With a month and a half to go until the opening of its 2022 edition in Italy, the Venice Biennale has named two winners for its Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award: Katharina Fritsch and Cecilia Vicuña, both of whom will be included in the biennial’s main show this year.
The Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement is given to artists in the middle or late stages of their lives; receiving is often considered can be a career-affirming event. Past winners have included El Anatsui, Jimmie Durham, Malick Sidibé, and Carolee Schneemann. Typically, the prize is only given to one artist. This is the first time since 2013, when Marisa Merz and Maria Lassnig both received the award, that two artists have won.
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Fritsch is known these days for making sculptures that take familiar people, animals, or concepts—the Virgin Mary, a rooster, a skull—and render them strange by representing them in bold colors or at unusually large sizes. Working first on a small scale and then sometimes enlarging her sculptures until they tower over viewers, the Düsseldorf-based artist creates unsettling objects that evoke uneven power dynamics. Occasionally, there are allusions toward the role that gender plays in those power plays, with works like her rooster sculpture, titled Hahn/Cock (2013)—recently acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.—acting as visual puns.
At the 1999 Venice Biennale, Fritsch showed what is now a classic: the 1993 sculpture Rat-King, in which a circle of giant polyester-cast rodents looms ominously. Referring to that piece, Cecilia Alemani, the curator of the 2022 Venice Biennale’s main exhibition, said in a statement, “Every time I’ve encountered one of Fritsch’s sculptures in the years since, I’ve felt the same sense of awe and dizzying attraction. Fritsch’s contribution to the field of contemporary art, especially sculpture, has been incomparable.”
Vicuña, who is also an acclaimed poet, has worked in many mediums and has dealt with many subjects, making her output difficult to easily classify. She has created paintings of her Marxist heroes; sculptures known as “precarios,” for which detritus, cloth, shells, and more are brought together to form what she calls “spatial poems”; and installations formed from quipus, twists of thread that have been used by Indigenous peoples in the Andean region to communicate knowledge. Vicuña is currently the subject of a traveling retrospective that is set to show next at the Museo del Banco de la República in Bogotá. Born in Santiago de Chile and based in New York, she is the first artist of Latin American descent to win the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in years.
Alemani said in a statement that Vicuña had “travelled her own path, doggedly, humbly, and meticulously, anticipating many recent ecological and feminist debates and envisioning new personal and collective mythologies.”
That two women won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement this year is further evidence of the feminist spirit guiding this year’s Venice Biennale, which is set to run from April 23 to November 27. Male artists constitute less than 10 percent of the 213-person artist list this year, an unusually low number at a biennial where women have historically been under-represented.