The best of the Venice Biennale — ‘the ultimate primer in contemporary art’
As the 59th Biennale places Venice at the centre of the art world, Jessica Lack reports from the city on the artists and pavilions that everyone is talking about, from Simone Leigh’s colossal sculptures for the US to a tower of sandbags representing Ukraine
Those travelling to the Venice Biennale this summer might want to pay homage at Caffè Florian on Piazza San Marco before embarking on the marathon that is the world’s most famous international art festival.
It was here, in Casanova’s favourite watering hole, that the Biennale was conceived in 1894 by a group of artists and writers, spearheaded by the city’s progressive mayor, the poet and playwright Riccardo Selvatico. A year later, the first Biennale opened in the Giardini on the south-east shore of the city.
A quick drink at the bar might be just the fortification needed to confront what has become the ultimate primer in contemporary art. The Biennale is a gloriously sprawling celebration, comprising more than 1,400 exhibitions and pavilions from 80 countries, together with a film programme, a performance schedule, special projects and collateral events.
One such event is the German artist Anslem Kiefer’s tour de force at the Doge’s Palace (above), a show that takes it name from the writings of the Venetian philosopher Andrea Emo: Questi scritti, quando verranno bruciati, daranno finalmente un po’ di luce (‘These writings, when burned, will finally cast a little light’).
Kiefer’s immersive installation is an apocalyptic vision in which charred books, burnt branches and shopping trolleys overflowing with belongings are layered under spidery rivers of dense, earthy paint.
Women artists at the Biennale
From San Marco it is a vaporetto ride to the Giardini, the parkland created by Napoleon Bonaparte and now home to the Biennale. For the first time in its 127-year history, the festival (which runs until 27 November) features more female than male artists. Curator Cecilia Alemani has borrowed the main exhibition’s title, The Milk of Dreams, from the artist Leonora Carrington’s Surrealist children’s book.
Early reports suggest that this is the most successful show so far: a polymorphous universe of monstrous beasts and ambiguous transgressions, liberating in its imaginative possibilities, but with an undeniably dark undercurrent.
In the minimalist Central Pavilion, established figures such as Paula Rego, Nan Goldin and Cecilia Vicuña (winner of the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award) are exhibited alongside contenders Christina Quarles, Hannah Levy and Sheree Hovsepian, together with little-known Outsider artists such as Andy Warhol’s discovery, Sister Gertrude Morgan. In one large, mustard-coloured room, an exhibition entitled The Witch’s Cradle is devoted to female Surrealists, among them Carrington, Eileen Agar, Claude Cahun and Dorothea Tanning.
At the Arsenale: robots, phantoms and a giant elephant
The second half of the exhibition is situated in the Arsenale, a former shipyard where the work of 73 artists is spread out over 9,000 square metres. There are robots and phantoms; a monumental elephant by another Golden Lion prizewinner, Katharina Fritsch; and Silver winner Ali Cherri’s warped and lumbering Titans (below) emerging from their muddy casements. In its entirety, the show is a wonderfully complex meditation on identity and the power of the imagination.
Simone Leigh’s colossal bronze Brick House (below), depicting an eyeless African-American goddess, secured the Chicago-born artist the Golden Lion for best participant. Other outsized sculptures of black female figures populate her installation in the US Pavilion, reflecting on beauty, strength and historical stereotyping.
What’s on in the Pavilions
In the early 1900s the Biennale hit on the revenue-generating brainwave of building special pavilions for participating countries. Each country would buy its pavilion on completion. First to sign up was Belgium in 1907, followed by Hungary, Britain and Germany.
Today there are 29 pavilions in varying styles, from 19th-century Palladian to 1960s Modernist, situated along the Giardini’s tree-lined avenues and across the canal in the gardens of the small island of Sant’Elena. This year, Alexey Shchusev’s 1914 Russian Pavilion was locked, the curators having resigned, while a fire-blackened wooden structure representing the Ukrainian pavilion was erected next to a towering construction of sandbags along the Giardini’s main drag.
A British winner, the French New Wave and Nordic reflections on climate change
Sonia Boyce, representing Britain, is this year’s winner of the Golden Lion for Best National Participation with her tremulous exhibition, Feeling Her Way. In an interview with Christie’s prior to the opening, the artist spoke about the theme of the show — black British women in music and the creation of her fantasy girl band.
Next door, in the French Pavilion, is Boyce’s south London neighbour, Zineb Sedira, who was given a special mention by the Biennale judges. Her installation (above) uses cinema, performance and installation to weave her life in Algiers, France and London into the seismic political and cultural events of the times, including the Algerian War of Independence and the rise of the French New Wave.
Truth and reconciliation are the focus of the Nordic Pavilion, which has become the Sámi Pavilion for 2022. Sverre Fehn’s glacially beautiful 1962 building contains work by artists Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna on the issues of climate change and the racial persecution suffered by the Sámi nation for generations. A fragile sculpture of reindeer bones, skulls and hides alludes to the Sámi way of life, which is being destroyed by deforestation.
From Polish tapestries to a Canadian take on the Arab Spring
Discrimination is also the focus of the Polish Pavilion, where Małgorzata Mirga-Tas has created an elegiac history of the Roma in hand-stitched tapestries (below) inspired by the astrological frescos of the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara.
The speculative histories of artist Stan Douglas span two locations. In the Canadian Pavilion he has recreated four tumultuous events, including the Arab Spring of 2011, in photographic form. Biennale-goers then need to travel on a vaporetto to Zattere, where they can digest the artist’s two-channel video installation, ISDN. In this fictional collaboration between musicians in the UK and Egypt, London Grime artists Lady Sanity and TrueMendous spar back and forth down phone lines with Raptor and Yousef Joker, performers of the Egyptian street music Mahraganat.
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Surrealist magic, Anish Kapoor and Marlene Dumas
From Zattere it is a short walk across Dorsoduro to the curiously proportioned Peggy Guggenheim Foundation (a palazzo that is only one storey high), where the aura of Gothic romance fits perfectly with the current exhibition, Surrealism and Magic, focusing on various artists’ obsession with the occult.
Further along the Grand Canal is the Accademia, where British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor is exhibiting a collection of visceral sculptures (also check out his foundation, a full-scale renovation of the crumbling Palazzo Manfrin on the Cannaregio Canal).
And be sure to head to the 18th-century architect Giorgio Massari’s majestic Palazzo Grassi, currently exhibiting paintings by Marlene Dumas (above). The works are mainly portraits: daringly sexual, sometimes ghoulish, often political and forever transfixing.