by Anna Maja Spiess
This week marked the first few days of the 59th Biennale di Venezia, the Olympics of the art as some say, and well: let us give you a brief little recount of what we have seen and liked.
Called “The Milk Of Dreams”, which, if Biennale titles are prophetic, sounds like a much nicer future for all of us than the last one using the supposed Chinese proverb / Terry Pratchett curse “May you live in interesting times” by Ralph Rugoff in 2019 which, oh well, we all know how the past few years looked like. Taken from “a book by Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) in which the Surrealist artist describes a magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination.” as Cecilia Alemani, this year’s curator, writes in her statement.
Some Pavilions are omitted from this account because they were closed (due to prep for opening ceremonies, for example) or the lines were so hopelessly long, that we simply deferred to another day or they were so exhaustively covered by others that we felt you already know all about them by now. So by no means is this a complete account, also taste is personal and well, mood, weather, cold feet, hunger – it all factors in: This is what we liked, but ideally, you come to Venice sometime between now and September and see for yourself.
In short: The central exhibition curated by Cecilia Alemani was overall stunning. It spanned works from decades, big names and underappreciated positions, new finds, and old friends. It felt coherent, smart, and at times even witty. Some might have complained of the few / or as some perceived its entire lack of male positions (we feel there might have been a few), alas we are thrilled to see so many female artists shine and be represented. It’s quite curious, we never heard people complain after seeing particularly male-dominated group shows ;))
The pavilions are what they are, a unique position. Each country makes its own choices, they have wildly different artists’ budgets (ranging from actually a mere 3.000Eur for a smaller European Country pavilion to millions for others. Some were exceptional while others were well, not so much anything or just plain uninteresting. Surprisingly budget is not so much a factor 😉 Even big-budget can be pretty darn uninteresting. Some were weird, others formal but here are a few we liked or disliked or for whatever other reason felt compelled to mention, which in itself might mean something – they stuck.
The Arsenale was an overall chaotic experience. Few repeats from the Giardini, but also a whole lot of stuff that did not feel like it had a common threat or story it was following. And then some pavilions. Oh well.
We took nearly 80.000 steps through Venice so far. According to the tracker that is almost 60km by foot. We saw possibly more art than in the whole 2 last years together, let’s dive in. This is only a quick overview. Take yourself to the search engine of your choice and dive deeper. It’s worth it! Or if possible get yourself to Venice and see for yourself. It might just be that you disagree with everything said here, wouldn’t that be wonderful 😉
An absolute favourite was the Room entitled “The Witches Cradle” showing work by artists, cultural practitioners across times, and different artists’ styles. LOVE. Josephine Baker, Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim, Claude Cahun, Gertrud Arndt and many more.
Also, a sweet discovery was Djuna Barnes “Ladies Almanack” from 1928 which in its presentation echoed what we later discovered at the Fondazione Prada. Another fantastic position were the paintings presented on grand full wall photo wallpaper (love those) by Kudzanai-Violet Hwami Magical Realism, Shona Cosmology, Afro-Futurism. A way into our hearts found the quiet yet so touching collages by Sheree Hovsepian. There is one with a spoon and human bodies.
Spain: Much Concept. Minimal Art. Painted Grey. Those without glasses might miss it altogether. But calm. Quiet and not terrible.
Artist: Ignasi Aballí
Germany: Trying to revert the now German Pavilion to its state when it was the Bavarian Pavilion over 100 years ago. Dug a hole. Removed some plaster. White on white writing (noting when passages were closed off) was hard to make out, made you feel like this is not meant for you. But for whom remained unclear here.
Artist: Maria Eichhorn
Work: no title
Belgium: Sidewings of the pavilion. Small yet poignant paintings of recent crisis around the world. Pastel colours. Darling size. Painful imagery. Just perfect. Inside main hall a LOT of screens depicting children at play. Sounds overlapping. Busy pavilion. Bottom line, great work, but will definitely revisit online to fully enjoy.
Artist: Francis Alÿs
Work: “The Nature of the Game”
The Danish Pavilion left us a bit confused. Sure, who does not enjoy a very lifelike centaur? Is there a hint of Augean Stable in there? She’s half birthing in death, he’s hanging from the ceiling, suicide? Murder-suicide? Just plain murder staged like a suicide? Overall the last years left a bit of a gloomy theme on all of us, that keeps re-emerging. Magic is back in art, and possibly stronger than ever, since we now also let non-white males and actual shamans participate in the art world, and are no longer limited to self-proclaimed shamans born in the 1920s in Krefeld 😉
Artist: Uffe Isolotto
Work: “We walked the Earth”
Once we entered the Sámi Pavilion, itself a magical example of architecture, we were quite taken by the scent. We later had the absolute delight to enjoy a performance by Sami musicians Hildá Länsman, Lávre Johan Eira & Emil Kárlsen, witness a life joiking that nearly brought us to tears and wondered how a tribe that is not limited to the borders of a country in the Sami case Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden can survive and thrive in our modern political climate of boarders and disputes.
Artist: Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, Andres Sunna
Work: The Sámi Pavilion
French Pavilion took our breath away. And it’s what we think a pavilion should be. Engaging, smart, multi-layered but also accessible in a heartbeat. Works that require you to read hours or watch for hours before you start sensing what’s going on are nice, and have a home in a different exhibition setting, alas the Biennale is a marathon of art, and those works that just work are so terrific.
Tracing her ancestral story, retelling and re-enacting her favorite film scenes, sharing her multifaceted life, Zineb Sedira’s presentation as a multifaceted, multi-layered human, a dancer, a film lover, a mother, an artist, an actress – she built an immersive world and shared quite generously her person with us all in this magnificent work.
Artist: Zineb Sedira
Work: “Dreams have no titles”
At the Arsenale we loved Lynn Hermann Leeson. AI. Identity. What does it mean to be human?
Thrilling, scary, necessary, smart.
Work: “Logic paralyses the heart”
The Hong Kong Pavilion’s video work was mesmerizing for all its detail and information. And yes, elections are coming up. The artist takes a tiny disco ball out of her mouth and lets it levitate. There is always hope when there is light and that was reflected many times.
Artist: Angela Su
Work: “Arise, Hong Kong in Venice”
Bonus: The Fondazione Prada gave us the perfect additional show to all the art. Human Brains – It begins with an idea (curated by Udo Kittelmann in collaboration with Taryn Simon). Tracing from the earliest recorded dream 2100BCE, through Mesopotamian Rituals, Japanese anatomical drawings, 15th century Inca skulls with five healed trepanations and so much more. Thirty-two international fiction authors have written literary texts in response to the objects, narrator George Guidall then reads them to you. It is an exceptional experience.
The question how do we process life, everything that happens to us, that influences us? How do we time and time again come up with all that is human creativity? The “It Begins with an idea” show is a nice way to round up your time in Venice as it tries to answer some of these questions. At the end of the day, the 59th Biennale is an incredible celebration of what human brains are capable of.
*quote Zineb Sedira “Dreams have no titles”, 2022