Rossella Biscotti is having a moment. Last year the Italian-born, Amsterdam-based artist showed at a number of major exhibitions, including Documenta 13, and this year she is participating in “The Encyclopedic Palace” at the 55th Venice Biennale. Her solo at the Secession in Vienna was her first in Austria. Developed simultaneously, Biscotti’s installations at the Biennale and the Secession originated in her Laboratorio Onirico (dream workshop), which she conducted at a women’s prison on Giudecca Island in Venice. The workshop was inspired by the story of Nicola Valentino, who in 1978 was given a life sentence for his involvement in the Red Brigades. (He was released in 2006.) Valentino’s survival strategy was to exchange dreams with his fellow inmates via smuggled notes.
For Biscotti’s workshop, 14 women shared their dreams over several months. The Venice installation comprises an audio collage of some of the dreams, as narrated by the participants, and minimalist structures made out of composted leftovers from meals at the jail. While prisoners are often perceived as outcasts—as people without a voice—Biscotti not only lets them be heard but transforms their waste into a refined artistic commodity pegged to a prestigious exhibition.
The first thing one saw upon entering her exhibition “The Side Room” at the Secession was 11 framed portraits of the workshop’s participants drawn by one of the inmates. These accompanied the prisoners’ audio recordings, openly playing, and the English transcripts, projected onto one of the gallery walls. Small sketches on paper meticulously documenting the various seating arrangements during the workshops were in a display case.
But the core of the Vienna installation was Biscotti’s research into the Secession’s history, focusing both on its organization and its building’s peculiarities. Trained as an architect and set designer, Biscotti is also a keen observer and documentarian of historical, political and social events, and here addressed the specific context of the place in order to shape her work. None of her findings made their way onto the gallery walls; instead, everything context-related was collected in the catalogue, conceived as an integral component of the exhibition. This handy book contains transcripts not only of the dream workshops with the Giudecca women but another that the artist conducted with the eight members of the Secession board, all artists, as well as an insightful interview with the artist, conducted by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, artistic director of Documenta 13. The 43 monochrome color plates interspersed in the catalogue were derived from a color scheme the Austrian artist Oskar Putz initially applied throughout the whole building in the 1980s, only a few fragments of which remain today.
Seated on one of the wrought-iron stools Biscotti designed for the occasion, I found that reading the catalogue while listening to the original recordings allowed “The Side Room” to gain momentum. Comparing the inmates’ dreams with those of the Secession board members reveals marked differences in personal circumstances. The Italians’ dreams betray a striking violence, whereas those of the Viennese can be relatively carefree in mood. While the prisoners dream of having killed somebody, or of meeting a drug-addicted ex from years ago, the Viennese wander around their beautiful city, or find themselves at art-award ceremonies or on holiday in Italy. With this stark contrast, Biscotti’s installation gathers both relevance and political impact. Compared with the piece in Venice, it might even be the stronger of the two.