Venice is this urban oddity of Europe where everything seems to be possible and I suspect its potentiality comes from the lack of cars. With a local community of only ~55.000 inhabitants in its insular part, Venice is suffocated by tourists. A lot of them come for the Biennale of Art or the Biennale of Architecture and they spend, on average, no more than a few days in this historic location. Venice is the sort of city that brings you closer to the sacredness of art and culture, in general, making Renaissance art available to the public, alongside modern and contemporary art, in a place that hasn’t changed much during the centuries.
The Art Biennale takes place in many locations across the city, with events and exhibitions organized in numerous palazzos, having two main locations: Giardini and Arsenale. This year, the theme of the Venice Biennale is “The Milk of Dreams”, which is the title of a book written and illustrated by the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington.
We arrived at Giardini on a Sunday morning in September and we were surprised by how many people were standing in line to see the Biennale: a small price to pay to see the so-called best art projects of the last two years. Once we entered at Giardini, we systematically wandered through most of the pavilions with some exceptions (the Russian pavilion was closed, no surprise there). The location itself is spectacular: a park hosting 29 pavilions of different (mostly European) states, each building with its own architectural design, but all of them giving the impression that they are hosting unsuspected treasures. And, indeed, the public of the Biennale seemed to be engaged in a metaphorical treasure hunt. Above all, in any exhibition space I may be, I’m equally paying attention to the art itself but also to the reaction of the visitors to the exhibits. One without the other simply doesn’t captivate me as much. There’s nothing more comforting than witnessing art alongside strangers. The communal aspect of art is essential for all exhibitions.
In those six hours spent at Giardini, we passed from photo-realistic sculpture, to high-tech installations, extreme minimalism, a recreated film studio, large scale textile works, video and documentary projects, to paintings by Paula Rego, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington in the Central Pavilion. I will only present some of the pavilions, with short descriptions.
The Danish pavilion exhibited the hyper-realistic, science fiction sculptures of Uffe Isolotto, which construct a dramatic visual narrative of a centaur family belonging to an uncertain temporal framework.
Five kinetic sculptures by Yunchul Kim were hosted by the South Korean pavilion. The central piece was Chroma V, a machine made out of screens and glass, which received electrical signals from another work in the same space, Argos - The Swollen Suns, containing several hundreds of glass tubes that produced light when the machine would detect the presence of the muon, a subatomic particle.
Zineb Sedira reconstructed a film studio inside the French pavilion, researching the cinematographic history of Algerian – Italian coproductions, thus giving the visitors a chance to understand the film production process of the 1960s-1970s by including some film production equipment.
The sculptures made by American artist Simone Leigh were celebrated this year at the Biennale and exhibited in the American pavilion at Giardini, as well as in the Corderie at Arsenale. In fact, Leigh has won the Golden Lion for best participation at the Biennale this year. Being the first black woman to represent the USA at the Biennale, Leigh’s sculptures have successfully mediated between the recovery of the traditional African cultural memory and the diaspora of women of color.
In the Venice pavilion, we found a temple with colorful stained glass windows dedicated to femininity by the artistic duo Goldschmied & Chiari and an installation in three rooms by Paolo Fantin and the Ophicina group, based on the myth of Daphne and Apollo in which Daphne becomes a laurel tree and which echoes the centaurs in the Danish pavilion, having a similar dramatic effect on the visitors. The visitors engagement with the artworks was really palpable there.
At the Polish pavilion, I was glad to re-encounter the tapestries on Roma culture by Małgorzata Migra-Tas, which I first discovered at documenta fifteen. It was very appreciated by the public of the Biennale.
I knew that the central pavilion was hosting a series of works by Paula Rego, who died earlier this year. Besides her psychological paintings inspired by classical fairy tales, there were also some rag-doll sculptures from the series Seven Deadly Sins (2019), including Gluttony and a triptych with multidimensional dolls. Some works were really hard to watch.
On the next day, we went to see the exhibitions at the Arsenale, stretching over a complex of warehouses and former naval shipyards, where there were artworks by artists from all over the world organized in group exhibitions and national pavilions. The central exhibition of Arsenale, as well as that of Giardini, focuses mainly on female artists and, although this fact cannot erase the years of social and professional exclusion experienced by women who have chosen to make art in a world dominated by male artists, it could, in fact, create a precedent and set the tone for future art biennales and festivals.
The first thing you saw upon entering the Arsenale was Simone Leigh sculpture, Brick House, which won the Golden Lion prize this year at the Biennale and which was also exhibited on New York’s High Line in 2019, a sculpture inspired by the clay houses of the Mousgoum people of Cameroon. Around the monumental sculpture, dark toned collography works by late Cuban artist Belkis Ayón were hanging on the walls.
In the following room, Argentinian artist Gabriel Chaile was exhibiting a series of large anthropomorphic vessels made out of a mixture of clay and eggs. These sculptures reflected the legacy of the Pre-Colombian period and the resistance of Indigenous peoples and of his family, which the artist chose to acknowledge in his art. Actually, each sculpture represented a member of his family.
A lot of the artworks in the Corderie presented human beings as earthly beings and this primordial relationship to the soil was evoked through the minimalist installation by Colombian artist, Delcy Morelos, Earthly Paradise (2022), in which stretches of soil surround the visitors, emanating an earthly smell intensified by elements such as hay, cocoa and cinnamon. A sort of mid-exhibition cleansing of the palate, I would say.
In what followed, the relationship to the earth was exchanged by that with technology, in a section entitled The Seduction of the Cyborg, which started with a huge portrait of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the so-called mother of Dada, a good friend of Duchamp, creator of ready-made objects.
At the end of the Corderie is the text, image and video installation of world-renowned artist, Barbara Kruger, containing such messages as ”PLEASE CARE”, ”PLEASE MOURN”, which were directly addressing the visitors, as well as a video critique of the pledge of allegiance to the USA.
Exiting the Corderie, you suddenly found yourself in a room that was covered by an invasive plant with a colonial significance – kudzu – the central element of the sculptural topography, To See the Earth before the End of the World, made by Precious Okomoyon from Nigeria.
Among the national pavilions in the Arsenale, I would only like to mention the pavilion of Kosovo with textile art made by Jakup Ferri, the installation of Ukraine, The Fountain of Exhaustion, by Pavlo Makov and the pavilion of Latvia, represented by the artist Ingūna Skuja, Selling Water by the River, which holds a series of porcelain pieces marking the mental, physical and spiritual areas in the artist’s home.
As I was saying in the beginning, there are lots of other exhibitions by well-known artists that are held in palazzos and I really wanted to see what Anselm Kiefer, German artist, managed to create in the Sala dello Scrutinio of Palazzo Ducale. The exhibition These writings, when burned, will finally cast a little light was not part of the Biennale. Inspired by the history of Venice, Kiefer created artworks of over 8 meter in height, which temporarily covered the works of Tintoretto, Carpaccio and Titian in an “act of courage”, the Palazzo administration declared. Kiefer’s technique could be admired on an impressive scale, combining materials such as acrylic and oil paints with melted metals such as lead, zinc, steel and even gold, with different textile materials, hay, soil, going so far as including objects hung on the huge canvas, like a coffin, shopping carts and books. I leave you with images of this great exhibition and, at the end of the carousel, you’ll find an interview with the artist by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist from which you can extract more information about what lies behind the artworks (right-click on the image and open image in new tab to see it in full).
In the end, I leave you with several artworks from the Biennale that did not fit in this short presentation.