A Postcard from Venice – Contemporary Art Society

Dispatch: 27/05
A Postcard from Venice
La Biennale di Venezia

Biennale Arte 2022
23 April – 27 November

This 59th edition of the oldest and grandest art biennale in the world was delayed a year by the pandemic. Wandering the city, it is clear that it has suffered just as much as any other metropolis through that time: evidence is there in shuttered restaurants and shops. By popular consensus, however, this is one of the great biennales and international visitors are back in force.

Cecilia Alemani’s biennale is a formidably researched and elegantly produced exhibition, across the Central Pavilion in the Giardini and the Arsenale.  It includes more than 200 artists from 58 countries. The question she poses is “How is the definition of the human changing?”, and the themes she addresses are “the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses;  the relationship between individuals and technologies;  the connection between bodies and the earth.” The exhibition combines the newly commissioned with the newly rediscovered. The presentation of so many previously unknown, or little-known, women artists from the 20th century produces the excitement of discovery.

There are five small, historical sections, called Time Capsules, spread across the two sites of the curated exhibition. They function as thematic engines or signposts to a framework of ideas that informs the wider exhibition.  Embedded in the heart of the Central Pavilion is the Time Capsule called The Witches Cradle.  An extraordinary 1932 film of Mary Wigman’s 1914 performance Hexentanz – literally Witch Dance – is a pivotal work, manifesting how so early in the 20th century women artists were battering down the norms of gender roles and definitions.  Enif Robert’s book, Un Ventre di Donna: Romanzo Chirurgico, 1914 is here; it tells the story of a woman who defied her doctors to have a hysterectomy, and thus free herself of “the volubility that society associated with women”, take charge of her own body and as a consequence be a true Futurist artist.

Alongside well-known figures of the 1930s and 40s Surrealist movement, such as Leonora Carrington and Claude Cahun come the exquisite paintings of Remedios Varo, who fled her home in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Like Carrington and others in that circle, she had a passionate interest in alchemy and the occult.  The Danish-born artist Ovartaci is represented by a group of paintings, sculptures and paper costumes, all made during the 56 years she was confined to a psychiatric hospital.  Born Louis Marcussen and assigned male at birth, the artist eventually won the right to gender re-assignment surgery. Her paintings are peopled with animal-human hybrid figures, some evidently depicted in the institution in which the artist was confined for the greater part of her life.   

This feels like another moment of radical shift in our understanding of the canon. Alemani has delivered a moment of historical recognition for women artists from which we can never retreat. There is not a single male artist in the Central Pavilion.

“There’s a sense that if someone from a disenfranchised community comes on stage and says “I’m important” it’s a political act. “ (Stan Douglas interview Wallpaper.com 28 April 2022) The offsite element of Stan Douglas’ show in Venice – he is representing Canada this year– is a two-channel video work called ISDN showing in the Magazzini del Sale No.5 on the Zattere. It references revolutionary moments of popular uprising, most recently in London, 2011, and the Arab Spring of the same year. Meticulously crafted to create a call-and-response structure, rappers in Brixton and mahraganat performers in Cairo face each other on large suspended screens; while one group raps, the other dances, apparently waiting their turn. The viewer stands between the two, the English lyrics are subtitled in Arabic, the Arabic in English.  Both groups rap about their frustration and anger; this is the international soundtrack to revolt.

Back in the Giardini, Sonia Boyce’s British Pavilion is an emotional homage to the power and beauty of Black British women musicians. Filmed at Abbey Road Studios in London, Boyce has recorded the artists meeting and singing together for the first time; the overall experience wraps the visitor in evocative acapella song, speaking to the artist’s theme of innovation through collaboration. It is, of course, a political act.

Kehinde Wiley has an expansive exhibition at the Cini Foundation on the island of St Giorgio, several times larger than most of the national representations.  Large-scale canvasses and epic bronzes across four spaces, deploy his signature strategy of placing contemporary Black figures in canonical compositions from Western art history.  This body of work has the fallen warrior as theme: prone bodies, meticulously detailed in Louis Vuitton and Nike, lie as if they were enlarged details from a 19th century history painting. The individuality of the portraiture is compelling and moving, leaving the viewer to supply the detail of the battle in which the warrior fell. 

The museum shows in town are not to be missed. At Francois Pinault’s Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi solo shows of Bruce Nauman and Marlene Dumas are exemplary. The impeccably minimalist, concrete interiors of the Dogana host an exhibition exploring Nauman’s early film Walking with Contraposto, 1968. The original film is shown on a monitor in the second room, small, black and white and somehow so fragile in its youthful experimentation.  Alongside it other monitors with studio-based performances – to a camera laid on its side or upside down. The show unfolds with more recent permutations of Contraposto – with Nauman’s signature reversals and inversions, back to front, upside down, split screens.  His cowboy aesthetic is somehow to the fore in the uniform of wranglers and one-pocket white T-shirt, even in this most pared-back visual style, grounding the practice indelibly in the US. Two 3-D works towards the end of the show are brilliantly crafted, another expression of the destabilisation of the image, the integrity of the body and the gesture.

Marlene Dumas’ exhibition Open Ended at the Palazzo Grassi is devastatingly good. This is a rare opportunity to immerse yourself in her technical brilliance as a painter and conjurer of images, and to open yourself up to her stiletto-sharp commentary on the world we live in.

Caroline Douglas, Director

Mary Wigman, Hexentanz

Images credit: Marlene Dumas at Palazzo Grassi, Courtesy of Venice Biennale

Venezia, Biennale Arte 2022
Open until 27 November