Venice Biennale Italy

Penelope's labour

Tapestries ancient and modern are the toast of Venice

Lara Baladi's "Sandouk el Dounia", 2008

VENICE. One of the best shows in the Venice Biennale is on the Island of San Giorgio (don't be put off: it is one stop by vaporetto two from San Zaccaria). “Penelope's Labour” is highly intelligent, and beautifully displayed by the artist Adam Lowe for the Fondazione Cini. He has woven together tapestries contemporary with the dawn of the computer and modern digital weaving. The show contains astonishing objects, starting with a true Wunderkammer piece, a golden shawl woven from the silk of Madagascan spiders, which is as strong as steel. But the main thread of the exhibition connects the early 19th-century mathematical prodigy Ada Lovelace with the Jacquard loom, invented in 1801, which wove complex patterns on a punch card system, and Charles Babbage, who first devised the concept of a computer in the 1820s: "The analytical equation weaves together algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves", wrote Lovelace. Weaving led to the computer, and today the computer has transformed the potential of weaving, making patterns of minute detail and shading easy.

This has been exploited to the maximum by artists such as Marc Quinn, whose tapestry of vast red flowers is shown opposite a 16th-century large-leaf tapestry. Grayson Perry has made a brilliantly rich, story-telling Three Ages of Man, The Walthamstow Tapestry, and Lara Baladi, a Lebanese-Egyptian whose work will be in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, is the author of a collage of girly scenes made up of 900 photos, a studding of micro-details on a black ground.

When one says made, it is of course the case that the artists had devised the work, but the actual weaving has been carried out by Flanders Tapestries, a company that has invested in the advanced technology to be able to do it. As in the days of the Sistine Chapel tapestries, its work is expensive (£50,000 for the Grayson Perry) but still less than half the artist's "fee" for having had the idea. Why are artists turning to such collaborations? Perhaps because the age of "design" is back, perhaps because some work simply looks better in a different medium that invites awe and admiration. Upstairs in the show are the awe-striking tapestries by Carlos Garaicoa woven to look like terrazzo floors with mottos found in Cuba. Every crack and shadow is shown, and perfectly framed by the lights, they appear to be floors floating in black space, another one of Adam Lowe's display inventions. So here on San Giorgio you have an exhibition that links naturalia (mathematics in this case, and the spider) with artificialia (man's artistic sense). Don't miss it.

Penelope's Labour: Weaving Words and Images, San Giorgio Maggiore, Centro Espositivo, Le Sale del Convitto, Cini Foundation (until 18 September)

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