In the exhibition text for “The Milk of Dreams,” the main event at the 59th Venice Biennale, artistic director Cecilia Alemani identifies a set of key questions that the show takes up: “How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human?” In the Arsenale half of the show, at least, this brief is taken rather literally: humanoids and hybrid figures abound. Dominating the opening antechamber is Simone Leigh’s massive bronze sculpture Brick House (2019), part of a series in which the Black female body merges with a range of vernacular architectural forms, including the domed earthen huts of the Mousgoum people of Cameroon and the Natchez, Mississippi, roadside restaurant Mammy’s Cupboard, housed in the voluminous skirt of a stereotypical mammy figure holding out a serving tray. (Leigh’s sculpture will be familiar to New Yorkers because of its appearance on the High Line, where Alemani has served as chief curator since 2011.) It is echoed, in the next room, by a group of five similarly massive adobe sculptures of anthropomorphized vessels based on Indigenous clay ovens by Argentinian artist Gabriel Chaile, each one representing a member of his family.
Any number of other works depict humans that have adopted the characteristics of plant and animal species. A suite of works on paper by the São Paulo–based Rosana Paulino portrays variations on the theme of a nude female figure developing roots, several of them with treelike trunks in place of legs, while a group of new paintings by Felipe Baize shows figures with human torsos and tangled vines or thorny stems for limbs, and Eglė Budvytytė’s video Songs from the Compost: mutating bodies, imploding stars (2020) captures a group of people communing with the landscape, eventually melding with it entirely as their bodies sprout fungi. Tonally distinct is Marianna Simnett’s bizarre, hilarious video installation The Severed Tail (2022), which announces itself to visitors via a long, furry tail peeking out from behind a red curtain and uses animal fetishes like puppy play to explore the boundaries between species. Most dramatically, the final room is given over to Precious Okoyomon’s large scale site-specific installation To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2022), for which the artist constructed a landscape of living plants like kudzu and sugar cane, dotted with figural sculptures made of wool, yarn, and mud that seem to sprout up from the earth itself.
There are also plenty of hybrids of the human-machine variety (not to mention cyborgian riffs on the Surrealist trope of the body in pieces by Tishan Hsu and Jes Fan), including Geumhyung Jeong’s Toy Prototype (2021), an expanded version of an installation originally commissioned by South Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, featuring a tabletop array of the artist’s awkward DIY robots. There’s also a group of works exploring data mining and artificial life by Lynn Hershman Leeson, including a suite of 2021 portraits from her “Missing Person” series that the artist purchased on a website selling computer-generated stock images, alternately printed here on mirrors and as a wallpapered grid.
Also ubiquitous at the Arsenale are tapestries and other fiber-based works, often drawing explicitly on the artists’ respective cultures and craft traditions, including Sámi artist Britta Markatt-Labba’s embroidered landscapes, a trio of exquisite sequined and beaded Vodou flags by Myrlande Constant, and Violeta Parra’s jute embroideries of the 1960s, inspired by pre-Columbian techniques and motifs, that depict scenes from modern Chilean history. Though seemingly abstract, Igshaan Adams’s wall-spanning tapestry Bonteheuwel/Epping (2021), made of eclectic materials including wood, beads, seashells, bone, and wire, alludes to one of the many “desire lines” that traversed apartheid South Africa: footpaths crossing segregated communities.
As far as the national pavilions at the Arsenale go, Ukraine is the must-see one, albeit mainly for reasons of solidarity: the pavilion features Kharkiv-based artist Pavlo Makov’s understated Fountain of Exhaustion. Aqua Alta (2022), comprising a pyramid of wall-mounted funnels, with water trickling down progressively more slowly. Originally created in 1995 to reflect on post-Soviet ennui, the work’s reception here is now inevitably colored by the war: a series of adjacent vitrines was meant to hold archival materials related to the original installation but, as a placard announces, they hadn’t arrived in time for the opening, a reminder of the remarkable logistical feats required to get the work to Venice in the first place, given
that the artist and his family have spent much of the past three months living in a basement shelter in their home city. (The same, I imagine, goes for many members of the curatorial team.) Makov’s somber installation was jarringly, if accidentally, juxtaposed with Jakup Ferri’s Kosovo pavilion in an adjacent gallery, a Day-Glo environment of paintings and patterned rugs covering the space’s walls and floors. But my favorite of the day was the Latvian pavilion, a ludicrous installation of hundreds of porcelain objects by the duo Skuja Braden, arranged into surreally domestic configurations: for instance, a vanity table lined with porcelain daggers, skulls, and painted votives, the feet of its ornate tufted chair capped by eyeballs. The press release mentions various buzzwords (Zen Buddhism, post-socialism, neoliberalism) by way of an explanation for this riotous mise-en-scene, but they’re hardly necessary; the work accomplishes an all too rare feat of speaking for itself.