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'Speaking in Tongues' – Paul Benney

Curated by James Putnam & Flora Fairbairn

May 13th – November 26th, 2017

Church of San Gallo, Venice

To coincide with the 57th Venice Biennale


‘Speaking in Tongues’ is a monumental contemporary masterpiece (measuring 8x12ftt) that uses the traditional technique of chiaroscuro or dramatic tonal contrasts between light and dark. The composition was inspired by Francisco Goya's painting 'Yard with Lunatics ' (1794), which reflects Goya’s own fears of impending mental illness. Benney’s monumental painting is flanked on either side by his series of dramatic candle studies and accompanied by the twelve thought-provoking narrations. Benny invited the twelve friends he portrayed to describe their most life-changing experiences or lingering traumatic memories. These recordings employ the latest directional audio technology to accurately correspond each voice with the individual characters in the painting. From afar the viewer encounters the multitude of monologues as  slightly disorientating murmerings but as they approach each figure in the work, these intimate and personal narrations become clear.  



Benney’s mesmerising site-specific project follows the Renaissance tradition of the illusionistic altarpiece that for the worshippers in those times would have seemed like a vision emerging from the dark candle lit interior. The ‘flames’ emanating from each character relate to traditional representations of Christ’s Twelve Apostles receiving the Holy Spirit as described in the Bible and celebrated with the Pentecost. As a symbolic ‘flame’ of revelation this can also be likened to images of enlightenment in many different world religions. The painting’s surface of heavy dark resin also allows the viewer to see their own reflection as if integrated with the painting itself and adds to the work’s uncanny illusionistic qualities, thus encouraging an individual engagement both visually and audibly.

It also invites us to reflect on the connections between hallucinations, religious revelations and out-of- body experiences or even topical comparisons between the real and the virtual.







Installation at S.Gallo

Installation at S.Gallo

'Speaking in Tongues'detail

Paul Benney

Installation view

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