Cyprus Pavilion, Santa Caterina and US Pavilion, Venice

Christodoulos Panayiotou’s exhibition title Two Days After Forever puts me happily in mind of Bob Dylan’s 1966 lyric Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial. Indeed, this constellation of objects in the oldest rooms of the Cyprus Pavilion has a museum-like stillness and rigour.

Many of the works have been fabricated according to transformative frameworks: weeds growing on a re-buried archaeological site are depicted using ancient mosaic techniques; terracotta tiles made using the earth excavated from another archaeological dig are laid as a stage-like floor; wall-based mosaics are rendered from classical fragments which will eventually be returned to the collections from which they are borrowed. These quiet and earth-based works are interposed with contemporary artefacts. A room stuffed with shredded Cypriot pound notes becomes the ruined remains of a more recent institution. Elsewhere three gold monochrome works created using the artisanal process of an icon painter glow from the walls – precious shrines with no gods peering from them. The combined result is a thoughtful investigation into our relationship to the things around us: their histories and our appreciation of their materiality ultimately forming our understanding of their value.

Over at the former church of Santa Caterina, Grisha Brushkin’s An Archaeologist’s Collection also utilises motifs of burial and excavation. On entering the darkened space it gradually becomes apparent that the floor is covered with a gravel-like material, out of which emerge dozens of prone figures. These fragmented protagonists form the Pompeii-like leftovers of a utopian civilisation: children, heroic men, model couples. Are they breaking out of their graves, or hastily covered and forgotten?

On reading the exhibition materials I learn that these works are also the result of a series of transformations. Based on figures from Bruskin’s Fundementalny leksikon, 1986, the statues were sculpted, smashed, cast in bronze, interred near an Etruscan necropolis, and recovered three years later. They are archetypes that have been battered and bruised but have survived – as if somehow we still need them, or perhaps just can’t shake them off.

Meanwhile, in the US Pavilion, Joan Jonas’ immersive installation They Came to Us without a Word, the motif of returning takes the form not of resurrection but haunting. Each room, filled with drawings, video projections and objects, forms a loose but continuous narrative based on fragments of ghost stories. Here it is oral tradition – specifically that of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia – which is reconstituted and reinvented. Props used by children performing in the videos, cave painting-like images of fish and bees, and rippled Murano mirrors create a lyrical and mesmerising atmosphere in the galleries, which I struggle to leave.

As Jonas herself has said, the work is not direct or didactic, “Rather, the ideas are implied poetically”. This intuitive sense of the familiar being unburied – the return of the culturally repressed or forgotten – leaves me with the sense that Panayiotou and Bruskin, for all their methodical invention, cannot match Jonas’ talent for alchemy.