Visiting “The Milk of Dreams,” the 59th Venice Biennial
In early October, I spent a week in Venice, during which I spent most of four days in the Biennial, which this year was under the artistic direction of Cecilia Alemani. She had chosen the theme “The Milk of Dreams” for the Biennial, based on the book of the same name by the British-Mexican artist Leonora Carrington (1917–2011).
Alemani and her crew created an exceptional Biennial. They set out some relevant, but flexible themes to explore, and they filled the two large exhibition halls—in the Arsenale and in the Giardini—with several hundred works of art each, encompassing nearly every media imaginable, all of which made for very compelling viewing. As always, the many individual national pavilions were hit or miss, but several were particularly noteworthy as I will mention shortly. Now, more than a month later, I am still thinking about and processing what I saw in Venice. I thought I would share some of the themes and a few of the images that have really stuck with me.
What is real? In a time when the boundary between fiction and non-fiction has been erased, when there is a daily debate over what is truth and what is a lie, when artificial intelligence is beginning to perform increasingly intelligent-looking activities, it’s not surprising that visual artists are challenging viewers to rethink what is real and what is not, what is living and what is not. In the Danish Pavilion, the multi-room installation by Uffe Isolotto suggested a dystopian time either in the distant past or in the distant future. Was the horse woman dead? Her eyes were half-open. Was she watching us? In an adjacent room, a male of the species hung from the tall ceiling from a rope around his neck, as if he had been executed. What possible narratives linked the rooms?
In the Venetian Pavilion, Paolo Fantin’s three-room installation showed Daphne from Ovid’s The Metamorphosis, who is seen slowly decomposing in the first two rooms before turning into the laurel bush seen on the bed in the last room. But a steady stream of visitors found themselves staring at the figure of Daphne, half-convinced it was a real person.
At the other end of the spectrum was the work of Yunchul Kim in the Korean Pavilion, which dealt with “transmatters.” To quote the Pavilion’s website, “The Korean Pavilion is rematerializing as a living body through which the artworks flow like blood vessels and connect themselves like vast neural networks.” Chroma V, 2022, (shown below), was a giant machine that pulsated and breathed just like any typical living creature.
Memory. Numerous artists and several national pavilions dealt with the theme of memory in one way or another. Faced with a German Pavilion designed in 1938 by Hitler’s Fascist architects, the German artist Maria Eichhorn originally proposed to move the entire Pavilion offsite for the duration of the Biennial, thus entirely eliminating the offensive building from sight. When that concept was understandably denied, she opted to make architectural interventions to the interior of the Pavilion that would visibly expose parts of the original Bavarian Pavilion which was constructed in 1909. She did this by carefully removing numerous elements of the 1938 Nazi redesign and simply laying bare the raw materials beneath. This kind of forensic examination of a museum building in lieu of filling the pavilion with art objects is always risky, because the visitor enters into an empty space, devoid of any clearly defined works of art, unaware that the building itself has been deemed the artwork. Needless to say, I watched many puzzled and unaware visitors simply turn and walk out of the German Pavilion without looking for guidance as to what was really going on. But by reading the prepared text (available at tables and kiosks outside the Pavilion) and the subtle “wall labels” (sometimes written on masking tape), the visitor could slowly grasp how the Fascist architects had dramatically altered the building to suit their propaganda needs in 1938. The partially deconstructed building made for a strangely beautiful exercise in architectural education, although it took time and commitment on the part of the visitor.
In addition to the work she did on the German Pavilion, Eichhorn collaborated with a local Venetian group to produce an educational booklet that directed visitors to the surprisingly numerous sites of remembrance and anti-fascist resistance all across Venice.
In the French Pavilion, the French artist of Algerian heritage Zineb Sedira created an elaborate multi-room mis-en-scene called Dreams Have No Titles. Several of the rooms resembled sets from 1960s films that were co-productions between France, Italy, and Algeria, suggesting a non-violent response to France’s Algerian crisis. Other rooms in the Pavilion were set up to look like the areas in studios where films are edited and stored. More than just a nostalgic look at the past, Sedira’s work seemed like a potent reminder that the heavy-handed responses of governments, which inevitably lead to violence, aren’t the only possible responses to political crises.
Non-traditional Ways of Knowledge. My favorite national pavilion was that of Mexico, entitled Until the Songs Spring. It was created by four artists—Mariana Castillo Deball, Naomi Rincón Gallardo, Fernando Palma Rodríguez, and Santiago Borja Charles—who in an interview said that their their collective goal was to explore “other ways of doing, being, thinking.” The result was a poetic pavilion that was as playful as it was disturbing, which hinted at paths of wisdom derived from indigenous sources even if the subject matter might be entirely modern, such as the human genome or violence against women.
Great Characters. Fiction today is filled with strange characters and odd narrators, including the occasional animal narrator. Similarly, the art within the Biennial was full of curious human, half-human, and animal characters. Here are just a few of my favorites.
The Cuban artist Belkis Ayón (1967-1999) created a number of collographs that explored Afro-Cuban religious iconography, focusing on imagery associated with lamentation and grief and creating mysterious, androgynous personages. [I’ve lost the title for this particular print.]
The British-Nigerian artist Precious Okoyomon created an immense indoor landscape of tropical plants overrun by kudzu. In the midst of To See the Earth before the End of the World were strange bear-like creatures either emerging from or being overtaken by the ravenous flora.
The Italian artist Diego Marcon’s operatic 7-minute video The Parents’ Room dealt with the aftermath of a man who murders his wife and two children. But there was something uncanny and eerie about the manner in which the characters were transformed through prosthetic make-up and CGI digital effects.
And finally, here are two images of great characters from the many I saw by painters: the Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego (1935-2022) and contemporary Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña.
[You can click on any of the smaller images to enlarge them.]