The art world has eagerly anticipated the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale since it was predictably cancelled last year due to the pandemic. However, has one of the most prestigious art fetes in existence lived up to its hype? Jason Farago of The New York Times has weighed in to defiantly shake his head, critically (yet poignantly) writing in his merciless review that, 'the national presentations are the worst collection I have seen in 20 years of attending the Biennale', concluding modern day Venice and the art it entails fails to live up to the city's wondrous past. Although I, and hopefully some others, may disagree with the male art critic's former slur, to disagree with the latter is to shadow fact with opinion, even if its admittance is painful.
Regardless of many of the works and the talent on display, the main show's curator and lead organiser, Italian-born New Yorker Cecilia Alemani - the first woman to do so - has gone to great lengths to make sure the Venice Biennale 2022 is about resistance in the face of adversity. The Biennale's inclusion of Surrealist art also indefinitely speaks to today's omnipresent zeitgeist. Alemani has also tipped another first; assuring the show's balance leans towards comprising 80% women. Make no mistake, though; this is no 'feminist' show per se - instead - a spectacle that so happens to include many women rather than men. Radical? Why should it be? No one bats an eyelid when an exhibition is made up of 80% men. Why is it different when the shoe is on the other foot? Alemani emphasised the fact when speaking to Vogue, explaining that '(gender) shouldn't matter, but we're very far from being equal. So while I wish we were not here talking about gender because I don't necessarily claim it's a feminist show, it's important to know that it's been 127 years of an unequal representation since the Venice Biennale began.'
Over a century of unsteadied balance has, in effect, led to a mass exclusion of women artists; that's as clear as day. Yet, through providing a platform for the excluded, Alemani's display speaks beyond the rejection of women. Going on to break new ground that calls attention to other exclusions, this show does what art does best - it stands up for justice - justice for women and, justice for Ukraine, too.
In the best of cases, art is used as a tool for political commentary and, if done well, attacks, provokes and subverts. This is something Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky knows all too well, hence his brief involvement in this year's show. On Thursday evening, Zelensky delivered his remarks in a streamed address to an audience that pleaded artists and cultural leaders to use their work, words, and influence to support the country in its increasingly brutal war against Russia. 'There are no tyrannies that would not try to limit art because they can see the power of art. Art can tell the world things that cannot be shared otherwise.'
Women indeed take the spotlight this year, and some even use their chance to make work about women too (or thereby the lack of), such as Ukrainian artist Zinaida. Using her installation space to bring attention to the absence of women in art, Zinaida's piece titled Without Women/Made in Ukraine, incorporates video, large-scale photography and perception manipulation to piece together fractured narratives of identity built around mythologies and past folklore. Filmed in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine, the artist captures traditional sheepherders and their masculine roles during their long and isolated treks through the vast countryside. Of course, as the title may imply, the sheepherders are without women. Through this noted absence, Zinaida shines the light on cultural balances that exist beyond the contemporary art world, just as Alemani's astute curation highlights the ones kept within it.
In fashion news, French luxury house Louis Vuitton also play into this year's theme of spotlighting women, hosting a site-specific exhibition by German artist Katharina Grosse, titled Apollo, Apollo. Made exclusively by Grosse for the exhibition area, the piece is made of metal mesh and printed in a vivid spectrum of colour featuring the artist's hands. The large-scale installation symbolises the boundaries between the artist's body and the colourful material that disappears during the creative process, creating a gateway to a dreamlike world in which visitors question their own perceptions of reality and illusion. Bottega Veneta also played a part in fashion's attendance at the Biennale with Dancing Studies, a program of performances with the choreographer Lenio Kaklea.
Like female artists, past and present, Ukraine refuses to be eradicated, and just like Russia is attacking them, they're fighting back through art, not bombs. Using their stand at the fair to once again tirelessly fight for their freedom, Ukraine's presence at this year's Biennale was unapologetically loud, and in turn, so was Russia's absence; almost as loud as the bombs they've been decimating Ukraine with since 24 February. Their national pavilion in one of the Biennale's main venues, the Giardini, is desolate due to their team resigning and Roman Abramovich's 377ft yacht, a regular sight in previous years, is also nowhere to be seen.
The country's stance on refusing to hold back and attack through art could be seen as having links to a movement that's long considered art as a political tool in the fight for justice: surrealism. Tying everything together in elegant style, Alemani wittily borrowed from surrealist artist Leonora Carrington's book Milk of Dreams for the Venice Biennale 2022 title, a move that was just as much considered as it was intentionally playful. In Alemani choosing to borrow from the 20th century art movement (while also including a vast amount of surrealist artists), she also routinely positions the importance of surrealism in the contemporary art world, as established by Tate Modern's recent retrospective Surrealism Beyond Borders.
Linking surrealism's ideology surrounding the importance of attacking and provoking within art to Zelensky's urgent cry for help, Alemani told Vogue, '(surrealism) was a very politically engaged movement, like now with what's happening in Ukraine. I think the most politically engaged practices have had a more introspective turn, which I think is very similar to what surrealism did—it wasn't a way of turning their back to reality. It was just a way of looking at reality through a different lens.'
Regardless of how you see it or what you think of the Venice Biennale 2022, Alemani's heavily referenced inclusion of surrealism and her thoughtfulness in providing a much-needed platform for Ukraine (and women) to speak out through the power of art provides hope in a world that can too often feel doom and gloom.