A pandemic-informed Venice Biennale will put women in the spotlight
In the two years that New York-based curator Cecilia Alemani had to organize the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale – during which the pandemic forced a one-year delay and 400 studio visits on Zoom – the world around her changed.
People grappled with big existential questions about the meaning of life, issues of injustice and the health of the planet. There were moments of dystopian doom and hopeful reinvention.
These themes informed Alemani’s iteration of the Biennale – the world’s longest-running major contemporary arts survey – the details of which were announced on Wednesday.
There is a majority of female and gender-nonconforming artists, a choice Alemani said in her official announcement reflects “a conscious rethinking of the centrality of humans in art history and contemporary culture.”
The artists of the Biennale deal with environmental concerns, connectedness with nature, identity politics and ecological activism. There are black artists from Haiti, Senegal, Zimbabwe and the Republic of Congo.
More than 180 of the 213 artists have never been before at the Biennale, which opens to the public April 23 and runs through November 27, with 80 national exhibitions in the sprawling Giardini Park (anchored by its central pavilion), the Arsenale, a former shipyard and elsewhere in Venice. Five countries are participating for the first time: Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, Oman and Uganda.
As in direct contrast to the persistently hot US art market, very few of the artists are recognizable American names, and the stars that are emerging are mostly women, including Barbara Kruger, Nan Goldin, Louise Nevelson, Ruth Asawa and Simone Leigh. who is the first black woman to represent the United States in her national pavilion.
Alemani, the director and boss Curator of High Line Art, took as a starting point Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington’s 2017 children’s picture book The Milk of Dreams, which features characters such as Humbert the Beautiful, who befriends a crocodile, and Señor Mustache, who befriends Mustache has two faces, eats flies and dances.
These stories of transformation, first painted on the walls of Carrington’s home in Mexico City, inspired Alemani’s vision for the Biennale. “Carrington spoke about how we define life, what makes us different from other creatures, can we envision a world where the body can transform and become something else?” Alemani said in an interview.
She organized the Biennale around three themes inspired by the artists themselves. The first is the representation of how bodies can transform. In a variety of mediums and techniques, “artists are trying to expand beyond the canvas,” Alemani said, in some cases using mechanical devices that interact with different life forms.
A video by Egle Budvytyte, for example, shows a group of young people lost in Lithuania’s forests; Swedish Sami resistance artist Britta Marakatt-Labba uses embroidery to depict snowy scenes of nature; Surrealist artist Bridget Tichenor (1917-1990) used the Renaissance technique of tempera painting to create images of magical realism.
The second theme is the relationship between individuals and technology — “how culture is processing polarities between, on the one hand, the idea that technology can make our lives and bodies better, eternal, and invincible,” Alemani said, “and, on the other hand, fear of the Takeover by machines and the presence of artificial intelligence.”
That fear has been exacerbated by Covid-19, she added, highlighting “how mortal and finite we are. At a time when we love to be with and share with others, all of our relationships are mediated through digital screens.”
A new video by media artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson explores the birth of artificial organisms, while Korean artist Geumhyung Jeong conjures up robotic bodies that can be reassembled.
The third theme is the connection between bodies and the earth. Alemani said she was particularly inspired by the scholar and feminist theorist Silvia Federici, who envisioned a world without hierarchy or domination – a world where man is not at the top of the pyramid – but a world “of symbiosis and enchantment “. ”
“The idea of enchantment is something you’ll see quite a bit,” Alemani continued, “especially in the Arsenale, which is itself a factory of the wondrous.”
Important to Alemani are five smaller, historical sections, which she calls time capsules or “shows within the show,” that aim to foster connections, provide layers and context. “I was very interested in creating a dialogue between different generations,” she said.
These capsules will bring together the works of 90 artists, mainly from the 20th century.
In a gallery in the central pavilion, the first of five capsules features work by avant-garde artists including Eileen Agar, Leonor Fini, Carol Rama, Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo.
Another capsule was inspired by Materializzazione del Linguaggio, the first historical retrospective of women’s art, held at the 1978 Biennale. It includes visual poets exploring the relationship between images and words, namely Mirella Bentivoglio, Mary Ellen Solt and Ilse Garnier (now in her mid 90’s). There are experiments like hand-sewn tapestries by French surrealist writer Gisèle Prassinos and anagram poems by Unica Zürn.
Other tributes to defunct artists include Hannah Höch from Germany, Aletta Jacobs from the Netherlands and Amy Nimr from Cairo. “It’s not just a show for young artists,” Alemani said. “An exhibition like the Venice Biennale shouldn’t necessarily capture the last two years, an obsession for the new.”
Alemani said she was interested in “re-enrolling” those who have been erased from the contemporary art canon – those whose stories “were not told,” including Inuit artist Shuvinai Ashoona, Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi and the indigenous Venezuelan artist Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe.
Alemani herself is the first Italian woman to organize a biennale, and she has deliberately included numerous Italian artists, including Ambra Castagnetti, Giulia Cenci and Chiara Enzo, to give them long-overdue recognition. “This show is taking place in Italy, not New York, and the gender situation is different,” Alemani said. “I realize that an exhibition doesn’t change anything, but hopefully it could have symbolic value.”
“If I look at the 127-year history of the Venice Biennale, the percentage of female participation is dramatically low,” she continued. “I want to give space to voices that have been silenced in the past.”