"To See the Earth Before the End of the World", Precious Okoyomon. Photo: Roberto Marossi / Courtesy Venice Biennale
Central Pavilion of the Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia)
Central Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Photo: Francesco Galli / Courtesy Venice Biennale

The 59th Venice Biennale, which opened to the public on April 23, starts in a historic way. It is not only the first after the postponement imposed by the pandemic, but the first in which, in the exhibition organized by the chief curator of this edition, Cecilia Alemani, the number of women exceeds that of men.

In addition, its two main awards went to black women: the Golden Lion for the best national pavilion went to Sonia Boyce, representative of Great Britain, and the best individual participation to the North American Simone Leigh, for The Brick House, a work that integrates the exhibition curated by Alemani.

Simone Leigh, "Brick House" at the Venice Biennale
Simone Leigh, “Brick House”. Photo: Roberto Marossi / Courtesy Venice Biennale

The Milk of Dreams, the title of this Bienal, refers to the work of Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), a British artist and writer based in Mexico with a work marked by the influence of surrealism. Alemani's exhibition, divided between the Bienal's main pavilion, the Giardinis and the Arsenale, takes the dialogue with Carrington's work as a trigger and guide for his curatorial choices. In both spaces, the influence of the surrealist avant-garde is notable, both in the poetics of contemporary and historical artists, and results in a show of great coherence and clear principles.

Successful in the development of her curatorial approach, Alemani carries out in both spaces a wide inventory of oneiric forms, where the human is defined not by its difference in relation to technology and nature, but by the proximity to these two fields of meaning. Thus, androids, cyborgs and hybrid beings live side by side, with fantastic or grotesque forms, as well as anthropomorphized animals and mythological and fabled figures. Faced with the countless losses and the discomfort produced by the two years of the pandemic, Alemani wanted to offer a retreat to spaces of intimacy and dream.

Unlike curators like Moacir dos Anjos, who defends in his texts the creation of frictions between the works in the exhibition space as a way of expanding their possible meanings, Alemani here opted for addition, investing in the compilation of related poetics as a working method. Despite the quality of several of the works presented and the consistency of the research developed, the result is an exhibition with few dissonances, where the dream unfolds largely undisturbed by the noises of the world.

"To See the Earth Before the End of the World", Precious Okoyomon. Photo: Roberto Marossi / Courtesy Venice Biennale
“To See the Earth Before the End of the World”, Precious Okoyomon. Photo: Roberto Marossi / Courtesy Venice Biennale

If coherence is given to the whole, the option for the sum of affinities produces, on the other hand, an exhaustive and amorphous result. Whether you start your visit at the Arsenale or at the main pavilion, in the Giardini, the amount of humanoids, sectioned bodies and fantastic beings at the end of the route makes the particularities of the works exhibited in both spaces largely indistinguishable. While the use of historical works has the merit of illuminating lines of continuity between poetics and between past and present – ​​suggesting, perhaps involuntarily, a dark future for our time –, it emphasizes the repetition of artistic strategies and also a certain escapism, perceptible in the enchantment of futuristic tones with technology and the escape towards the dream as a way of solving or relieving current conflicts.

Tiger Milk, Zebra Milk

The imbalance between reception and disturbance of the main exhibition is also reflected in several of the national pavilions, which unabashedly unfold the curatorial approach of this edition. Mythological beings and ductile forms are everywhere, as if the sleep of reason no longer produces monsters, but familiar figures, with whom it would be pleasant to make contact. The exceptions, in the curator's exhibition or in the pavilions, offer other milks, exploring the nightmare and the painful awakening in order to raise the temperature a little in this edition. This is the case of the video by P. Staff (Great Britain, 1987), a non-binary artist who portrays the industrial production of animal protein in acidic colors, and the sculptures by Ali Cherri (Lebanon, 1976), which date back to totemic deities of a pantheistic and agrarian humanity (for his participation, Cherri received the Silver Lion of this edition). In the same direction they walk rosana paulino (Brasil, 1967), with drawings of female bodies, also linked to the earth, loaded with memories of great political weight, and Julia Philips (Germany, 1985), whose sculptures allude to forms of psychological and institutional control exercised over our human bodies.

Among the pavilions, the ones from Austria and Latvia are worthy of mention, which bring welcome notes of kitsch and irony to the whole of this edition. With projects developed by duos – Jakob Lena Knebl and Ashley Hans Scheirl (Austria, 1970 and 1956), trans people, and Skuja Braden (1999), respectively – both make room for the dissidences of dream and fantasy insistently pursued by Alemani. Equally insolent and provocatively titled – Peace is a corrosive promise –, the Peru pavilion features a set of works by Herbert Rodríguez (Peru, 1959) full of the dirt of the world and the confrontations that this edition of the Venice Biennale tries in some way to avoid.

In an event anachronistically marked by the national representations, it is necessary to mention the participation of Sámi, who occupies the pavilion of the Nordic countries (Norway, Finland and Sweden), one of the most beautiful of the Giardini. A transnational traditional people – they also occupy a Russian peninsula, in addition to the three countries mentioned above – their presence at the Bienal was described as an act of “indigenous sovereignty” by the Norwegian organizers of the representation. Despite its importance and the quality of the works presented, the pavilion failed to contextualize the conflicts – territorial, environmental, cultural – faced by the Sámi today, against precisely the states that sponsor them there. Its presence, in any case, signals the nationalist anachronism of the Venice Biennale and the urgency of opening the event to stateless peoples and other forms of representation.

* Gabriel Bogossian is an independent curator and writer. Its practice is based on collaborations with artists, curators and human rights organizations for the realization of publications, exhibitions and other cultural projects, often articulating productions from different fields of visual culture, such as art, cinema, journalism and movements. social. He was guest curator of 21st Contemporary Art Biennial Sesc_Videobrasil | Imaginadas Communities (São Paulo, 2019), Screen City Biennial 2019 – Ecologies: Lost, Found and Continued (Stavanger, 2019) and VideoEx Festival (Zurich, 2019) and assistant curator of Galpão VB (2016-2020). He was the author of the translation of Americanism and Fordism, by Antonio Gramsci (ed. Hedra, 2008), and the chapter Contact and contagion, conversation with Ailton Krenak who is part of the publication In the trembling of the world (2020)

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