In Leonora Carrington’s children’s book The Milk of Dreams, a boy’s head morphs into a house, decapitated children have their heads stuck back on random body parts, and a sofa grows teeth. This fantastical vision of bodies with an endless capacity for transgression and even violent transformation serves as the driving force behind the Biennale’s central exhibition, curated by director Cecilia Alemani. Following Carrington’s subversive fairytales, Alemani proposes dreaming as a powerful tool for nourishing resilience and imagining alternative futures. Between the two venues of the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion, she has created a cohesive show, interwoven with myriad dialogues across generations and mediums, continents and cultures, largely taking the body as a departure point. The vast majority of participating artists are women or gender non-conforming, and many are Indigenous and non-Western—a crucial factor in the plurality of narratives on offer. This is not simply about a refreshing change; Alemani is positing a radical realignment of Western art history, placing the periphery at its center.
The vehicle for this realignment is Surrealism, which here becomes a lens through which to look at the world, linking historical explorations of the subconscious and dream realms with present and future counter-narratives exploring human interconnectedness with other species. Bodies are depicted as porous, hybrid, fractured, polymorphous, and fused with machines—as opposed to the rigid delineations of the patriarchy. The progressive, post-human, postcolonial ideas of Donna Haraway and Ursula K. Le Guin permeate the show. Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, in fact, inspired one of the five historical mini-exhibitions that punctuate the show, varying its rhythm and drawing fruitful kinships between artists past and present. These micro-shows are useful contextualizing devices, but in some cases, the sheer volume of detail feels overwhelming. Nonetheless, “The Milk of Dreams” is carefully paced and riveting, with a clear thematic progression. In both venues, a hallucinatory, magical mood prevails at the start, turning progressively darker as the works become more cyborgian and apocalyptic.
Simone Leigh’s eyeless woman/dwelling sculpture Brick House, which previously towered over the High Line, sets a majestic tone in the Arsenale’s darkened circular entrance. A testament to Black female strength and grace, the somber work is atmospherically paired with the mythical black and white prints of Cuban artist Belkis Ayón. From there, an enchanting vista opens up, with vibrant canvases depicting fantastical worlds and five colossal sculptures of oven-creatures, recalling pre-Columbian forms. Conceived by Argentinian artist Gabriel Chaile as portraits of family members, these adobe and brick vessels with endearing faces and legs speak of community, care, and nurturing. The idea of humans fusing with nature is poignantly expressed in Brazilian artist Rosana Paulino’s watercolors portraying women with vines sprouting from their mouths, nipples, and wombs and Mexican Felipe Baeza’s dream-like paintings of figures metamorphosing into foliage, but finds its apotheosis in Colombian artist Delcy Morelos’s immersive earth installation, Earthly Paradise. Some viewers will be reminded of Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room (1977), but Morelos’s work is a much more sensory experience that evokes the landscape and mythologies of her homeland through the aromas of cloves and cinnamon while underscoring how our bodies will eventually become part of the earth.
Further on, British artist Emma Talbot and Chile’s Sandra Vásquez de la Horra employ feminist languages to tackle themes of human mortality, mythology, and the body; both of their installations involve protective screens. Talbot presents sculptures of contorted figures alongside a curving silk curtain painted with snakes, bodies, and embryos, all climbing and tumbling in a swirling, primordial universe shot with cosmic rays. Titled after Gauguin’s painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Talbot’s installation implicitly subverts the colonizer’s exploitative gaze; textual snippets dispersed within the imagery point to environmental catastrophe in answer to Gauguin’s existential questions—presumably in recognition of European colonists’ destructive legacy in Tahiti and elsewhere. Vásquez de la Horra references spiritual symbols and marginalized cultures in her display arranged within a circular wooden partition. Graphite, watercolor, and wax drawings of female bodies line the walls, some animated as leporellos, surrounding a central paper sculpture of a house covered with images of women in surreal landscapes.
L.A.-based Candice Lin’s installation Xternesta presents more fabulous realms, staged on painted tables that display unusual materials with charged histories. There are ceramic objects made with mud from a swamp in Saint Malo, the first Asian settlement in the U.S., and Chinese herbs electroplated in copper, alongside sketches and notes referencing superstitions, ritual, global trade, and violent colonial histories. Two ceramic gods or demons, whose bodies serve as alcoves for various potions and poisons, flank the entrance to the installation. Myth and history coalesce, too, in Beirut-born Ali Cherri’s terra-cotta Titans, which call to mind Assyrian lamassu deities and China’s terra-cotta warriors. Presented with a lyrical film, Of Men and Gods and Mud, Cherri’s works underscore the myth-making force of earth. Reinforcing the atmosphere of ritual and fantasy, Canadian Tau Lewis’s gargantuan Yoruba-inspired masks, meticulously hand-sewn from textile scraps into inscrutable physiognomies, glower from the walls.
Around this point, Alemani alters the register with “Seduction of the Cyborg,” a micro-exhibition that shows how 20th-century avant-garde women artists foreshadowed recent artistic explorations of the body as machine. Highlights include delicate aluminum sheet sculptures of female figures by Italian pioneer Regina Cassolo Bracchi; German artist Rebecca Horn’s Kiss of the Rhinoceros (1989), a kinetic contraption consisting of spiky steel arcs that unite and part in a dangerous display of affection; and U.S.-born Liliane Lijn’s marvelous goddess totems fashioned from domestic and industrial materials.
From here, the works become increasingly futuristic. Spanish artist Teresa Solar’s Tunnel Boring Machine, a series of three Day-Glo clay and resin sculptures resembling giant pincers and tentacles capture this tone, as do Kuwaiti artist Monira Al-Qadiri’s gleaming, Dalek-like sculptures of oil drill bits floating on rotation platforms and French-born Marguerite Humeau’s large sci-fi installation of lithe twisting creatures—part avian, part marine—frozen in balletic motion. In a stark white room, U.S. artist Carolyn Lazard quietly evokes themes of care and body diversity in an installation featuring air purifiers, a power-lift reclining chair, sinks as TV monitors, and an hourglass containing toxic dust from industrial sites. The increasing interaction—and integration—of technology with the body becomes a dominant theme as the exhibition progresses. American artist Tishan Hsu merges what look like faces, skin, organic matter, and X-rays with medical apparatuses in his disquieting works, displayed near South Korean artist Geumhyung Jeong’s Toy Prototype, a collection of DIY robotic body parts strewn across a huge table.
Standouts in the maze-like Central Pavilion, which opens with Katharina Fritsch’s life-size green elephant sculpture, include a powerful room dedicated to Paula Rego, whose paintings and grotesque doll sculptures depict intimacy, rape, and infanticide with disturbing interchangeability—the mixed-media triptych Oratorio (2008–09) is a tour de force. Another high point is Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement winner Cecilia Vicuña’s delicate installation of salvaged debris from Venice—a reminder of the precarious status of both city and planet—alongside canvases of beguiling beasts and floating women that hark back to Carrington’s Surrealist creations. Exploring similar themes, German artist Jana Euler inverts scale to comical and uncanny effect with her sea of tiny ceramic sharks, which are rendered tame in comparison with her monstrous paintings of hairy flies and an unsettlingly warped perspective of a man.
Three historical micro-exhibitions in the Central pavilion—on female Surrealist artists, visual and concrete poets, and tech pioneers—feel less successful with their densely packed information, though there is much to learn about little-known creators. One such is Ovartaci (1894–1985), the self-given name of the gender-fluid artist Louis Marcussen, who spent 56 years in a psychiatric hospital. A room is devoted to Ovartaci’s whimsical paintings and cardboard and papier-mâché sculptures portraying elongated, slender figures with feline faces.
The post-human theme is reprised here in works by several artists employing bodily fragments: Romanian-born Andra Ursuţa’s intriguing lead crystal cast figures fusing truncated body parts with everyday objects like plastic bottles; U.S. artist Hannah Levy’s wonderfully weird sculptures combining skin-like silicon with metal taloned legs, suggesting possible sentience; and Spanish artist June Crespo’s vulnerable-looking stacked torsos made from industrial materials, with elements relating to their construction still attached. Equally memorable are Julia Phillips’s uncanny sculptures conjuring a human presence through clothing, posture, and casts of body fragments (including a collarbone, a neck, and the back of a head) attached to non-bodily materials, pointing to some corporeal vestige of past lives or perhaps spectral apparitions.
A number of imposing totemic sculptures encompass the idea of straddling worlds, whether the real and spiritual spheres or a future plane. In the Central Pavilion, Mrinalini Mukherjee’s life-size woven fiber figures resemble implacable divinities sitting in judgment on humanity. In the Arsenale, Sandra Mujinga’s wraith-like Sentinels of Change, made from upcycled textiles, stand guard beside the decrepit carapace of a tent structure titled Reworlding Remains. Bathed in an otherworldly green light, the scene calls to mind revenants after a chemical catastrophe.
The natural environment has the last word, albeit one freighted with a heavy history. Prefigured formally by Morelos’s Earthly Paradise, Precious Okoyomon’s installation rounds off the show with a living garden. But this is no Eden. A path meanders through streams, kudzu plants, and sugar cane, the latter inextricably bound to enslavement and colonial histories. In this grand finale, ominously titled To See the Earth Before the End of the World after a poem by Ed Roberson, mute earth effigies defiantly inhabit the landscape like harbingers of decay and possible annihilation.
La Biennale di Venezia 59th International Art Exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams,” is on view through November 27, 2022.