As I was getting ready to depart for the Vernissage of the 2022 Venice Biennale, it was daunting to realize that I’ve been to the Biennale 12 times; my first was in 1997 when in addition to the Biennale, Documenta X and the Munster Sculpture Project were also on view. It was a magical trifecta of art immersion. I’ve been lucky to return to Venice since, sometimes for the Vernissage of the Biennale, others during the calmer ensuing days. These visits are fueled by the desire to see as much as one can in a short period of time and Campari, which for me is a sure picker-upper on 20,000-step days. This year’s edition of the Biennale is an exceptional experience of art, and despite the inherent contradictions in the nature of such transcontinental art events, brought meaning and elucidation to our current moment through cultural production in ways that were complex, inspiring, hallucinatory, and beautiful.
Curated by Cecilia Alemani, The Milk of Dreams (titled after Leonora Carrington’s children’s story of the same name,) is my favorite of the Biennale exhibitions I have experienced. It has the depth, in addition to the inevitable breadth, that makes it at once a pleasurable experience of discovery, as well as a deep dive into a panoply of world views. The presentation at the Arsenale is exquisite; it kicks off with a circular room devoted to Simone Leigh’s Brick House (which graced the High Line for a year) encircled by Belkis Ayon’s powerful, black-and-white prints of human-ish haunting (and haunted?) figures. Grounded in feminist power, the show unfurls like a carpet, with sections densely patterned by compact and condensed spaces, and others more airy and expansive. This pacing is punctuated by smaller historical “time capsules” that function as mini-exhibitions within The Milk of Dreams and reveal thematic touchstones for the larger project. The exhibition features mostly women and non-binary artists and engages deeply with notions of transformation and identity beyond the anthropocentric. Plants, animals, and machines are integral; the hybridity of these forms emphasizes inter-connectedness, solidarity networks, and alternate forms of knowledge production.
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In both the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, I had standout favorites. In the time capsule devoted to the question of what a vessel could be, I loved discovering the small-scale paintings of Maruja Mallo from the early 1940s which often feature shells as such containers. On a far larger scale and from 2022, Argentine artist Gabriel Chaile presented giant terracotta forms that are both vessel-like (think of enormous pitchers or ceramic pots) with bird-like features and details. Other ceramic works include Candace Lin’s altar-like figures which are vessels themselves for the materials one might need for ritual-making, including everything from dead silkworms and taxidermied iguana to crystallized copper sulfate and scented lard.
Brilliant textile works are also included: Britta Marakatt-Labba’s quiet, diminutive embroidered landscapes depicting the Sámi territories of the far Nordic region where she lives. These works compress the vastness of the sky, stars, land, and its flora and fauna into intimate, compelling compositions. Another textile work alluding to territory and landscape is made by South African artist Igshaan Adams, whose large-scale tapestries are inspired by the linoleum floors of friend’s homes in Cape Town. In this work, the artist renders walking paths made by repetitive foot traffic with woven scraps of plastic, cotton rope, shells, wood, and beads. This mural-scaled work is accompanied by cloud-like tangles of wire which float nearby.
An installation that had me swooning is Precious Okoyomon’s To See the Earth Before the Evil of the World from 2022. The entirety of one of the Arsenale’s enormous spaces is transformed into an interior landscape of soil and plants (some dead, some living) pools, and streams of water, all punctuated by female figures sculpted in the earth. These attract beautiful live butterflies to their forms. The lush environment is a critical monument to kudzu and sugar cane which are both plants embedded inextricably from histories of coloniality and enslavement.
On the themes of surveillance and the power of machines, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s installation features AI-invented images of missing persons, all of whom do not exist, alongside a video of a cyborg who narrates contemplation of an infinitely expanding digital universe that increasingly exerts military-like systems of control over the human body. Monira Al-Qadiri explores the potency and crushing mythology of contemporary life under fossil fuel dependency by rendering oil-drilling bits in sexy iridescent colors and shiny textures.
Still within The Milk of Dreams, at the Giardini’s Central Pavilion, a room-sized installation by Métis artist Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, features materials like tobacco combined with the detritus of human carelessness like soda can tabs and other such materials found in the landscape. They create sculptures and images that challenge the domination of Indigenous lands by capitalism and colonial settler realities, insisting on the presentness of Indigenous culture and epic survivance. In an adjacent gallery, Cecilia Vicuña presents a lyrical installation of pieces of trash, wood, plastic, and other detritus from walks around Venice. These are surrounded by a suite of paintings that take inspiration from Incan artists in Cuzco Peru who were forced to convert to Catholicism and to paint its canon of saints.
The Biennale experience not only comprises Alemani’s sprawling exhibition but also National Pavilions and Collateral Events, in addition to parallel exhibitions and projects. And this is where things get tough on a visitor because I am certain that I would need a month to have properly seen everything. Nonetheless, I want to highlight the projects I would highly recommend.
Simone Leigh, a dear friend of mine since our convergence at Creative Time some years ago, presents a world-altering US Pavilion. The wholesale transformation of the Pavilion’s neoclassical façade into a wood-columned, thatched roof edifice is inspired by 1930s West African palace architecture and treats the building itself as one of her sculptures. The highly specific groundedness of Leigh’s project, titled Sovereignty, contains a diversity of ceramic and bronze sculptures, both abstract and naturalistic female forms, others featuring jugs, raffia, and cowrie shells. The installation is augmented by a moving film of ritual burning. Sovereignty connects the dots between the artist’s stated devotion to Black femme subjectivity and self-determination in a statement that is as clear as it is self-sufficient. The roots of these works feel as though they penetrate the very ground of the Giardini, tunneling through the island towards the interior of the Earth.
Two other national pavilions in the Giardini particularly reflect the current moment, emotionally and politically. These are the Polish and Australian Pavilions. Both, to my mind, challenge the fraught mythology of the construct of national identity that is not only part and parcel of the Biennale itself but also the global realities of late-capitalist, settler-colonial, white supremacist patriarchy that breathes down our collective necks daily. Co-curated by Joanna Warsza and Wojtek Szymanski, the Polish Pavilion presents the work of artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas; a redux of the frescoes at Ferrara’s Palazzo Schifanoia. Here, Mirga-Tas reimagines the zodiac imagery and art historical panoramas presented in the frescoes as a cycle of Romani histories of movement, activism, and daily life. The new work includes portraits of family and inspiring figures in a central band that encircles the space. Above these are art historical scenes of Roma people re-imagined to celebrate their culture, traditions, and transnational movement; the bottom band is dedicated to quotidian moments of daily life, women sewing, and children playing. And it is all made from fabric pieced together, some actually from the people depicted. These appliquéd fabrics contain not only the DNA of those who once wore them but also the traces of where they were originally fabricated, speaking to the transcontinental and interconnected nature of contemporary existence.
Marco Fusinato’s exhibition at the Australian Pavilion, curated by Alexie Glass-Kantor, has a decidedly more punk vibe and speaks to the radical reimagination necessary to make sense of current times. An enormous block of noise reverberated my sternum inside the Pavilion, which is staged with a massive screen and accompanying block of amps configured in a V-shape. Fusinato plays an electric guitar, a live endurance performance that will continue for 200 hours during the run of the show. He functions as a signal generator paralleling the images flashing across the screen. These appear in black and white and are sourced from key terms fed into an open search of the web. The effect is stunning and overwhelming, and also, for me, deeply familiar: How does one, after all, navigate conditions of the climate crisis, increasing economic precarity, and state dysfunction without feeling like we are living inside an all-too-real hallucination?
Outside of the Giardini and the Arsenale, there are three worthy projects I also wish to highlight. These include a presentation of new work by Otobong Nkanga and Anna Boghiguian at the Scuola di San Pasquale on Campo San Francesco della Vigna, a chapel slightly north of the Arsenale. Nkanga floods the entire first floor with the sound of her own voice. A large-scale tapestry, its threads, metallic and richly colored, create a landscape that evokes deep pasts and futures simultaneously. Behind the tapestry, on either side of the existing altarpiece, are poems excised into clay slabs. They speak of the earth and its capacities for renewal, through systems we understand and those that remain mysteries. On the second floor, Boghiguian’s life-sized, reflective chess board occupies the majority of the space. The chess “pieces” are free-standing cutouts of drawings of historical figures ranging from Marie Antoinette and Ludwig Wittgenstein to Bertha von Suttner and Egon Schiele.
At Procuratie Vecchie, a building in Piazza San Marco, Louise Nevelson’s sculptures and collages relay the density and virtuosity of her oeuvre. Organized non-chronologically by the show’s curator, art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson (who, full disclosure, was a college classmate), the works weave a complex narrative of experimentation and gut instinct. They also echo her presentation at the 1962 US Pavilion at the 31st Venice Biennale, which while received unevenly by critics 60 years ago, also established Nevelson as an artist whose work demanded deep consideration of her nimble transformations of discarded or disused materials, on their own terms.
Finally, the exhibition I Owe You: Claude Cahun / Marcel Moore at Galleria Alberta Pane in San Polo is one to seek out. Here you will find exquisite photos and books made by the artist and writer Claude Cahun (born Lucy Schwob) in the 1920s and 30s. Surrealist photography has rarely felt more lush and precise, and their books are a revelation. The new research revealed in the accompanying slim catalogue is an important addition to art history as it explores the lives and contributions of both Cahun and her life partner and half-sister, Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Mahlebre).
Of course, there was a lot more to see, and I regret having missed the Yiddishland Pavilion, a roving project with contributions by artists including Yevgenyi Fiks, Avia Moore, and the artist group Schandwache, among many others. Their work materializes physically and virtually in connection to national pavilions whose countries have histories of Yiddish-speaking Jewish migration. Maybe I can catch some of this online.
This latter project brings me back to some of the themes of trans-nationality discussed earlier, which, in Venice 2022, feel both urgent and untenable. In a sense, the Venice Biennale’s organizational structure along national geographics propels one of the greatest myths of our times, that of the border. While insurmountable in many geographies, borders are at once a fiction given their collapse when crisis strikes. The nation-state’s existence is so often an excuse for violence. Using national pavilions as vessels of alternative imaginaries seems both a shot in the dark and a vital gesture of possibility.