Art Biennale, Venice, Italy

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.

Floor-to-ceiling tapestry with three horizontal panels. Top shows a Roma family of four sitting on a white blanket with white dots under a tree. To the right back is a black horse with his head turned away. In the right front are three chickens. Left front shows a leaping hare in back and two dogs - one black, one white. In the top left corner is another tree under which two more people sit. The middle panel is black with four people. Left is a woman in a turquoise dress playing a guitar. In the middle a boy and a girl sit back to back on the floor above what looks like a pink sun. To the ring a woman in a red dress sits on a turqoise chair with her legs crossed. The bottom panel is a funeral scene. Four men carry the coffin on their shoulders. Behind them come a procession of people. The coffin is draped in white lace. All panels are textile, like a massive quilt.

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.

An old Roma woman lies on her side in a blue-and-white striped bed. She's covered in a a red and pink floral bedspread. The white pillow is white with green-stemmed blue flowers. The bed sits on a dark-brown rug with beige fringes. On the wall is an orange and beige fringed kilm. It has a diamond in the middle and two chevrons either side facing left and right. The woman's left arm drapes over the bed her fingers reaching towards an ashtray on the floor full of cigarette butts. The entire piecce is made from materials and textiles - like a big quilt

The quilted textile picture shows three brightly-dressed Roma women sitting around a table playing cards. Two cards lay on the white tablecloth face down, two more are turned over. From left, a woman in a black blouse with pink flowers and white dots over a red skirt sits watching. Next to her is a woman with a hand of cards. She's in a red cardigan with green squares over a grey and black patterned skirt. Beside her, looking over her should into her hand is a younger girl with her a plait falling over her right shoulder. She's wearing a yellow shirt with green dots. She has her hand to her mouth, her chin resting in her palm. Standing behind her is a man, standing watching. He's in a red waistcoat over a white and grey stripped shirt over beige pants. He's wearing glasses and also looking thoughtfully at the woman's hard of cards. Next is a seated woman in a brown patterned jacket over a green skirta. She's looking at her hand of cards as another younger girl in red looks down at them too, To the front is a woman in sife profle on a chair. We can see her cards. A three-panelled window with lace curtains against a all of pink and white stripes completes the picture. All textiles. Like a big quilted picture.

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.”

A collage of four pictures. Top right - text "They say that if your ear is red and burning it's because someone is badmouthing you/ Her ears must have been on fire. To the right are seven multicoloured ears in a row. Three are right ears and four are left. The right ear on the left is pierced. Underneaath are two forearms with hands striking a match. Below right a text panel: There are days it's necessary to gather all your strength and arrive with a knife in the teeth with no room for the possibility of defeat. To the left of this is a picture of red lips and white teeth gripped around the blade of a brown-handled stainless steel knife (cutting edge facing out)

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.

collage of six photos showing a large scale abstraction made from made from thousands of electrical wires, type keys, microchips, and computer hardware components. Left vertical picture is in pinks. The others are a mix of reds and purples and greens in 3D. If laid flat on the ground it would look like a flower bed but it's hanging on a wall
Elias Sime, Ethiopia, Art Biennale, Venice, 2022

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?

A close up of a textile piece made from wood, painted wood, plastic, bone, stone and glass beads, seashells, polyester and nylon rope, cotton rope, link chain, wire (galvanised steel) and cotton twine in muted pinks and greys with the occasional red bead and pearl

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.

A huge series of link tie-died curtains depicting sea creatures in muted tones of grees and blues and pinks and yellows. The collage of four pictures shows extracts from the big piece. In the top left piece there's a speech bubble with the text: you want out. Stuck in a system that hears you pain and raises the price of painkillers. Below that is an image of a naked body upside down. At the feet is a speech bubble says : Pathologises your feelings. Promotes a sense of lack. Leaves you craving soething you never tasted. What is freedom?
Emma Talbot, UK, Art Biennale, Venice 2022

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.

Portrait of two Samoan Fa‘afafine. One barebreasted waiting a red sarong around their waist is holding aholding a platter of red fruit. The other looks over their shoulder at the fruit and wears a green sarong pinned over their shoulder. Both as set agains a rainforest background. The painting is on a wall painted with a blue cloudy sky. The end of another paint is in shot to the right and the top of a third pops up below. .

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.

A photo of an art installation showing the inside of a stable. The top third of the picture is full of brown soil/turf. IN the foreground likes the body of a piebald horse (white with brown spots) back legs straight and front legs bent at the knee. Attached to the horses body is the upper body of a girl resting on her side, head on her left hand. A centaur. A dead Centaur lying on a white slab tiled floor.
Danish Pavilion, Art Biennale, Venice 2022

The whimsical more traditional artwork provided some light relief. My head at this stage was exploding.

Catroonish painting of a long hallway. Walls are cerise pink and white squares. Floor is the same but with a paler pink. Signs hang from the left wall advertising the Old Mill fish restaurant and bar, the Old Storehouse. Beer signs are half shown on the walls as the hallway narrows towards the end - at the very back is a Blue and White neon sign advertising KEYSTONE LIGHT beer. In the foreground, bottom third, is a goat looking straight out. He's wearing four Ugg books - sheepskin lined suede ankle boots. Standing on a small two-step stepladder is a FROG plush toy standing on his hind legs looking up at the goat
Jamian Juliano-Villani‘s example of a ‘poor man’s photoshop’


A portrat painting of the same blond haired girl of about 10 in a red hood raincoat. The image in the foreground is in bold red. The two behind her are fading into white. Wait! In the lower right I can make out the left shoulder of a fourth image of the girls. And to the bottom left there's possibly the right shoulder of a fifth. All on a background of greenwash.
Allison Katz’s self-portrait
A large portrait depiction of the garden of eden. Amind seven tall trees with narrow tunks wander giraffes, elephants, zebras, deer, horses, lions, buffalo - all sorts of animals. The forest floor is dotted with bunches of red, pink, white, and yellow flowers. in the upper third to the right is a pond of blue water with ducks and swans swimming in it. Peeking out from behind a tree trunk on the left is Adam. In the lower right third stands Eve, full frontal nude, learning against a tree looking sad and worried.
Célestin Faustin’s Jardin d’Eden

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.

a river scene with water depicted in blue material with black trees on either side and a band of yellow running across the back depicting the sun. everything in black - tress, paths, boats - is made from tiny stitches of black thread.

Others took a while to see what was going on. Latvia’s room of ceramics was a case in point.

A crudely drawn noughts and crosses board. Two vertical black lines intersect two horizontal lines creating nine squares. Squares 1, 3, 4, and 7 have ceramic crosses (representing the Xs) that look like crucifixes but on closer examination are represent penises and testicles. In squares 2, 4, and 9 are ceramic plates representing the Os, with ceramic vaginas in the middle.

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.

Black background with 7 delicate green stemmed flowers floating. Pinks and purples. Petals faing to the left. In the top back third is a green box suspended as if in mid air. Open. With what looks like a big pink blob stuck to the inside of the door.

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.







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