to hold
to miss
to remember

Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child depicts a gesture between the Madonna and her infant child: her arm surrounds him with tenderness. Painted in 1480, the picture was stolen from Madonna dell’Orto Church in Venice, Italy in 1993.

In June 2017 Lynn Marie Kirby and Sarah Bird invited the public to join them in performing a site-specific intervention, to hold to miss to remember, outside the Church during the Venice Biennale. For three days the two set out to make 100 attempts to recover the tender gesture from the stolen painting, an attempt to recover lost tenderness in our current climate.

Kirby, wearing a scent created for this project, dressed as the missing Madonna. Sitting in one of two chairs, she wrapped her arm around participants when they sat in the empty chair next to her. Bird marked in chalk on the herringbone brickwork of the campo the number of attempts enacted. Afterwards participants were each given a small vial of the scent as a touchstone of remembrance.

Campo Madonna de l’Orto, Venice Italy

Lynn Marie Kirby in collaboration with Sarah Bird • Scent developed in consultation with Loreto Remsing
Cloak by Tiersa Nureyev • Design by Eing Opastpongkarn


Why this interest in tenderness and Bellini?

 LYNN: Bellini’s work is scattered throughout Venice, there is tenderness in his paintings.

 The kind of togetherness and connection that can happen between people — that is especially needed at this contemporary moment — was for me represented in the gesture in the missing painting. I was stunned by the increasing lack of compassion for the plight of refugees in Europe, and a rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States following the U.S. presidential election of 2016. Bellini’s missing work provided a portal through which to begin to address this lack of compassion.

SARAH: My love of the paintings of Giovanni Bellini was sparked by my exposure to him while I was in college — his luminous layers of color, the gentle depictions of humans and nature in both form and content. The tenderness between people so beautifully depicted by Bellini connects us to the current refugee and immigrant crises. Tenderness can disarm otherness. I believe art has the ability to convey complex meaning and spark thoughtful responses. Our site intervention in Venice was an attempt to connect history and the present.

How did you frame the re-enactment?

LYNN: The performance itself was framed by the Venice Biennale at a time when residents and visitors to the area were primed for public events. Our site intervention took place outside of the church within the larger frame of the Biennale. Within that framework we manufactured our own space. I was struck by how intrigued people were by what was essentially an abstract concept, albeit acted out in concrete ways. Our goal was to locate missing tenderness in a shared experience of simple touch and smell.

We went to mass on Sunday morning to meet the priest. After mass we talked to him about our project, showed him our flyer, and discussed sitting outside of the church.

The priest said that the painting was not only missing from the church but also from our lives. The tenderness represented in the painting had been withdrawn from all of us when the painting was stolen.

Immediately he was with us!

He suggested we find chairs or a bench from inside the church instead of bringing something from afar. He showed us the chairs and benches we might choose from. We were also given a place to change in the vestibule.

SARAH: Together, we walked the site and practiced careful observation. How does the sun move across the sky? How do we situate ourselves in relation to the walkways and the bridge that lead us into the campo? How do we occupy it?

I need to map in my head the places I inhabit, to geolocate myself in them. Which way will the sun move across this site? Which way is the expanse of the lagoon? Are the bells I hear from that tower, or are they coming from elsewhere and bouncing off the walls and the water? Within the narrow vistas of Venice’s alleys, the campi can be places of light and breath and respite.


LYNN: We took lots of pictures to note the light and chart how it would change over the course of the day. It is difficult to sit in the bright sun, and so we wanted to make sure to choose a spot in shade. Our shared background in filmmaking made it fun to study our site as a location. We had looked at images on Google maps, and Luca, the Venetian I was staying with, had graciously sent us many pictures as well, but feeling the space in person was totally different.

SARAH: The pattern of the bricks and the stone of the campo leant itself to subtly delineated areas. We looked at the way people walked through the space when they had a destination and the way people meandered when they didn’t.

Lynn would be clothed in a deep blue cloak, another way of framing. We felt we needed a way to mark our intention; clothing became part of that—deep blue in homage to the color prized for its rarity and expense in Bellini’s time.

We had originally been thinking about a small bench.

LYNN: We had looked at benches online at Ikea Mestre and plotted lugging a bench on the Vaporetto! We were glad to find chairs. My friend Ann was telling me about a wood workshop run by her husband. In the morning the participants are asked to make a chair; only after they have finished the chair can they sit and have lunch together.

SARAH: We were greeted with such generosity by the church that we were able to borrow two matching ecclesiastical chairs. Their dark wood patina and crown-like backs further framed our simple placement in the campo.

Lynn sat in one chair and waited. The other chair, directly touching hers, served as both an invitation and an indication of absence. A chair, formed to fit the human body — in contrast to, say, a table, on which objects, not humans, usually rest — is particularly ripe with absence when no human occupies it.

And then there was Lynn’s stillness. With her back to the church, she sat on the left, her presence open and generous, offering a silent invitation. The work of translating that silence into language, and action, was mine.


LYNN: Sarah functioned as the barker, introducing the public to the project and framing it in relation to the missing painting. Because she speaks multiple languages, she was able to talk to almost anyone, and if not, she could point to the flyer on which the project had been translated into twelve languages. I sat in silence and stillness, present.

SARAH: A good many passersby said “no” out of confusion or habit, but I was also surprised by the openness and curiosity of those who said “yes.” They told me, of course they knew the painting! Some approached Lynn (the Madonna) with a self-conscious giggle, and many more approached her with respect. Once a participant was seated, I stepped back, removing myself.

I was moved by our participants’ willingness and ability to enter the quiet space of non-action that we had created. Lynn held them with her body. Her quiet presence held them too and gave them permission simply to be. I was surprised at how many of the participants seemed to drop quickly into a meditative state when they allowed themselves to sit and be held — to have an authentic moment with another human being. I was also aware of being a white Anglo woman asking strangers to trust us with their bodies and their feelings. I wondered how my interactions with others would have been affected had I appeared more “other” to any one of them in the Venetian Campo.

LYNN: The geographer Yi Fu Tuan talks about the vertical space of the cosmos, how we used to look to the heavens to think outside of ourselves, the self not at the center of the universe.

In today’s more linear view of life, we have lost much of our connection to the sacred, yet specific sites still connect us to the transcendent. The campo makes this connection: the sound of the church bells from the tower above gave form to the silence of sitting, and the brick beneath our feet anchored us to the earth.

The square outside of the church feels as sacred as the inside of the church with all its glorious artworks. The dimensions of the square, with squares set inside other squares in a repeated framing pattern — like the infinitely repeating patterns of Islamic architecture — has a divine structure.

SARAH: The campo establishes a visual rhythm with its brick pattern of herringbone sections set within stone-outlined squares. The two materials offset one another. The stone creates lines of latitude and longitude. The brick pattern marks the campo as a special and considered space.  

The terracotta bricks are worn, their color softer and warmer than the more usual grey stone. The color emits a glow unique to this campo.

Counting the bricks within each stone square, we discovered that each square within the stone lines contains 300 bricks, so our goal of 100 attempts could best be marked by marking one brick in every three.

Lucia, one of the women who works in the cloister next door to the church, told me that campo Madonna de l’Orto is one of the few remaining brick squares in Venice, most having been paved over with stone, and raised up over the decades against the sinking land and rising waters.

Each time a participant joined Lynn on the chairs, I walked to our herringbone square, counted three bricks and made a mark. The repeated ritual of making a chalk mark on the brick served to acknowledge our attempts to restore what is missing, and by doing so, to frame the breadth of our intention.

Over the three days 55 people participated. We have 45 more attempts remaining!

LYNN: Outside we heard the sounds of the birds, tolling bells, water sloshing in the canal as boats go by, echoes of people passing, but also the majestic sounds of labor, the banging and sawing of construction at the edge of the campo, as two workmen built a large yellow wooden structure to house their materials. There was a rhythm surrounding our attempts to find the missing gesture.

The men constructing the yellow structure were ultimately going to rebuild the bridge over the canal that leads to the campo and church. Both men in the work crew came over to participate.


SARAH: We had made a point of introducing ourselves to the workers in the campo, and I chatted with them each day for a few minutes. Although always polite, they were initially skeptical of our project and joked about it between themselves. Over a few days and our steady reappearance their confusion and laughter gave way to curiosity. On the second day of our attempts, one of the workers sat with Lynn for over twenty minutes and came back again the next day.

LYNN: It was the longest any of us had sat together. An electricity and a feeling of simplicity passed between the workman and me. As I held him, we sat and listened together to the sounds surrounding us. This meeting of two people was the most surprising aspect of the project. In all the planning and preparation, I had never thought about what it would feel like to be sitting with my arm around a stranger, holding this person sitting next to me. I knew we wanted to find the missing tenderness, but I was unprepared for the raw power of the gesture.

One woman wept, and although mostly we sat together in silence, a few people spoke to me. One woman told me that she held her children when they were growing up, but that she had never been held, and now that her children were grown, she was glad that she too could finally be held.

SARAH: I have our pretty flyer in my hand, something to point to and describe, and it helps not to be empty-handed when approaching strangers. “Would you like to participate in our art project, a reenactment of the stolen Bellini painting?” “There is a stolen painting?” they ask. “Yes, and it’s still missing. Would you like to sit with my colleague and evoke its spirit, the tender gesture we are now missing?”

Some people are closed. Just as many are open and generous with their time, their questions, and their enthusiasm for our project.

Lynn and I decide that I will not say ahead of time that they will be given a vial of scent after participating. It confuses the request up front and adds a transactional quality we don’t want. But every single person who participates is touched by our exchange at the end. When Lynn gives them the scent, they bow; they say thank you. Quite a few participants come back to me and want to know about the scent, and I show them our list of ingredients, and their origins in the flyer.

And it becomes clear to me we are engaged with the public in an exchange of generosity.

How did you arrive at using scent?

LYNN: I am committed to making ephemeral work and time-based experiences.

Scent is a time-based experience, and what could be more ephemeral than scent?

Smell takes us to a deep place in our brains and creates a different experience than the rest of the senses. I can come upon a scent and suddenly move across time in a flash.

In the fall of 2016 I took a perfume workshop with Loreto Remsing at Tiger Lily Perfume on Valencia Street in San Francisco, recommended to me by a podiatrist. When I came to get orthotics he asked about the perfume I was wearing, as he, perfume aficionado that he was, did not recognize it.

Since my teenage years I have been wearing Vent Vert by Balmain, made by the first female nose, Germaine Cellier. It is a chypre, has citrus, bergamot, musk, and oakmoss in the base notes. It also contains a tiny bit of patchouli oil, something that in huge doses I find nauseating—like head shops and hippy living rooms.

How do we remember?

We have become conditioned to remember with photographs—a moment locked in time.

We wanted to create another form of memory, one not tied to the image, but to a deeper sensory memory that goes to that primitive olfactory-driven part of the brain, to the amygdala and the hippocampus.

It became important to frame the project with scent.

SARAH: We talked about what should constitute the scent. We talked about what blooms in Venice in June, scents used in church, the precious scents in late 15th century Venice.

LYNN: The question also became how to create an experience, rather than a moment for a selfie.

We wanted to frame the attempts to find the missing gesture in time and to articulate the moment; this led us to how a scent frames and to creating a scent memory.

In collaboration with Loreto from the workshop we developed our scent. We studied scents that would expand on the underlying narrative of our project, connecting the smell of the wood from the original painting and its place in the church to the places in Africa and around the Mediterranean where the current refugees were coming from, as well as to Venice’s past; we used herbs, flowers, and precious oils. We spent time together smelling and testing. After our meetings, Loreto mixed test samples in small vials, which I shared with Sarah. We decided upon the final scent, and Loreto produced the first edition, which we used in Venice, made of seaweed absolute, woods accord, Frankincense, Danish Rose, galbanum, oak moss, liquid amber, Africa stone, mint absolute, Cypress, Jasmine grandiflorum, citrus accord, geranium. The second edition is now available on Loreto’s website, L’Aromaticia.

Sniffing for Primal Truths
By Lydia Matthews

“Our nose is the most primal part of our being. It registers experience without passing through the part of our brain that filters everything through language. None of the other human senses do that — so never forget that smells come before words and are the one thing that speaks directly to your soul!”

                                                                                                                    — Eleni Fotopoulos, 1971

Whether a biological fact or a seductive fiction, this emphatic statement on the “unadulterated” power of scent came from the lips of my elderly Mediterranean grandmother. As living proof of her seemingly scientific claim, she made sure there was always an aromatic stew bubbling on her kitchen stove, and she religiously wore a bewitching night-blooming jasmine perfume that would permeate the silk scarves she wrapped around her neck as well as the air of any room she entered.

    She was, of course, correct in asserting this truth that she celebrated with such devotion. No words are required when we unexpectedly encounter an alluring scent that is hauntingly familiar. Such fragrances, when our nose focuses on them more intently, function like Proustian madeleines, triggering a flood of crisp visual memories that carry us back in time. On other occasions, a waft of strange razor-sharp spices and the pungent note of a foreign flower we’ve never seen can cut deeply into our psyche, summoning other people’s global homelands. These scents may transport us to imagined places we have never actually visited, sites of reputed beauty or historical trauma. Over time, these once un-nameable scents become so familiar that we forget there was once a moment we didn’t know how to reckon with them.

    Acknowledging that aromas harbor the power to conjure visual images and inspire physical intimacies between strangers, artist Lynn Marie Kirby in collaboration with Sarah Bird, has created a participatory performance framework entitled to hold, to miss, to remember. For three days in June, the artists will quietly perform the piece 100 times in Campo Madonna de l’Orto, adjacent to the site where thieves stole Giovanni Bellini’s treasured portrait of  “Madonna and Child” in 1993.

    Doused in a complex scent sourced from multiple locations around the world — particularly remote sites that have influenced Venice’s past and present histories — Kirby and Bird invite local residents, recent immigrants and tourists alike to come to the exterior of the Madonna dell’Orto Church to pay homage to Bellini’s missing work. Together with the artists, participants inhale the layered global aroma as they collaboratively attempt to re-enact Bellini’s lost painting’s simple gesture of human touch. This becomes a humble act between two individuals, their poses not constructed for a camera lens but rather as a means to fabricate a poignant and shared memory.

    Unlike most of his 15th Century contemporaries, Giovanni Bellini made it clear that his Madonna and this otherworldly child that she carried into the world exist within their own divergent psychological dimensions. In the missing painting, the Virgin Mary focuses on the here and now, staring directly at the viewer, while the baby looks upward past the Madonna, gazing into the cosmos as if to grasp his divine origin and troubling future. Bellini’s autonomous figures represented two intimately intertwined, caring strangers, who, through unfathomable circumstances, find themselves sharing a home and a destiny.

    Kirby’s collaborative performance may provoke us to ask: what else has gone missing besides a priceless Renaissance treasure? What is core to this cultural void we are currently experiencing in Campo Madonna de l’Orto and beyond? Can an olfactory-driven artistic exchange trigger some primal truths and lingering associations for the participants involved? Perhaps one of the most urgent concerns is that we risk losing sight of Bellini’s underlying existential message that he so masterfully conveyed through his coveted brushwork. By responding to Kirby’s invitation to participate in this phantom painting’s physical re-enactment, Bellini’s message is made present again: random strangers connect through a tender yet ephemeral physical gesture, a private conversation and, ultimately, an act of collective remembering.

Lydia Matthews is Professor of Visual Culture and founding Director of the Curatorial Design Research Lab at Parsons School of Design, The New School in New York City. Her work explores how contemporary artists, artisans and designers foster critical democratic debates and intimate community interactions in the public sphere, often in response to a variety of urgent global and local conditions in their daily lives.  Her writing and curatorial projects are online at  


How do you describe what isn’t there?

SARAH: Inside the church there is an alcove with an empty frame.

LYNN: The frame is a physical embodiment of longing and absence.

How do you get blue?

LYNN: I remember noticing the color of the sky. I was lying in bed looking out of my window at my older brother and the other children still playing outside. I must have been around three years old. It was summertime; the ice-cream truck had come around, and it was the song that the truck played that had drawn me to the window.

I was looking through the curtain, and there was an element of peeking; it felt illicit, as I knew I was supposed to be in bed and asleep.

It was light still, and one of the glorious nights of summer in Toronto, where the evenings are long and warm, and the light hangs in the sky for hours as it dims—from twilight blue to the deep blue of dusk, and finally to midnight blue.

Perhaps this was my first experience of reverie. Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space says, “all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us.”

I think this day stood out not only because of my acute sense of loneliness, being inside when the other children were still outside, but also from a darker, more shameful aloneness that had me keyed up.

That afternoon I had stolen my friend’s doll bib from down at the little creek behind my house were we would play. The bib had fallen off her doll, and I had spotted it, but I didn’t say anything; and when my friend went home, I picked it up and brought it home. I knew I should have given it back to her, but I wanted it. I coveted it.

I did not know what to do with the bib. I could not put it in my box with my other toys. If my friend came by, she would have seen it. The bib was pinkish and quite faded as it had been washed many times. Its softness was one of the things that attracted me to it; it seemed so loved, so used, so cared for.

Now that I had the object, I didn’t know what to do with it. I wound up putting it in the middle of the bed between the box spring and the mattress, deep in the center of the bed. (Later my brothers and I pulled off all the “do not remove” tags on the mattresses throughout the house and waited to see what would happen.) But this was well before I could read. Somehow I knew of this secret place, the space between the box spring and mattress.

Two years later when we were packing up to move, someone found the bib between the mattress and box spring. I was surprised that I was indifferent.

The bib had lost it charge, but the experience has stayed with me — the guilt of the theft and the deception with my friend. I stopped playing with her after that. I would make excuses to my mother for why I didn’t want to go to her house or have her over.

The haunting of the evening remains — the looking through the curtain, the slow changing blue of the sky — ultramarine blue that makes me now think of the color of Mary’s cape in our Bellini painting, the faint sound of children playing and laughing, and the ache of being outside the group, of being on the inside of the house when I longed to be on the outside.

Yet there is something delicious in the sense of aloneness and a feeling that I love to return to. I find it now traveling, sometimes when alone at home, often in walking in the city and taking a new route, daydreaming. This sensation of aloneness is tied to a sense of the expansiveness of time: suddenly a fissure in space and time opens up, and everything is crystal clear, the colors and sounds are sharp, the moment is now.

This happened sitting in the campo, dressed in the blue cape, waiting, but not waiting, just being there in the square, in the air and the sounds.

The intoxication of the scent added to the feeling of being present.


LYNN: Alexis told me about a pigment shop in New York. Sarah and I made a trip to purchase blue pigment for experiments. We discussed throwing the pigment in the air, inspired by its blueness, and its powdery lightness.

SARAH: I was trying to make a cloud of blue, to see blue through movement in space. I had a friend launch amounts of pigment while I photographed and videotaped the actions of the pigment against a large roll of paper. The tangible results surprised me by looking like murmurations of starlings. In focusing on the actions of the pigment, the forms became aerial.

“It turns out there are just a few blue rocks that have been used to make blue pigment since antiquity. One of them, azurite, produces a lovely blue but has a tendency to turn green over time or when it comes into contact with certain chemicals. But then there is lapis lazuli, a beautiful blue stone found in a remote mountain range in Afghanistan. When lapis lazuli is refined down into pure pigment through a process done by hand over three days and nights, the result is a dense, rich, and very stable blue — ultramarine — a color unlike any other.

”Due to the rarity of the lapis lazuli, its remote location (from beyond the seas—ultra mer), and the refining process, pure ultramarine was more expensive than gold during the Renaissance. Religious paintings of Mary would always show her in blue gowns, displaying their expense and value through the specific use of ultramarine blue. The pigment was so valuable and rare that in the 1800s a competition was held in France with a cash prize for whoever could replicate ultramarine in a synthetic form. Two scientists, Jean-Baptiste Guimet of France and Christian Gmelin from Germany, were able to figure out the complex chemistry. Since then, we’ve had a chemical replication of this naturally occurring color.”
                                                                                                                                      — Alexis Joseph

LYNN: I love William Gass’s book ON BEING BLUE, a philosophical inquiry, about everything blue.

“Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs, and stockings . . . Russian cats and oysters . . . herons, bluing, bleach, the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in . . . and so constantly increasing absentness of Heaven (ins Blaue hinein, the Germans say), consequently the color of everything that is empty: blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments . . . social registers, examination booklets, blue bloods, beards, coats, collars, chips . . . the pedantic, indecent, and censorious . . . watered twilight, sour sea: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it stood for fidelity.”
                                                                                                                                — William H. Gass

What is the thing that is missing in the missing painting?

SARAH: Giovanni Bellini painted the now missing Madonna and Child in 1480. It lived inside that frame until it was stolen in 1993. This current absence is its second. Previously it was recovered and returned. A reproduction of the painting sits below the lacuna left by the original. The church honors the emptiness by keeping it alive the way the memory of a missing relative might be kept alive by a portrait of that person displayed on a mantel. When we introduced our project to the priest and his wonderful aide Titti, we were struck by their gratitude.

For them the painting is not an art object, it is an embodiment of spirit. Perhaps they would use the word holiness.

Bellini was born in 1430; his known works span the years 1470 -1516. The Madonna and Child from the Madonna dell’ Orto Church is an early work. The Madonna’s dark blue robe, the position of the child in the frame, and his preternatural maturity places the painting firmly within the then current tradition of Madonna and Child paintings. Yet stylistically it also hints at Bellini’s later works, whose play of volume and light presaged the robust humanity of Renaissance painting.

As Lynn has mentioned, our conversations about Bellini and discussions about motherhood were brought into the present by our on-going discussions of Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva’s essay Motherhood According to Bellini.

Madonna and Child paintings are so iconic and dominant within the lexicon of Christian imagery, it’s easy to forget that they also represent relationships between humans. No painted idol, our Madonna has the expression of a real human person. The child in her arms is full of movement and expression, but her body and her gaze exist in an autonomous emotional space from his, outside the closed loop of maternity. Her hands hold him with tenderness, his baby fingers wrapped around her left index finger; yet, most arrestingly, her gaze and her presence, according to Kristeva, “flee[s] the painting” and erupt into our world.

Thus we are missing not only the painting and the Madonna’s tender gesture toward her son, but also the relationship between the two.

The history of Bellini’s maternal relationships are murky, his mother unknown. She may have died in childbirth or soon after. According to Kristeva she was “illegitimate, abandoned, dead, or concealed,” all versions of lacunae. His father’s second wife was not a mother to the boy.

Today Giovanni Bellini is the more heralded painter, but during his lifetime Bellini’s stepbrother Gentile led a more successful studio.

Bellini married late, given the conventions of the time, and his wife died during the birth of their first child. He was a motherless stepchild and a widower father—no    stranger to grief and rupture within the family.


LYNN: Luca had invited my husband, my son, and me to stay with him when we came to Venice. We took him up on his gracious offer. When I first met Luca, I had told him that on our first trip to Venice in the early 1990s my husband and I had made a pilgrimage to see all of Bellini’s paintings. Now one of the paintings we visited was stolen.

Every morning and every evening we sat in Luca’s garden in Sant’Elena, on the other side of Venice from the Campo de Madonna de l’Orto. Luca is a third generation Venetian, a writer, geographer, and teacher who lives in his grandmother’s apartment but teaches during the academic year in Rome.


LYNN: His garden is a magical site of overgrown bushes and trees, and, as Luca points out, several trees just planted themselves, including two palms, now over six feet tall. The garden, like the apartment, had been inherited from Luca’s grandmother. We discussed the structure of the original garden that had been tended by his grandmother. Like people with great bones who age well, this garden had structure underneath the wildness of its now untended state.

In the morning we had espresso, made in one of those little machines with capsules, making the perfect cup of coffee every time, served in little cups with different color saucers. In the evening we drank wine in small glasses, a lifetime of different glasses, also inherited from Luca’s grandmother, which, after being washed in the evening, were carefully returned to a large cabinet inside the dining room.


LYNN: We also sat at the café a short walk from Luca’s, across from Sarah’s B&B, and carefully wrote out the words “to re-enact” in both English and Italian on small white cards we had purchased in a stationery shop in Venice. We placed the vials of scent inside matching envelopes. We stamped the outside of each envelope with our project icon, using dark blue ink.

After holding people, I gave each person the small vial of the scent we had prepared, to carry on the tenderness, the memory.


SARAH: I stayed at a very sweet bed and breakfast in Sant’Elena, near Luca’s. Roberto, the owner, was always exceedingly polite in his emails. After multiple emails back and forth regarding arrangements, rooms, and directions, he asked me if I was coming to Venice to visit the city. When I told him I was an artist and was coming to create an artwork, he exclaimed how honored he was to have an artist in his home—in such contrast to the suspicion with which I have been treated as an artist in the US.

When I arrived I gave him one of our broadsheet flyers. He knew the painting and of its absence from the church. When I explained the project he was so moved. “How wonderful. Most people come to Venice to take something. How generous of you to bring something back: the spirit of the painting.”


LYNN: Sarah and I have had the pleasure of roving conversations over the years.
When my son was about ten months old, and we had left the Bay Area to live again in Paris, I read Julia Kristeva’s essay on Bellini’s representations of motherhood. I was thrilled to see that the independence between a mother and child depicted in Bellini’s paintings — as written about by Kristeva — could be a way to live my life with my son.
 In the last few years Sara and I discovered our shared interest in Bellini and Kristeva. After we began our project Sara told me about Anne Truitt’s journal writings collected in Daybook. It has a marvelous moment about Bellini:

“I was in the kitchen yesterday cooking dinner when my hands cutting celery were all of a sudden irradiated. I ran out into the garden and stood as if in a Bellini painting transfixed by floods of gold. Clouds suffused with infinitely inflected shades — volts and blues and yellows — breathed against the purer blue of space, moving light itself flooded by wind.”

SARAH: When I was a museum intern in Venice in the 1980s I too made a pilgrimage to every Bellini in Venice. While I love some of the other Venetians — Titian, Giorgione — they are loud painters. Power! Color! Triumph! Pain!

Bellini imparts his presence quietly. There is the stillness of the Madonna’s gaze, the light touch of fingertip on sleeve. He differentiates the colors of early and late-day light, infusing meaning into each: beginnings and endings. Bellini was the first Italian painter to use Flemish oil painting techniques, which allowed him to create luminous layered skies, painting the natural world with reverent detail and tenderness.

Something exists within an empty frame, absence shapes.

SARAH: Inside me I have a room with an empty frame.

I have always loved the simultaneous presence and absence of water, its mutability and power. It is as full and powerful as it is evanescent. Water embodies paradox. As humans we have harnessed water, with greater and less success at different times. As a child I spent a lot of time sailing the ocean in a sailboat. Riding wild and challenging waves instilled in me an understanding of the ocean’s power. Water is often the visible incarnation of earth’s invisible systems: swells created by winds hundreds or thousands of miles away, the magnetic pull of the moon, low and high-pressure atmospheric systems clashing over our heads.

Water also reflects light. During the day in Venice we get shimmer, at night inky voids. The fluidity of water in Venice affects the gondolas’ and the Vaporettos’ every movement. It mitigates their harsh stops and starts. Boats need to ease in and out of motion. I think it may also affect how we relate to each other there.

LYNN: There is a quality of sadness to an empty frame. The blue of our cape connects to feelings of being blue too. Like the color blue, our project contains both joy and sadness.

As a teenager I would take long walks on the streets of Paris. I liked to amplify the feeling of being blue by walking alone in big crowds, but I also liked to be on empty streets, hearing the echoes of my shoes on the sidewalk.

The seasons give me different ways of noticing blueness.

The light rain in Venice slightly washed out our chalk markings, but the marks only faded; they were not effaced by the rain. I wonder how long they stayed on the brick after we left.

Rain has always been a friend, another way of framing; there is nothing quite like walking for hours in the rain, or under an umbrella. In the winter to warm up, one can go to a café and sit alone and watch other people. The smell of damp wool still makes me blue. I think my teenage years allowed for the most blue-time, as time was not proscribed as much as it is now; school work was elastic and books gave me a vocabulary of sadness.

I love sitting in empty churches; sometimes I light candles and remember people. I loved our church in Venice for its coolness, its shelter from the heat outside.

As a teenager I gave up on the religious part of church, but the sanctuary part, the feeling of stepping back inside myself, is still with me when I enter a church. And like most churches from my childhood, ours was dark and made of stone. One can sit for hours contemplating. It makes me so sad and angry to think about all the horrors enacted in churches, and how unlike sanctuaries they are for so many people.

Notre Dame Des Victoires was downhill from where I lived. It was full of dusty war medals with lists of the dead soldiers from the mid 1800s on, etched into the walls. It always made me feel sad to read the names, sad for France and for Europe. It allowed me to understand that being blue could be a collective feeling and not just a singular note.

This happened too down the street with the names of children deported from their school to camps in WWII, forty-nine names carefully etched into the wall of the school.

Many years later I was sitting in a café waiting to pick up my son from pre-school (the fabulous Club des Tout Petit) when an old woman at the table next to me began talking to me.  

“I see from your stroller that you have a small child.” I said I was going to pick up my son. She asked if I had a husband, and I said, “Yes.” She said, “Did you tell him you loved him when he left this morning? Promise me you will tell your husband you love him when he leaves or you leave in the morning.”

I promised, and she continued:

“I left one morning, and I did not say anything to my husband and never saw him again as he was picked up later that day and deported to a camp. I have been haunted by my petty anger my whole life.”

Maybe stone allows for a kind of blueness, a resounding emptiness.

I was struck by the fullness of the internal silence present in the act of sitting, even as histories echoed off the stone around us.

In the summer being blue has a different quality. The heat pushes you into yourself, like a blast. I remember opening the door onto the campo from the cool stone interior of the church; the force of the hot air had a physical presence.

I have learned to love being blue. It makes me stop and turn inward. I remember when my son was a teenager beginning to struggle with being blue, but contemporary life gives one so little time for blueness, even though much of the light it gives off is blue. Makes me blue.


LYNN: I went to a sound show at SFMOMA. Pauline Oliveros is shown in a video sitting at a table blowing into a paper bag. We see her breath inflate the bag and hear the sound of her blowing. Oliveros closes the bag, trapping her air, looks up and smiles at the camera. Next to her, on the adjacent wall, is a large apparatus made by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer who shot the video. Through a series of contracting tubes and pumps, the large contraption blows air into a matching paper bag. It is so haunting to see the recently deceased Pauline Oliveros and her air — to hear the quiet sound of air pumping into the bag.

Pauline Oliveros came to teach at CCA one semester many years ago. She gave us listening exercises. Inspired by her focus on listening and her Deep Listening Institute, I began the practice of paying attention to sounds, people, and sites.


LYNN: My favorite piece at the Venice Biennale in 2017 was a haunting too, a projection onto a square of dust swept up carefully by the artist Edith Dekyndt. The projection ran behind her piece Slow Object 08, a metallic curtain. The shining curtain reminded me of the gold shoes I wore on the campo.

SARAH: The Taiwanese Pavilion at the Biennale is devoted to Tehching Hsieh’s work. The subject of his work is “life, which is passing time.”

His work confronts us with the blurriness of edges. What is an artist? What is an artwork, if the action being described is the act of living? I think about what constitutes a work of art and the deep commitment Hsieh has made. His investigations into time, life, and being are all seamless meditations on what it means to be alive, and what the material of life is.

Our work in the Campo Madonna de l’Orto is connected to Hsieh’s: being in time, in the space of the Campo, with the intention of holding, and remembering, and tenderness.

In Hsieh’s piece One Year Performance, he punches a time clock every hour for a year, day and night, and at the same time shoots a frame of film. A six-minute film of the performance accompanies the exhibition of the year of photographs. In One Year Performance Time collapses while making palpable its toll on the human body.

Later, back in New York I watched an interview with Tehching Hsieh. As a young undocumented Taiwanese immigrant in New York, he spent many years engaged in a repeated daily action—of going back and forth between restaurant work and home, from home to restaurant work. After six years of moving between work and home, feeling he had no time to make his artwork, he changed his perception and reframed his life, his movements and the passing of time—as art, announcing, “I am already in the piece.”

LYNN: The first exercise in a class I teach called Narrative Strategies is an exploration of time. Hsieh’s One Year Performance film is one of the few artists’ works that I show every year. I am in awe of his deep commitment to time and relish sharing his work with students — time as both a material and a subject, like conceptual artist On Kawara, who also paid attention to time.

How do we apprehend cycles of time? A year is a form of counting time based on the sun. I remember counting time by my monthly cycles, which I thought of as a lunar form, or by when I had to buy dental floss again. How do we mark cycles of periodicity? What are the intimate ways of being present to the flow of time? In Venice we were asking people to be present to a flow of time, here not bound by outside structures like the sun or the moon, but to the kind of time that passes in the company of another. How long can we sustain such an intimacy, a tenderness?

I never broke the connection — I held as long as the person was willing to be held — and once I felt a shift, the bind breaking, I released my hold.

LYNN: One evening we took the Vaporetto with Luca to the Lido. He wanted to show us the oldest part of Venice, where the Visconti film Death in Venice had been filmed, the Adriatic, and to dinner at a fish restaurant he liked. We could see out in the harbor the lighted large container ships and cruise ships.

Venetians voted in an anti-cruise ship referendum while we were there. The cruise ships arrive and disgorge humongous numbers of tourists. Neither the city nor the lagoon can handle this many people arriving at the same time. In addition to the cruise ship referendum, locals were talking about the Mose barrier flood project, designed to prevent the annual winter flooding. We passed by the large barriers daily as we took the Vaporetto from Sant’Elena to the campo.

LYNN: Like psychic scrying (“seeing” on water), frottage was used by the Surrealists to uncover not only textures but also presences. We did a rubbing of where people’s feet were on the brick as the form of recording our attempts to find the missing tender gesture.

to hold to miss to remember site rubbing, Campo Madonna de l’Orto, Venice, Italy, 2017

SARAH: to hold, to miss, to remember contains in its title the presence of touch (to hold), an absence (to miss), and the conception of memory (to remember).

“Off the Vaporetto, across a plaza, around a corner — so many people, so hot. Easy to get lost in Venice; lots of alleys, lots of corners, lots of heat. A quiet plaza, a bit of shadow, retreating. There’s Lynn, wrapped in a blue mantle, a Madonna with an empty chair, clinging to the shadow. I approach her and she gestures. We sit together, holding onto each other lightly. In the shadow of the church, we sit. Construction workers are repairing the bridge; their noisy tools keep the ghosts and the tourists to a murmur. I stand up, and step aside. Sarah is the signaler, the crier, in six languages, whatever works, drawing a thread of visitors across the plaza to rest with Lynn. Here comes someone else. It’s James, Lynn’s son. Her arm goes around his shoulders; they’re holding hands, mother and son, framed in the church door. It’s beautiful.”
                                                                                                                                  —Susan Working