The Palazzo Ducale has within it the sprawling Doge’s Palace, the place of living for the leaders of the Republic of Venice, and opulent government chambers such as the Chamber of the Great Council, one of the biggest rooms in Europe, with masterpieces by Tintoretto and Veronese painted on the walls and the ceiling.
But take a few turns and you get to the Bridge of Sighs, the limestone walkway over the Rio di Palazzo that acts as a pathway to New Prison from the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace. Lord Byron gave it that name because it’s where felons got their last view of Venice before they got locked up for the rest of their lives.
Now part of the museum at the Palazzo Ducale, the prison offers visitors a look at the guts of the medieval penal system, the stone cells, the pretty bleak bathrooms. But as of this morning there’s also a new work installed in the old jail: Douglas Gordon’s Gente di Palermo! (2016), which he filmed in another underground location, the Cupuchin Catacombs in Palermo.
It’s a little jarring to stumble upon a video work in an old prison cell, especially after getting whiplash from swapping the rococo splendor of the palace with the guts of the prison. Even more so when you get the context of the video. Apparently, while Gordon was in the catacombs, walking by the mummified corpses of men and women, he made it to the children’s wing, and there was an inflatable blue toy dolphin, still with enough helium to float, apparently left there by a visitor to commune with the dead.
And now, the resulting video work, too, exists in a former place of squalor, the film playing on loop in the stone cell.
“It was very early on a Friday morning, the site was virtually empty of people—living people, I mean.” Gordon says in a statement posted near the work. “I have to say that it is not so far in my imagination from many prisons I have visited over the years (I stress, I was visiting).”
He goes on to explain how he found the balloon, a story which sounds just so unbelievable that I guess it has to be true. Here’s how the statement ends:
Just when I thought I was ‘used to it,’ my friend and I turned a corner and were confronted with the most astonishing sight.
Something had been left behind, forgotten about and incarcerated among the dead—imprisoned for no real reason we supposed.
The unhappy visitor floated around the dead bodies, almost urging them to rise up, fully clothed, as citizens of Palermo, ready to walk again!
Raise the dead!