For this year’s Venice Biennale, the Netherlands lent its well-placed pavilion in the Giardini to Estonia, which does not have a permanent exhibition space in the city. And so the Dutch are instead using the Chiesetta della Misericrodia, a deconsecrated 13th-century church in the Cannaregio district to host a show by artist melanie bonajo. It is titled “When the body says Yes,” and it is a memorable affair.
Kick off your shoes, sprawl out on the brightly colored, undulating seats that cover the floor (a collaboration with artist Théo Demans), and savor a new video by bonajo, who works, per press materials, as a “sexological bodyworker, somatic sex coach and educator, cuddle workshop facilitator and activist.”
Onscreen, for around 30 minutes, a dozen or more genderqueer people—frequently topless or naked—engage in freewheeling workshops about touch and consent. In one section, they are bound with tape, recalling the bondage-y photos that are probably bonajo’s best-known work; in others, they writhe, dance wildly, or just lay together, all facing the same direction. They are exemplars of intimacy, and after a pandemic that has kept so many apart, they are mesmerizing.
In short voiceovers, participants talk about how the workshops have improved their lives, and how they have learned to love touch, in some cases following childhoods that featured little of it from family members. “A world with more touch would be more peaceful,” one muses. Imagine the abstract sensuality of Pipilotti Rist delivered through a constellation of beautiful bodies, accompanied by a bit of educational material, and you have a sense of the atmosphere.
This installation could very quickly be part of that regrettable brand of performance-inflected art where the performers are enjoying their time a great deal more than their audience is, but bonajo’s collaborators are having so much fun—radiating such joy—that the buoyant mood is infectious. It carries you along. In the most irresistible passages of the video, each person covers themselves with what appears to be olive oil, and takes a turn gliding over the others—a slow-motion Slip ‘N Slide made of humans. The gliders appear to be in heaven.
All of that said, if you prefer your erotic-tinged art to come with some darkness, or just to have more variety, you can walk a few minutes to another show in the neighborhood organized by the Los Angeles–based Tom of Finland Foundation called “All Together.” It includes works from its collection of LGBTQ+ art by dozens of artists, as well a strong array of drawings by the master Tom of Finland himself. Many different forms of touch—some involving leather and whips—abound. The Biennale, as always, has something to suit every taste.