Polly Gould

Different Paths from Sky to Ground:
The Sea Stories

Yet the power of Nature cannot be shortened by the folly, nor her beauty altogether saddened by the misery, of man. The broad tides still ebb and flow brightly about the island of the dead, and the linked conclave of the Alps know no decline from their old preeminence, nor stoop from their golden thrones in the circle of the horizon. So lovely is the scene still, in spite of all its injuries, that we shall find ourselves drawn there again and again at evening out of the narrow canals and streets of the city, to watch the wreaths of the sea-mists weaving themselves like mourning veils around the mountains far away, and listen to the green waves as they fret and sigh along the cemetery shore.
John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, Vol 2, The Sea Stories, Murano, p.2, 1851-53.
When I arrived in Venice last year, I came looking for a story to tell that connected water and glass, in this city equally renowned for both. I came with John Ruskin and his love of both Venice and the Alps in mind.
Different Paths from Sky to Ground: The Sea Stories explores the water cycle and the patterns of connections between falling snow on glaciers of the Alps to the waters of Venice: its drinking water and its lagoon. Venice's vulnerability to global warming induced sea-level rises has been exacerbated by sinking caused by the extraction of groundwater between 1950s and the 1970s. For a city built on water, access to suitable usable water has always been a challenge for venetians. Venice has simultaneously too much water and too little.
The Sea Stories told here trace connections between the Mer de Glace or the Sea of Ice in the French Alps, near Chamonix, in the Mont Blanc Massif and the sea trade in glass seed beads born out of the heat of the glass-making furnaces of Murano, Venice. The work arises from a set of associations that identify sea stories for our contemporary moment.
During its history, the urban fabric of the city has functioned as a water-collecting device. Ancient cisterns, known as vere, are dotted across the entire fabric of the city. Campi or open paved 'fields' of flat paved surfaces were built to direct rainwater to be filtered through quantities of sand before arriving in the underground cisterns, sealed against the infiltration of sea water with clay. These have the sometimes elaborately decorated cistern heads in their centre. In a reassessment of heritage knowledge, the work of architects and town planners is now imagining the reinstatement of Venice's cisterns to help in addressing the future of water sustainability.
Spatial distribution of ancient cisterns in Venice (red symbols) in Ursino, N. Pozzato, L. and Heritage-Based Water Harvesting Solutions, Water 2019, 11, 924.
Ruskin's The Stones of Venice: The Sea Stories explores and imagines all the multiple ways in which the history of Venice is connected to the sea. As the quote above demonstrates, Ruskin was contemplating the mountains while he stays in Venice, and he was enthralled by the magnetic pull of their beauty, so atmospherically rendered in his words. At the same time as Ruskin affirms the endurance of the Alpine geology, the passage is also full of intimations of human transience: the view from the decadent ruination of sea-lapped stones of Venice is contemplated beside the island that functions as the burial ground for the city's dead. Whereas in the 1850s Ruskin drew encouragement from the seemingly impervious permanence of the mountains, I doubt we now might be so confident in Nature's resistance to man's folly.
Yearly surface temperature compared to the 20 th 20 th  20^("th ")20^{\text {th }}20th  century average from 1880-2021. Blue bars indicate cooler-than-average years; red bars show warmer-than-average years. NOAA Climate.gov graph, based on data from the National Centres for Environmental Information.
The now familiar graph that plots temperature change since the nineteenth century show the shift in global temperatures along the x x x\mathrm{x}x axis from 1880 to 2021 with fringes that change from blue, hanging below zero degrees, pivoting in the decades around the 1960s, to rise red above it. The temperature colour-coding marks a time transition from a cold past and to a warming future.
The drought in 2023 when the water in Venetian canals ran dry was linked to half the usual snowfall in the Alps that year. In Ruskin's life and through his enthusiasms, through his writing and his understanding, the Alps and Venice are related. In 1854, shortly after the date when Ruskin was writing of the view of the mountains from Venice, he visited the Alps and made an early daguerreotype photo with John Hobbs of the Mer de Glace. The frozen waters of this glacier have retreated significantly in the 170 years since Ruskin took this impression. The awesome grandeur of the glacier in its retreat has become an icon of climate change. The documents of historic observation, such as Ruskin's daguerreotype, or The Alpine Club's stereoscopic views, act as phantom traces of the imminent passing of that frozen landscape.
These images of the Mer de Glace are each here remade as an anaglyphic giclée print. Anaglyphic images are created with the fact in play that we are animals with two eyes that have slightly different positions. The optical illusion of the anaglyphic image is generated when two overlapping perspectives are separated, coloured left and right as red and cyan, and overlayed upon each other at a displaced registration. The image appears three-dimensional when viewed with bi-colour lenses so that a different perspective is visible in either eye. The colours blue and red are reminiscent of the colour coding of hot and cold in the temperature graphs. The two-tone colours of orange-red and aqua-cyan became the colour palette of the visual work.
View of studio with bi-colour anaglyphic paper glasses
The Ruskin quote was written during the midnineteenth century when the glass furnaces of Murano were the world centre of glass bead production. These glass beads played a major role in another of the sea stories of Venice as they were exported in great quantities as trading beads.
Women of Venice known as impiraresse, worked as bead threaders to gather the beads into tradable and transportable strands. This labour that they performed as piece work from their homes afforded them some additional income. They were a familiar sight in the campi and alleys, sitting in groups of other women, talking and threading while attending to their families. The associated endangered skill of the impiraresse was recently recognised as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
Glass seed bead making is no longer an active industry in the region. Production of seed beads ceased in Venice in the early 21st century but they can still be bought from the remaining stocks in warehouses in Murano.
I chose to work with a quantity of beads whose colours had become mixed up at some point in their history. These consisted of kilos of medium-sized
beads with a predominate orange hue, and small beads in hundreds and thousands, in a white and multicoloured mix. I have visited a warehouse of one of the old families of glass bead-making in Venice and chosen beads of various sizes and colours from the remaining stock. I purchased the pure and unmixed bright blue aqua from a warehouse in Murano.
The title phrase Different Paths from Sky to Ground is taken from the explanation of why each snowflake is different from every other: It is the pathway of the fall of the developing snow crystal that influences the variation in form, yet every snow crystal is structured as a hexagon due to the crystallization of water molecules. The crystalline form of ice and the geometries of the historic and now redundant rainwater cisterns in the city's squares provide the shapes of the sculptural works. The work is formed from glass seed beads -conterie- threaded onto wires and shaped into crystalline forms.
I worked with trays of coloured beads, stringing lines of beads onto wire of varying rigidity, threading beads onto cotton that falls with a fluid line that gravity draws down towards the ground and pools into loose swirls of colour on the floor. The wire is patterned in a sequence of triangles, pentagons and hexagons suggestive of sequences or progressions. They create net-like patterns with shadows, with threaded lengths of beads falling to the floor or other surface that they may encounter on the way. As they assemble across the wall, the parts mobilize to suggest a horizon or a far-off cloudscape of a mountain range like the view recalled by Ruskin from the cemetery shore. The mountains of the Alps when looking north from Venice on occasion can appear like a crystal chain across the horizon.
The ecological network of relations that is the water cycle between the mountains of the Alps and the Venice Lagoon is also imbricated with a network of human history and human actions. Images of the anaglyphic Mer de Glace are printed as a Risograph multiple in two-tone ink colours of aqua and orange. This version is printed on Alga Carta, an historic ecological paper first developed in the 1990s, and that is manufactured from the excessively proliferating algae In the Venice Lagoon. Higher temperatures and pollution caused excessive growth of the algae, so the response was to harvest it for use in paper making; yet another sea story, this time of environmental remediation.
Polly Gould, Different Paths form Sky to Ground, 2024 glass beads on wire and thread, detail.
Acknowledgements: Thanks, as always, to Danielle for the invitation to make work for Venice. Thanks to Marisa Convento for an introduction to the craft of the impiraressa, and to Alessandro Moretti and Andrea Turchetto for the supply of glass beads. Thanks to Paola, Shahana, Riek, Leora, and Nicola - with the threading and sorting of beads - I enjoyed the company, and being reminded of the networks of social relations that sustain us.
Cover: Polly Gould, The Alpine Club, giclée print, 2024


Different Paths from Sky to Ground:
The Sea Stories
16 April to 24 November 2024