A pandemic-informed Venice Biennale will shine a light on women

In the two years that the New York-based curator Cecile Alemani was to organize the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale — in which the...


In the two years that the New York-based curator Cecile Alemani was to organize the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale — in which the pandemic forced a year-long delay and 400 studio visits had to take place over Zoom — the world changed around her.

People grappled with big existential questions about the purpose of life, issues of inequality, and the health of the planet. There have been moments of dystopian doom and hopeful reinvention.

Those questions informed Alemani’s iteration of the Biennale – the world’s longest major survey of contemporary art – the details of which were revealed on Wednesday.

There is a majority of female and gender-nonconforming artists, a choice which, in its official announcement, said Alemani reflects “a deliberate recasting of the centrality of the male in art history and of contemporary culture”.

The artists of the Biennale deal with environmental concerns, communion with nature, identity politics and ecological activism. There are black artists from Haiti, Senegal, Zimbabwe and the Republic of Congo.

More than 180 of the 213 artists have never taken part in the Biennale, which opens to the public on April 23 and runs until November 27, with 80 national exhibitions in the vast Giardini park (anchored by its central pavilion), the Arsenale, a former shipyard, and elsewhere around Venice. Five countries will participate for the first time: Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, Oman and Uganda.

As in direct contrast to the ever-popular American art market, very few artists are recognizable American names and the stars who appear are largely women, including Barbara Kruger, Nan Goldin, Louise Nevelson, Ruth Asawa and Simone Leigh, who is the first black woman to represent the United States in its national pavilion.

Alemani, the director and leader curator of high end line drawing, took as its starting point the 2017 children’s picture book, “The Milk of Dreams”, by surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, which features characters like Humbert le Beau, who befriends a crocodile , and Señor Mustache Mustache, who has two faces, eats flies and dances.

These stories of transformation, first painted on the walls of Carrington’s home in Mexico City, inspired Alemani’s vision for the Biennale. “Carrington was talking about how do we define life, what sets us apart from other creatures, can we imagine a world in which the body can be transformed and become something else?” Alemani said in an interview.

She organized the biennale around three themes inspired by the artists themselves. The first is the representation of how bodies can transform. In a variety of mediums and techniques, artists “try to expand outside the canvas,” Alemani said, in some cases with mechanical devices that interact with various life forms.

A video of Egle Budvytyte, for example, depicts a group of young people lost in the Lithuanian forests; Swedish resistance artist Sami Britta Marakatt-Labba uses embroidery to render snowy scenes of nature; the surrealist artist Brigitte Tichenor (1917-1990) used the technique of Renaissance tempera painting to create images of magical realism.

The second theme is the relationship between individuals and technology – “how culture deals with the polarities between, on the one hand, thinking that technology can make our lives and our bodies better, eternal and invincible,” Alemani said, “ and on the other side, fearing the takeover of machines and the presence of artificial intelligence.

This fear has been exacerbated by Covid-19, she added, which underscored “how deadly and finite we are. At a time when we would like to be with others and share with others, all of our relationships are mediated by digital screens.

A new video from the media artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson explores the birth of artificial organisms, while the Korean artist Geumhyung Jeong evokes robotic bodies that can be reassembled.

The third theme is the connection between bodies and the Earth. In particular, Alemani said she was inspired by feminist scholar and theorist Silvia Federiciwho imagined a world without hierarchy or domination – a world where man is not at the top of the pyramid – but rather a world “of symbiosis and enchantment”.

“The idea of ​​enchantment is something you’ll see quite often,” Alemani continued, “especially at Arsenale, which is itself a factory of the marvellous.”

What’s important to Alemani are five smaller historical sections that she calls time capsules, or “shows within the show,” aimed at fostering connections, providing layers and context. “I was very interested in creating a dialogue between different generations,” she said.

These capsules will bring together the work of 90 artists, mainly from the 20th century.

In a gallery in the central pavilion, the first of five capsules presents works by avant-garde female artists, including Eileen Agar, Leonor Fini, Carol Rama, Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo.

Another capsule was inspired by “Materializzazione del Linguaggio”, the first historical retrospective of women’s art mounted at the Biennale in 1978. It includes visual poets exploring the relationship between images and words, namely Mirella Bentivoglio, Marie Ellen Solt and Ilse Garnier (now in the mid-90s). There are experiments such as the hand-sewn tapestries of the French surrealist writer Gisèle Prassinos and the anagram poetry of Unica Zürn.

Other tributes to artists no longer living include Hannah Höch from Germany, Aletta Jacobs from the Netherlands and Amy Nimr from Cairo. “It’s not just an exhibition of young artists,” Alemani said. “An exhibition like the Venice Biennale doesn’t have to capture the last two years, an obsession with novelty.”

Alemani said she wanted to ‘re-inscribe’ those who have been omitted from the contemporary art canon – those whose stories ‘have not been told’ – including the Inuit artist Shuvinai Ashoona, the Sudanese painter Ibrahim El Salahi and Venezuelan indigenous artist Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe.

Alemani herself is the first Italian woman to organize a Biennale and she deliberately included many female Italian artists, including Ambra Castagnetti, Giulia Cenci and Chiara Enzo, to give them late recognition. “This show is set in Italy, not New York, and the situation with the genre is different,” Alemani said. “I realize that an exhibition doesn’t change anything, but it can hopefully have symbolic value.”

“If I look at the history of the 127 years of the Venice Biennale, the percentage of female participation is dramatically low,” she continued. “I want to give space to voices that have been silenced in the past.”

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