The Venice Biennale, which opens on April 23, has many firsts in its palette – its first Italian woman curator in its 127-year history; the largest number of women artists (nearly 80 per cent) participating in the international art exhibition; Countries such as Republic of Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, Sultanate of Oman and Uganda hosting national pavilions and literature playing a vital role through the exhibits.
It’s also possibly the first time that a curator had to make a choice of the exhibits sitting behind a computer screen instead of actually meeting artists or galleries. For Cecilia Alemani, therefore, this transformation, which the pandemic brought upon the world, nudged her towards British-Mexican surrealist artist-author Leonora Carrington’s book, The Milk of Dreams. As the curator, she has chosen this title as the theme for the exhibition, which she says “describes a magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination. It is a world where everyone can change, be transformed, become something or someone else.”
There are 213 artists from 58 countries presenting their work focused on three primary themes: the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses; the relationship between individuals and technologies; and the connection between bodies and the Earth. While the Central Pavilion has exhibits that look more at the relationship between body and technology, at the other major venue, the Arsenale, things are more earthy and nature oriented. Here’s an aerial view of the exhibition that runs all the way till November:
War and Diplomacy
The Venice Biennale, initiated in 1895, has always been a site of political diplomacy. It even became a meeting ground between the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, and prime minister of Italy, Benito Mussolini, in 1934. Much earlier in 1914, the Russian pavilion was built by Alexey Shchusev, who would later design Lenin’s mausoleum. This year, the Lithuanian curator of the Russian pavilion and its artists, resigned shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, thus canceling their participation in the exhibition.
Meanwhile, at the Arsenale, Ukraine’s pavilion features Kharkiv-based artist Pavlo Makov’s Fountain of Exhaustion. Called Aqua Alta (2022), it’s a pyramid of wall-mounted funnels, with water trickling down gently. Makov and his family, who spent the last three months in a basement in their city, had to face logistical nightmares to get their work to the Biennale. Though the work was originally created in 1995 to reflect post-Soviet ennui, today it’s hard to see it otherwise against the backdrop of the war. The organisers of the exhibition also managed to get their foot in the door, with a gouache of a fantastical creature by Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko, whose museum was bombed in February.
First Among Equals
As part of the Biennale College project that supports young artists, this year for the first time in art, four under-30 finalists were chosen from among 58 countries. Simnikiwe Buhlungu (South Africa); Ambra Castagnetti (Italy); Andro Eradze (Georgia) and Kudzanai-Violet Hwami (Zimbabwe) will receive a grant of 25,000 euros for their final work presented, and will have international mentors to develop their creations.
In another first is well-known artist Anish Kapoor’s Vantablack creations. A “material that is beyond being” as Kapoor says, the blackest black paint he has patented, will be presented in paintings and installations in two simultaneous solo shows. While one is at the illustrious Galleerie dell’Accademia, where Kapoor will become the first British artist to be honored with a show, the second is at the 18th-century Palazzo Manfrin, which has been acquired by the Anish Kapoor Foundation to become its headquarters after restorations are complete.
Women at the Front
German artist Katharina Fritsch (known for her large-scale Surrealist monochromatic sculptures of animals, people and objects) and Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña (whose commitment to environment and feminism have translated into multidimensional art) are the recipients of this year’s Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement . But for curator Alemani, including more women artists was a way to “de-centre the post-Renaissance idea of the male human as the dominant artistic viewpoint”. In the show are also works by non-binary and trans artists.
But what captures the awe and admiration of visitors is American artist Simone Leigh’s work. At the Arsenale, the High Line curator has presented her massive bronze sculpture called Brick House. Using the theme of the Black female body, she allows for conversations to happen with a range of vernacular architectural forms, like the domed earthen huts of the Mousgoum people of Cameroon, for instance.
Then there’s 80-year-old Swedish artist Ulla Wiggen’s eyes that look right at you. In her youth, her powerful paintings imagining technology and engineering were featured in pioneering exhibitions and now her installation at the Biennale – hyperrealistic depictions of people’s irises — presents the body as the machine that functions through vision and the senses.
However, a joyous piece of work is Nigerian-American artist-poet Precious Okoyomon’s To See the Earth before the End of the World installation. She’s created a fantastical landscape of stones and dirt, kudzu climbers and sugarcane, bringing together the idea of how we are connected to history and migration.
Going deeper into the earth is Japanese artist Aki Sasamoto’s Sink or Float. Presented as a Mad Hatter’s kitchen almost, there are snail shells gliding on air-hockey tables.
Bangladesh has themed its exhibition on Rabindranath Tagore’s idea of the passing of time. Called Time: Mask and Unmaskit takes off from the pandemic, where people were conditioned by the mask in their everyday lives, as a means to escape the danger of death and the desire to “unmask”, with a hope to restore the balance between man and nature.
While many countries have themed theirs on the body and displacement, the Nordic Pavilion, went inwards to present the Sámi people, of Europe’s Arctic circle. With trees puncturing the roof of the space, they present themes of “land dispossession and guardianship”. A visitor is first confronted by the bodies of reindeer calves and a hanging piece that smells “fear”, before they find “hope”, in densely collaged paintings.
While the Korean Pavilion pulls off “a technological and artistic feat” with its five large-scale kinetic installations that combine technology and mythology. One such is a 50m-long structure, looped in a special knot, that has fish-like scales and behave like living and breathing cells. The installation’s internal kinetic device causes these polymer layers to change their brightness and colour.
Bearing the Burden
Qatari-American polymath Sophia Al-Maria, who has in the past analysed the Arabian Gulf as a dystopian model of a global future, “explores the echoes of colonialism and racism via the inherent biases of our algorithms and machines”. In the Pavilion of Applied Arts at the Biennale, she presents Tiger Strike Red, a video inspired by an automaton known as “Tippoo’s Tiger”, made for the 18th-century Mysore ruler, Tipu Sultan. In the collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, it has a tiger mauling a British soldier. Al-Maria interprets this as a “yearning for revenge on the colonial oppressor” and in her video Tipu’s tiger is a shapeshifting spirit, a voiceover who reinforces how entangled colonialism is with our everyday technology.
Carrying forward the theme of the body is African artist Ibrahim El-Salahi’s Behind the Mask series, made between May 2020 and September 2021. Despite his sciatica, chronic back pain and other physical restrictions, the 91-year-old presents 99 black-and-white drawings done on the back of medicine packets, envelopes and scraps of paper. The England-based artist, who spent over six months in a Sudanese prison, without trial, said in the Art Review magazine, in April 2015: “Working in a democracy is a lasting experience; working under a dictatorship is an incentive for doing something – sometimes you can be afraid of the consequences, but sometimes you have to say you have a definite message.” His drawings carry African, Arab and Islamic motifs with Western references.
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