Studio: The 2022 Venice Biennale
Cecilia Alemani has produced an exceptionally intelligent and delightful Biennale
This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Venice this year is a Cockaigne of art. Eighty countries participate in the 59th Art Biennale, with more than 30 official collateral events alongside major corresponding shows such as Anselm Kiefer at Palazzo Ducale, Marlene Dumas at Palazzo Grassi and Anish Kapoor at the Accademia. The white dust of the Giardini has mercifully settled now the scrum of press week has subsided and while it’s hard to know where to begin, there has never been a better time to appreciate one of the strongest assemblies of exhibits in years.
“I say Sonia, you say Boyce!” The crowd at the British Pavilion party at the State Archives were somewhat bewildered by the DJ’s attempts to whoop them into a frenzy, but fractured, slightly recalcitrant voices were the ideal tribute to the first black woman artist to represent Britain at the Pavilions, as Boyce’s sound mosaic Feeling Her Way carried off this year’s Golden Lion.
Featuring five musicians whose recorded work is layered through the rooms of the pavilion, Boyce’s work is a tender, disquieting and richly thoughtful response to her question “How can you imagine freedom?” Boyce’s haunting harmonies resonate with the observation of Biennale curator, Cecilia Alemani, that the preparation for the shows, (over Zoom rather than studio visits), produced an almost “confessional” relationship between the artists, creating intimacy and focus on interiority, perhaps best reflected in the superlatively-conceived Biennale pavilion itself.
The Witch’s Cradle, a museum-worthy show, mixes painting, sculpture, photography and arranged artefacts by artists including Antoinette Lubaki, Remedios Varo and Leonor Fini to create a space of otherworldly intensity. Examining the occult connections between women and the natural world, the works conjure a dreamy, raw atmosphere, exposing the brutal potentiality of whimsy.
A good literary analogy for the mood might be Angela Carter’s stories, the shock of seeing real blood on the fangs of the familiar fairy tale wolf. The other stand-out show, Paula Rego’s mixed-media Oratorio and accompanying paintings, continue to expand the littoral where folklore meets visceral reality. Geppetto Washing Pinocchio (1996) is chillingly arresting — an unnerving distillation of the relationship between love and exploitation. Rego’s etchings from her Nursery Rhymes series are paired with pages from The Milk of Dreams, the book by the Surrealist, Leonora Carrington, which gave its name to this year’s Biennale. Carrington’s legacy is further examined in Surrealism and Magic at the Guggenheim, a brilliantly expansive complement to the Giardini show which investigates the influence of Tarot on the movement.
The Sami Pavilion is another spooky hit — desiccated fauns in rotating straw cages contrast with exuberantly colourful traditional costumes. Maybe they were playing on the line between the objectifying Western gaze on marginalized cultures and the re-appropriation of their heritage; either way considerably more uplifting than the literal waste of space which is the German Pavilion. Not for the first time, the elegantly-proportioned building has had bits dug out and exposed. But since there is nothing to see, skip that for the Finnish show, where Pilvi Takala takes immersive art to a new level in her video installation Close Watch. Takala worked as a guard for Securitas for six months to prepare her “intervention”, building a surprisingly tense and dramatic show from her everyday interactions with her co-workers into a clever investigation of how technology has shaped individual performances of reality and of the hollowness of assumed agency in the face of corporate power.
Around the city, anyone who suffers from trypophobia should avoid Chun Kwang Yung’s Times Reimagined sculptures in mulberry paper at Palazzo Contarini Polignac, but the austere Hanji House in the garden offers a refuge for a spacey nap.
Vampires in Space at Franchetti (below) over the Accademia Bridge continues the extra-terrestrial vibe but this enticing film offering from Portugal turned out disappointingly to be a Jupiter-weight exploration of the “Trans Experience”, as unsubtle as it was unconvincing. Opposite at Palazzo Loredan, Markus Lüpertz (previous spread) squares up to the maxim that courage in art rests in part in confrontation with its predecessors. Relative to many of his contemporaries Lupertz is a traditional painter, but in reconfiguring images from Rubens and Manet amongst others he creates an original and arresting visual language which supervenes accepted perceptions of canonical artists more effectively than any number of pusillanimous installations.
The Abduction from the Seraglio at the Roma Pavilion celebrates Bucharest-born painter Eugen Raportoru in a series of dynamic, romantic canvases whose energy contrasts with a rather poignant group of installations made from emblematic Roma furnishings. The effect is a wry and slightly cynical examination of the myths which found identity, a theme taken up more intimately in Ewa Kuryluk’s I, White Kangaroo at Palazzo Querini.
It’s an uneven show: the prints on artificial silk are sub-John Lewis, but Kuryluk’s self-portrait photography has an unnerving power. The contrast of highly composed shots with naturalistic poses are a reminder of how much social media has flattened and distorted the idea of intimacy, there’s an eerie endurance in Kuryluk’s gaze which demands the kind of concentrated attention which photographs now so seldom receive.
One way of approaching the almost overwhelming amount of art on offer is to approach it as a flaneur — choose a sestiere from the numbered Biennale map and pop in at anything that strikes you. Dorsoduro and Giudecca are particularly pavilion-rich this year and since it takes forever to get anywhere in Venice this is a practical way of maximising what you can see. And there are surprisingly few duds — in the words of the policeman guarding the empty Russian Pavilion: “We get to see all the art. Normally we don’t understand it, but this year it’s great.”
Which brings us to the uncomfortable question of what exactly Biennale has to celebrate this year, when one particularly challenging intervention still pertains. Venice’s last Art Biennale, in 2019, was titled May You Live in Interesting Times, which turned out to be prescient. In response, the idea perhaps most consistently investigated throughout The Milk of Dreams is the possibility, both spiritual and technological, of transcending the categories of “Enlightenment” duality to attain a more liberated, uncategorizable relationship with the world.
The real threat to art is not misapplications of eighteenth-century philosophy but the tanks on Europe’s border. The Ukrainian artist, Masha Shubina, described attempting to prepare for her Venice show in exile, using food gelatin as a primer for her canvases. Explaining her determination to exhibit, she quoted Remarque’s Arc de Triomphe:
Peace, a fireplace, books, silence … Before it was seen as one bourgeois thing. Now it is a dream of a lost paradise.
That the very conception of the private self and the legitimacy of its manifestation in myriad and ever-evolving forms is very much a product of Enlightenment thought might perhaps, in the circumstances, be given more interesting weight. Cecilia Alemani has produced an exceptionally intelligent and delightful Biennale, one which — inadvertently — acts as a beacon for the Enlightenment it blithely dismisses.
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