Edmund de Waal Venice Biennale exhibit

The library of exile

The Venice Art Biennale is back for its 58th year, running from May 11 to November 24 and this year takes on the theme and title May You Live In Interesting Times. It's an open call to artists to interpret that as freely as their imagination desires, and Edmund de Waal - a British artist, ceramicist and author (he wrote The Hare with Amber Eyes and The White Road) - has brought all three strings in his bow together with his latest work in the Italian city, which focuses on exile, migration and language.

Edmund de Waal Venice Biennale exhibit

Tehillim

De Waal's work spreads across the city, from the historic Jewish ghetto to the San Marco district. The first piece, titled 'Tehillim' (meaning 'psalm' in Hebrew) is in the ghetto and Edmund is the first contemporary artist to exhibit within this area of the city. Speaking to BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz on the Today Show, the British ceramicist called it "one of the strangest and most melancholic spaces in Venice," rich with history dating back over 500 years. At the Canton Scuola - a sixteenth-century highly decorative synagogue in the ghetto - de Waal has placed 11 vitrines. This incredibly ornate and Rococo building is practically unknown in the city and is the opposite in style to de Waal's minimalist work. This contrast is what drew Edmund to exhibit his vitrines there; each one contains a piece of marble, gold and porcelain, which "take the ornate experience of the holy place and transform it into a different kind of prayer" says the artist.

Edmund de Waal Venice Biennale exhibit

The library of exile

Across the city, in the more tourist-heavy San Marco district, lies a second installation in the seventeenth-century Ateneo Veneto with its baroque exterior and marble-filled interior complete of pictures of saints. In the middle of all this decorative grandeur stands The library of exile by de Waal, a 10 foot by 20 foot white space filled with works by authors who have written about the experience of being taken away from their homes and the experience of exile. Zola, Ovid, Voltaire and Thomas Mann sit amongst Lebanese and Syrian writers who have only just had their works translated into French and English. In the library - which is punctuated by three vitrines full of Edmund's pottery - the aim was to celebrate and talk about the writers and their experiences and create a space for reflection. The outside walls of the temporary library are inscribed in gold with the names of libraries that have been lost across the world from Mosul and Alexandria to the classical library of Viktor von Ephrussi, de Waal's great-grandfather.

Edmund de Waal Venice Biennale exhibit

The library of exile

For the duration of the Venice Biennale, both spaces will host a programme of events focusing on Jewish Venice, contemporary poetry and literature. Edmund de Waal hopes that they become centres of contemplation and dialogue and bring the historic ghetto back into conversations around Venice, as well as the heart of the Biennale.

Skye McAlpine's guide to secret Venice during the Biennale