Silentio Pathologia Installation, 2013. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Model photo: courtesy the artist photo: Toni Kocev


Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s major new installation work, Silentio Pathologia, opened on Friday at the Scuola dei Laneri for the 55th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Working with curator Ana Frangovska, the work was commissioned by the National Gallery of Macedonia and includes woven silk, silkworm cocoons, rat skins and curtains of steel sheet installed in a Venetian palazzo.


Silentio Pathologia draws upon Hadzi-Vasileva’s original proposal to the Ministry of Culture of Macedonia, which reflected upon the movement, migration and impact of medieval plagues through Europe (and city states such as Venice) and considers contemporary concerns about international migratory illnesses such as coronavirus.


Silentio Pathologia Installation, 2013. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Photo: courtesy the artist photo: Toni Kocev


Frame and Reference (FR) caught up with Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva (EHV) ahead of the opening to find out more.


FR: How did you become an artist?

EHV: I’m originally from Macedonia and came to the UK in 1992. I trained at the Glasgow School of Art doing a BA in sculpture from 1993-96 and then I went to the Royal College of Art (RCA) to do a MA in Sculpture and graduated in 1998. My first project in an exhibition was at Artsway working with Mark Segal, who used to be a director and who now runs The Artists Agency. I did an artist-in-residency in 1999 followed by my first solo exhibition Who Am I? in The New Forest. From then on, I’ve been working on various projects, exhibitions and commissions.


Silentio Pathologia Installation, 2013. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Photo: Courtesy the artist photo: Toni Kocev


Is it part of your practice to live somewhere so that you can inhabit and absorb what is around you in a particular location?

Very much so. Because of the way I work, I spend so much time researching a locality and getting to know the people. I’ve moved so much with my work because I’m so site-specific. If the project requires it, I’ll move somewhere, even for two months or so. Every project is so different but a very important part of my approach is me being embedded in the community. This is where being part of the community in the area where I need to make the work allows me to tap into local knowledge. This is important as I rely on the expertise of other people, but finding the right people is sometimes impossible.


Silentio Pathologia Installation, 2013. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Steel sheets photo: courtesy the artist.


It seems that there’s quite an intense period with your work in terms of your process and what you are experimenting with and investigating. You’re prepared to take your time. Does this apply to all your work?

It varies. I can spend a year or two researching something in order to produce it and it’s very intense. I investigate the materials that I use so much that they become, in a sense, part of the work. Sometimes I can spend hours experimenting with chemicals and weeks and weeks testing something, only to find that nothing works and I’m back to square one. Every project is so different that I have to have a different approach. I usually have two or three projects going in parallel and work on different parts.


Silentio Pathologia Installation, 2013. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Silk. Photo: courtesy the artist.


Silentio Pathologia, 2013 Installation, Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Rat Skins photo: courtesy the artist photo: Toni Kocev


You work with a broad range of materials. What prompts you to use particular ones, for example, rat skins and silk cocoons, and why do you use so many animal-derived materials in your work?

The material is driven by the idea and a lot of this is site-specific. It also depends on how the idea has developed and this is driven by my research. For example, at the restaurant Pied à Terre with the use of sheep testicles. All that work (Witness of Virility) was influenced by the kitchen itself and the cuisine. Everything that was produced and thrown away as part of creating a beautiful dish, I took away with me to make an art work. I’ve worked with every material that is discarded. I like the idea of something that has been thrown away then made into something that is beautiful. I’ve worked with butter, fish skins, fish bones, bird skin, quails, pheasant heads, sheep testicles and guts, fur and felt.


In Venice, I’m using the rats because the idea of the project is about the Plague – looking at it as a disease and how it transferred from East to West through the Silk Route. The rats were the main carrier of the disease, which is why I’m using the rats skins to create a canopy. I’m very interested in the disease and the use of the white rats is, again, to do with the disease and how the Albino rats are used in medicine to find cures. There are lots of metaphorical connections between the materials that I use, such as silk cocoons, and parallels with the Silk Route. For me, it’s a very beautiful journey but, at the time of the Plague, it was a very disastrous journey, so there are these interesting parallels. The work is also looking at a freedom of movement; being outside the EU it’s not as easy to do things, there are a lot of different barriers to cross.


Can you tell us a little more about the installation and what visitors will encounter?

You’ll be taken on a journey walking through the piece. It’s a very large installation made out of four different sections; you come into the space through a metal curtain, then there are silk cocoons that have been stitched by hand. There are almost a million. I worked with a research centre in Bulgaria that produces silk and the silk cocoons come from them. The silk curtain that we designed together is made by them. It’s like decomposing silk or spider webbing. Then you go past to the rat section with curtains of rats and into the middle with the black rats.


The whole exhibition is black and white. There’s the black metal and then the white silk cocoons; the black silk and then the white rat skins; and the black rats in the middle. The white rats are the medical rats and the black rats are the ones that transmit the disease. White or black, they’re the same pet in the end, but there’s something interesting about how people react to them differently. I’ll be happy if people have some kind of reaction to the work and think about the use of these materials.


Silentio Pathologia Installation, 2013. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Cocoon curtain photo: courtesy the artist Photo: Toni Kocev


Often there’s the idea that an artist creates work alone but this is often not the case. It looks like there have been a lot of other people involved in creating such an involved and large-scale installation.

I normally work with three or four people but, for this project, I’ve worked with lots of people – some who helped for a day or two, some for longer. I also worked with a professor on the taxidermy and he helped me find more people who could help.


Silentio Pathologia Installation, 2013. . Sewing cocooons photo: courtesy the artist. Photo: Slobodan Djuric


What have been the most challenging aspects of creating this work?

This project has been quite tough. It’s the size of it and I’ve been working across three different countries. I live in the South East UK; one part of the project was produced in the UK, one part in Bulgaria, and one in Macedonia. There’s been the logistical challenges of managing the whole thing and the time scale. I received my funding late, in March. I literally had to produce the work in two months. It’s been a difficult journey as my work is very intense and time consuming with the hours that I’ve needed to put into it. But I’ve had amazing help with different parts of the work from friends, colleagues and family.


What kind of things inspire you?

It’s very broad. I’m very influenced by medical science. I work with scientists so it’s very influenced by protection of the body. I’m also very interested in textiles, so I love designs. I also look at architecture a lot and the shape of architecture as a sculptural object. I’m also interested in looking at parallels, such as the skin and how a body is protected by skin. That’s the first barrier you come across. If you don’t have skin, you won’t be protected. It’s the same with architecture. If you don’t have the building to shelter and protect you, you’ll be exposed. When I go into a building I look at the walls and the patterns and textures on the walls, I’m fascinated by the details.


Silentio Pathologia Installation, 2013. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Sewing cocoons photo: courtesy the artist. Photo: Slobodan Djuric


From Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s website: About the use of rats in Silentio Pathologia

The rats from which the skins in Elpida’s exhibition came, were sourced from animal feed suppliers and usually form part of the diet of large carnivorous birds and mammals, reptiles and snakes kept in captivity. Elpida’s use of these skins is intended to highlight the continuing market in animals, their skins and other products around the world, and reflects Elpida’s use of original materials in her art works, however distasteful. By presenting the real to audiences as part of a constructed art work, people are confronted with the unvarnished truth about animals, markets and commodification of animal products.


Silentio Pathologia can be seen until 24 November at the Scuola dei Laneri, Fondamenta del Gaffaro, Santa Croce 131, Venezi.
It is open from Tuesday-Sunday: 10.00h-18.00.