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Sharon Lockhart. Agnieszka, “MANIFESTO OF THE MILKY NIGHT,” Little Review no. 131 (4568), May 10, 1935, Department of Library Collections, National Library of Poland, Warsaw, February 2, 2017, 2017. Image: Courtesy of the artist, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, neugerriemschneider,Berlin, and Zachęta

– National Gallery of Art, Warsaw. Copyright Sharon Lockhart

Women in Venice


by Deanna Sirlin


It is my personal crusade to write about women artists and their participation and visibility in the art world. Sharon Lockhart, an American artist, is representing Poland in this year’s Biennale. The work she did with a group of teenaged girls in Poland resonates with social purpose—the girls are from the Youth Center for Socio-Therapy in Rudzienko. She brought these girls to Warsaw to translate the Little Review, which was written by children in an orphanage in Poland from 1926 to 1939. Lockhart observes that there is a lack of female representation in the exhibition and that only a handful of women have ever been represented in the United States Pavilion. (Since 1986, five women have had solo exhibitions in the pavilion—Jenny Holzer, Louise Bourgeois, Ann Hamilton, Sarah Sze, and Joan Jonas.) I should note with congratulations that Carolee Schneemann was awarded  a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement this year. And yes, the curator of the Biennale is Christine Macel. 

Philipp Kaiser, the curator of the Swiss Pavilion, asked artist Carol Bove and artist team Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler to respond to the history of the Pavilion. Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), perhaps the best-known Swiss sculptor of the 20th century, had declined to represent Switzerland at the Biennale many times because he refused to be defined by his birthplace and nationality. Giacometti, who lived most of his adult life in Paris, consented only in 1956 to exhibit a group of sculptures titled Femmes de Venise in the French Pavilion.

The double sided film installation, Flora, by the artist team Hubbard / Birchler is the narrative of an American woman, Flora Mayo, an artist who goes to Paris to study sculpture. She meets Giacometti, they become friends and then they have an affair. He makes a sculpture of her; she creates a sculptural bust portrait of him. Because of her parents’ failing business in the States during the Depression, her financial support disappears and she must return to the United States. On one side of the screen, we can see a black-and-white video “dramatization” of this story recreated from her diaries. On the flip side of the screen is her son, now 81, in color. He narrates and we watch as he travels to Zurich to see the Giacometti exhibition and encounters the work titled Flora. “It’s my mom. It’s my mother.” He speaks about his mother as a brave woman who raised him alone. Sadly, Flora the artist ends up as just a footnote in the James Lord biography of Giacometti. This video installation brings to the front the difficulties of being a woman artist.


Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler

Flora 2017

Synchronized double-sided film installation with sound

30 mins, loop

Installation view: Swiss Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017

Courtesy the artists, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

and Lora Reynolds Gallery, Austin

Photo credit: Ugo Carmeni

In the courtyard of the Pavilion is the sculpture of Carol Bove, whose cerulean blue works of vertical and dimensional abstracted forms stand upright and address the viewer on a human scale. These sculptures  are in direct response to Giacometti’s women. They are lush and clean, and quite frankly beautiful works. They are a bold and hopeful counterpoint to the work of Giacometti.

Installation view of Carol Bove's sculptures included

in Women of Venice at the Swiss Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale, 2017.

Courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner New York/London,

Maccarone New York/Los Angeles.

I find Switzerland a confusing place when it comes to feminism. I recently learned that women in Switzerland did not get the vote until 1968. This seems unbelievably late, yet this same country has produced and celebrated many significant women artists, including Meret Oppenheim and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and continues to support and promote women at the Biennale, including in past Biennales Pipilotti Rist and Pamela Rosenkrantz  (whose work was in the main pavilion in 2015). Women have only been able to vote in Switzerland for the last 50 years – how can this be?


Some of the national pavilions are presenting women artists this year. Geta Brătescu was chosen to represent Romania at the Biennale. The artist is 91 years old and has been working for more that 50 years. Brătescu’s work revolves around the idea of the studio as both a physical and a philosophical space. “Memory is apparition; an epiphany, like art," states the artist. Brătescu’s exhibition is a kind of study for the history of a feminist artist that incorporates collage, experimentation, performance, and process. I wonder if you must live into your nineties to be acknowledged by the art world. I wonder about the women artists who do not live into their nineties or even their hundreds, like Carmen Herrera. Will they never see their work appreciated?

IGeta Brătescu, Linia (The Line), 2014.

 HD video, 14:50 minutes. Image, sound, editing: Ștefan Sava. Courtesy of the artist.

Another artist who lived well into her nineties was Carol Rama from Turin, Italy who died two years ago at the age of 97. There is a provocative exhibition on view called “Carol Rama. Spazio anche più che tempo” (Carol Rama. Space even more than time) at the Ca’ nova on the Grand Canal. This is one of the auxiliary exhibitions around the city. Currently, The New Museum in NYC has a full-scale exhibition of her work until September 10, 2017. These psychologically charged works on paper are filled with images that evoke sexuality and the body through a feminist eye and hand. Rama also had a distinctive persona akin to those of Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. Well-known in Turin, Rama wore a braid around her head like a laurel wreath and received visitors while lying in her bed, which was in her studio. I find her creation of such a persona both interesting and disturbing, as it seems to be necessary for the woman artist.

Carol Rama, Senza titolo (untitled), 1967. 

(ink, doll’s eyes, and glue on paper), 37 x 25 cm (14 9/16 x 9 7/8 inches) © Archivio Carol Rama, Torino. Photo: Roberto Goffi

Another woman artist finally getting the respect due her is Phyllida Barlow in the British Pavilion. A headline in the Guardian reads: "Phyllida Barlow conquered the art world at 73." The article is a compassionate account of the life of this artist and her journey to representing Great Britain at the Biennale. The work titled Folly is a massive installation of painted sculptures, including giant soft baubles on sticks that humorously grace each side of the building’s entryway. Her materials are fabric, cardboard, plywood, plaster, and cement; the sculptures are all hand built and lovingly clumsy. When you enter the pavilion you are faced with giant industrially painted columns that are soft yet rigid, with openings that evoke old tree trunks and elephant legs.

Phyllida Barlow, Folly, Installation view, British Pavilion, Venice, 2017,

Photo: Deanna Sirlin © British Council. Courtesy the artist

and Hauser & Wirth

Candice Breitz represents South Africa along with artist Mohau Modisakeng in two separate video installations in the Arsenale. I would like to write more about  Modisakeng, being a fan of his work since seeing it in Atlanta (I wrote about it for The Art Section here) but I have decided to keep to my premise of writing about the women artists in the Biennale. Candice Breitz’s work has been seen in many biennales over the years, but this is the first time she is representing South Africa. I found her video installation Love Story to be a poignant and moving work that still resonates. You enter her installation, and there is a video where the actor Alec Baldwin is seen back dropped by a green screen. He is speaking directly to you, telling you his story of having to leave his country. After a few minutes, the screen switches to actress Julianne Moore who is telling a different story about being a refugee. Baldwin and Moore are shot straight on, but their voices and body language tell the tales of refugees with great passion and compassion. These may be these two actors’ most significant performances. In the next room are six video monitors, each with a real person telling their story of having to leave their country against the same green screen. I was compelled to watch each one, then return to see Baldwin’s or Moore’s performance of the individual’s story and life. Love Story has an immediate and complex relationship of the heartbreaking stories of these six individuals from different parts of the world. The added twisting of having two Hollywood actors play these real people, then seeing and hearing the non-actors whose stories the actors tell brings the work to another level of meaning.

Candice Breitz

Love Story, 2016

7-Channel Installation: 7 Hard Drives Installation View Photo:Deanna Sirlin

Tracey Moffatt, representing Australia, brings the plight of the refugee into a different kind of focus with her installation of photography, sound, and video. My Horizon is a fictional recounting in sepia toned imagery that, like Breitz’s work, mixes Hollywood imagery (in this case, stills) with documentary images of boats filled with refugees. Moffatt is creates a fictional world that combines storytelling, nostalgia, and current events.

Tracey Moffatt 

The White Ghosts SaIlied In

(digital video with sound, 2 minutes) 

Lisa Reihana, who represents New Zealand, created a panoramic film that reimagines French scenic wallpaper, titled In Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17. The pavilion’s exhibition is titled Emissaries. This work is an astounding animation that reflects on immigration from the perspective of a different era. The viewer can watch the tale of Captain Cook’s voyages slowly unfold against the backdrop of “Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (The Savages of the Pacific Ocean), a multi-paneled wall decoration produced in France in 1804-5. I think of this post-colonial retelling of death of Cook in Hawaii as “the dramatic moment of rupture.”


Lisa Reihana

 Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17,

Ultra HD video, color, sound, 64 min.

New Zealand Pavilion

Anne Imhof, won the Golden Lion for her installation, manipulation, and performance of Germany’s pavilion. Her piece, titled Faust, is intentionally disturbing. Two large cages flank the exterior of the building with Doberman dogs. Performers are sometimes in the cages or inside the pavilion, either under or on top of a glass floor. Faust has made a deal with the devil, and this performance-cum installation put my teeth a bit on edge, as I assume it was meant to do.

Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017, performance documentation, German Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Nadine Fraczkowski

The sculpture of Claudia Fontes, who represents Argentina at the Biennale, must be one of the most photographed works in the Biennale. Fontes’ The Horse Problem depicts a large white horse completing the motion of coming down after rearing up, returning to a state of calm after the touch of a little girl’s hand. A small boy to the side examines one of many rocks frozen in the moment of falling from the sky. One cannot look at this work without thinking of the sculpture of the Fearless Girl who now confronts the Wall Street Bull, which has also gotten much press and been reproduced many times, as well as Kara Walker’s sculpture from 2014 of a sugar sphinx in A Subtlety. However, as much as I love a good horse sculpture, I find this work to be too much like an illustration for a children’s book in 3-D. I am sure many would disagree.

Claudia Fontes

El problema del caballo / The Horse Problem (detail), 2017 Pavilion of Argentina

photo: Deanna Sirlin

Kristen Visbal’s “Fearless Girl”

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

There are some striking shows by women artists that are collateral events of the Biennale. At Fondazione Istituzione Bevilacqua La Masa, Scottish artist Lucy Mckenzie, who lives and works in Belgium, exhibits La Kermesse Héroïque (The Carneval Heroic) at Palazzo Tito. Using applied art and decoration she creates an exhibition that blurs the lines between decor and meaning.

Lucy McKenzie “La Kermesse Héroïque” at Palazzetto Tito – Istituzione Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Venice, 2017 
Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Buchholz, Cologne / Berlin / New York and Cabinet Gallery, London. Photo: Kristien Daem

Beverly Barkat’s  Evocative Surfaces at  Museo di Palazzo Grimani is an exploration of surface and process in painting through large transparent and translucent paintings that hang in many rooms of the Grimani Palazzo. Her surfaces reveal her process; she wants us to comprehend her working methods and even exhibits a large work in progress as part of this exhibition.

Beverly Barkat

Evocative Surfaces, 2017.

Museo di Palazzo Grimani, Venice.

Photograph by Vartivar Jaklian

Pae White’s glass sculptural installation Qwalal (the title is an indigenous word for "flow") is presented by Le Stanze Del Vitro on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. It is made of glass bricks, some with color that feels like ink staining that creates a fluid movement, while other bricks are clear. White is building a wall with her fragile bricks that will be added to and grow as the exhibition progresses.

Pae White, Qwalala, work in progress. Courtesy Cini Foundation, Le Stanze del Vetro photo: Deanna Sirlin

Another crossover from the applied arts is the exhibition Woven Forms, a group show at Palazzo Benzon presented by R and Company, New York. In her work Dana Barnes builds large three-dimensional weavings of brushstrokes applied onto  three oriental carpets. The layering and dimensional brushstrokes in fiber have an intense conversation with the carpet underneath.

Dana Barnes

'RETOLD: Tekke Madder' carpet. 2017

Original hand knotted wool carpet from the Tekke region, infused with multicolored merino wool and silk fibers, with pressed felt backing. 

68" (L) x 104" (W)

Courtesy of the artist and R & Company Gallery

In Viva Arte Viva at the Arsenale, there are many fiber works and works in mixed media, including a number of standouts by women artists. Rina Banerjee makes sculptures out of beads, lamps, shells, fabrics and other baubles to make work that is like a  feminist fantasia. She titles her works Excessive Flower and Out of Hollowness. Sheila Hicks has installed a giant and wonderful yarn ball wall using all the hues of the rainbow. Judith Scott’s (1943 - 2005) works, tied and wrapped with string, yarn, and other found objects, are like wonderful presents from the artist. There are so many artists using fiber in the Arsenale, not just women artists, so perhaps fiber has lost its connections to feminist art. And there are artists like Karla Black who did not wish her work to be considered feminist in the 54th Biennale (2011) whose work currently in the Viva Arte Viva, Presumption Prevails, may suggest she has changed her mind.

Rina Banerjee at Venice Biennale; Addictions To Leaf

Installation view, "Viva Arte Viva", La Biennale di Venezia, Italy, 2017

 Photo: Deanna Sirlin 

Sheila Hicks, "Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands", 2016-2017, Mixed media, natural and synthetic fibers, cloth, slate, bamboo, sunbrella, 600 x 1600 x 400 cm. Installation view, "Viva Arte Viva", La Biennale di Venezia, Italy, 2017 Photo: Andrea Avezzù

Judith Scott

Twenty sculptures, 1988 - 2004

Installation view, "Viva Arte Viva", La Biennale di Venezia, Italy, 2017  

Photo: Deanna Sirlin

There are many more women artists in the Biennale both in the Arsenale and the national pavilions as well as auxiliary shows. Shirin Neshat at Museo Correr, Jess Jones representing Ireland, Kirstine Roepstorff for Denmark, Katja Novitskova for Estonia, Rachel Maclean for Scotland, Jana Zelibska for the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic, and for Nigeria, Peju Alatise.

And although the percentage of women artists is down this year at only 35%, I certainly hope (and I know)--- She will persist!

Deanna Sirlin is an artist. Her book, She's Got What It Takes: American Women Artists in Dialogue was published by Charta Art Books of NYC and Milan. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section


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