VENICE — It begins in the eyes: shy or seductive, open or closed, the watery borders between mind and world. German surrealist has students Unica ZürnConsistent from dense, automatic black wavy lines. Ulla Wiggen’s giant irises, each unique as a fingerprint and capable of unlocking a credit card or blocking a border, painted up close on circular canvases. All over town, on posters by the palazzo and on the bodies of vaporetti, there are eyes announcing the 59th Venice Biennale: ghostly, milky corneas, disembodied, floating in deep space, drawn by young Mexican artist Felipe Baeza.
It’s commonplace (and you won’t see me use it) to call it a “feast for the eyes,” especially to an art exhibition as big as Venice’s. The 2022 Biennale, or at least its central exhibition, is a feast related to eyes: a huge, exuberant feast of looking and examining. The eyes emerge as the main metaphor for a show about bridging worlds such as the brain and the social network, dream and ecosystem. The eyes in Venice are the gateways to the unconscious, but also the analyzers of mismanagement. They peek out of pictures, protrude from videos, and sometimes (as in Simone Leigh’s bronze totem)brick house”) clamp is closed. We may be on display, but we look back or inward.
This year’s edition of the world’s oldest and most important contemporary art exhibition is organized with triumphant precision by the New York-based Italian curator. Cecilia Alemeni, put on a big show in harsh conditions: canceled studio visits, drowned shipping routes, galloping insurance costs, and now, a land battle 900 miles across the lagoon. Alemani’s exhibition titled “Milk of Dreams” was scheduled to open in May 2021. The coronavirus pandemic has brought both this show and Venice’s architecture biennial a year ago and he used that delay very well.
The challenges he faced were not just logistics. For a while, I felt that the biennial exhibitions of contemporary art might have charted its own course. No coherent new style or movement will emerge from our ever imitative day, and if you visit this year’s major scary national pavilions (The other half of the Venice Biennale, which Alemani has no control of), you will see what fine choices contemporary art offers. That’s why the curator and his team used their extra years to dive into the archives – co-curated by Alemani in 2020 An exhibition on the first 100 years of the Biennial – and established 20th century lineage for the themes of this show, particularly through the Surrealist and feminist traditions.
One of these Surrealist and feminist themes is that bodies and technologies cannot be separated cleanly. Nature and society are always reshaping each other – more than ever in times of climate crisis – and in this show, machines act like animals, bodies twitch like robots, flesh fuses with prosthetics, and metals and plastics continue to sag, ooze, melt.
Another theme is the re-enchantment of our soulless world to stop the reported political and ecological crises that empire and patriarchy have entrusted to us. If modern life has snatched the divinity from the altars of Venice and made the appreciation of art a secular enterprise, this show wants to return the gondolas. So, the world we live in – for better or for worse; in beauty and kitsch – it regularly takes a backseat to the worlds beyond.
Adherents of recent continental and feminist philosophy will recognize mood music: Rosi Braidottipost-human theories, Silvia Federici‘s analysis of the witch hunt as sexist violence. Still: When too many biennials allow labels to do the theoretical heavy lifting, Alemani’s choices are strongly thought out and skillfully chosen (but not without following some cutting-edge fashions: Native cosmologies; weaving as metaphors for computer algorithms; two rooms filled with heaps. dirt). These include exhibitors from all over, primarily Latin America, and have never fallen into the tokenism that has impacted many European and American museums.
The spectacle is heavy on the picture – the return of the suppressed, baby! — and despite its post-human research, it sheds light on new media. It often has surprises and dizzyingly unpleasant moments, like Raphaela Vogel’s sculptural suite of a wheeled cancerous penis displayed by 10 cadaverous white giraffes. (You read it right.)
All this, not to mention what would be the headline of a less shrewd curator: this is the biggest Biennale since 2005 and about 90 percent Some of the artists are women. Of the 213 exhibitors, only 21 are men, and all are on display at the Arsenale, Venice’s former shipyard; The number of men in Giardini’s classical galleries is exactly zero. Elsewhere in Venice, with simultaneous exhibitions by Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Kehinde Wiley and other flamboyant children, it’s still the old game.
This Biennial would be a failure if it were only its endpoint to reverse the old gender bias. According to Alemani, the disproportion of the exhibition has a much more precise purpose: to reconstruct the past to enable us to see the present with sharper eyes. He does this primarily within five shows—in historical brackets framing his contemporary selections, each set off from the mainstream with dusty pink or robin egg blue colored walls. (This year’s exhibition design young Italian firm Formafantasmasubdividing and taming the challenging expanses of the Arsenale.)
In the mustard gallery of the mini-show “The Witch’s Cradle,” we meet female artists who use masquerade balls or fantasies to evade or deconstruct male stereotypes. Among them are the famous Surrealists Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini and Meret Oppenheim; like Italians Benedettarelocating futuristic drawing to new subconscious extremes; and also Josephine Baker, Augusta Savage and Laura Wheeler Waring’s photo., most recently he drew Egyptian/Art Deco covers for WEB Du Bois’s magazine The Crisis. This metaphysical tradition is embraced today by the Portuguese-British pastelist. Paula RegoShe emerges as a star of this Biennial, with a gallery full of scenes of domestic violence where love and fear drive people to act like dogs.
A second, enjoyable mini-show presents women artists who study the topologies of vessels, bags, shells, and containers: Sophie Taueber-Arphang nets Ruth Asavadrilled white plaster ellipses Maria Bartuszova (eyes, eyes, eyes) and incredible papier-mâché models of the pregnant human womb Alta Jacobs, a pioneering 19th-century Dutch doctor. (Let me add, literally, this is the deadliest biennial I’ve ever seen, slightly less than half the attendees are in the grave.) Contemporary Thai artist Pinaree SanpitakIt offers a beautiful and contemporary exploration of form with ambiguous interiors and exteriors, drawing hazy shapes that could be leaves, breasts or tear ducts.
Prosthetics—human inventions that obscure human boundaries—is a relevant theme. I found myself immersed in life here Anna Coleman Lad (1878-1939), an American sculptor who used his classical training to make gelatinous facial prostheses from latex and painted metal for disabled World War I veterans. This interweaving of meat and technology ripples through the sculptural work in the show: Hannah Levy’s drooping silicone on spider-like metal legs, Julia Phillips’ bronze luminaire supporting an incomplete female body, or Tishan Hsu’s resin hybrids of faces and phone screens. These are among the show’s best works, but I wish Alemani had gone to the end and included it. Matthew Barney: master sculptor of prosthetic-grade plastics, whose interest in permeable bodies and fluid identities prefigures nearly every obsession of this show.
Then there’s automatic drawing and writing, sessions, spiritual channeling. We have Victoriana Houghton, the Victorian mystic who communicates with the dead through intricate watercolors; Intense symmetrical fantasies of Minnie Evans where the human eye looks out from butterfly wings. Psychics and faith healers. Spiral vines, blooming flowers. All of these, among contemporary artists, Emma TalbotStarbursts in amniotic fluid and emotional painting of babies on fabric, Firelei BaezDayGlo harsh murals of Afrofuturist gods or beaded flags depicting animal-human hybrids by the Haitian artist Myrlande Constant. I watched at least three artists draw vines and branches sprouting from nipples or genitals.
How much you can tolerate all this will depend on your own particular harmony with the music of the orbs. As for the disenchanted side of me (and especially as the battle heats up), I have serious doubts about escaping this magical thought, as if with a little more respect for the divine femininity everything would be alright. You can’t take a break from modernity, even in your dreams – a lesson highlighted in this Biennale by the shrewd Inuk artist Shuvinai AshoonaDrawing seals, whales, and octopuses in the boring apartment blocks and town halls of the contemporary Native Arctic. And the most compelling projects in “Milk of Dreams” explore the complete lack and instability of the modern world, instead of trying to get back to the garden.
At Giardini, Alemani has choreographed a brilliant series of five galleries that delve into gender and computer technologies and how art can reveal the power and misapplication of our algorithms. They begin with Wiggen’s strange and fascinating pictures of networked circuits and motherboards he made in the 1960s, alongside his new large irises. (After all, the word “computer” was originally predominantly female office workers.) Next, we encounter Italian female Op artists – Nanda Vigo, Grazia Varisco and four others – who put rational forms to dazzling extremes.
After them are two clever women who reformat drawing and painting for the computer age. One of them is Vera Molnár, who in the 1970s “drawn” minimal compositions by giving code to an early computer plotter. Still working from a 98-year-old Paris nursing home). the other Jacqueline HumphriesIts dense abstractions of halftone dots and expressions reaffirm painting as an ideal tool of digital perception.
One of the most popular slogans of the art world lately is “alternative knowledge”. quote from anthropology and misapplied to almost anything that defies rational expectations. A dream may be beautiful, a dream may be powerful, but a dream is by no means knowledge. A better kind of ‘alternative knowledge’ is the knowledge that art gives, at least at its most ambitious: the pulsing insight into our human condition that we suddenly perceive when forms transcend themselves and feel real. The best artists in this determined, unstable and truly historic Biennale look at this human condition with cloudless eyes.
59th Venice Biennale: Milk of Dreams
until 27 November; labiennale.org.