TThe Venice Art Biennale in 2022 belies its name. Delayed by the pandemic, it has been three instead of two years since the previous edition, which was ominously titled May You Live In Interesting Times. The ancient Chinese curse certainly worked.
Cecilia Alemani, the New York-based Italian curator of the 59th edition, which opened on Saturday, thus had extra time to prepare her exhibition, which occupies the large central pavilion in the city’s Giardini, as well as the immense spaces of an old rope-making factory in nearby Arsenale. It shows. Her in-depth research has produced an exceptionally coherent exhibition that, in addition to the acreage of new art, deepens her frame of reference by displaying historical work, often by surrealists such as Ithell Colquhoun, Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo. Such artists foreshadow Mrs. Alemani’s contemporary preoccupations: the body in transformation, metamorphosis, the world viewed from a different perspective than that of the white man.
The result is an exhibition that is 90% women-made, along with some non-binary and transgender artists. This is a correction for the dominance of male artists at the Venice Biennale since its inception in 1895, and it is reflected in individual countries’ choices of artists for national pavilions, with the US, France, UK, Germany, Poland, Romania, Scotland and many other hotly talked about shows are all female-owned.
If there were a general mood or spirit here, it would be one of collaboration and friendship: rare are the artists who have appreciated working in romantic, stoic isolation. Alberta Whittle, representative of Scotland, talks about her “accomplices”, from dancers to historians, who have worked with her to make her film; Roma artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, who occupies the Polish Pavilion, has sewn extraordinary patchwork frescoes with the help of female fellow sewers; Gold Lion winner Sonia Boyce has pushed herself into the background to showcase the talents of black singers and composers in her UK pavilion.
Another consequence of the pandemic on Ms. Alemani’s exhibition, perhaps an unconscious one, is its sensuousness. That despite the fact that it was mainly researched behind a screen, with the usual studio visits taking place virtually. The exhibition is full of sculptures that beg to be viewed from all sides and admired in all their physicality, their texture, their suggestion of touch. Even the film and video works often have a material feel, sometimes because of the setting in which they are shown, such as P. Staff’s overwhelming kaleidoscope of colors in a mirror room, where the multiple violence of the content is belied by the beauty of the distorted images. An earth maze by Colombian artist Delcy Morelos is at first reminiscent of American sculptor Walter de Maria’s post-minimalist Earth Room – except she added tobacco, cocoa, cloves and other spices to the ground so that the experience is tantalizing olfactory.
This is art that must be experienced “with the fullness of the body,” Ms Alemani told The Guardian last week. After two years of physical derailment, both from each other and from the art, it is exactly what feels necessary now.