Venice Biennale Curator Cecilia Alemani Doesn’t Want to Do a ‘Coronavirus Biennial’

The long list of biennials and other exhibitions of the kind delayed by the pandemic continues to grow—with the biggest of them all, the Venice Biennale, recently joining the ranks of Front International in Cleveland, Prospect New Orleans, the Bienal de São Paulo, Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal, Riga International Biennial in Latvia, Liverpool Biennial, Berlin Biennale, Manifesta in Marseille, and the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea. On Monday, organizers in Venice announced plans to push the scheduled 2021 Venice Biennale instead to 2022 (along with additional plans to move the Venice Architecture Biennale, originally planned for this month, to next year).

What does it mean for the world’s biggest art festival to be put on hold? To hear more, ARTnews spoke via Zoom with the next edition’s artistic director, Cecilia Alemani, who is director and chief curator of High Line Art in New York.

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What was your reaction when you found out that the Biennale was going to have to be postponed?

On the one hand, I was relieved, because the global situation looked so uncertain that I was worried, to be honest. I was worried that I would have to adapt my exhibition to the new social distancing rules. Of course, you can do it, but it’s another layer of things you have to take into consideration when you do such a big show.

I also felt very relieved for the Architecture Biennale, which my colleague [Hashim] Sarkis is organizing. Everybody was working under the assumption that that was going to happen. Even though Italy reopened this week and you read in the news about all these museums reopening, it became clear that all of the participants wouldn’t be able to travel and execute their projects. Also, the Architecture Biennale is slightly different. You can’t just show an artwork—the teams and the studios have to be there. It being such a global enterprise, it became clear that the show itself would be compromised.

When did it become obvious that your Biennale couldn’t happen as scheduled?

The week before the announcement. Everybody tried hard to make it happen, and I was working under the assumption that it was going to happen in 2021 until the day before the announcement.

How much had you worked on the research process? Were there a lot of studio visits?

I was appointed artistic director in January, and I mainly did two trips. I went to L.A., and then I went to Scandinavia, to Norway and Sweden. When I was in Sweden, I had to come back in the middle of the night to America because Trump was about to close the border. Normally, you use the first few months to do on-site research in different countries or areas you’re interested in—but I had to cut it short. Since then, I’ve been doing various kinds of studio visits—by Zoom, Skype, Google Hangout, FaceTime, every single possible digital platform—and that’s what I’m going to do for the next few months because I don’t know when we can travel again. Even when we are able to travel, it’s unrealistic that I will be able to go everywhere I wanted to before—which is actually totally OK. I must say that I’ve been having really inspiring conversations with artists that I somehow feel might not have happened during a physical studio visit, with all the anxiety.

A frequent complaint about biennials is that they privilege internationalism over local artists, but it seems that some art festivals will have to start looking closer to home for participants. Will that happen with the Biennale?

Venice is a very, very international show, not only because it’s been around for so many decades, but because of its pavilions. It feels like a snapshot of the world. Visitors don’t necessarily go to Venice to see Italian art in the same way that I go to the Berlin Biennale—thinking that I’m going to learn about German art or Berlin-based artists—or to the Bienal de São Paulo. With those biennials, you think you’re going to learn a lot about the local scene, whatever that means. With Venice, I never felt that I was going to learn about Italian art. For me, this is an interesting challenge, because I’m Italian. I’m very familiar with the Italian scene, so I want to make sure there’s a good reflection of that is not just numbers—you know, how many Italian artists will there be this year? This is a good challenge. The show will be very international, though let’s see what happens in two years.

The last Biennale, in 2019, was titled “May You Live in Interesting Times.” Now we are certainly doing so. Will your Biennale reflect on what we’re going through?

I can’t really say, and not because everything is secret. I had a couple of months to think of my show in an exciting way, and then a global crisis began. You want to try to absorb the anxiety of the moment, but not in an illustrative way. Now I have another situation, where you don’t know what the world is going to look like in two years and what artists are going to be interested in. It’s been quite a rollercoaster. The short answer is: I’m interested in what artists are interested in, so if artists are interested in talking about what’s happening, that will of course be [relevant]. I’m not interested in being remembered for doing “the coronavirus biennial.” Often, during times of crisis, there is a shift in artistic production, and if that happens, I want to try to capture it.

This is one of the first times where the interval between Biennales is longer than two years. Do you think the art world is losing something major by not having it next year?

I think Venice will be missed. There will still be plenty of art shows to see in Europe, and there will be other opportunities to do other kinds of events. There will still be events connected to the Venice Architecture Biennale, and the film festival is still happening. We’re also organizing an exhibition that looks at the history of the Venice Biennale across the various the disciplines, which will happen in the Giardini in August. It’s not like there’s nothing to see—it will likely be a more local audience, but it’s important to keep going. We need to acknowledge that I was lucky we got to move the biennial to 2022, because so many of my colleagues were doing biennials planned for this year, including Liverpool, Berlin, and Manifesta. It will be interesting, next year, to see all the biennials that were delayed.

It’s also rare for the Venice Biennale and Documenta to take place in the same summer, and 2022 will be one of those times now.

It’s exciting, but I wasn’t really expecting that! They’ll probably be very different exhibitions, but that’s only an extra reason to go to Europe and see them.


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