Horizon Line

The Venice Biennale 2022: hope, despite the posturing of nation states

Image 1: Image showing Precious Okoyomon’s Open circle Lived Relation (detail), part of “Resistance is an atmospheric condition” (installation) 2020, on display in the Arsenale

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.

Image 2: Image showing Simone Leigh’s U.S. pavilion and her 2022 work “Satellite”

Yet nothing feels didactic about the main exhibition, and Alemani’s opening statement was thankfully light on the usual dull tropes, such as the pandemic, existential uncertainty and environmental anxiety. Instead, she focused on more open-ended issues, from our changing understanding of what it means to be human through to themes of metamorphosis and technology, and our connection with the earth.

The exhibition’s title, “The Milk of Dreams”, comes from a book by Leonora Carrington in which she evokes a magical world where life is constantly remade through imagination. Alemani has chosen to root the exhibition in the work of female surrealists, a direct challenge to the universal idea of the “man of reason” as the fixed centre of the universe and measure of all things. Instead, in a sunken, yellow-carpeted den called The Witches Cradle, we’re introduced to mesmerising work by Carrington, Eileen Agar, Claude Cahun, Ithell Colquhoun and Remedios Varo [image 3] among others. They kick off an anatomy-shifting emancipation, which eventually leads to the mutant bodies depicted by contemporary figures such as Christina Quarles and Aneta Grzeszykowska.

Image 3: Remedios Varo, “Simpatía (La rabia del gato)”, 1955. Collection Eduardo F. Costantini, Buenos Aires. © Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Another prominent theme is the value and importance of indigenous knowledge, and by extension myth-making. The Arsenale section of the exhibition opens with Belkis Ayón, who imagined a matriarchal society through Afro-Cuban traditions in her foreboding black and white work. This invention of myth through art is picked up by contemporary artists such as Thao Nguyen Phan.

The immensely varied roles artists embody today was evident in many of the national pavilions. Setting aside the political angle, it’s possible to split national pavilions into a few categories: those that focus on research projects, making the pavilion an archive of their investigations (Singapore, Germany, Finland, Great Britain); those that use their pavilions as a platform for minority communities (Nordic Countries, Netherlands, Greece); and those with a more conventional artistic offering (Belgium, U.S, Korea etc).

Visiting the exhibition, we become witnesses to these different roles: the artist as security industry insider (Finland), the artist as techno-shaman (Korea), the artist as documenter (Canada) and the artist as… artist (U.S). Each is a testament to the artist’s ability to intrigue and edify us.

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

Arts & Culture

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