Following Rachel Lee Hovnanian through the narrow streets of Venice, the multimedia artist points out haunts along the way.

It is the market of the floating gondola turned peasant where she buys fruits and vegetables from three nice young men. This is the channel where his 200-pound white bronze angel sculptures and bases were mistakenly delivered. It’s the rugged path where she and her team transported these cherub busts to her exhibition “Angels Listening: An Interactive Cathartic Performance,” a side event of the 59th Venice Biennale 2022. It’s her favorite hardware store.

The hardware store is important — Hovnanian, who grew up in Houston, likes to visit one in every city. It’s part ritual, part tradition.

“Grocery stores too. They tell you about the culture of a place,” she says. “I love carabiners (clips). The functionality and the sculptural look and utility, they are such beautiful things. I once bought 200 of them in all sizes and knew I wanted to make Something.”

The climbing tools ended up being part of a facility in Tuscany, its Italian home base.

She also has an apartment in Venice, on the top floor of a historic palace. Outside his window is Anish Kapoor’s latest exhibition, a presentation of retrospective and new works at the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia.

Hovnanian is less well known, although several pedestrians stop her for a chat as she weaves and flexes on the cobblestone. A young student and admirer of her work offers help with “Angels Listening” and doesn’t take “no” for an answer. And Claudio, a silver-haired photographer filming Hovnanian’s show for a project, waves to her when he spots her sun-kissed mane in a crowd.

The last time Alison de Lima Greene, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, remembers a Texas artist participating in the Biennale was in 1964.

“Robert Rauschenberg, he absolutely stunned the world,” Greene said. “The Golden Lion Award has always gone to a European artist, and this boy from Texas living in New York is leaving the scene. It was really controversial at the time.”

Rauschenberg, then 39, from Port Arthur, made history by becoming the youngest performer and the first American to win the coveted top prize. Technically, he exhibited only one work of art at the American Pavilion at the Giardini della Biennale, an official venue and extensive garden where each participating country is assigned a pavilion. His other paintings were exhibited offsite in the former American Consulate, which made Rauschenberg ineligible. The curator of the American pavilion transferred three additional works to the Giardini.

And now the guy from an East Texas oil town is a creative legend. “It’s a great tradition that Rachel is a part of now,” Greene says.

“Angels Listening: an interactive cathartic performance”

When: until November 27

Where: Collateral event of the Biennale Art 2022

Details: free;

Angels are listening, people are talking

Controversy has become its own tradition. In 1999, the sculptor Georges Adéagbo created an impromptu installation outside the Arsenale, another official venue of the Biennale.

“He laid his artwork in the plaza, almost guerrilla-style action,” Greene shares. “In 2009, it was in the central exhibition of the 53rd Biennale, so there is a priority from the perimeter to the center. Rachel’s project was much more formal, better designed and financed. This is the magic of Venice, there are all levels of possibility.”

Before this year, women were much less present than men. The theme of the Biennale’s 59th International Art Exhibition is “The Milk of Dreams”, based on a book of the same name by surrealist author and painter Leonara Carrington, and curated by Cecilia Alemani. And two women received the Golden Lion in April: Sonia Boyce, Great Britain, for ‘Best National Entry’ and Simone Leigh, USA, for ‘Best International Show Entry’.

Most visitors to Hovnanian’s “Angels Listening” are also women. She transformed a small vertical structure behind an old school building into a temporary chapel. People instinctively lower their voices when entering the space. A church chime rang out in the distance. An illuminated neon sign reads “Listen”. The reverence is anything but implicit.

The performative installation is both meditative and immersive. Inside, guests walk among the seven large-scale angels whose mouths have been covered. Their marked silence encourages the viewer to contemplate their innermost thoughts without fear of judgment. Next, visitors approach from either side of a central confessional, take a ribbon, and are asked to write down something they think they can’t or can’t say. Anonymous messages are dropped into a box and then tied to exposed blankets in the adjacent lawn. The final stages involve ringing a wake-up bell and venturing out into the garden to reflect, where thousands of unspoken thoughts cover dozens of “listening blankets”.

“People should be able to say… anything,” Hovnanian says. “Art should evoke emotion, good and bad.”

Some of the messages are uplifting, “Find your limit” or “To live is to mourn, don’t be afraid of grief”. Many are professions of unrequited love. Others are gloomy, “Technology rules the world. We didn’t vote for it. We have no way to go back. Our lives serve it.” Or disturbing, “I want to kill my father.”

“These are very intense life stories of which we know nothing”, observes Adèle Boreau. An 18-year-old student in Paris. She and her friend Danielle Abaya, from Hawaii, knelt on the covers with Hovnanian after leaving the show.

“I wrote ‘Waiting for romantic love is very exhausting,'” Abaya said with a laugh. “But I’m concerned about being a woman in general right now.”

Hovnanian’s assistant, who runs the exhibit on a day-to-day basis, shares that “Angels Listening” has had its fair share of regular visitors. People remember something they have to say and come back. Most express feelings of relief. It is common for the retarded to have long moments of contemplation in the garden.

“It was good to write ideas because if you want to say something, you should,” said seven-year-old Iris, accompanied by her mother Laetitia Dufoy from France.

What did Iris write? “I think I’m addicted to someone and I want to quit, but I’m scared.”

Deep Texas roots

Lone Star State supporters made the trip, including Sara Dodd and MFAH Director Gary Tinterow. As the daughter of Peg Lee, former founding director of the Rice Epicurean cooking school and later Central Market, Hovnanian has a long history in Texas. His mother championed Houston chiefs Mark Cox, Greg Martin, Monica Pope and Robert Del Grande, meaning Hovnanian and his three brothers had unique upbringings. Junk food and the famous Mattel doll were strictly prohibited.

“I couldn’t play Barbie because my mom wanted me to know that women could be more than they looked like,” Hovnanian said. “So I played with art supplies.”

She and Rauschenberg both attended the University of Texas at Austin. He did not finish, although Hovnanian did earn a degree in fine arts. She credits part of her success and solid foundation to her classical training and graduate studies at the Parsons School of Design in New York.

“I learned things like you can’t put acrylic on an oil painting,” she says. “I want young artists to know that having an art degree is really helpful.”

Greene suggests that his years of travel and background contributed to the Hovnanian story. She divides her time between New York, Miami and for the past decade, Italy. Recent exhibitions include solo exhibitions at the Palazzo Mediceo di Seravezza museum in 2019 and a large-scale installation at the Church of San Cristofor in Lucca the following year. His work has also been shown across Europe and Asia. On Instagram, her follower count is 26,000 with a number of names in bold.

Hovnanian avoids all of this. She describes herself first as a multimedia artist and then as a humanist. Her practice explores the complexity of modern feminism, the cultural ideals surrounding physical perfection, and the psychological effects of new media and technology.

She observes more than she speaks. Outside of “Angels Listening,” Hovnanian nervously avoids revealing to visitors that she is the artist.

22-year-old Elena Vela from Spain offers a genuine smile once they are introduced. “I was having a bad day, so it was very convenient,” says Vela. “Actually, I feel better already. It has helped me.”

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