Art World Awakens with Return of the 59th Venice Biennale
The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams opened on April 23 to continue till November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, in Venice. Chaired by Roberto Cicutto, the curator, Cecilia Alemani envisions to take the viewers on a magical journey of change. By Sindhu Nair
We live in a different world, a world where zoom meetings are the norm and live meetings need much deliberation. A world where people think twice before venturing out of the safe cocoons of home and travelling to an art exhibition might mean a risk more than a luxury. And in this different world, the normal is the coming back of the La Biennale di Venezia after it was forced to postpone this edition last year, an event that was extraordinary as a postponement had only occurred during the two World Wars since the event started in 1895. And it seems normal to have the theme of the exhibition loosely based on surrealism and the magical world, with the theme: The Milk of Dreams, a title borrowed from book by Leonora Carrington (1917–2011).
According to the curator Cecilia Alemani, “Carrington, the Surrealist artist describes a magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of imagination. It is a world where everyone can change, be transformed, become something or someone else. The exhibition The Milk of Dreams takes Leonora Carrington’s otherworldly creatures, along with other figures of transformation, as companions on an imaginary journey through the metamorphoses of bodies and definitions of the human.”
The Exhibition brings 213 artists from 58 countries; 180 of these are participating for the first time in the International Exhibition. The exhibition will have 1,433 works and objects on display, 80 new projects are conceived specifically for the Biennale Arte, according to Alemani.
“This exhibition is grounded in many conversations with artists held in the last few years. The questions that kept emerging from these dialogues seem to capture this moment in history when the very survival of the species is threatened, but also to sum up many other inquiries that pervade the sciences, arts, and myths of our time. How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human? What are our responsibilities towards the planet, other people, and other life forms? And what would life look like without us. These are some of the guiding questions for this edition of the Biennale Arte, which focuses on three thematic areas in particular: the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses; the relationship between individuals and technologies; the connection between bodies and the Earth,” she says, “So the very fact that this exhibition can open is somewhat extraordinary: its inauguration is not exactly the symbol of a return to normal life, but rather the outcome of a collective effort that seems almost miraculous. During these endless months in front of the screen, I have pondered the question of what role the International Art Exhibition should play at this historical juncture, and the simplest, most sincere answer I could find is that the Biennale sums up all the things we have so sorely missed in the last two years: the freedom to meet people from all over the world, the possibility of travel, the joy of spending time together, the practice of difference, translation, incomprehension, and communion.”
The Milk of Dreams was conceived and organised in a period of enormous instability and uncertainty, since its development coincided with the outbreak and spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Milk of Dreams is not an exhibition about the pandemic, but it inevitably registers the upheavals of our era. In times like this, as the history of La Biennale di Venezia clearly shows, art and artists can help us imagine new modes of coexistence and infinite new possibilities of transformation, stresses the curator.
Here are a few artists and their works that are magical:
Mud Art to Deliver a Message
ARTIST: ALI CHERRI
Ali Cherri was awarded the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Participant and he is an artist working across film, video, installation, drawing, and performance. In Cherri’s practice, the urgent political realities of his Beirut childhood during the decade-long Lebanese Civil War are positioned beside moments in history.
Situated in a continuum, the ancient world and contemporary society merge as spaces of mythmaking. In Cherri’s new multi-channel video installation Of Men and Gods and Mud (2022) he traces the history of the Merowe Dam, one of the largest hydroelectric dams in Africa, located on the Nile River in Northern Sudan. The work imagines the punishing construction of a dam as a portal to a fantastical world. In the video, a seasonal brickmaker spends his days in the heat performing the gruelling ancient task of shaping mud into bricks; at night, he secretly builds a structure in mud and scrap, which ultimately transforms into a mystical creature with bodily presence.
Envisioned as a monster, this creature functions as a metaphor for the devastation wrought by the creation of the dam, whose construction in the early 2000s led to the forced displacement of more than 50,000 people in surrounding areas, and the mud workers as exiled, temporary labourers. Reflecting upon imaginaries surrounding mud and deluge – Ancient Egyptian myths of the flooding Nile, the Jewish legend of the golem, Noah’s Ark, – Cherri furthermore captures deeply held associations in both myth and history with these natural occurrences.
A Family in Clay
ARTIST: GABRIEL CHAILE
Massive clay sculptures by artist Gabriel Chaile occupy the Arsenale at the Venice Art Biennale 2022. The show explores the contemporary changes undergone by humanity on the whole, especially the uncertainty of our relationship with nature and technology. The ceramic works by Gabriel Chaile take shape to depict other-worldly creatures, animal figures in a state of metamorphosis. Drawing from a theory that he refers to as ‘the genealogy of form,’ the artist references objects such as pots and clay ovens that often take on anthropomorphic traits.
Chaile draws from indigenous themes. He has long explored impoverished communities, rituals, and artistic customs from his home in Argentina, and has taken influence from his Spanish, Afro-Arab, and Indigenous Candelaria heritage.
The collection on view at Arsenale is a group of five sculpture-ovens that portray, in a large format, members of his family. The central figure of the group is titled Rosario Liendro (2022) after his maternal grandmother, and is surrounded by the figures of his parents and paternal grandparents. Chaile notes that some of the figures are brought to life through descriptions of them handed down in oral stories, rather than his direct knowledge.
Qatari American Artist Explores Racism
ARTIST: SOPHIA AL-MARIA
This is the sixth collaboration between La Biennale di Venezia and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, who present a Special Project jointly organised by the two institutions at the Applied Arts Pavilion in the Sale d’Armi, Venice Arsenale: Tiger Strike Red by Sophia Al-Maria, an artist selected by the Curator of the Biennale Arte 2022 Cecilia Alemani.
Qatari-American artist, writer, and filmmaker Sophia Al-Maria explores the echoes of colonialism and racism. Al-Maria’s work raises questions around the alienation and dysfunction arising from a culture of “alternative facts” and whitewashed history, identifying remnants of colonialism in the fields of quantum computing, virtual space, and artificial intelligence.
This new single-channel video created for the Applied Arts Pavilion in response to the Biennale’s theme, The Milk of Dreams. It is the third in an ongoing series of AlMaria’s video works that include Beast Type Song (2019) and Tender Point Ruin (2021).
Al-Maria was drawn to the peculiar eroticism of the automaton known as “Tippoo’s Tiger.” Made for Tipu Sultan, an 18th century ruler of Mysore in South India, the mechanical sculpture depicts a tiger mauling a British soldier. In AlMaria’s eyes, this automaton both demonstrates a yearning for revenge on the colonial oppressor and s suggestive entwinement of man and beast.
Tiger Strike Red proposes that the non-consensual projection of Orientalism’s (white male) gaze is once again at work in our collective vision of the future, suggesting that the imaginary monsters conjured by British colonialism – whether the tiger of Mysore or the image of women wearing niqabs – are deeply entangled in our present-day machines and technologies.
All Images Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia