Venice Post-Mortem: Reflections on The Milk of Dreams*
Ali Cherri, Totems (2022), at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Milk of Dreams, Venice (23 April–27 November 2022). Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Roberto Marossi.
I thought about reviewing the 59th Venice Biennale's central exhibition, but it's already been done. (Check out our national pavilion, off-site and collateral, parallel project reviews, and conversations, too.)
And yes to everything. The Milk of Dreams (23 April–27 November 2022), curated by Cecilia Alemani, is undeniably a show to remember. Its rhythms are like a river, save for some blips (more on those), with some unforgettable moments.
Or young guns Carolyn Lazard, Sandra Mujinga, Hannah Levy, and Elisa Giardina Papa, whose 2022 video installation "U Scantu": A Disorderly Tale, turns the Sicilian myth of hybrid women into a Mad-Max revenge fantasy where girls on bikes rule.
Housed in the Giardini's Central Pavilion and the 316-metre-long Corderie at the Arsenale, the latter feels stronger.
There, Mire Lee's quivering Endless House: Holes and Drips (2022) splays fleshy, bisque-fired clay entrails over a towering steel scaffold with rose glaze gushing over and through them.
It's a post-human body-horror anti-fountain that cuts into more dreamy groupings, like Gabriel Chaile's giant, anthropo-zoomorphic terracotta ovens with luminous paintings by Portia Zvavahera and Ficre Ghebreyesus.
Or Kapwani Kiwanga's sheer fabric installation snaking around glass, modernist encasements of sand with Tatsuo Ikeda's paintings from 1956–2008, in which planets appear like eyeballs and cellular voids, and Noor Abuarafeh's video Am I the ageless object at the museum? (2018), where a zoo visitor wonders if they are a whale looking at themselves.
Composed like a string of aphorisms (credit to exhibition designers Formafantasma), some triangulations—of figures and grounds—make sense from the jump. Cutting a gentle diagonal after a vast brick archway defining the Arsenale's structural ribs, three new sculptures by Marguerite Humeau perch on a low platform.
The references shaping Humeau's smooth biomorphic forms—like extended white petals caught in a solid flourish around whale-blue bulbs—are in their titles.
El Niño and La Niña are two opposing climate patterns, and Kuroshio, an ocean current known as the Black Stream, linking to their material composition: biological and synthetic resin and polymers, salt, algae, seaweed, bone, pigments, mineral dust, ocean plastic, and glass. A synthesis of ecological breakdown.
On one side, Monira Al Qadiri's new trio of opalescent fibreglass casts of oil drill heads, whose colours recall Andra Ursuţa's resin bodies in the Giardini, rotate on plinths. To the other, Lu Yang's three-screen 3D animation DOKU – Digital Descending (2020–ongoing) follows the artist's avatar across an explosion of real and virtual terrains.
There's a striking introduction at the Arsenale's entrance. Golden-Lion winner Simone Leigh's nearly five-metre-tall bronze woman with cowrie-tipped braids and a clay-roof dress, Brick House (2019), is amplified by Belkis Ayón's arresting, black-ink collagraphy works drawing on beliefs from the Afro-Cuban secret fraternity Abakuá to Christianity.
Ayón's mastery as a printmaker shows in an excerpt from La consagración (1991), a depiction of John's baptism in characteristic black and white figure on black ground.
While most works tie neatly into The Milk of Dreams' multiversal planetary logic, some offenses occur...
Facsimiled from Russia, the reproduction retains its intensity; a blip in the low, political hum in Alemani's show that peaks at the last-minute inclusion of folk artist Maria Prymachenko's Scarecrow (1967), a bright, chimeric beast painted in gouache on black salvaged from Ukraine. (Seven years later, and Okwui Enwezor's All the World's Futures feels timely.)
The Arsenale concludes with To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2022), an indoor garden by Precious Okoyomon populated by figures growing out of a landscape made from, among other things, invasive plant species and blood, which circles back to Ayón.
'I am interested in questioning human nature,' Ayón says in a wall text: 'that fleeting feeling, spiritually, by which my art can be appreciated by a universal public.' In Venice, the concept of the universal poses a paradox for an exhibitionary complex born out of the era that wielded the term for conquest.
With that, Ali Cherri's Silver Lion-winning three-channel film Of Men and Gods and Mud (2022) returns to the source, with visuals of a Sudanese brickyard and narrators speaking about the cosmos and matter. 'Out of mud we're first made,' we're told—'every living breathing creature in the world: flora and fauna and fungus.'
Delcy Morelos' Earthly Paradise (2022) monumentalises this point, filling one hall with giant blocks of soil mixed in with things like clay, powdered cloves, and charcoal, like a colossal earthchrome.
While most works tie neatly into The Milk of Dreams' multiversal planetary logic, some offenses occur in the five otherwise fantastic historic capsules intended to correct the 20th-century canon across fields like Constructivism—with its inspired inclusion of an austere, kinetic, Rebecca Horn sculpture—and Concrete Poetry, and its subtle weave of Carla Accardi with geometric abstraction and Op art. (Not counting the sad treatment of videos outside the Arsenale's back fence.)
Beyond the non-existent lighting in the Giardini's Surrealism space, a shame for artists deserving to be seen, some things should be taken into account in 2022.
Like the sense that the exhibition does fill important gaps while reinforcing a dominant canonical history. Or the uncritical inclusion of modern dancer Mary Wigman, whose Nazi association goes unmentioned—a fact I only learned after clocking video of Wigman in what seems to be yellow face (it's a mask for Witch Dance, 1926), and Googling it. (Modern dance's complex, international legacy of appropriation, crossover, and instrumentalisation could have its own capsule.)
Still, there are some great retinal crossovers: a testament to the impact of these historical redresses. At the Giardini, a Light, Kinetic and Op art section includes Grazia Varisco's inky blue R.VOD.LAB. (1964) from the astonishing 'Schemi luminosi variabili' series (1961–1968), which encases a motor and neon lamp in colour Perspex 'canvases' to create crystalline patterns that form like digital trails across the surface.
From this point, the show flows out to cybernetically informed works. Among them, paintings of electronic circuits like the minimalist, industrial pop rendition of the Trask transistorised sequence calculator from 1967 by Ulla Wiggen, which connect to Zhenya Machneva's tapestries from 2022 at the Arsenale. Each wood-framed knit (literally) handweaves histories of soviet industrialisation and skilled work through an 8-bit filter to render Doom-like robotic forms.
Further down, in a capsule containing Ruth Asawa's magnificent wire sculptures, Maruja Mallo's oil-on-masonite paintings from the 'Naturaleza viva' series (1942) entwine flowers and shells in luminous surreal-life; calling back to Eileen Agar's graciously titled assemblage 'Sculpture consisting of a shell stuck on top of sea urchin mounted on a base made out of woven bark' (n.d.) in the Giardini's Surrealism display.
Yet beyond the haze of beautiful encounters, this is not a timely show as much as it is overdue (in every sense). And that's not on Alemani, who did what had to be done well, but the Venice Biennale, which could have done more than 'give' womxn a platform by now. (Like, appoint an artistic director from beyond the Euro-American bubble.)
The Biennale's record for representation notwithstanding, it's no surprise a few people unwittingly referred to the preview as a fair. (An Art Basel pre-show, if you will.) Not just because of the great art, gallery events, the celebratory atmosphere of a reunion (or elitism, depending), or that feeling of the art world spaceship landing.
This is an institution tied to a history of (imperialist, patriarchal) expositions, which is how the national pavilion format cocooning the central curated show emerged: rented 'booth' space in an expo-like competition, which one person involved described as a money-making monster. (Plus ça change.)
With that in mind, here are some things I learned during preview week. An exhibiting pavilion artist must buy a ticket to see the central show after preview; reduced price, as with press, students, elderly, and others. The numbers are reasonable, but consider the travel costs and disparate economic realities and abilities of those who work and study in the field.
The kids (are all right) at a pretty much empty press desk hinted at organisational dysfunction; amplified by one collector's angry tweet about long queues and a 400-euro preview ticket (!), which may explain why the opening felt a little oversold, under-resourced, and overcrowded. Understandable, given the tourist industry's (post)pandemic recovery logic.
The Biennale's seeming indifference towards its publics may seem trivial, but it's worth noting these structural concerns, because they crosshatch with overlapping crises.
There is a well-documented necessity for this sinking city, and its cultural institutions, to manage unsustainable crowds while maintaining itself through the capital those crowds bring, all while dealing with the real-world effects of climate change. It's a terrible bind, and tickets are one way of stemming the crush. (Soon, tourists will pay a 5 euro daily entry fee to visit.)
From an operational perspective—especially in terms of the Venice Biennale's scale, including pavilions, collaterals, and parallel projects—this suggests a need to fairly corral audiences so they don't just add to the existing glut of people clogging an already buckling architectural anomaly (I saw more than a few leaning towers), which also does a disservice to the art.
And while it's promising that the Venice Biennale is working towards carbon neutrality across its events, including visitor guidance, it does seem to rarely address directly what's happening outside its gates in terms of theme or staging. (Are biennials not critiqued for their connection to context?)
The territory's ecological issues link to places like Miami Beach (eerily similar geography, if you come by road) and Tuvalu, as do their community struggles. (The Venetian cruise ship ban was a triumph.)
Then there are the institutions on the ground, like Fondazione Prada and Ocean Space, which stage great parallel shows when people are already trying to view one of the world's biggest exhibitions. Why not host a pavilion instead?
I'm not saying: make a Triennale Milano, Architecture Biennale, or Berlin Biennale 2012, dispense of object-based art in favour of bad participatory installation and video, or call in Bourriaud for an object-based eco-themed show. Nor am I saying don't visit Venice. (Maybe look at Manifesta in Palermo though.)
But with a good encyclopedic exhibition correcting one kind of record under its belt, and documenta about to stage its most radical edition yet, perhaps the most interesting thing this historic 'international' exhibition could do next, besides the obvious, would be to connect with its communities—here and elsewhere—and work (sustainably) outwards from there. —[O]
*The title of this piece comes from the name given to a series of unforgettable rundowns of Art Basel Hong Kong in its breathy early days by their author, the inimitable Diana d'Arenberg, writer, curator, and now member of the neo-goth band The Strixx, with Eamonn Fitzpatrick.