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Paul Benney exhibits "Speaking in Tongues" during the 2017 Venice Biennale
Speaking in Tongues, 2014. Oil and resin on board, 244 x 366 cm © Paul Benney, by courtesy of the artist.

VENICE.- Albany Arts Communications announced that Paul Benney’s monumental installation, Speaking in Tongues, is to be exhibited during this 2017 Venice Art Biennale, opening on May 13, 2017.

The 12ft by 8ft painting will be sited at the 16th century San Gallo Church, just north of St Mark’s Square, and is the centrepiece of an installation that includes sound and other smaller works in oil by the artist. Curated by James Putnam and Flora Fairbairn, this is the first time Speaking in Tongues has been shown outside of the UK.While a secular work, it draws on the story of the Pentecost in the New Testament, in which the twelve apostles encounter the Holy Spirit and then begin ‘speaking in tongues’. Modifying and updating this, Benney has painted twelve contemporaries of various ethnicities and religious backgrounds, with the aim of capturing a collective state of spiritual awakening.

Playing with the idea of narrative painting, Benney introduced a sound element to the work, inviting each of the subjects to record transformative moments in their lives. These are relayed through holosonic speakers placed around the church. At first the viewer hears hushed murmuring, however, when they stand in a precise spot they hear individual voices, an effect achieved via sound-focusing technology that isolates the viewer from their own reality and the outside world. Then come the subject’s revelations. These are poignant and sometimes shocking – one man tells of how he accidentally shot dead his best friend; another reveals the joy of becoming a father – and, in the context of a religious setting they create the experience of receiving a confession.

Speaking in Tongues relates to the experience of ‘unconscious talking’, of speaking directly from the spirit within, rather than from the mind, and the intimacy is further intensified by the visual mystery Benney introduces to the painting. While the work was partly inspired by Goya's 'Lunatics in the Yard' (1794), and uses the traditional technique of chiaroscuro or dramatic tonal contrasts between light and dark, Benney has also added a supernatural element, with flames emanating from each subject’s head. This again echoes the story of the Pentecost, where ‘tongues’ of fire descended and rested on the apostles, as well as bringing to mind the imagery of the animation of the spirit or soul found in many religions, such as Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.

Fire is also apparent in Benney’s Reliquary series, which will be displayed either side of Speaking in Tongues. The suite of six, small-scale canvasses depict the type of candles burnt as a votive offering in the Christian church. However, Benney has covered the candles with a bell jar. Starved of oxygen, the flame sequentially depletes, with the final painting showing the flame’s last gasp.

Says Curator James Putnam: ‘Benney has long explored the way historic art intersects with more contemporary forms, and Speaking in Tongues is an expression of this, deploying technology as well ecst atic revelation, stage magic, spirit photography, and other manifestations of the paranormal, to create a truly modern take on one of Western art’s most recognisable canons, that of narrative painting.

‘Here, he uses the Pentecost as a metaphor, as a way to examine a moment of human consciousness and experience, drawing inspiration from all forms of religion as well as the devotional art of the Renaissance. While he principally uses the medium of painting, in his intent a parallel can be made with the American video artist Bill Viola – who has also shown a work (An Ocean Without a Shore, 2007) at the San Gallo Church.’

Benney also has a solo exhibition, Alchemic Wedding, at the Hotel Metropole, Riva degli Schiavoni, 4149, 30122 Venezia, running from May 8 until July 2, 2017.

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