Where's the frame
April 28, 2022 10:24 PM
The world’s oldest and arguably the most prestigious international exhibition of contemporary art, La Biennale di Venezia, opened to the public last week after a year’s delay. The Biennial officially consists of a principal international exhibition — this year is the 59th edition; curated by Cecilia Alemani and the 90 national pavilions. But alongside those showcases of art, there are a lot more exhibitions and installations scattered across the city. For anyone who’s not there and wondering what it’s like this time around, we got you. Here are some first responses.
The main exhibition, The Milk of Dreams, includes over two hundred artists from 58 countries. What should be applauded is that by far most of those artists have never been to the International Art Exhibition until now. By doing so, it’s truly taking a chance and not just showcasing the usual suspects of artist superstars. Another interesting and praiseworthy choice is that the curator decided to show smaller, historical sections: miniature constellations of artworks, found objects, and documents, clustered together to explore certain key themes. In this way, they reveal how art is very much part of society, something that has been taken up by humans, instead of perpetuating the concealing aura of the artist’s existence outside of society. The overused artist-as-genius-that’s-misunderstood-by-society trope that came into existence in the 19th century is something that I personally have grown tired of. And luckily, is something that institutions only now have been trying to shake.
This iteration of the Venice Biennale consciously put itself in relation to 20-century avant-garde art history by taking its title from a book written by Leonora Carrington. This enigmatic British-Mexican Surrealist artist who was part of the avant-garde artists who lived and worked in Paris before the Second World War, is known for bringing a ‘wild feminist intensity to surrealist painting’.
In that book, she describes a magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination. It is a world where everyone can change, be transformed, or become something or someone else. Cecilia Alemani’s exhibition takes Leonora Carrington’s otherworldly creatures, along with other figures of transformation, as companions on an imaginary journey through the metamorphoses of bodies and definitions of the human.
Art Dealer and consultant Greta Scarpa, who is based in Milano and Dubai, lauded the Biennial for foregrounding the artists themselves. “Honestly, I think this Biennale is enchanting and the massive presence of women gave a different vibe to the exhibition. You could sense the determination and resilience of these artists finally playing front stage.”
“I think Cecilia Alemanni has done an incredible job in terms of artists’ research, fluidity of the whole Biennale and quality, giving back an incredibly imaginative post-anthropocentric, post-human world."
Greta also praises the careful curation by Cecilia Alemanni. She says “I think Cecilia Alemanni has done an incredible job in terms of artists’ research, fluidity of the whole Biennale and quality, giving back an incredibly imaginative post-anthropocentric, post-human world. The Surrealist “time capsules”, that made clear the connection with the 20th-century movement, are that historical touch that gives an extra meaning to the Milk of Dreams.”
Art writer and curator Bella Bonner Evans takes us to her experience of the main exhibition. “The titular exhibition The Milk of Dreams curated by Cecilia Alemani, which begins at the Giardini and continues in the Arsenale, draws on the theory and practice of many of my favourite creators and writers, namely surrealist maverick Leonora Carrington, author Ursula La Guin, Marxist feminist Silvia Federerici, ecological theorist Donna Haraway and many more. With this in mind, I expected to be enthralled by the exhibition and, by and large, I wasn’t disappointed. The primacy of female and non-binary artists was welcome, but a part of me thinks this shouldn’t still be noteworthy.”
"I expected to be enthralled by the exhibition and, by and large, I wasn’t disappointed. The primacy of female and non-binary artists was welcome, but a part of me thinks this shouldn’t still be noteworthy.”
Surprising is how her favourite works were made by artists she hasn’t encountered before. “Standout pieces for me include lithographs by 20th century Czech avant-garde artist Toyen, whose work I somehow hadn’t come across before, and the odd yet wonderful paintings by Sister Gertrude Morgan, a self taught artist and devout Southern Baptise born in the 1930s, who understood her artworks as divine conduits. In part two of the exhibition, at the Arsenale, I was deeply moved by Precious Okoyomon’s new work To See the Earth before the End of the World. The poet, artist and chef creates sculptural typographies which explore the politics of ecological revolt and revolution while illuminating colonial histories of enslavement. Her installation offered me a welcome moment of reprieve and I found it deeply meaningful, commanding, and beautiful.”
For Greta, the Italian pavilion was the most striking of them all. “To me the Italian pavilion was very emotional. Inside the desolate warehouse every aspect -from the title: History of Night and Destiny of Comets- to the literary references to Pasolini- contribute to the creation of an intimate and yet collective experience. The pavilion drives you into the past, present and possible future of Italy with a poetic and nostalgic approach. Unmissable.”
For Bella, two other pavilions stood out: “I loved the Serbian exhibition of works by Vladimir Nikolic - it featured two large scenes, one showing a lapping sea and the other a video of himself swimming lengths. Simple yet incredibly effective. Collin Sekajugo’s paintings at Radiance - They dream in time, the Ugandan Pavilion located in the city, are beautiful and energetic. At the Ugandan Pavilion opening, there was a very genuine energy of excitement and pride which was a pleasure to witness.” She also gives some advice for upcoming Biennial go-ers: “The takeaway, I’m really glad I wore comfortable shoes as I walked almost 100,000 steps over three days and I really regret not taking a coat - I had planned to wish the rain away.”
Some highlights from the main show: Simone Leigh, Brick House, originally presented at the High Line in New York City back in 2019, is a goddess-like, almost 5 meters high, monumental bronze bust of a Black woman whose skirt resembles a clay house. Jadé Fadojutimi's whose colourfully poetic monumental paintings reveal a complex emotional landscape, offering an insight into the artist's quest for identity and self-knowledge. And lastly, Barbara Kruger whose instantly recognisable text based site specific installation whose statements raise questions about national identity, very much relevant in light of the history of the Biennale as it hasa rich history of embolstering nationalism, but that's a different topic al together.
Jadé Fadojutimi, And that day, she remembered how to purr, 2022, Acrylic, oil and oil bar on canvas, 300 × 500 cm. With additional support of Galerie Gisela Capitain; Pippy Houldsworth. Gallery; Taka Ishii Gallery. 59th La Biennale di Venezia, The Milk of Dreams. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia. Photography by Marco Cappelletti.
Simone Leigh, Brick House, Bronze sculpture, 59th La Biennale di Venezia, The Milk of Dreams. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia. Photography by Roberto Marossi
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Beginning/Middle/End), 2022. Site-specific installation. With the additional support of Spruth Magers; Maharam. 59th La Biennale di Venezia, The Milk of Dreams. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia. Photography by Roberto Marossi.