The Venice Biennale 2022: hope, despite the posturing of nation states
The German painter Gerhard Richter once suggested that “art is the highest form of hope”. This is certainly a fitting sentiment for the 2022 Venice Biennale. Whether in Italian curator’s Cecilia Alemani’s central International Art Exhibition in the Giardini and Arsenale or the 90 national pavilions across the city, the works on view espouse imagination as a force for change. Artists can be crucial in re-envisioning our collective perception of the world.
The Venice Biennale is tritely labelled the “Olympics of the art world”, given it consists of both a central exhibition of international contemporary artists, as well as the array of national pavilions that occupy two main sites. Although the Biennale began in the nineteenth century, the pavilions started to appear in the beginning of the twentieth, when a handful of European countries built their neo-classical cultural embassies in the gardens laid out by Napoleon to the east of the city. Now, countries from Samoa to Saudi Arabia are also represented, and this year was the first time Cameroon and Nepal appeared.
The outside world filtered into this year’s edition via the empty, shuttered and guarded Russian pavilion, after the curator and artists resigned in protest over the invasion of Ukraine. To those who regularly attend, there was also a conspicuous absence of Russian-registered superyachts moored to the island.
While it’s tempting to imagine the national pavilions divided between countries who allow their artists to be politically antagonistic and those who don’t, in a simple binary of liberal democracy vs autocracy, it’s not that straightforward. What emerges in Venice is a fractured and complex vision of society through the vague lens of the nation state.
The pavilions that conformed to a simplified narrative of democracy vs autocracy included the UAE – a country not celebrated for its human rights – showcasing without a doubt the most banal display of contemporary art. The work was a room of plaster biomorphic forms, based on what the “artist sees between his eyes and eyelids”, which could be read ironically as the unsatisfactory result of a blinkered gaze. China’s pavilion was also vague, framed around the barely-described concept of “meta-scape”, which seemed overly aimed at universality when the best national displays honed in on specific communities or histories.
This artwashing aside, my overwhelming impression was of a space that nurtured alternative ways of thinking and feeling, mingling pioneering twentieth century figures like Leonora Carrington with young contemporaries like Precious Okoyomon [image 1], and allowing their alternative cosmologies to transcend the tired pessimism of today.
The opening was touted as a biennale of firsts – and indeed it was. Most significantly, the first to show a majority of women artists: the main exhibition is made up of over 200 artists, only five of whom are men. Some of the most prominent national pavilions – Britain, France and the U.S. – are notably occupied by women of colour: Sonya Boyce, Zineb Sedira and Simone Leigh [image 2] respectively.