Venice has been hosting a grand festival of art since 1895, La Biennale di Venezia. That tradition was expanded later to include smaller festivals of music, dance, theater, cinema, and architecture. But the granddaddy of them all is the expansive and exhaustive art exhibition, the Biennale Arte.
Normally held every other year, as the name indicates, this year’s biennale was delayed by a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s been three years since the last one. But now the biennale is back.
For years the biennale has taken place in the venue known as the Arsenale, located in the eastern sector of the island as it narrows to a curving flourish. The Arsenale is a walled compound that has served as a place of shipbuilding and repair, naval training, and for providing armaments for battles at sea for over a thousand years. After all, for centuries Venice ruled over a watery empire that spanned both sides of the Adriatic and whose reach extended to far distant lands. Its formidable navy, comprised both of mercantile vessels and warships, fended off enemies and brought trade, commerce, and arts from other cultures to the heart of Europe.
An elaborate entry gate, flanked by figures from maritime legends, a pair of lions that look like they mean business, and a smiling griffin looking down from an overhead pediment speak to the pomp and perils of a sea-based city-state. Compared with this baroque symbolism, the entrance to the biennale is about as understated as one can imagine – a simple door leading to a corridor and turnstiles. Even the ticket office is plain, with less charm than a Trenitalia ticket office.
But beyond those modest beginnings is a breathtaking array of art. Hundreds of pieces arranged along galleries and side galleries that seem to go on forever. An expansive garden holds more pieces. Dozens of countries, scores of artists, many with names not recognized in the United States. Indeed, many of the artists have been quietly working away in their home countries for years with little recognition outside them.
Compared with previous biennales, this 59th edition of the international art exhibition seems marked by both a greater somberness and an elevated spirt. That might be attributed to the curator, Cecilia Alemani, who went to extraordinary lengths to correct a long-standing predominance of male artists in shows. In this show, the number of women artists outnumber men by a factor of 9 to 1. She also included artists who identify as transgender or non-binary. This dramatic break with the past has caused a stir. The Guardian quoted Alemani as saying, “[P]eople are obsessing about my exhibition and never found the dominance of men [in previous biennales] shocking.”
The theme of this year’s biennale is The Milk of Dreams, itself a cryptic and creative combination of words. Indeed, some pieces seem dreamlike. In one vast room, Columbian artist Delcy Morelos constructed a maze of fertile dirt contained by chest-high walls, with the columns, staircases, and other structures of the Arsenale seeming to have been excavated. Or, perhaps, soon to be buried. Entering the room, you smell damp earth, as if it were waiting to be planted. It caused me to wonder if I had ever smelled a work of art before.
This year’s exhibition is about bold creativity, sometimes in countries that are struggling politically or economically. Some pieces dealt with dark themes – oppression, poverty, civil strife. In the first gallery, a gigantic, imposing head of an African woman with eyes seemingly blinded grabs you by the throat. What follows does not let go. There are some room -sized installations that are downright frightening.
In one large space, enormous humanoid creatures clothed in rags appear ready to eviscerate you and hang your entrails from a pole. The pale green lighting makes one dizzy and disoriented, as if suddenly trapped is an awful dream. It is both mesmerizing and disquieting, as if you were about to witness your own horrific death.
In another gallery, hot molten metal the color of gold is randomly dropped from the ceiling with bursting sparks in an otherwise pitch-black room. One senses danger and the prospect of being seriously burned. Then the fear gradually turns to wonder as you realize you are safely outside a cage but only a short distance from extreme danger. I noticed a small clutch of technicians in the corner of the darkened gallery, working the equipment to create maximum alarm in observers. They seemed to relish their role.
I was casually meandering around one pavilion when I realized I was next to someone making odd motions – almost robotic – with her hands and legs, twisting them into positions not usually seen in humans simply walking about. Another similar person appeared, and then six more, at first passing by me in random patterns but then coming together to form lines and circles and rectangles. All of them were silent. There were no threatening motions, but the effect was dismaying.
There were sharp contrasts to such foreboding displays. Fancifully attired people-sized figures seemed to be dancing through one gallery, with adjacent observers looking like they might join the unknown festivities. Watching the interplay between the still figures and humans in motion made me smile.
One of the many showstoppers was an immense tapestry, the size of a roadside billboard. Artist Igshaan Adams from South Africa wove bits of rope, string, tiny beads, stones, and seashells into a composition. It suggests the pathways taken by Blacks during the apartheid period, when they weren’t allowed to use certain travel routes permitted to Whites in his native Cape Town. The contrast of massive scale with minuscule and delicate details is arresting. The piece seems to glow internally and works equally well close-up as it does from 50 feet away.
The Venice Biennale runs through November 27, so there is plenty of time to take it in. Indeed, the fall is an ideal time to visit Venice as the usual teeming crowds diminish – they are also down this year partly because the gargantuan cruise ships have finally been banned from the island. The cost of lodging is less in the autumn. And the weather is pleasant, certainly not the beastly heat between now and September.
It is an extraordinary exhibition of global art and social commentary.