try to talk about it.”

Recent large-scale installations in London and Barcelona have deftly interwoven painting (and he is a virtuoso with the brush, on large or small scales), sculpture, digital media and music in ways that are distinctly different from the sort of installations one finds at the Whitney or Venice Biennials, where a gorgeous painting or focused, geometric sculpture on a pedestal would seem at odds with the installation aesthetic. Jemec guides us to his modus operandi: “In my work I always seek this pure visual impulse with the greatest impact then try to reveal it through diverse materials and ways. What is most important to me is freedom in general and independent expression (personal and artistic).”

The multi-talented Jemec grew up in Ljubljana, now in Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia). After undergraduate and graduate degrees in painting and media at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana, he added postgraduate work in painting at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and in sculpture at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, where he held a Herder scholarship from the Alfred ToepferStiftung FVS from Hamburg. His paintings, sculptures, drawings and installations have been widely exhibited in solo and group shows all over the world, in museums, galleries and other important exhibitions such as two recent major shows in London and Barcelona galleries as well as the Venice Biennale, the Essl Museum and Museumsquartier in Vienna, Salamatina Gallery in New York, Vinzavod Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow, European Parliament in Bruxelles, Art Center Berlin, Studio 1.1. Gallery in London, European Central Bank in Frankfurt. He has resided and worked in Indiana, Los Angeles, New York, Vienna, Hamburg, Venice, Sakaide, Valencia, Moscow and London. As with the Venetian project, each locale and collaboration influences and inspires the work in specific ways. He has a genius for swiftly folding new stimuli into the response that becomes the next round of work.

The exhibition marks Jemec’s return to the Venice Biennale, where he had installed sleek sculptures called Laguna Voyagers, prototypes for deep-sea-water explorations whose sexy spaceship lines and soundtracks were irresistible lures to the gadget-crazy public. Reflecting on that experience and his family ties to the city, he observes, “I have visited Venice a zillion times since I first arrived when I was little with my parents and my brother because it is only two hundred kilometers from my home. Venice is very domestic to me and especially FallaniVenezia where my father worked starting in 1970. This makes coming back way different from doing a project in a space with people I hardly know.”

Any time you make art in Venice you are confronting history, most dauntingly in the form of the legacy of Turner, Ruskin, Monet, Whistler, Sargent and other painters gifted in translating its preternaturally dazzling  light to canvas. In this case, the history is also deeply personal, as his father made prints at the renowned, historically important studio of Fiorenzo Fallani, who passed away last year leaving this important atelier in the hands of his skillful sons, Gianpaolo and Massimo. Through their doors have come some of the most brilliant and inventive artists, seeking the technological means provided by the Fallanis, who had broken new ground in the technique of screen printing just at the time in art history when this became the most important of print media. Before that the Fallanis specialized in zincography, photolithography and now, with the entry of his sons, digital reproduction. The roster of celebrated artists who worked at FallaniVenezia, in addition to Andrej Jemec the artist’s father, includes Shephard Fairey, Emilio Vedova, Mimmo Rotella, Max Bill, Joe Tilson, Alice Aycock, Robert Morris and Giuseppe Santomaso. At the 1970 Venice Biennale the Fallanis even set up a screen print laboratory (the word is the perfect term for what Jemec does in a space like this), drawing the attention of William Weege, an American artist who remained in Venice for more than a year in Fallani’s atelier.

The literary lions who have committed Venetian experience to paper share not just eloquence (the least that is required where beauty presses so hard on the point of a pen) but a certain connoisseur’s appreciation of the art of illusion. Think of Italo Calvino, Thomas Mann and, my own favorite, Marcel Proust. In palaces of just the sort that Jemec has commandeered, they wove their own enchanting if ontologically suspect webs. Proust’s narrator identifies Venice with a moment of particularly gratifying maternal love, but does not fail to note the ways that the perception of shadow and light he knew in France were inverted in this magic atmosphere:

“And as I went indoors to join my mother who had left the window, I did indeed recapture, coming from the warm air outside, that feeling of coolness that I had known long ago at Combray when I went upstairs to my room, but at Venice it was a breeze from the sea that kept the air cool, and no longer upon a little wooden staircase with narrow steps, but upon the noble surfaces of blocks of marble, splashed at every moment by a shaft of greenish sunlight, which to the valuable instruction in the art of Chardin, acquired long ago, added a lesson in that of Veronese. And since at Venice it is to works of art, to things of priceless beauty, that the task is entrusted of giving us our impressions of everyday life, we may sketch the character of this city, using the pretext that the Venice of certain painters is coldly aesthetic in its most celebrated parts, by representing only its poverty-stricken aspects, in the quarters where everything that creates its splendour is concealed, and to make Venice more intimate and more genuine.”

It is just this transformation, from splendor to intimacy (Jemec himself called the comforts of Venice “domestic”) that characterizes the fleeting sensation of Terra Nuova.


Charles A. Riley II, PhD

New York, April 2015


Charles A. Riley II, PhD is an arts journalist, curator and professor at the City University of New York. He is the author of thirty-one books on art, architecture and public policy, including The Jazz Age in FranceStudies for Construction,  Arthur Carter, Ben Schonzeit (all published by Abrams), The Art of Lincoln Center (Wiley), Aristocracy and the Modern Imagination, The Saints of Modern Art, and Color Codes and the forthcoming Echoes of the Jazz Age (all from the University Press of New England), andSacred Sister (in collaboration with the noted avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson). He is a guest curator of the Chimei Museum in Taiwan and the Nassau County Museum of Art and has presented exhibitions devoted to Rodin, Picasso, Surrealism and contemporary art. He has written over a hundred exhibition catalogue essays and his articles on art have appeared in several magazines, including Art & Auction, FlashArt, Art & Antiques, Antiques and Fine Art and Hamptons Art Hub. He is a former reporter for Fortune magazine and former editor-in-chief of WE magazine, and has participated in cultural policy and educational think tanks internationally. A graduate (summa cum laude) of Princeton University, he received his PhD from The Graduate Center of City University of New York.