Introduction to the Issue

by Deanna Sirlin

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Photo: Sculptures of Cosima von Bonin at the 59th Biennale di Venezia   Roberto Marossi, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Il latte dei Sogni /The Milk of Dreams
by Deanna Sirlin

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Simone Leigh, Brick House, 2019, Bronze, 16 x 9 feet, Entrance to The Milk of Dreams in the Arsenale

Photo: Deanna Sirlin

The Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani for the 59th Biennale di Venezia, not only shows that the “Future is Female” but also informs the viewer that the Past was female as well. Alemani borrowed the title of this exhibition from the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington’s (b. 1917, UK – d. 2011, Mexico) illustrated book for children in which people transform into animals or machines. This looking backward and forward through the lens of surrealism makes for a rich and complex exhibition that examines “metamorphoses of bodies and definitions of the human” from a post-human perspective.

Alemani, who is the curator for the High Line in New York, is the first Italian woman to curate the Venice Biennale. For the first time in history, the majority of the artists in this 59th Biennale are women. Out of 213 artists, only 21 are male identifying and of that group, only 15 are living.  Alemani has turned the tables on the usual perception of the art of the 20th century as male dominated through her inclusion of women artists whose work, in many cases, is present in a major international exhibition for the first time.  

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 Katharina Fritsch, Elefant / Elephant,1987, Polyester, wood, paint,150 × 165 × 63 inches, Photo: Deanna Sirlin

When one enters the exhibition in the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, the first work one sees, a massive sculpture, Elefant / Elephant by German artist Katharina Fritsch (b. 1956, Germany), exquisitely situated in the entrance room and elevated on a pedestal, is as breathtaking as a kouros figure. This sculpture of a dark greenish patinaed elephant, cast from a stuffed elephant and realized in polyester, is in an octagonal room, surrounded with decorative paintings from 1907-1909 by Galileo Chini (b. 1873 – d. 1956, Italy), an advocate of Italian Art Nouveau. The sculpture’s presence in this location is a historical reference in itself: in the 1890’s, an elephant lived on the Biennale grounds and was known as “the prisoner in the Giardini.”

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Cecilia Vicuña, NAUfraga, 2022, rope and other debris, Photo: Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Both Fritsch and Cecilia Vicuña, an artist and poet who was born in Chile and exiled in the 1970’s, won Golden Lions for lifetime achievement. Vicuña’s work in the Biennale is a precarious structure made from ropes and debris the artist collected in Venice. This work, NAUfraga (2022) hangs from the ceiling in graceful lines formed by repurposed fragments of rope and plastic in front of her paintings from the 1970’s. NAUfraga contains the words navis (ship) and frangere (to break) and is most certainly reflective of the disaster of climate change on a city like Venice. Naufraga also means a female castaway or survivor of a shipwreck in Spanish and Portuguese. 

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Andra Ursuţa and Rosemarie Trockel, Installation view, The Milk of Dreams, 59th Venice Biennale Photo: Deanna Sirlin

Traveling through the exhibition, the viewer encounters an exquisite pairing of knitted paintings by Rosemarie Trockel (b. 1952, Germany) in deep and vibrant monochromes of yellow, violet, dark blue, and crimson with varied hued cast glass sculptures by Andra Ursuţa (b. 1979, Romania) composed of disjointed anatomical parts from human bodies, animals, and plants. These artists are from opposite ends of the conceptual spectrum, but the juxtaposition of their work is spot-on. The play of materials and color creates a dialogue that allows each artist to be seen on her own terms as well as in relation to the other. 

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Paula Rego, Oratorio, 2009, cabinet with drawings and sculptures at 59th Biennale, Photo:Deanna Sirlin

Alemani has created five “capsules,” three in the Giardini and two in the Arsenale, that carry the viewer both backwards and forwards in time. These glorious mini-exhibitions would be enough on their own. The first (depending on how the viewer meanders through the Biennale) is Corpo Orbita /Body Orbit, a section devoted to concrete poetry and automatic art making. The second, La culla della strega/ The Witch’s Cradle is a dark yellowed carpeted space filled with women surrealists such as Leonora Carrington that also includes a photo of singer and dancer Josephine Baker (b. 1906, USA – d. 1975, France). Baker, who had a pet cheetah which she often walked in the streets of Paris, was an African-American performer who played with the idea of primitivism that was central to such European avant-garde movements as Dada, Cubism, and Surrealism. This capsule leads to a large and seductive darkened gallery presenting the work of Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego (b. 1935). Rego’s Oratorio, 2009, included in this room, is an important work comprised of a wood cabinet triptych in the form of an altarpiece with side panels featuring six drawings and, at the center, eight sculptural mannequins wearing brown and white uniforms. These figures, made of fabric and stuffed, are like scary dolls with which to play. An oratorio is a musical work for orchestra and voices, usually a narrative on a religious theme, performed without the use of costumes, scenery, or action. In all the works in this room, Rego’s narratives become a stage where the scenes play back and forth between her dolls and puppets and the drawings in the two-dimensional surfaces. This room of works elucidates a disturbing reality of emotional and physical pain.

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Tecnologie dell'incanto /Technologies of Enchantment, Photo by Roberto Marossi, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Tecnologie dell'incanto /Technologies of Enchantment is the third capsule in the Giardini, containing works that feature illumination. In Grazia Varisco’s (b. 1937, Italy) work, patterns of blue light contained in a black wooden box engage in both real and illusionary movement. Varisco is the only living artist in this part of the exhibition; her work is compositionally related to that of Sonia Delaunay (b. 1885, Ukraine – d. 1979, France) whose suite of exquisite small paintings on paper is seen in a different area of the exhibition. Whereas Delaunay sought patterns in her work that could be “realized with thread,” Varisco creates patterns in lines of light. Also in this capsule are Laura Grisi’s (b. 1939, Greece – d. 2017, Italy) rectangular sculptures containing vertical neon lights that glow with color and refer to natural phenomena, such as her Sunset Light (1967).

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Mrinalini Mukherjee, RudraDevi (both 1982) and Vanshree (1994), Hemp, Photo: Deanna Sirlin

Thread and craft have a strong presence at this Biennale. Mrinalini Mukherjee’s (b. 1949 – d. 2015, India) rope sculptures are wonderful creatures made of dyed and woven hemp that evoke costuming for a science fiction film; boundaries between art and craft dissolve in her haunting figures.

The Milk of Dreams continues In the Arsenale. Upon entering, one sees the monumental sculpture Brick House, by Simone Leigh (b. 1967, USA), who also is the artist in the United States pavilion. This extraordinary work from 2019 graced the High Line in New York City. Seeing this work hovering over 10th Ave when it was on the High Line was uplifting but encountering it immediately when entering the Arsenale is sublime. Brick House is a heroic work, a bronze sculpture of a goddess of womanhood. Leigh’s work is surrounded by the magnificent collagraphs of Belkis Ayón (b. 1967 – d. 1999, Cuba) in a palette of black, white, and grey, of faces whose only feature is their eyes. These works, made mostly in the 1990’s, have a haunting presence as stacked figures peer out at us. Ayón’s imagery comes from “the codes, symbols, and tales of Abakuá,” described in the exhibition material as “a secret Afro-Cuban fraternal society whose foundational myth is based on a woman’s act of betrayal.” Ayón twists this to create prints that allude to an imaginary matriarchal society.

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Belkis Ayón, Nlloro, 1991,Collograph on paper. Belkis Ayón Estate, Havana, Cuba photo: Deanna Sirlin

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s (b. 1941, USA) video Logic Paralyzes the Heart (2021) is a provocative work about technology taking over the body. In a wonderful realization of this theme, the cyborg in the video is played by actress Joan Chen of Twin Peaks fame. This is a compelling video which takes viewer into the journey of AI to the point at which we have lost control over technology, and it is “too late” in this post-human artwork.

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Ruth Asawa, installation view in the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Milk of Dreams, 2022. Photo by Roberto Marossi. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

The next capsule of the exhibition is a curved room in the Arsenale painted a light and soothing pink titled Una foglia una zucca un guscio una rete una borsa una tracolla una bisaccia una bottiglia una pentola una scatola un contenitore / A Leaf a Gourd a Shell a Net a Bag a Sling a Sack a Bottle a Pot a Box a Container, a quotation from Ursula K. Le Guin. Inside the gallery space is an exquisite collection of works by Ruth Asawa (b. 1926 – d. 2013, USA) whose hanging wire sculptures are like linear totems that shimmer in space to create form. Sophie Taeuber-Arp (b. 1889 – d. 1943, Switzerland) who was a member of the Dadaists, is also represented in this space by textile sculptures that straddle the line between design and art. As viewers continue through the Arsenale to the last capsule, La seduzione del cyborg / Seduction of the Cyborg, they encounter a large work by Louise Nevelson (b. 1899, Ukraine – d. 1988, USA), Homage to the Universe (1968). Nevelson’s work filled the US pavilion in 1962 (exactly 60 years ago) but has not been seen in a Venice Biennale since. The most amazing work that Alemani found to exhibit in this capsule is a series of costumes from the Weimar era by Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt. These fantastical costumes were worn by Schulz when she performed an expressionist dance using movements of “creeping, stamping, squatting, crouching, kneeling, arching, striding, lunging, and leaping in mostly diagonal-spiraling patterns.” This capsule is filled with many artists who create works that transform the human to a machine-like hybrid, reflecting these “post-human” times.

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Louise  Nevelson, Homage to the Universe,1968, painted wood, 102 inches × 28 feet 8 inches Collection: Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan

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Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt, Costumes, 1924, Arsenale, Seduction of the Cyborg, Collection Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg 

These capsules are the “shows within a show” exhibiting works being made now that resonate with work from the past. The Milk of Dreams challenges our historical references by including artists who were inventors and creators, somewhat acknowledged in their time but cast aside by the present art historical cannons. Of course, Alemani’s curation is not the entire Biennale. In the national pavilions are significant exhibitions by Simone Leigh (US) Sovereignty, Sonia Boyce (UK) Feeling Her Way, and Zineb Sedira (France) Les rêves n’ont pas de titre / Dreams have no titles. And a collateral exhibition in St. Mark’s Square, Louise Nevelson: Persistence curated by Julia Bryan-Wilson, further allows the viewer to see with fresh eyes art that has escaped the canon. 

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Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

www.deannasirlin.com