Venice Biennale

In a tumultuous year marked by an ongoing pandemic, war, and climate calamity, the Venice Biennale carves out space for ways of thinking about the world through less human-centric lenses. Across the central exhibition and national pavilions, artists celebrate the potential in decolonial thinking – about borders, nature, and our bodies.

The 59th Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious art exhibition, opened this past April with a year’s delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The biennale, which includes exhibitions in national pavilions and an all-important central exhibition, takes place across two main locations in Venice: the Giardini della Biennale and the Arsenale, with additional national pavilions – usually by countries that have joined in more recent years – presenting inside palazzos all around the City of Bridges. 

Traditionally, the thesis-driven central exhibition reflects and pushes forward dominant conversations in the art world, and indeed, Cecilia Alemani, the Italian, New York–based curator of this year’s international exhibition, presented a captivating and alluring premise that synthesises several such themes. Titled The Milk of Dreams, the central exhibition –which takes its name from a book by the British-Mexican surrealist painter Leonora Carrington – centres on the interest in the spiritual and the mythic, the recovery of historical women artists, the attention to the legacy of alternative surrealisms, such as Carrington’s, and the focus on undoing colonial structures of thought via art. But although these topics have been a feature of exhibition-making for quite some time now, The Milk of Dreams is undeniably the singular vision of Alemani, purposefully selected, full of associative twists, and pointing towards a way out of the current crisis of imagination. 

Certainly, with an ongoing pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the approaching point-of-no-return in the climate crisis, and rising nationalistic mindsets in global politics, one’s ability to dream might not sound like an urgent priority. Yet it’s precisely there, Alemani seems to argue, that we might find new ways to engage with the world. 

The exhibition begins on the roof of the Giardini’s Central Pavilion, where a row of sculptures of cartoonish sea creatures by German artist Cosima von Bonin takes pride of place. From the lawn facing the building, viewers can peek through bright orange telescopes to appreciate their comically menacing details. Inside, a life-sized sculpture of an elephant on a pedestal by Katharina Fritsch alludes to the taming and devastation of nature that goes hand-in-hand with conquest and colonisation. The magnitude of this show-stopper is mirrored in the exhibition’s second part, in the Arsenale: the first work viewers encounter there is Simone Leigh’s giant bronze bust Brick House, 2019, from her Anatomy of Architecture series of women-as-architecture hybrids. Leigh, who is also representing the US with a spectacular pavilion presentation in the Giardini, was awarded a Golden Lion for this contribution to the international show.

In fact, there is a lot of excellent sculpture in this Biennale. From Andra Ursuta’s lead crystal alien-like pieces to Margerite Humeau’s giant, sleek organic forms, Hannah Levy’s spidery steel and silicon constructions, Gabriel Chaile’s monumental clay vessels that represent his relatives, and Paula Rego’s nightmarish scenes populated by dolls – every aspect of the curatorial thesis seems to find solidified expression in this embodied medium. There are plenty of video works, too. Marianna Simnett’s The Severed Tail, 2022, gives the literary tradition of animal allegories a fetish twist, weaving human and animal desires into a disturbing tale. It is one of the standout pieces commissioned for this Biennale, as is the three-channel work by Shanghai-based artist Lu Yang, whose avatar, DOKU, is featured in an otherworldly computer game saga revolving around the artist’s near-death experience. A video by American activist and filmmaker Tourmaline, whose work confronts the historical erasure of Black, queer, and trans communities, imagines the life of a nineteenth-century trans sex worker had she lived in Seneca Village, an autonomous New York City community of free Black and Irish immigrants. 

A few fundamental questions underpin Alemani’s exploration, which includes work by more than 200 artists. In her curatorial statement, she asks: “How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human?” Drawing on themes of otherworldliness and transformation beyond human-centric world views, the exhibition – which highlights women and non-gender-conforming artists – looks forward by also looking backward to mine and explore overlooked moments, figures, and perspectives for new answers. In fact, the most distinctive curatorial flourish of The Milk of Dreams is Alemani’s inclusion of five historically focused, all-female capsule shows, two in the Arsenale and three in the Central Pavilion, which are set apart from the rest of the exhibition through softer lighting and décor. These concentrated shows-within-the-show, with titles such as Corps orbite or Seduction of the Cyborg, each examine a theme that is meant to serve as a lens through which to look at some of the more contemporary work. 

The capsule titled The Witch’s Cradle, for example, examines figures who went through “self-metamorphosis,” the exhibition catalogue explains, “as an answer to the male-dominated constructions governing identity.” Alongside figure like Claude Cahun, Méret Oppenheim, Carol Rama, and the show’s “patron” Leonora Carrington, Alemani expands her exploration with lesser-known artists such as nineteenth-century Congolese draughtswoman Antoinette Lubaki, or notable women who don’t fit in the traditional definition of fine art, like Jospehine Baker. 

Among the many highlights in the Central Pavilion is a gallery containing works by largely unknown Danish artist Ovartaci, who spent most of their life in a psychiatric hospital. They created drawings, paintings, and dolls featuring elegant chimeric figures that sprang out of the artist’s own blend of mysticism and struggle for self-reinvention. Ovartaci, which roughly translates to “Chief Loon,” is a moniker the artist gave themselves. Assigned male gender at birth, they attempted to perform gender-reassignment on themselves, after which the hospital completed the surgery. “Despite the climate that forged it,” Alemani writes in her curatorial statement, “this is an optimistic exhibition, which celebrates art and its capacity to create alternative cosmologies and new conditions of existence.”

Outside the international exhibition, similar focuses on myth and dreams, body politics, and Indigenous knowledge were echoed in the national pavilions as well. The Polish Pavilion, titled Re-enchanting the World, is abuzz with Romani-Polish artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’s work – significantly, it’s the first time a Romani artist has been featured in the history of the Biennale. Mirga-Tas explores the myths and cyclicality of Romani life, creating “frescoes” made from pieces of used fabric worn by her community. The Nordic Pavilion, which jointly represents the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Norway, and Sweden, has been renamed The Sámi Pavilion this year. The move recognises the Indigenous population of Sápmi, a region which stretches across these three nations and into the Kola Peninsula in Russia, and showcases works by three Sámi artists: Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna. Although their art engages with their communities’ specific struggles, the themes they focus on – through performance, sculpture, and painting – relate to wider global contexts as well, from the impact of the climate crisis on traditional ways of life to colonial structures that persist in governmental, legal, and cultural institutions. 

Similar themes are broached in the New Zealand Pavilion in an electrifying exhibition by Yuki Kihara, an interdisciplinary artist of Japanese and Sāmoan descent. Titled Paradise Camp, the show, curated by Natalie King, gives stage to the singular lens of the Fa’afafine – which means “in the manner of a woman” or third gender in Sāmoa – with a campy reading of the notion of paradise, bringing Indigenous perspectives to drag culture. In some twelve luscious photographic tableaux shot in Sāmoa, Kihara replicates, using models in drag, Paul Gauguin’s paintings created in Tahiti. In a video piece called First Impressions: Paul Gaugin, 2018, a “talk show host” shows Gauguin’s paintings to a group of Fa’afafine, who make hilarious comments on the post-impressionist works as they encounter them for the first time, sometimes wondering whether the pre-pubescent girls depicted in them aren’t in fact third gender. 

Music and sound was another oft-visited theme across several national pavilions, including Sonia Boyce’s Golden
Lion–winning exhibition at the British Pavilion, titled Feeling Her Way. Boyce’s installation includes sculpture, patterned wallpaper, and video works featuring five diasporic female musicians who were invited to improvise and play with their voices. The outstanding presentation by artist and musician Marco Fusinato in the Australian Pavilion, however, made the most titillating use of sound, handling it as material rather than theme. In DESASTRES, curated by Alexie Glass-Kantor, Fusinato plays an electric guitar at a deafening volume, performing daily throughout the Biennale’s entire 200-day duration. As he produces warm, absorbing noise that vibrates through the viewers’ bodies from a wall of speakers and amps, a complex technological loop spits out images collected by the artist to a freestanding, floor-to-ceiling LED screen. All these elements combine to form a monumental sculptural installation which seems to “hug” the viewer as the (mostly) disturbing imagines – from art history, natural history, ancient history, the press – flash by. Through the centuries, humanity’s capacity for destruction, war, and violence never waned. It’s our common story. Look at it.   

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 60, 2021.
Images courtesy the artists and Venice Biennale.

The 59th Venice Beinnale
23 April – 27 November 2022
Various venues, Venice, Italy

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