Photo: Maureen Sullivan

A Re-Enchanted 59th Venice Biennale, Part I: Top 10 Pavilions and Exhibitions

After a year’s delay, the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale, “The Milk of Dreams,” curated by Italian-born, New York-based curator Cecilia Alemani, was overwhelmingly embraced—and deservedly so. Following an extended period of Covid-driven isolation, deprivation, and fear, we desire to be whisked away on a surreal and transcendent journey, and the Biennale takes us there.

Alemani credits Leonora Carrington’s storybook, The Milk of Dreams, for the title and inspiration of “a magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination and where everyone can change, be transformed, or become something or someone else.” This sentiment forms a base for the range of work exploring ideas of magical and posthuman worlds.

Reflecting broader trends in society, there is a focus on the body, fluidity of gender, sexuality, identity, and what constitutes humanness. Technology, evolving and insinuating itself into our lives at breakneck speed—privacy be damned—and the attendant acceleration of disinformation, influenced many works that commingle documentary, fiction, and sci-fi. There is also concern for this world, physical and spiritual, and imagining of worlds beyond.

Installation view of 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Milk of Dreams, with (front to back): Simone Leigh, Brick House, 2019, bronze, 487.7 x 279.4 x 279.4 cm.; and works by Belkis Ayón. Photo: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Several artists challenge and rebuke antiquated ideals of nationality, colonialism, and sovereignty through interventions on the national pavilion structure, including: The Sámi pavilion—a culturally evolved takeover of the Nordic pavilion in a historic moment of decolonization by Indigenous Sámi artists Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna; Simone Leigh’s African-inspired thatched roof transformation of the neoclassical U.S. pavilion; and Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’s patchworked art addressing stereotypes about the Romani people draped on Poland’s façade. And then, there was Russia, one of the most photographed pavilions—empty, silenced, and alienated. Canceled in February by curator Raimundas Malašauskas and artists Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov, who posted this resignation on Instagram: “There is nothing left to say, there is no place for art when civilians are dying under the fire of missiles, when citizens of Ukraine are hiding in shelters [and] when Russian protestors are getting silenced, As a Russian-born, I won’t be presenting my work at Venice.”

Much has been made of the fact that women and gender non-conforming artists dominate this Biennale (around 90% of participants), challenging the “supposed ideal of the ‘Man of Reason’ as the fixed center of the universe and measure of all things” in a way that’s never been an issue of discussion for the systemic male-dominated versions (unless you follow the Guerrilla Girls). Alemani writes, “…for the first 100 years of this prestigious institution, the percentage of women artists in the show was less than 10%, and in the last 20 years, it was around 30%.” This Biennale is progressive, tapping into the reckoning of the last few years, and it felt completely natural. It was about the joy of art: art fused with a range of ideas and issues of the moment—social, political, personal, and environmental; art reflecting historical and cultural influences; and art by those who had eluded inclusion in the canon of art history (180 of the approximately 200 artists are reported to be showing at the Biennale for the first time), alongside acclaimed artists in this remarkable assemblage of visual imagery.

Installation view of 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, with works by Cecilia Vicuña. Photo: Ela Bialkowska OK NO studio, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Like most descending on the Biennale, I saw a tremendous amount of art, but I did not and could not see it all. Designed to be a can’t-miss extravaganza, the world’s fair of art serves up a magnificent buffet. Visiting the palazzos, churches, and museums in the days between the Biennale serves as the intermezzo, allowing the mind to be enveloped in the beauty of the mainly solo exhibitions. Yet the same questions remain year after year: Who does the Biennale serve by concentrating so much art at once? Are the national pavilions presenting the best artists or ones with political clout and fundraising abilities? And, as explored by many artists, what does it mean to represent a country in this nomadic world when the representing artists are often at odds with their government’s policies?

But as I said, it was a Biennale about art, so here are some of the pavilions and exhibitions I savored most:

5 Top Biennale Pavilions and Exhibitions: “The Milk of Dreams,” Pavilions by France, Greece, Malta, and the U.S. 

French pavilion, “Dreams have no titles”
Artist/Director: Zineb Sedira / Curators: Yasmina Reggad, Sam Bardaouil, and Till Fellrath

Installation view of “Les rêves n’ont pas de titre / Dreams have no titles,” Pavilion of France. Photo: Maureen Sullivan

Identity, “remake,” the Algerian independence movement of the 1960s, and an obsessive love of film are at the heart of Director Zineb Sedira’s joyous three-part mise en abyme cinematic project. The multidisciplinary exhibition features sculpture, film, photography, and, intermittently, what appears to be a live film shoot of a seductive dance and attempted, but failed, pick-up. Audiences make their way through a series of mysterious and intricately designed rooms, including a dressing room, an editing room with stacks of archived film, and a 1920s-style bar. The big reveal is delivered by the artist’s film playing in the rear movie theater: the installation is all a film set, and the live dance performance is a re-enactment of one of the scenes. The film fluidly mixes fact and fiction with references to numerous cinema genres and postwar films that created a cultural identity of Algeria outside of French colonial representation, including: The Battle of Algiers (1966), Les Mains libres (1964/5), Ettore Scola (1983), and Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of L’etranger (1967). Charged with energy and engaging content, the film beautifully concludes with the artist/actress dancing to Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself” as the credits roll. The first artist of Algerian descent to represent France at the Biennale, Sedira brings extensive cinema research together with her own family history and nomadic experiences in Algeria, France, and England in this semi-autobiographical work. 

Greek pavilion, “Oedipus In Search of Colonus”
Artist: Loukia Alavanou / Curator: Heinz Peter Schwerfel

Installation view of “Oedipus In Search of Colonus, ” Pavilion of Greece. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

This theatrical and dystopic retelling of the almost 2,500-year-old drama by Sophocles is brought into the present day, via virtual reality, to the Romani settlement outside of Athens, where Oedipus likely passed through. Viewers lounge in one of 15 dramatically lit reclining chairs in the dark, futuristic architectural setting, donning the headset to be transported to a stark world as voyeur and lurking participant. The first encounter with caged birds, flailing and rebelling against their entrapment, sets the tone of desperation before we join the main characters, blind Oedipus and his young sister/daughter Antigone, on their journey to the sacred ground of Colonus, now a bleak shanty town. They receive an unwelcomed reception from wary residents, furies, and kings—all played by Roma residents in costumes and crude farce—mimicking their own current fate in Greek society, where tragedy and brutality are common experiences for those living on the margins. Human dignity, injustice, violence, fear of the unknown, alliances, and fate play out in this imaginative production coupled with present-day technology. 

Malta pavilion, “Diplomazija Astuta” 
Artists: Arcangelo Sassolino, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, and Brian Schembri / Curators: Keith Sciberras, Jeffrey Uslip / Commissioner: Arts Council Malta

Installation view of “Diplomazija Astuta,” Pavilion of Malta. Photo: Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Dark, minimalist, and oozing with power, the kinetic sculptural installation “Diplomazija Astuta” features molten steel dripping down with the force of lightning, a sense of danger reinforced by the surrounding black steel fence. The work stands visually and viscerally on its own; the backstory elevates its appeal. Every component abstractly references Caravaggio’s altar masterpiece, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608), commissioned by St. John’s Cathedral in Malta: the steel wall at the rear of the exhibit measures the exact size of the painting; the water basins are positioned to stand in for the seven figures; the darkness of the room references the chiaroscuro of the Baroque painting; the dripping liquid steel, striking and startling, captures the tension and brutality of the beheading and the spilling of blood. Nothing is random—even the steel drops are choreographed in a percussive score composed by Brian Schembri based on hymns and “Ut queant laxis,” the Gregorian chant attributed to Guido d’Arezzo in honor of John the Baptist. Like the Tarot’s tower card, in which a lightning strike causes chaos and destruction, and one must pass through fire to be purged and start anew, the installation’s description posits: “the skirr of Modernism’s industrial progress culminated in humankind’s capacity to destroy itself. In turn, for society to embody its future self in the present, the signal material of Modernism—steel—must be physically, metaphorically, and spiritually melted to create space for new progress to occur.” 

U.S. pavilion, “Simone Leigh: Sovereignty”
Artist: Simone Leigh / Exhibitor: ICA/Boston

Simone Leigh, installation view of “Sovereignty,” with Façade, 2022, thatch, steel, and wood, dimensions variable; and (center) Satellite, 2022, bronze, 288 x 120 x 91 in. overall. Photo: Timothy Schenck, © Simone Leigh, Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery

Trump out and Simone Leigh representing—America is doing some things right! With Brick House, presiding over the entrance of the Arsenale exhibition (and earning Leigh the Golden Lion for Best Participant in the international exhibition), the armless golden Cupboard shimmering in the garden, and additional captivating and monumental sculptures transforming the U.S. pavilion in “Sovereignty,” no artist has a more powerful presence at the Biennale. Leigh’s “Black femme” sculptures are all in states of morphing, commingling the past/present/future and the body of Black women with Black and African art and objects in bronze, ceramic, raffia, and other materials. Exuding power, beauty, and self-determination, mysterious with missing eyes and body parts, they beautifully capture the surreal human/nonhuman hybrid theme of Alemani’s exhibition.

Leigh excelled in the Giardini, where her exhilarating intervention, Façade, turned the exterior of the U.S. pavilion’s neoclassical building into a thatched roof sculpture. Reminiscent of a 1930s West African palace, the artist stated that she was also reclaiming the material from its association with colonialist history, specifically referencing the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition of “native architecture.” Inside the pavilion, Leigh focused on the interior life of Black women, her labor-intensive sculptures referencing ritualistic domestic activities most beautifully in the first room, featuring a figure bent over and washing clothes in a dark reflecting pool. Other figures, predominantly created in black and white, with a splash of purple, meld with jugs, conical structures, and raffia. The artist’s hand is particularly present in the on-site video of her intimate process working with the materials for her art. 

59th International Art Exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams”
Curator: Cecilia Alemani

Katharina Fritsch, Elefant / Elephant, 1987. Polyester, wood, and paint, 420 x 160 x 380 cm. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

With over 200 artists from 58 countries, it’s challenging to find a theme that is meaningful, yet doesn’t limit the best selection of work. Alemani’s concept of Surrealism, with an emphasis on imagination, mythology, and transformation—human, animal, machine, and of nature—served as an ideal platform. Presented across two venues, both exhibitions open with monumental and bold works that set the stage. Under the magnificent dome at the Giardini, Katharina Fritsch’s realistic Elefant/Elephant (1987) is the stuff of fables and myths, with a hint of the supernatural. At the Arsenale, Simone Leigh’s 16-foot-tall bronze Brick House (2019)—part woman/part house, with eyes wiped away—is surrounded by the many eyes in Belkis Ayón’s coded collagraphy, featuring figures with all other facial features erased, referencing an Afro-Cuban myth of betrayal. This kind of dialogue between artists, forming connections across historical periods and cultures, continues in the five “time capsules” Alemani presents on the lower level in the Giardini, titled “The Witches Cradle,” “Technologies of Enchantment,” “Corps Orbite,” “Seduction of the Cyborg,” and “A Leaf A Gourd A Shell a Net A Bag A Sling A Sack A Bottle A Pot A Box A Container.”

Paula Rego, Oratorio, 2009. Wood cabinet with side panels comprising 8 paintings (conte pencil on paper) and 8 figures, International exhibition “The Milk of Dreams,” Central Pavilion, Giardini. Photo: Maureen Sullivan

Leonora Carrington’s storybook The Milk of Dreams, bringing together the twisted sentiments of the Brothers Grimm with Pee-wee’s Playhouse, is well captured in the exhibition by Carrington’s surreal colored drawings and book illustrations, presented side by side with Paula Rego’s theatrical and psychologically charged parodies of domesticity; Precious Okoyomon’s fantastical posthuman installation of craft-like figures sprouting from dirt and sugarcane, To See the Earth before the End of the World (2022); Cecilia Vicuña’s painting Bendigame Mamita (1977/2022, repainted for the Biennale when a friend lost it), of a nude, giant-size woman/goddess, opened mouthed, devouring faceless people like sacrificial snacks; Diego Marcon’s film of a family murder spree and suicide, The Parent’s Room, made even more eerie with decaying, puppet-like animation; and Marianna Simnett’s sumptuous and bizarre video installation, The Severed Tail (2022), luring curious visitors in through a long, furry tail peeking out from behind a red curtain into an interspecies world of dog-play, fetish, and domination. 

Diego Marcon, The Parents’ Room, 2021. Digital video transferred from 35mm film, CGI animation, color, and sound, 6:23 min. Photo: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Additional highlights in the exhibition include: Rosemarie Trockel’s subversive “knitting pictures,” challenging ideas of women’s work; Ruth Asawa’s delicate forms within forms, hanging alongside Magdalene Odundo’s anthropomorphic vases; Hannah Levy and Julia Phillips’s freestanding sculptures that merge references to the absent body and structures, equipment, and commonplace objects in a range of sensual and hard materials; Sandra Mujinga’s neon-green installation of humanoid figures devoid of internal organs, referencing decay and rebuilding; and Wu Tsang’s dreamy video projection of the “oceanic cosmos,” based on her feature film Moby Dick; or, The Whale and presented from the whale’s point of view under the sea, especially poetic in its site-specific outdoor projection along the canal.

5 Honorable Mentions: Brazil, Belgium, Denmark, Korea, and Latvia

Installation view of “The Nature of the Game,” Pavilion of Belgium. Photo: Maureen Sullivan

Belgium pavilion, “The Nature of the Game” / Artist: Francis Alys / Curator: Hilde Teerlinck

Endearing and nostalgic, the multi-screen environment on the universal appeal of play invites viewers to virtually skip through playgrounds around the world through games passed down from generation to generation. From the communal and adrenaline-fueled to the solitary and quiet, they offer an escape from daily drudgery and hardship and illustrate our commonality and universal need for human connection. In an additional act of generosity, Alys released the work on open source, giving free access to all.

Installation view of “com o coração saindo pela boca / with the heart coming out of the mouth,” Pavilion of Brazil. Photo: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Brazil pavilion, “com o coração saindo pela boca / with the heart coming out of the mouth” / Artist: Jonathas de Andrade / Curator: Jacopo Crivelli Visconti

Replacing the entrance and exit doors of the pavilion with giant ear sculptures, visitors literally went “in one ear and out the other” in the artist’s celebration of the body and physical sensation. Inside, a humongous smiling head bobs, a rotten finger repeatedly presses the wrong button on an election box, and red ballooned lips intermittently inflate to fill the room with a “heart coming out of the mouth.” The works are playful but have a bite, referencing Brazilian idiomatic expressions and metaphors relating to the body, while also serving as a critique of the country’s contemporary sociopolitical landscape on the environment, health, and political corruption.

Installation view of “We Walked the Earth,” Pavilion of Denmark. Photo: Maureen Sullivan

Denmark pavilion,We Walked the Earth” / Artist: Uffe Isolotto / Curator: Marianne Krogh

Eerily capturing the trans-human ideas of the Biennale, the artist’s symbiosis of humans and horses was rendered in such exquisite hyperrealistic sculptures that some visitors waited and watched for the figures to blink. In one room, a male centaur hangs from a chain by suicide or lynching; in an adjacent room, hanging similarly is a ham, and across the hall a female centaur on the floor gives birth to something hybrid, emerging in a bright blue sac. The unsettling installation takes place in a barn or farmhouse from an unspecified, but seemingly simpler time and place (basic tools and no technology on view), and there is a strong sense of foreboding that this was not a happy union.

Installation view of “Gyre,” Pavilion of Korea. Photo: Maureen Sullivan

Korea pavilion,Gyre” / Artist: Yunchul Kim / Curator: Young-chul Lee

The pulsating large-scale kinetic sculptures were created by Yunchul Kim with “the aspiration to harness the power of the cosmos.” A tall order, and not sure it accomplished that, but the sculptures did communicate with each other through triggered signals in their own secret language, like human twins, and they definitely seemed to be having a wild conversation. Fueled by the ideas of infinite cycles of creation and extinction, the work snakes through the pavilion, emitting palpable energy. The sculptures beautifully morph technology, art, and science, using various screens, hundreds of glass tubes, and lights. The surrounding intricate wall drawing poetically ties the research, mythology, and philosophy together.

Skuja Braden, installation detail of “Selling Water by the River,” 2022. Porcelain and mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: © Ēriks Božis, Courtesy Skuja Braden (Ingūna Skuja and Melissa D. Braden)

Latvia pavilion, “Selling Water by the River” / Artists: Skuja Braden (Ingūna Skuja and Melissa Braden) / Curators: Andra Silapētere and Solvita Krese

Ceramic home takeover. From the expected mugs, plates, and vases to the unexpected vanity and bed, ceramics abound in twisted shapes, combining material mastery with hilarious artistry. With a nod to “Womanhouse” (1972), curated by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, the porcelain forms and painted portraits bring elements of the artists’ personal and shared domestic lives into play along with particular issues and oppressive politics of Eastern Europe. Quoting James Baldwin in the exhibition brochure: ”Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”

La Biennale di Venezia 59th International Art Exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams,” is on view through November 27, 2022.