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A great Venice Biennale unfolds, against all the odds

The latest edition of the world’s pre-eminent contemporary art event, delayed by a year, is one of the most compelling in recent memory

People walk past a sculpture by artist Simone Leigh at the 59th Biennale of Arts exhibition in Venice on April 19. Leigh, an American sculptor, cuts an imposing figure at this year’s Venice Biennale. The first Black woman to headline the U.S. Pavilion, Leigh has posted a monumental 24-foot sculpture called “Satellite” outside the neo-Palladian brick structure, which is hidden beneath a thatched raffia roof and wooden columns. (Antonio Calanni/AP)
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VENICE — The Venice Biennale — art’s forever fraught answer to the Olympics — provides a precious opportunity to take the culture’s temperature and speculate on where things are headed. It’s where the art world announces new talent, revives becalmed careers and, just as often, submerges dreams of stardom in lagoons of indifference.

This year’s version, which officially opens Saturday — delayed by a year because of the pandemic — feels reassuringly familiar on the surface. Yet it is a biennale unlike any I can remember.

As the organizers entered the final stages of their preparations, Russian troops began massing on the Ukrainian border. A terrifying war has since broken out. The biennale, nonetheless, has opened on schedule, minus a few Russian oligarch collectors, and with a new, chastened sense of fragility. There is still a festive air (It’s spring! It’s Italy!), and as usual, a gleaming superyacht basks outside the leafy zone known as the Giardini, where part of the main exhibition takes place.

But the Russia Pavilion stands empty and rebuked (one curator told me that workers preparing the other pavilions have used it to deposit their refuse). And nearby, in the very heart of the Giardini, a makeshift Ukrainian pavilion has appeared. Really a rudimentary pergola of light wood symbolically scorched by blowtorches, the space was still under construction as the media arrived at the beginning of the week (it was proposed only two weeks ago; Ukraine does not have its own building in the Giardini). It features a tall pile of white sandbags of the kind being used to protect monuments in Ukraine and some posters showing drawings from shelters in Mariupol.

Meanwhile, adding to the sense of crisis, albeit on a different time signature, Venice continues to sink as sea levels rise. The miracle that is this fading city, with its dancing light and gray-green waters lapping at crumbling red brick, continues to stupefy, resisting the urge to turn it into a metaphor for our human predicament only by dint of its sheer, sensuous actuality.

Overwhelming (but indispensable) even to art professionals, the biennale comes in three parts: the main, curated exhibition; the national pavilions; and the “collateral events” — independent exhibitions in museums, churches and palazzos scattered throughout the city (which I’m still visiting, and will write about separately later). You need a day for part one, a day for part two and two days for part three. Even so, much will elude you.

The always closely watched U.S. Pavilion, featuring figurative sculptures and a video by Simone Leigh, is one of the standout shows in the Giardini. Leigh’s ceramic sculptures are beautifully textured with subtle, richly colored glazes. A few veer toward illustrational kitsch, and the prevailing symmetry of their forms can begin to feel complacent. But even these grow on you. Rounded and resonant, they have a capaciousness evocative of generosity, ironic fatigue and endurance.

106 great works, in focus

Four of the previous 12 artists commissioned to fill the U.S. Pavilion have been African American. The same period has also included four women. But Leigh is the first Black woman to be selected. She has covered the pavilion itself with grass thatching — reviving (with scalding irony) the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition. That show presented the cultures of colonized peoples in Africa and Asia for the delectation of bourgeois Westerners, spurring a profound counter-reaction among Asian and African intellectuals. The effect of the thatching — a discrete work in itself, called “Facade” — is startling and has drawn enormous online attention. (Leigh’s exhibition, titled “Sovereignty” and curated by Eva Respini, will show in the United States after Venice, beginning at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, the museum commissioned by the State Department to stage the U.S. presentation in Venice this year.)

Two of Leigh’s sculptures also bookend the main group show in the Arsenale. This exhibition, featuring 213 artists from 58 countries, occupies a long procession of galleries in the Arsenale and the warren of galleries that make up the Giardini’s Central Pavilion. It was organized this year by Cecilia Alemani, an Italian who in the past has placed Leigh’s work, to dramatic effect, on New York’s High Line, where Alemani is director and chief curator.

The good news about Alemani’s main exhibition, titled “The Milk of Dreams,” is that there’s not an NFT in sight. It’s filled instead with works that celebrate the idea of physical metamorphosis, conflating the body with either new technologies, cyborg-style, or old dreams of union with Earth and its various life-forms. Both kinds of work trigger timely questions about what it is to be human.

Somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of the artists are women — an inversion of the biennale’s first 100 years, when women made up less than one-tenth of the total (the fraction rises to merely a third over the past 30 years).

I’ve been coming to the biennale since the late 1990s, and Alemani’s exhibition is one of the most intelligent and ambitious I’ve seen. It’s full of surprises, including, scattered among all the great stuff, (how to say this?) some of the most hideous, clumsy and uncongenial art I’ve seen in such a prestigious show.

This is partly, I acknowledge, a question of taste. Alemani has been greatly inspired by Surrealism, my least favorite major strain of art. The show’s title is taken from a story the Surrealist Leonora Carrington wrote for her children on the walls of their home in Mexico. (A suite of Carrington’s paintings are included in a Surrealism show at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the Grand Canal). Surrealism petered out as a movement after the catastrophes of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. The world had lost interest in indulging the childlike unconscious, which no longer seemed so fertile and innocent.

We are in yet another crisis today and might expect art of sobriety and austerity in response. But “The Milk of Dreams” refuses to meet that expectation. It is delirious, playful, phantasmagorical. It doesn’t meet crisis with a taut ideological counterpunch. It greets us, instead, with intimacy, frankness and imagination.

Alemani’s presentation succeeds by making us consider Surrealism afresh — from both a female and a future-oriented perspective, with one eye on the past. The first work you see, installed under a giant dome decorated with art nouveau murals in blue and gold, is a green, life-size elephant on a plinth. The piece, by Katharina Fritsch, sets the tone for what follows: intensely physical (there is very little video art), colorful, outsize and improbable.

Fritsch’s elephant is followed by a small and poignant gouache called “Scarecrow,” by the late Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko, who lived through polio, famine, Stalin and Chernobyl. Much of Prymachenko’s work is held in the Ivankiv Museum in Kyiv, which was recently bombed by the Russians. “Scarecrow,” a folky rendering of a hybrid fantasy creature in bright, decorative colors, was a late addition to the show, but it fits in perfectly — a reminder that wild imaginings and fairy tales are a legitimate response to crisis, war and destruction.

My favorite room in Alemani’s show features works by Cecilia Vicuña, a Chilean artist and poet who this year won, together with Fritsch, the biennale’s Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement. As a young woman, Vicuña left home to study in London. The coup that ousted president Salvador Allende prevented her return. Her “precarios” — little pieces of frayed rope, netting, twigs, flotsam and flayed fabric suspended by strings from the ceiling — are a hair’s breadth away from being nothing. Yet they accumulate into something utterly bewitching.

They are surrounded here by a suite of Vicuña’s naive-looking paintings. One, “Bendigame Mamita,” portrays the artist’s mother, from whom she was separated when she left Chile. The mother is shown with a guitar. One of her eyes replaces the instrument’s sound hole — as if to suggest the possibility of a perception synthesized and expanded by love.

This, perhaps, is what is meant by Alemani’s “milk of dreams” — a maternal, or feminine, take on Surrealism that draws the childlike, dreaming impulse away from self-indulgence toward something nourishing and sustaining. This vivid, life-loving view of the world is central to the show’s success. You see it in the work of some of its strongest young artists, including Igshaan Adams, Tau Lewis, Sheree Hovsepian and Christina Quarles. Tempered by darker experience, it’s there, too, in the work of such veterans as Paula Rego, Jacqueline Humphries, Charline Von Heyl, Charlotte Johannesson and Mrinalini Mukherjee.

Alemani breaks up the run of contemporary works with discreet historical sections, each in a freshly designed display. These “time capsules,” featuring works by earlier 20th century artists (most of them women only recently getting their due), establish dialogues and rhymes across generations. One has gold, velvet carpet, mustard walls and display cases with works by key artists associated with both Surrealism (Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Remedios Varo, Meret Oppenheim, Leonor Fini and Claude Cahun) and the Harlem Renaissance (Augusta Savage, Lois Mailou Jones). Farther in, there’s an equally marvelous “time capsule” featuring a display of Ruth Asawa’s hanging sculptures.

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The national pavilions at the biennale are independent of Alemani’s curated show. Unconstrained by themes, the artists who present in them must nonetheless do battle with the buildings themselves and their often fraught political histories. This year, both Germany’s Maria Eichhorn and Spain’s Ignasi Aballí went to great lengths to deconstruct or “correct” their respective pavilions.

The Nordic Countries Pavilion turned its attractive, open space over to a group show of Indigenous Sami artists, while France’s enchanting pavilion, which explores the history of French Algerian cinema, was transformed by Zineb Sedira into a film set, nightclub, living room and movie theater.

The three best pavilions are by Belgium’s Francis Alys, Australia’s Marco Fusinato (both in the Giardini) and Italy’s Gian Maria Tosatti (in the Arsenale). Each provides an antidote of sorts to the prevailing strains of fantasy, colorful shape-shifting and technophilia.

Alys’s presents a video version of “Children’s Games,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s great 16th-century painted inventory of games in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. On a series of screens, Alys shows recent footage of games played by children all over the world. Examples include “Rubi,” which involves thumbing marbles in a miniature arena, in the Democratic Republic of Congo; “Step on a Crack” in Hong Kong; “Espejos,” a game that uses handheld mirrors to redirect sunlight at opponents, in Mexico; “Slakken,” or snail racing, in Belgium; “Schneespiele,” or “snow fun,” in Switzerland, and “Papalote,” or kite flying, in Afghanistan (where it was banned by the Taliban).

In Alys’s hands, the inventiveness of children, sometimes in dangerous environments, arouses more than just sentimentality. The pavilion’s anarchic din feels as generous and resilient, in its way, as Leigh’s serene and silent sculptures in the U.S. Pavilion.

Fusinato presents a different kind of cacophony. His rapid-fire sequences of degraded black-and-white imagery downloaded from the Internet flash up on a giant screen. The imagery is triggered (via a computer program) by the artist’s live, amplified electric guitar playing. The sound is intense, the imagery stark but elusive, the overall effect like a virtuosic heavy metal drum solo, urgent and austere. Fusinato will be performing the piece for 200 straight days.

But it may be the Italian Gian Maria Tosatti’s transformation of a sequence of rooms in the Arsenale into an empty and derelict factory that I remember most from this biennale. There are no VR headsets to don (as in the Greek pavilion); no pulsing, serpentine robots (as in the Korean pavilion); and no hyper-real sculptures of dead centaurs (as in the Danish pavilion).

Instead, you walk, alone and in silence, from one abandoned room to the next in a melancholy daze, circling around redundant machinery, between rows of sewing machines and past old telephones and empty beds. There are no hybrid creatures, no vivid colors, no notes of fantasy or dreaming.

The final space is utterly dark. As you walk out onto a pier surrounded by water with distant pinpricks of light flickering in front of you, your mind hovers between two questions: “Is this how things were?” and “Is this how it will end?”

And then, you wander out into Venice.

The 59th Venice Biennale of Art runs Saturday through Nov. 27. Info at labiennale.org.

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