The Power of a Pair of Hands
At the crisp hour of seven on a winter’s morning, I arrived in Venice. The city was eerily empty and quiet in its waking hours. As I wandered through wispy fog, I caught a glimpse of its timeless charm: a baker arranging brioche behind a golden window front, a pair of painters repairing flaking pastel pink walls, gondolas with red velvet seats bobbing in the water, toothless fishermen in rubber aprons slapping their morning’s catch onto beds of ice. Moments of magic found in a maze of crumbling, candy-coloured buildings and winding canals.
The water slowly turned from slate to silver, sparkling with a thousand reflections as the city woke. I spent hours silently tracing centuries of footsteps over narrow cobblestone paths and wooden footbridges. Venice’s 118 islands, some as small as a single house, have never seen a train, a bus or even a car. The city has only ever been wandered by foot or by water. Its intricate canals are not only the foundation of Venice, but an ancient way of life.
I soaked in the beauty of this magical floating city. Yet it was impossible to ignore the cigarette butts and plastic bags of dog waste floating in the water. Tourists were seated in cafes, sipping coffee from plastic cups, stirring sugar with plastic spoons. At every corner, tacky tourist stores sold plastic keychains and magnets, each individually wrapped in a shiny film.
Wonderful parts of the world have opened my eyes in more ways than one. I’m often left feeling a bittersweet concoction of amazement and anxiety. It’s sickening to visibly see the pollution that comes hand in hand with mass tourism. Yet the issues that go unnoticed leave a lump in my throat. White rhinos are on the brink of extinction, Borneo’s rainforest is burning at an unprecedented speed and islands are sinking under a rising sea.
I felt helpless and useless. Too easily I’d accepted the fact that I, a drop in a world of oceans, couldn’t change a thing. But then something broke the surface: a giant pair of hands.
Their stark whiteness stood out against a peach -coloured building like a sore thumb. Sprouting from Venice’s Grand Canal, the hands pressed against the 14th Century Ca’Sagredo Hotel. One hand appeared to hold the building from sinking, the other seemed to tug it gently under.
The hands belong to Lorenzo Quinn, a featured artist in the 2017 Venice Biennale. ‘Support’ is more than a distinctive contemporary sculpture in an antique city. It highlights the innate human ability to either help or harm.
Hands have enabled all of the magnificent and devastating products of humanity. Quinn’s sculpted hands are both gallant and sinister in their strength, but it’s their simplicity that delivers a punch, a universal message.
“The hand holds so much power – the power to love, to hate, to create, to destroy.”
More specifically, the sculpture highlights the inevitability of rising sea levels and the threat this poses to Venice. Many studies suggest the lagoon city could be completely underwater within 80 years.
Within our lifetime.
For a city that receives 30 million visitors each year, ‘Support’ embodies a compelling message. If one pair of hands could cause just a fraction of these tourists to stop and think, imagine what a million conversations could do. Imagine what a million hands could do.
One day Quinn plans to position the sculpture against an Arctic glacier and shoot a time-lapse video as the ice melts.
“In a few months they’ll be gripping thin air, and people will see this is real, this is happening.”
We may limit our reality to the confines of concrete cities, ignorant to the natural world surrounding us; but the truth is our existence is fragile. Our grasp on the world is slipping.
A harmonious balance that has existed for almost four billion years is falling apart at our hands. We are the only natural being nature does not need, and our place on this earth is a miracle. It should not be taken for granted.
I picked up pieces of trash as I walked out of Venice later that day. It may seem futile to some, but at least I left the city somewhat better than I found it. Something within Quinn’s hands struck a nerve. I walked away from a broken world, consumed with the belief that it didn’t have to be this way. Big changes often have small beginnings.
‘Support’ stands as a harrowing warning, but also as a symbol of hope. Your hands possess an immense ability, and responsibility, to do good. What will you do with them?
Cover by Annie Spratt