The Venice Art Biennale has been a cornerstone of the contemporary art world since it first opened in 1895. It is one of the few international art exhibitions which set trends in contemporary art, though the exhibition doesn’t only consist of artists of the 21st century. The exhibition is held once every two years, alternating with the Architecture Biennale. There are two main locations, both located in Venice. One is Giardini, which hosts the pavilions for a large part of the participating countries and holds a separate building for the international exhibition, and the other one is called Arsenale which also hosts national pavilions and a part of the international show inside an old shipyard of historic Venice.
Alemani: The First Italian Woman to Curate the Venice Biennale
Holding a BA in Philosophy from the Università degli Studi in Milan and an MA in Curatorial Studies from Bard College in New York, Cecilia Alemani became the first Italian woman Artistic Director of the Venice Art Biennale. For the past decade, she has been focusing on art in public spaces and on the relationships between the art world and the viewers. Alemani is no stranger to challenging debates on the connection between humans and technology, humans and mother nature, and exploring fantastic beings through the eyes of contemporary artists. She also curated the Italian pavilion at the 2017 Biennale. In 2018, Alemani was made the Artistic Director of Buenos Aires’ first Art Basel Cities. Since then, the famous curator became the Junior Director and Chief Curator of the High Line in New York City, constantly working with art in public spaces.
Cecilia Alemani has also made history by presenting the first-ever Biennale where women represent over 80% of the exhibited artists. The curator has often stated in interviews that though her agenda is not to speak just about inequality itself, art is supposed to be a reflection of the world that we live in and so far it has not been.
The Milk of Dreams by Leonore Carrington
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Each edition of the Venice Biennale has its own special theme chosen by its artistic director and curator. This year’s title Milk of Dreams comes from a children’s fairytale book written by Leonora Carrington during World War II when the artist fled from England to Mexico and started writing stories and coming up with fictional characters to entertain her children. These drawings and stories were later documented and put together in a book that was published in 2017. The book speaks of hybrid beings who have the power of transformation and change.
The title, though hard to correlate without reading into the subject, can also be taken out of the book’s context and thought of as a metaphor for the infinite number of possibilities in everyday life that we dare to experience only in dreams. Alemani didn’t just have to face the challenge of curating the biggest international art exhibition, but she faced this in a time of crisis too, during the pandemic. This has certainly influenced the whole concept of the show. During the pandemic, the curator could have pondered upon the connections between human beings, magic, technology, and nature. The reduced human interactions, no travel allowed, as well as viewing art through technology while isolated in our homes have inevitably created footprints on the ways in which we perceive information.
The three main themes present at the 2022 Venice Biennale have become easily accessible when learning about the curator and her choice for the title of the exhibition. The themes in the show also came from the conversations Alemani had with her chosen artists. She had come up with four big questions that seemed to interest the artists and tried to give possible answers through her selection of artworks in the exhibition. The questions she asked are: How is the definition of a human being changing?; What differentiates plants and animals, humans and non-humans?; What are our responsibilities toward our planet, other beings, and other forms of life? and What would life look like without us?.
These are the huge questions that this international exhibition is trying to find answers to. The charming side of the Venice Biennale is seen in the fact that the exhibition reflects so many different points of view, it positions the visitors out of their comfort zones and makes them confront other realities and other possibilities of the future through art.
Cecilia Alemani looked at works that tried to answer these questions and when searching for the answers she found herself looking in three big directions. However, as the curator states, these directions do not create three separate sections of the exhibition, but somehow manage to intertwine the works. She gathered artists who look at our relationship with our own bodies, metamorphosing with technology and with Planet Earth. The concept of metamorphosis has been present in art history before as well. Alemani found it fitting to the times that we live in because of ongoing issues concerning race, gender, and identity, and the pandemic itself.
Therefore, the relationship between people and technology is being examined once again in a new way because of the global pandemic that started in 2020. Something that has often been regarded as a good thing in the past and which people longed to have more of has now earned a negative connotation. People started to dread this total takeover of the machine, and some artists found inspiration in this position. These artists look at people who analyze their bodily connections to nature, taking into consideration the end of anthropocentrism. They are also imagining a future where human relation to Earth and animals is based on harmony, instead of extraction and exploitation.
Alemani’s Time Capsules
At the 2022 Biennale, Cecilia Alemani decided to place five different time capsules, as she called them, inside the international exhibition building. The capsules contain works that are normally placed inside museums which were mostly created by women. The chosen works prove that these artists were, at totally different places in time, concerned with similar issues. Therefore, the questions we are thinking about today are not completely new. The context was different, but the topics seem timeless. The story that the curator tells us isn’t a chronological one, not one that can be read in art history books, but a trans-historical one. It includes Surrealists, Dadaists, and Futurists, for example. They are exhibited as echoes of the past that are present in the contemporary artworks of the main show.
2022 Venice Biennale Highlights
The National pavilions also reflect the main theme of the Biennale, developed by their own appointed curators or curating teams. Though highlights are something subjective to each visitor, there are a few pavilions that are frequently represented in the media. One of those is the Hungarian pavilion, showing Zsófia Keresztes’ mosaics made out of pastel-colored glass called After Dreams: I Dare to Defy the Damage. The artist confronts a human fear of losing physicality and merging with the virtual. The artist also imagines a new way in which we can get in touch with our senses.
Great Britain’s pavilion houses Sonia Boyce’s Feeling Her Way exhibition. The exhibition consists of an art installation and video artwork that create an altar for Black female musicians. Boyce’s career is influenced by her research on how Black female voices shaped Great Britain’s history. The artist uses gold foil, vinyl, and CDs to create her shrine. In her piece, the artists included four vocalists: Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth, Sofia Jernberg, and Tanita Tikaram.
Last but not least, the United States was very innovative at La Biennale this year. The look of the whole pavilion building was changed to resemble an African palace. Simone Leigh, representing the United States, is the first Black female artist to be exhibiting in this pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Her works called Sovereignty consist of monumental sculptures that aim to reimagine the paths and lives of Black women in the diaspora.
After the one-year delay caused by the pandemic, the Venice Biennale had to impress the public. By bringing together a unique mix of artists and by focusing on issues that constantly cross our minds, Cecilia Alemani’s exhibition managed to not only sound the alarm but try to find solutions hidden somewhere in the surreal realm.