Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
There are moments for every dedicated art observer visiting the Biennale di Venezia in which an artwork stops even the most jaded viewer in their tracks. My first trip to Venice was in 1993, precisely to see the Biennale for the first time and to see the work of the artist that represented the United States, Louise Bourgeois. I was captivated not only by Bourgeois’s work but also by the Biennale. 1993 was the first year of the Aperto in the massive space of the Arsenale. “Emergency/Emergenze” was curated by a team; I would be remiss if I did not credit Achille Bonito Oliva as the Director of this Biennale.
Historically, the first version of this exhibition was the Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte della Città di Venezia in 1895, with 224,000 visitors traveling to the city to see contemporary art. Belgium was the first country to have its own pavilion (1907) and in the following decades, new pavilions were built by individual countries. In 1910, several artists were given their own exhibitions within the main gallery space, significantly including Gustav Klimt, Pierre-August Renoir, and a retrospective for Gustave Courbet. Picasso’s work Family of Saltimbanques was removed from the Biennale’s exhibition gallery because it was thought to be too shocking for the public. Picasso did not have another work at the Biennale until 1948. The Biennale only paused during World War I and World War II, and most recently because of the pandemic.
Marina Abramović, Balkan Baroque, Performance-installation (detail), Venice Biennale, June 1997 Photograph by Attilio Maranzano courtesy of Marina Abramović Archives and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York
Pipilotti Rist, Ever is Over All, 1997, audio video installation (video still) © Pipilotti Rist.
Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine
Significant contemporary artworks have been shown first at the Biennale. The 47th Biennale in 1997 was curated by Germano Celant (who sadly died of Covid in 2020) who titled his exhibition, Future, Present, Past. The exhibition got tepid reviews, but I only remember the triumphant presentation of pivotal works, such as Marina Abramović’s performance and multi-media work Balkan Baroque, 1997. Abramović’s installation was in the lower gallery of the Italia building where she performed in front of a three-channel video set in the room like a triptych of herself and her parents. Abramović’s performance was live; the artist washed 1500 bloody cow bones while she cried and sang Yugoslavian folk songs from her childhood. After four days, one can imagine the smell, the flies, and other vermin. The pain presented in this work cannot be forgotten, just as the pain of war in Ukraine is only too present in our times.
Also at the 47th edition of the Biennale was Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All, a two channel video of a woman walking down the street using a long flower (a red hot poker) to smash car windows. This work, which has been described as a “feminist call to arms,” is perhaps even more apropos now that Roe v. Wade is a new battleground to be contested by the US supreme court.
There are many more significant works that were first seen and written about at Biennales; I am sure all those who have visited have their favorites. The current 59th Biennale (23 April to 27 November 2022), titled Il latte dei sogni/The Milk of Dreams from the illustrated book by artist Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) is significant for Cecelia Alemani’s curation, which is both thoughtful and powerful. Alemani is the first Italian woman to curate this exhibition and she does so with a vengeance to bring renewed attention to forgotten and overlooked woman artists. In her curator’s statement, Alemani reflects on her relationship to the title: “the Surrealist artist describes a magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination.”
In this issue of TAS, I have written about Alemani’s Milk of Dreams which, in her own words, “takes Leonora Carrington’s otherworldly creatures, along with other figures of transformation, as companions on an imaginary journey through the metamorphoses of bodies and definitions of the human.” Alemani’s vision is the jewel of this Biennale, one I expect will be thought and written about for many years to come.
It was delightful to have many of The Art Section’s writers present for the vernissage days of the Biennale. I want to thank Giuseppe Gavazza and Daniele Frison, who were part of the team, for sound and video.
Tanya Augsburg, Deanna Sirlin, Giuseppe Gavazza and Daniele Frison in Venezia photo: Cecilia Esse
UK-based critic Floriana Piqué writes about the artist as activist through discussions of Feeling Her Way by Sonia Boyce at the British Pavilion, Zineb Sedira’s immersive installation Les Reves N’ont Pas De Titre/Dreams Have No Title, at the French Pavilion, the
Scotland + Venice partnership that presents deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory, a new multi-media installation with tapestry, film and sculpture by artist Alberta Whittle, and Jonathas De Andrade’s installation at the Brazilian Pavilion.
Feminist art historian Dr. Tanya Augsburg writes about Simone Leigh’s triumphant exhibition, Sovereignty, at the US Pavilion. Leigh, the first African-American woman to represent the United States at the Biennale, has filled the galleries with monumental ceramic sculptures that depict the strength and labor of Black women. Leigh transformed the exterior of the neo-classical architecture of the US Pavilion into
a 1930s west African palace with thatched roof, titling this transformation Façade.
The Biennale will be on view until November 27, 2022. I hope many will make the journey to see this compelling exhibition that perhaps has rewritten the history of art.
All my very best,
The Art Section
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.