July 2022

Arts & Letters

The dream machine: The 59th Venice Biennale

By Kate van den Boogert

Yuki Kihara, Paradise Camp, curated by Natalie King. Installation view featuring Fonofono o le nuanua: Patches of the rainbow (After Gauguin), 2020, Biennale Arte 2022. Photo by Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Curator Cecilia Alemani’s long overdue Biennale overwhelmingly features female artists and champions indigenous voices and other minorities

The 59th Venice Biennale, titled The Milk of Dreams, is currently under way, opening after a 12-month, COVID-related delay. For this edition, the Italian born, New York–based curator Cecilia Alemani has attempted to “re-enchant the world” with a vital event championing women and non-binary artists, collectives, indigenous voices and other minorities.

Borrowing its name from a quirky little book of fairytales that surrealist painter Leonora Carrington wrote for her children, this Biennale places at its heart the ground-breaking art movement that, in the wake of World War One, looked to replace rationality with an intelligence sourced in the body and interiority, sidelining realism and documentary to privilege the imagination, the oneiric and the unconscious as tools for processing experience. Speaking via Zoom, having recently returned to New York, Alemani finds parallels in our current circumstances: “Surrealism was born in 1924, just after a major traumatic event, the First World War, and on the verge of another war, with the rise of nationalism and the militarisation of Europe.”

The Milk of Dreams gestated, remotely and behind screens, throughout the trauma of a worldwide pandemic and multiple lockdowns – “Venice was one of the most locked down cities in Italy,” Alemani points out. (The word quarantine, derived from Italian, conjures the Venetians’ long history of epidemics and the quaranta giorni, or 40 days that ships arriving from ports infected by the plague were required to sit at anchor.) “The idea of looking inwards rather than outwards, of processing what surrounds us through our own physicality and embodiment … The power of imagination, of dreams, is something that I’ve seen as tools in many, many artists these past three years,” she says.

Then, two short months before the Biennale launched, Russia invaded Ukraine. A few days later, on February 28, the Russian Pavilion curator Raimundas Malašauskas and Russian artists Kirill Savchenkov and Alexandra Sukhareva resigned in protest of the invasion, thereby cancelling Russia’s participation. Stories have since emerged of the Ukrainian curatorial team heroically getting artist Pavlo Makov’s sculpture The Fountain of Exhaustion out of Kyiv in the boot of a car as Russian troops crossed the border, then delivering it in pieces and minus its base to the Ukrainian Pavilion after a six-day drive across Europe. An open-air “Piazza Ucraina” was also rapidly improvised in the Giardini as a place of solidarity with the war-torn nation, a tower of sandbags evoking both danger and fragility.

If the Venice Biennale is typically a global showcase of contemporary art made by living artists, Alemani took a “trans-historical” approach by “zooming out from this preconception that the Biennale should just be a snapshot of the last three years, and placing the show in a longer lineage of art history”. Five “time capsules” present women artists, generally outside the official canon, in mini shows with evocative titles such as Technologies of Enchantment and Seduction of the Cyborg, which form a dialogue with the Biennale’s key themes: the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses, the relationship between individuals and technologies, and the connection between bodies and the earth. A room in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion devoted to the great Paula Rego has become a shrine to the Portuguese artist since she passed away on June 8 aged 87.

With a Biennale composed of more than 80 per cent women artists, Alemani upended the typical gender ratio. Just 21 of the 213 participating artists are men, and all are showing in the Arsenale section of the show; only women artists are presented in the Central Pavilion. “I don’t know why people are so shocked,” Alemani says. “Nobody said to Robert Storr that his was a male Biennale when he included 20 per cent women in the show! I didn’t sit down and decide that was my quota; it was a process. I’ve always worked with lots of great women artists. I think some of today’s best artists are women, so I wanted to recognise that.”

If the national pavilions are individually curated by each country, and not by Alemani, they tend to engage with The Milk of Dreams’ driving themes, creating all sorts of serendipitous conjunctions and affinities with Alemani’s project. This year, the Nordic pavilion, representing Sweden, Norway and Finland, handed the keys over to the indigenous Sámi community of the Sápmi region, which stretches over parts of all three countries as well as Russia, acknowledging that “the Sámi people have lived since time immemorial, respectfully harvesting from nature by fishing, farming, hunting and following reindeer”.

Indigenous Australian artist Brook Andrew was one of an international group of advisers on what this year is called the Sámi Pavilion, which he described as “alive and original like no other pavilion, presenting very different world views to the dominant Western view on art and culture. There are smells and performative actions, and real preparations of care and reflection that are embedded within the artworks and cultural centred projects.” Andrew also participated in the 2022 indigenous-led and artist-centred annual international gathering known as Aabaakwad, founded in 2018 by the Indigenous Canadian artist-curator Wanda Nanibush, which this year is presented in partnership with the Sámi Pavilion. About 15 Australian artists were involved, including r e a Saunders, Judy Watson, Daniel Browning and Richard Bell.

But the Australian Pavilion – that “big black box for white art” as Bell put it when he staged his Aboriginal tent embassy and protest at Venice back in 2019 – is presenting DESASTRES, an installation by the Melbourne/Naarm-based, middle-aged, white bloke Marco Fusinato. His is an intense but poetic noise project that synchronises sound with image, and takes the form of a durational solo performance. Fusinato slots his work into an Australian history. “There’s different versions of Australia,” he says. “There’s great Indigenous cultures for 60,000 years, there’s the British invasion, there’s the whole postwar migration, and this fits in somewhere.” He and curator Alexie Glass-Kantor “didn’t want to put a work in the Australian Pavilion that was just another monster of colonisation”, as she puts it, which led them to consulting First Nation peers, and engaging in conversations around what this work is and what its intentions were. As for Alemani, she loved “that you could hear it all the way outside from behind the bridge”.

For the New Zealand Pavilion (curated by Australian curator Natalie King, who also curated Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition MY HORIZON for the Australian Pavilion in 2017) is Sāmoan artist Yuki Kihara’s Paradise Camp. This ensemble exhibition explores the climate crisis in relation to small island ecologies, intersectionality and colonial legacies in the Pacific, from the perspective of the Fa’afafine – Sāmoa’s traditional third gender community, to which Kihara belongs.

Of the 80 national pavilions, it’s Sonia Boyce’s installation Feeling Her Way, in the British Pavilion, that took home the Golden Lion for best national exhibition. The work explores collaborative play as a route to innovation, and music as a place of community and belonging. Boyce invited five Black female musicians to improvise and play with sound for a series of video works that filled the pavilion with a chorus of voices. She is the first Black women ever to win at Venice.

Two special mentions were also awarded this year. One to France, for the exhibition Les rêves n’ont pas de titre / Dreams Have No Titles by Algerian-born Zineb Sedira. Combining film, sculpture, photography, sound and collage, the immersive installation examines both Algeria’s colonial history and independence movement of the 1960s, as well as the artist’s own family history. The second special mention went to Uganda, for Acaye Kerunen and Collin Sekajugo’s shared exhibition Radiance: They Dream in Time. This work, which “embraces contemporary Africanity”, is part of the country’s first ever participation in the Biennale.

The American artist Simone Leigh won the Golden Lion for best participant in The Milk of Dreams central exhibition for her work Brick House, a bronze monument of a Black woman with a skirt resembling a clay house, “alternately registering as a vessel, a dwelling, a space of comfort, and as a site of sanctuary”. The prize resonated with the previous Golden Lion, in 2019, which went to American artist Arthur Jafa for The White Album, a video about the difference between “whiteness” and “white people” (it was also exhibited at the 2020 Sydney Biennale). As curator of High Line Art, on New York City’s High Line, Alemani had already presented Leigh’s Brick House, inaugurating her program of monumental works with it in 2019.

“I was very pleased with these awards,” says Alemani. “I think both Sonia Boyce and Zineb Sedira, and also Simone Leigh, even though she didn’t win for the pavilion, are examples of three incredibly powerful women of colour. It’s worth reminding ourselves that they are the first artists of colour representing their country, and it’s always quite shocking when you think about how old these pavilions are. People forget that France and the UK have been there since 1912, 1914, and America since 1930. But other than that, I think they all in different ways showed us other ways of looking at the world, and looking at memory and history and our past, in a very powerful way. I think the three of them together rewrite history.”

Alemani awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, typically only given to a single artist, to both Germany’s Katharina Fritsch and Chile’s Cecilia Vicuña. Fritsch’s work at the Biennale is the life-size, green polyester Elefant/Elephant, which stands in the Central Pavilion. While in the Arsenale is Vicuña’s fragile, site-specific installation NAUfraga, with its fishnets delicately strung with new precarios, debris Vicuña collected around Venice. “I think they’re two very complementary Lions,” Alemani says. “Katharina Fritsch has been working very steadily, very seriously, pushing the definition of sculpture to another level. She very much reinterprets or interrogates or challenges the notion of monumentality, who deserves to be portrayed, and what are the tools to do that. Then Cecilia Vicuña is pretty much the opposite: she makes sculptures out of garbage, out of nothing, out of a leaf that she finds in the park, on the street. I loved putting them both together to show what sculpture can be.”

Backed up by a weighty 750-page catalogue, The Milk of Dreams is also a work of scholarship. Alemani brought together an international crew of thinkers and critics to build the exhibition’s theoretical framework, from feminist activist and political theorist Silvia Federici, to trans theorist Jack Halberstam and postcolonial thinker Achille Mbembe. Critic and writer Jennifer Higgie contributes an essay about women, art and the spirit world, while the academic Christina Sharpe meditates on “What could a vessel be?” for one of the time capsules. “Since the opening was put off for a year, we had the chance to commission original writing, spark new conversations and track down existing texts that sum up many of the ideas raised in the exhibition, while also putting it into the context of broader concerns that are just as urgent,” Alemani explains.

This long-overdue Biennale is an attempt to respond to crucial topics of our time, proposing new ways of seeing both the past and the future, while intensely experiencing the present. Part of a radical global shift, it looks to reinstate overlooked identities and communities in the official conversation, to both rewrite and reread history in an urgent celebration that is, Alemani says, “extremely physical and material and sensual and concrete”.

Kate van den Boogert

Kate van den Boogert is a Melbourne-born, Paris-based writer, and editor and founder of the indie-media group [email protected]

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