Kate Sutton at the 59th Venice Biennale
THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE in this world: those who really listen when they hold a seashell to their ear and those who don’t. Cecilia Alemani’s exhibition “The Milk of Dreams,” the main project of the Fifty-Ninth Venice Biennale, is for the former. Titled after a whimsical children’s book by Leonora Carrington, the show harbors a dark-kerneled exuberance, embracing sensuality sentimentality, and spirituality to yield a surprising light, even joy.
Alemani’s biennale was delayed due to Covid, and she clearly spent the extra time wisely. You can feel the research saturating the rooms. Of the more than two hundred artists, at least 180 have never exhibited in the Biennale’s main exhibition before. The curator’s definition of surrealism is elastic, encompassing any number of nonmainstream perspectives, but the striking continuity of themes and textures prevents the film of tokenism that’s settled over past Central Pavilions. The result is a show so patently indifferent to the zeitgeist that Jamian Juliano-Villani’s reliably charming paintings felt jarringly adrift, like a Starbucks cup on board the Starship Enterprise.
In the Central Pavilion, pride of place goes to the 1987 Elephant by Katharina Fritsch, winner of one of the two Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement. Her fellow laureate Cecilia Vicuña commanded one of the galleries just to the left, unleashing leopard ladies across social media streams, while Paula Rego unsettled some sleep with the sadistic puppetry of her Seven Deadly Sins, 2019. Amy Sillman’s riveting suite of drawings paired smartly to Bronwyn Katz’s Gõegõe, 2021, a raft of bedsprings and pot scourers, while Ulla Wiggens’s paintings of serenely ordered machines would find a delayed echo in the Arsenale with Zhenya Machneva’s tapestries. But the core of the show was “The Witches Cradle,” a warm, carpeted den teeming with powerful women such as Toyen, Carol Rama, Dorothea Tanning, Remedios Varo, Baya Mahieddine, Leonor Fini, and, of course, Carrington. In one of the biennial’s more controversial moments, video footage of Josephine Baker squares off against Mary Wigman’s Hexentanz (Witch’s Dance), 1914. “Triggering,” one curator declared. But then, what do we expect from witches if not “Double double toil and trouble”?
Starting with its title, “The Milk of Dreams” is unapologetic in its ambitions, even in its quieter moments. (Luxuriate in Virginia Overton’s blown glass buoys bobbing serenely to the soft submarine moans of Wu Tsang’s Of Whales, 2022). And it proved adaptive. When one of Belkis Ayon’s muscular collographs couldn’t make the trip from the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, Alemani chose to substitute a giant, obvious printout rather than rearrange the works to cover the absence. Meanwhile, prominently hung last-minute behind Fritsch’s Elephant in the room is a 1967 gouache by Maria Prymachenko, the self-taught Ukrainian artist who made headlines earlier this year when her works were (thankfully mistakenly) thought destroyed in Russia’s ruthless offensive.
Multinational though it may be, the Central Pavilion is still not immune to border disputes. In 2019, for the Ukrainian pavilion at the Fifty-Eighth Venice Biennale, the Lviv-based collective Open Group proposed that the Antonov An-225 Mriya—then the world’s largest cargo plane—would fly over the Giardini, momentarily blocking out the sun. The Mriya was destroyed on an airfield outside Kyiv this past February, but its shadow loomed larger than ever on events throughout the week. While its future seemed uncertain, the Ukrainian pavilion managed to open after curator Maria Lanko personally drove Pavlo Makov’s Fountain of Exhaustion out of the country. Late last week, the PinchukArtCentre announced that in lieu of its usual ritzy Future Generation Art Prize showcase, it would be putting on “This is Freedom: Defending Ukraine.” Sited at the Scuola Grande della Misericordia, the exhibition features work by Prymachenko, Nikita Kadan, and the daily war diary, published by Isolarii and artforum.com, by Yevgenia Belorusets alongside a smattering of Pinchuk’s pet artists, including Olafur Eliasson, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami. Instead of the traditional concert—Viktor Pinchuk has always known how to entertain—this year the opening featured a taped address from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. (When I asked a friend why the embattled politician would possibly make time for this, he demurred, “Where else could you reach this many arms dealers under one roof?”)
For their part, the organizers of the Biennale pledged to ensure Ukraine was represented. Just a few days before the opening, they facilitated a third tribute in the form of “Piazza Ucraina,” a clearing in the Giardini, where the charred remains of a structure sat alongside a tower of sandbags, of the sort used to protect public sculptures. Right off the Ponte San Biasio delle Catene, Galleria Continua secured a storefront for their artist Zhanna Kadyrova to set up a fundraiser. Titled “Palianytsia” after a type of Ukrainian bread, the exhibition consists of new loaf-like sculptures shaped from river stones, collected while the artist was sheltering in the countryside. There’s also a documentary by Ivan Sautkin, which is still in-process. “I feel guilty being here, seeing old friends, sleeping easily,” Kadyrova confessed. “It’s like suddenly waking up in my old life and I have to remember this is not my life anymore.” Kadan expressed a similar disorientation in a short talk with Artforum editor David Velasco, part of a breakfast event hosted by Jérôme Poggi at the Serra dei Gardini. Broaching the topic of the Russian pavilion, which remained shuttered after artists Kirill Savchenkov and Alexandra Sukhareva and curator Raimundas Malašauskas all withdrew their participation, Kadan voiced his support for resistance while maintaining the need for boycott: “As Putinism transforms to pure totalitarianism . . . Russian intellectuals will face a challenge to become real dissidents.”
The war wasn’t the only thing unsettling pavilions and their respective nation-states this year. For Spain, artist Ignasi Aballí shifted the building slightly off its axis to “correct” an earlier architectural mistake. Czech and Slovakia didn’t open their pavilion at all (it’s still under construction after suffering substantial water damage in 2019). At the German pavilion, Maria Eichhorn performed an elegant dissection of the walls, revealing the bricked sutures where the Bavarian pavilion meets the Nazi-backed expansion from 1938. Croatia’s offering lacked walls altogether, but only because artist Tomo Savic-Gecan styled it as a purposeful parasite, crashing other presentations with randomly timed interventions. Zineb Sedira dipped into the wells of Algerian cinema to spritz the French pavilion with a little camera-ready insurgency, while the Dutch pavilion handed over the keys to their prime Giardini real estate for a pavilion swap with Estonia, where Kristina Norman and Bita Ravazi parlayed obscure botanical research into a critique of Dutch colonialism. (Fool me once, right, Netherlands?) For New Zealand, Yuki Kihara’s raucous “Paradise Camp” pitted Gauguin against his Pacific-dwelling muses, while for “Sovereignty,” Simone Leigh thatched the roof of the US pavilion in the style of colonial expositions. Stationed in front, the artist’s twenty-four-foot bronze sculpture Satellite merged a monumentally scaled D’mba headdress—a means of communing with one’s ancestors that was later appropriated by modernists like Picasso—with a satellite dish that amplified its intended function. And while some might read that as a triumphant reclamation of the form, inside, Leigh’s Sentinel—a version of which exerts a powerful presence in the newly christened Tivoli Circle in New Orleans, where it has taken the place of a former Robert E. Lee sculpture—looked unnervingly subjugated in the claustrophobic confines of the rotunda gallery.
The heavy emphasis on decolonization made me think back to the kerfuffle over the Portuguese pavilion, which kicked off last fall with one jury member sabotaging forerunner Grada Kilomba’s proposal, arguing that the “idea of racism as an open wound has already been the subject of numerous other approaches; so the proposal presented does not allow us to see how in an exhibition you can review, criticize or extend this idea that has already been discussed and even exhibited in multiple ways.” Kilomba’s near-perfect scores got tanked in the averages and the Portuguese went with Pedro Neves Marques’s project, “Vampires in Space.”
Contrary to the opinion of the ornery jurist, there are still myriad useful and productive ways to discuss decolonization. The Nordic pavilion was a perfect example. In commissioner Katya García-Antón’s final bow after her brilliant run at the head of Norway’s Office of Contemporary Art, she joined forces with archaeologist Liisa-Rávná Finborg and activist Beaska Niillas to create “The Sámi Pavilion,” an exhibition dedicated to a nation that is currently spread across the political borders of four countries. As documented by Anders Sunna’s massive painting installation, the Sámi now find themselves prosecuted for the simple acts like herding reindeer on their own land. Artist Máret Ánne Sara used reindeer sinews to create intricate hanging sculptures. “Smell it,” Niillas urged, nudging me closer to the sweet, musky center. “She worked with a perfumer to produce the smell of hope. And that one,” he added, gesturing to a sculpture on the other side of the pavilion, “is the smell of fear.” “Careful,” García-Antón warned. “That one sticks in your nostrils.” She was not wrong.
Another standout was Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, the first Roma-identified artist to feature in a national pavilion. Her hand-stitched textile collages mingled zodiac iconography with Roma life, blanketing the walls of the Polish pavilion in a conscious echo of Francesco del Cossa’s “Hall of the Months” at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy. “These are the frescos that inspired Aby Warburg and his thoughts on the movement of images,” curator Joanna Warsza explained. “And yet, in all of his cross-references, there is no mention of Roma culture, which was everywhere.” Mirga-Tas seeks to correct this omission, inscribing Roma narratives into the larger canon. Some of her portraits are of grand scale, like the Swedish activist Katarina Taikon or the scholar Ethel C. Brooks; others are more personal, including the villagers of the Polish settlement of Czarna Góra, the artist’s hometown.
Indeed, the real work is expanding representation respectfully, something Alemani’s main project pulled off seamlessly. Despite the pandemic’s economic strain, this year saw the debut of pavilions from Oman, Nepal, Cameroon, and Uganda. (A project from Namibia fell apart when it turned out to be one of those sketchy-Italian-curators-suckling-the-sweet-teat-of-sponsorship situations, sparking protest from the country’s art scene.) Meanwhile, in its sophomore outing, Ghana’s “Black Star” group show assured us that the country hadn’t tapped all its wells with its blockbuster 2019 debut.
OF COURSE, what good is all this art, if you don’t have a place to discuss it? In the uneasy grip of the pandemic (which Biennale-goers seemed all too ready to declare as over, despite current spikes across continents), and against the doomsday black backdrop of potential nuclear war in Europe, the question “How have you been?” has rarely felt so weighty. (Did Ralph Rugoff curse us by titling his biennale “May You Live In Interesting Times”?) While the circumstances put a damper on the wash-rinse-repeat cycle of Bellinis and courtyard cocktail parties, and the conspicuous absence of yachts opened Venice’s maritime vistas in disorienting ways, there were still plenty of meaningful activities to keep folks engaged outside the Giardini walls.
My social calendar kicked off Monday at the Palazzo Tiepolo Passi with “The Italian Paintings,” a survey of works by Stanley Whitney organized by curators Cathleen Chaffee and Vincenzo de Bellis as an interim project before the artist’s pandemic-delayed retrospective, now scheduled to hit the Buffalo AKG Art Museum in 2024. The palazzo is still residential—the family was celebrating Easter at the same time as the VIP cocktail party—and the decadent silk-covered walls meant there could be minimal interventions. In a seafoam green room that held some of Whitney’s earliest works made when he first moved to Rome, I overheard artists Amy Sillman, Pamela Wilson-Ryckman, and Marina Adams discussing painting techniques. When I caught up with Sillman later, she was in conversation with Lisson’s Alex Logsdail about Anish Kapoor’s new palazzo: not as in a show, but a palazzo he bought. Sillman shrugged, “I’m a New Yorker, I can’t help but be curious about real estate.” The next night at a reception for his exhibition at the hallowed Accademia, Kapoor brushed off inquiries about a rumored foundation. “It’s all very much in experimental stages,” he assured me. “More like a toy.” But, like, a toy palazzo.
“Believing we are wise is a sure sign of madness. But believing we are mad is not the same as being wise.” I caught this line while standing in front of a Bosch painting depicting early neurosurgery that was hanging in the Fondazione Prada, where curator Udo Kittelmann and artist Taryn Simon joined forces for “Human Brains: It Begins with an Idea.” The show itself was structured to mimic cerebral passages, punctuated with sleek vitrines of ancient scholarship that sought to understand how we understand. As our guide, “renowned audio book narrator” George Guidall, filmed by Simon in paperback-scale, recites relevant passages from contemporary authors, including Salman Rushdie, McKenzie Wark, Alexander Kluge, and Esther Freud. “Have you been watching these conferences this past year?” artist Ken Okiishi asked me as we settled into one of the amphitheaters, where we watched a scientist from the ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City placidly dissecting a hippocampus. “They were great for when you were in the kitchen cooking. What I appreciate is they don’t try to couch them for art audiences. This is just, like, hardcore neuroscience.”
If Venice nightlife had been known to go full throttle for biennials past, this year set a more subdued tone. My postpandemic mindset kept me far from the crush of the Bauer Hotel terrace, but thankfully Performance Space New York’s Pati Hertling and dealer Donny Ryan devised a cozy alternative at Come Bar, where they set up a series of nights hosted by individuals and organizations including Artists Against Apartheid, Bidoun, Wu Tsang, and Sable Elyse Smith. On Monday, I caught up with Hertling over my first Campari of the week. Host Precious Okoyomon had yet to show (maybe putting the final touches on her massive Arsenale installation?). “Everyone keeps asking me when the performance will be, but there’s no performance,” Hertling sighed. “We just thought it would be nice to have artists host.” Surveying a crowd that included Okoyomon’s fellow Biennale artist Kerstin Brätsch, dealer Isabella Bortolozzi, patron Alia Al Senussi, artist Nash Glynn, and the incoming director of New York’s Swiss Institute, Stefanie Hessler, Hertling, Precious or not, was onto something.
For those who wanted to go even further off the beaten path, the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) was offering “Something Out of It,” a teaser of their next edition, which is set to open in September. The two-pronged exhibition of Tommaso de Luco and Pauline Curnier Jardin was the initiative of Francesco Urbano Ragazzi, the curatorial duo of Francesco Urbano and Francesco Ragazzi, who previously installed Jonas Mekas in a Burger King and in 2019 helped Kenneth Goldsmith share Hillary Clinton’s emails with the world. (The presidential candidate herself put in a surprise appearance to finally address that overflowing inbox). “We’re trying to show other facets of Venice,” explained Urbano as I stood in the security line outside Casa di Reclusione Femminile della Giudecca, a women’s prison known for its progressive outreach. (Prisoners tend to an organic garden and sell craft wares through various shops.) The location captured the imagination of Curnier Jardin, who is simultaneously developing a project for a former prison in Kabelwag for LIAF. The site where Kurt Schwitters was once imprisoned is now, oddly enough, a film school in a tiny town at what feels like the edge of the world.
For the Venice edition, Curnier Jardin zeroed in on the prison’s history as a sixteenth-century convent, though as she reveals in her new film Adoration, not all the women may have taken those vows voluntarily. “More precisely,” the voiceover tells us, “the nuns at the Convertite were former prostitutes, even though we don’t really know what ‘prostitute’ meant at the time. They are simply said to have been the most beautiful sinners in the country and we know how dangerous they could be.” These “beautiful sinners” started a curious tradition of putting on plays during Carnival, which were open to the public and became all the rage with the Venetian upper crust.
Curnier Jardin’s film is projected in the same hall where those productions were staged. These days it serves as the parlor where prisoners are allowed their only contact with the outside world. To create Adoration and its accompanying murals, the artist conducted several workshops with the women who live within the walls, asking them to draw their associations with “celebration.” She then used the drawings as raw material, mixing in existing footage from her earlier research into salles des fêtes. The reception was held in the courtyard, with an array of strawberries and chocolate bars laid out on simple folding tables. “Normally, with my projects I like to find the hidden violence we try to avoid looking at,” Curnier Jardin told me. “Here I wanted to approach things from a different angle to tap into joy.” From that panopticon courtyard, I realized we could still hear the sea.