When I arrived at the Giardini Wednesday morning for day two of the Venice Biennale preview, a significant line had already formed at the entrance, and the VIPs were unhappy: surely this was not where they belonged. Some people seemed to be walking right past us, toward some presumably more exclusive entrance. One by one, the well-heeled collectors, art advisors, and Kunsthalle directors around me snuck away to make inquiries about this other, better line—so many, in fact, that the long line soon became the shorter one.
Indeed, painfully long lines—for food, for bathrooms, for the marquee pavilions—were the major theme of the day, and as a result I only made it through a fraction of my to-do list. I did, however, manage to catch Tomo Savić-Gecan’s elusive Croatian pavilion, a roving and, it turns out, practically invisible, performance that takes place at different times and places every day (announced each morning on Instagram), briefly co-opting other national pavilions in the process. By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, I started to think the pavilion was an elaborate troll, since no one I spoke to had actually seen it: perhaps the “performers” were the would-be viewers, allowing the unseen artist to herd them around the Biennale’s various sites as they waited in vain for something to happen. (There is, after all, a long tradition of experimental curating, barbed participatory art, and institutional critique in Croatian art.) But finally, I arrived at the designated site, the Finnish pavilion, at the appointed time, 2:56 PM, and, against the remarkably apropos backdrop of Pilvi Takala’s video installation “Close Watch,” for which the artist went “undercover” as a mall security guard for six months, a few of my fellow visitors began to act a little weird, albeit in a way one could easily miss if not scouring the crowd for any signs of exceptional activity: a man loitering in the back suddenly did a little hop and a pivot; a woman standing perfectly still abruptly bent her knees.
At the Central Pavilion, which houses the second half of artistic director Cecilia Alemani’s exhibition “The Milk of Dreams,” a handful of slightly goofy sculptures by Cosima von Bonin adorned the building’s exterior, including a row of cartoonish sharks on the roof and a rainbow striped axe protruding from a column. These interventions in the pavilion’s otherwise austere architecture hint at the direction the show takes inside: colorful, eclectic, surreal, and prone to unexpected, sometimes insightful, juxtapositions. Katharina Fritsch’s massive sculpture Elefant/Elephant (1987), an exacting, almost life-size facsimile of the titular creature, stands atop a tall plinth in the opening gallery, towering over visitors as they enter. Nearby, a group of recent rock crystal sculptures by Andra Ursuta suggesting candy-colored alien specimens is set against a selection of Rosemarie Trockel’s monochrome “knitted pictures” from the mid-1980s to the present—machine-made knitted tapestries stretched over canvas—lining the surrounding walls. Elsewhere, a trio of trippy paintings by Jana Euler, known for her hyperreal renderings of impossibly contorted creatures, human and otherwise, flanks a sculptural work, great white fear (2021), comprising 111 miniature white ceramic sharks arranged on a low plinth. In another gallery, a group of new sculptures by Hannah Levy, in which the body is evoked obliquely through uncanny combinations of silicone, PVC, and metal, is combined with the wild figuration of Christina Quarles and a suite of ten pigmented resin wall reliefs by Kaari Upson, collectively titled Portrait (Vain German), 2020–21, cast from a thickly impastoed portrait painted by the artist, so the features are barely legible.
The show’s mostly contemporary works are offset by small thematic sub-exhibitions of historical women artists in color-coded galleries, described as “time capsules” or “cabinets” that ground and contextualize the show’s major themes. “Technologies of Enchantment,” for instance, focuses on women artists associated with postwar kinetic art movements like Arte Programmatica and Zero, including works like Laura Grisi’s Sunset Light (1967), freestanding neon and plexiglass towers, and Maria Apollonio’s Op art reliefs, while “Corps Orbite” brings together Concrete poetry, Surrealist automatic writing, and various forms of nineteenth- and twentieth-century spiritualism as examples of practices rooted in embodied writing.
The largest of these sections, “The Witch’s Cradle,” which Alemani calls the show’s “fulcrum,” is unsurprisingly devoted to women Surrealists, featuring artworks and related archival materials by artists like Amy Nimr, Remedios Varo, Leonor Fini, and, of course, Leonora Carrington, whose posthumously published book of eerie children’s stories lends the exhibition its title. It is, however, almost impossible to actually see the works on display, between the room’s golden yellow walls and carpeted floors, moody lighting, and their placement behind reflective glass, making this supposedly crucial gallery a baffling low point in a show that otherwise stands out for its thoughtful attention to the installation of artworks.