The House of Life (2017), a large-scale, multi-channel video installation by artist Hadassa Goldvicht, explores themes of personal and collective memory through the ever-changing reality of the Jewish community of Venice. Presented in conjunction with the 57th Venice Biennale, the project was on view at the Palazzo Querini Stampalia Museum, Venice, under the curation of Amitai Mendelsohn, Senior Curator, Head of the David Orgler Department of Israeli Art at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
The House of Life revolves around the life of its main protagonist Aldo Izzo, the 86-year-old guardian and keeper of the Jewish cemeteries in Venice, who, over the course of 4 years, conducted extensive conversations on tape with the artist. Through fragments of the recorded conversations, along with other footage shot in the locale of Venice, the various aspects of Izzo’s life unfold: from his daily work at the cemeteries to his life at home and his personal illustrated diaries. As the viewer moves through the space, and through Izzo’s own worldview, the personal and public start to converge; the house and the cemetery coalesce, the border between life and death blurs. Ultimately, the different realms that constitute Izzo’s life are rendered fluid and interchangeable for the subject and subsequently for the viewer as well.
Oscillating between life, death, myth, and art, this major work explores recurring themes in Goldvicht’s artistic practice. Goldvicht’s work often takes as its subject intimate conversations with members of a community or institution, unraveling language and gesture to reveal socially and politically charged content. The House of Life began as an exploration of Venice’s Jewish community through personal conversations with its members when Goldvicht was an artist-in-residence at Beit Venezia, a Cultural Jewish Foundation in Venice. These conversations evoked deep emotional responses that spoke to the city’s struggle. Through Izzo, who introduced her to the city’s Jewish cemeteries, Goldvicht began to see the plight of these specific sites as an allegory for the struggles of the city itself.
Izzo’s personal story reflects the heart-wrenching history and reality of Venice’s diminishing Jewish community as a whole. As a young boy during World War II, Izzo hid from the Nazis at the same cemeteries, binding him to the site in a Gordian knot. As an adult, after retiring from his post as a naval captain, Izzo returned to these sites—this time as their guardian. For the past 35 years, he has tended the cemeteries with the same care he once dedicated to his ship, maintaining the grounds and logging the daily activities. During his time as keeper and steward of the cemeteries, Izzo also supervised the restoration of the grounds—which over the centuries were repeatedly demolished and rebuilt—preserving the ancient tombstones and rituals.
On film and through the space, Izzo leads the viewers, like the Greek mythological figure Charon, on a voyage through the cemetery and its turbulent history. Erasing the border between life and death, he guides visitors to a place where the dead protect the living and the living protect the dead.
As a whole, The House of Life offers an astute observation of the city of Venice—which is the only major city in the world that had a larger permanent population during the Middle Ages than it has today. Through the narrative of one small corner of Venice and one man’s life work, the exhibition becomes a poetic and abstract allegory through which viewers examine the fading historical memory of Venice itself. Like the city, the ancient cemeteries remain beautiful and fascinating places; but, behind the facades they are in fact hollow, as many of the headstones no longer serve their intended purpose. Throughout the piece, Izzo speaks of death—of the cemetery grounds he oversees, of his pet tortoises that he embalms, of the burial plots left for the remaining Jewish population in Venice—effortlessly and fearlessly transporting himself between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Like Izzo’s work at the cemetery, The House of Life—by its very nature as a work of art that will live on beyond the life of its subject—fights against death, creating a quiet space outside of time in which to meditate on the life of the individual and his lasting personal effect on this place.
Hadassa Goldvicht received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (2004) and her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York. She currently lives and works in Jerusalem, Israel. Goldvicht’s work has been exhibited widely including at major venues such as The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; The Jewish Museum, New York; The Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw; the Tate Modern, London; and The Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill. Past artist residencies include The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace Residency; New York University; The Center for Book Arts; and Urban Glass in New York, as well as Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.