There is such a thing as having too much … of a good thing. I’m a massive fan of the Biennale – ‘a celebration of art and architecture that explores themes of politics and contemporary cultural and social issues through performance, sculpture, and installations’. I was in Venice for the architecture one a few years back and loved it.
Himself was keen to revisit the Art Biennale with someone to share his commentary. Half the fun of looking at art is sharing your opinions with someone who gets you.
There are two exhibition sites in Venice – Giardini and Arsenale. I’ve made a note to myself to go to Arsenale first next time. Giardini is where most countries have pavilions. The Hungarian one is beautifully decorated in Zsolnay tiles. And although their entry this year made Artsy’s Top 10 list, I was left wondering. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What is the Biennale? Art News says it’s ‘arguably the most prestigious art exhibition in the world’. And yes, you’d be hard pushed to find as extensive an exhibition anywhere. Tickets (€25.50) are valid for two days – you get to see both sites. We went on two consecutive days, which I’m not sure is such a good idea. By mid-afternoon on both days, I was beyond caring what I saw. My FOMO had been suffocated by sensory overload.
This year’s exhibition was curated by Italian Cecilia Alemani
The Milk of Dreams takes its title from a book by Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) – Cecilia Alemani stated – in which the Surrealist artist 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. […] This Exhibition is grounded in many conversations with artists held in the last few years. […] How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human? What are our responsibilities towards the planet, other people, and other life forms? And what would life look like without us?
That sort of gave me an idea of what to expect but even with the cheat sheets, so much of it went entirely over my head. Truth be told, some of the descriptions made no sense, dressed as they were in artist speak that is far removed from plain English.
Anyway, forget the official awards, these are my picks:
I was mega impressed with Poland’s entry.
For the first time in the over-120-year history of the International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, a Roma artist is representing a national pavilion. The project Re-enchanting the World by Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, prepared specifically for the Polish Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2022, is an attempt to find the place of the Roma community in European art history. The exhibition, which consists of twelve large-format textiles installation, alludes to the famous ‘Hall of the Months’ fresco series from the Renaissance Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, one of the most mysterious buildings in European architecture.
The 12 floor-to-ceiling quilts (for want of a better word) were incredibly detailed, each one telling a story. Life size. Real. And Ferrara is now on my list of places to visit.
I was also taken with Brazil’s entry. I like it when I get what’s going on.
Two huge ears placed at the pavilion’s entrance and exit allude to the popular expression Entrar por um ouvido e sair pelo outro, allowing the visitors to go “in one ear and out the other.”
Then it was Ethiopia and Elias Sime’s incredible ‘large-scale abstractions […] made from thousands of electrical wires, type keys, microchips, and computer hardware components’. I spent a long time there. The detail was mind-boggling. And I had to wonder if he did it all himself or shopped it out.
I noticed a pattern when I got to South Africa and Igshaan Adams’s work of ‘wood, painted wood, plastic, bone, stone and glass beads, seashells, polyester and nylon rope, cotton rope, link chain, wire (galvanised steel) and cotton twine’. I’m drawn to texture. On a grand scale. You’ll have to click the link to see the magnitude of this one, but this is a close-up of the detail. How many hours? How many people? How much patience?
UK artist Emma Talbot’s work on silk was mesmerising.
Taking its title from Paul Gauguin’s historic painting of 1897–1898, which he painted within a moment of deep crisis and existential reckoning, Talbot’s Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going? (2021) takes on the human desire for escape in our environmentally catastrophic present.
Paul Gauguin made another appearance in Yuki Kihara’s Paradise Camp and opened a door into a world I’d never heard of – that of the Fa’afafine.
Interdisciplinary artist Yuki Kihara presents an ensemble exhibition, Paradise Camp, from the unique perspective of Fa‘afafine – “in the manner of a woman” or third gender in Sāmoa. Conceived eight years ago, Paradise Camp comprises a suite of twelve tableau photographs in saturated colour that upcycle paintings by Paul Gauguin; a five-part episodic “talk show” series whereby a group of Fa‘afafine comment wittily on select Gauguin paintings and Kihara’s personal research archive. Kihara’s audacious reenactments address intersectionality between decolonisation, identity politics, and climate crisis from a staunchly Pasifika perspective, telling their story from the Pacific.
There were more, too, that I liked. Barbara Kruger’s exhibit was captivating. But others have left me wondering, well, what the hell! Sweden’s entry – Le Sacre du printemps (Tandvärkstallen) – with its five naked thrusting men … mmm. Egypt’s recreation of a womb with its ‘fourteen giant pink organic forms hanging from the ceiling’ was out there, too, as was the Danish Pavilion.
The whimsical more traditional artwork provided some light relief. My head at this stage was exploding.
I spent a long time marvelling at work by Britta Marakatt-Labba (born into a family of reindeer herders in Sápmi, one of the northernmost regions of the world and home to the Sámi Indigenous community). The detail in the stitching is exquisite.
Others took a while to see what was going on. Latvia’s room of ceramics was a case in point.
I thought I knew what qualified as an installation but after this, I’m not so sure. I was rather taken with Tetsumi Kudo’s flowers, though.
The Giardini requires planning. Apart from the main hall (which we left until last – not a good idea), you have to plot your route and figure out which pavilions you want to see. The main building of the Arsenale is a long succession of rooms featuring individual artists. It’s easier to navigate. You don’t have to plan as much, which saves the brain power for trying to figure out what you’re looking at. Malta? You begin at the entrance and work your way back to the old shipyards where some other pavilions, like Ireland, are housed. The ambling might appear to be aimless but having someone else decide what you see is quite a relief.
Still, I overdosed. I got to the stage where I was done. I’d had enough. I’d seen as much as I was prepared to see. Which meant I missed quite a lot. But I saw a lot, too.
I need a massive house with really high ceilings and lots of blank walls. The pattern has been identified.
The 59th Art Biennale runs till November. If you’re looking for an excuse to visit Venice, this is it.
Wear comfortable shoes. Bring water. Dress in layers. And don’t get to Arsenale when it first opens in the morning – give the earlybirds time to filter through and avoid the bottleneck as people find their groove.