The Venice Biennale’s main exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams,” is strange, sexy, alluring, and frequently thought-provoking, too. Vast and packed with art, the show, curated by Cecilia Alemani, theorizes that Surrealism neither began nor ended in the era after World War I.
As Alemani views it, artists have always—and will always—resort to particularly strange worldviews when the going gets rough. The means by which artists represent parallel universes have simply changed with time.
There is a historical underpinning to all this, expressed mainly through galleries oriented around a specific theme that features artists who have died years ago. (To make matters especially confusing, some deceased artists appear outside that context, in the main spaces, along with all the other figures who are still living.) Much has been made of the unusually large amount of female and gender nonconforming artists in these spaces, and rightly so. The stereotype has been that Surrealism was dominated by white European men. The Venice Biennale asserts otherwise.
At times, the Biennale strains to divine linkages between past surrealisms and present ones. But it does make its point successfully, and the show is aesthetically cohesive—a rarity, it must be said, for major biennials anywhere in the world.
Below, a look at 10 of the best offerings in this Biennale.
Sight unseen, one probably could’ve guessed that Cecilia Vicuña deserved her win for the Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement—she shared the prize with Katharina Fritsch—but this large presentation of her work only confirms that line of thinking. The compositions for some of the paintings in this show date back to the ’70s, though Vicuña lost the original works, so she recreated them in 2019. They often feature women with fantastical qualities that cause them to evade easy readings. Llaverito (Blue) is an image of a nude Vicuña with eight arms and a keychain dangling from her head, along with a pair of eyes for breasts and a mouth for a vagina. The name refers to the Colombian slang used by men to refer to women as “key holders”—people who can unlock all kinds of pleasure. In another painting, Leoparda de Ojitos (1976), a furry cat-like beast with a prominent vagina clutches two pastel-colored trees. These pieces are neatly complemented by NAUfraga (2022), a barely-there installation composed of wooden boards and other refuse salvaged from around Venice that hangs from the ceiling.
The sweet smell of cocoa, cinnamon, and cloves emanates from Delcy Morelos’s Earthly Paradise (2022), a maze-like arrangement of soil that renders a portion of a staircase in the Arsenale impossible to access. The Bogotá-based artist made the work with Andean and Amazonian Amerindian cosmologies in mind and, in tribute, she seeks to reorient your worldview—a bold goal in such a chaotic setting. With its angular shape, the shaped earth here may recall Minimalist art, which likewise enlisted pared-down forms to guide a viewer through space. But Morelos’s work has none of that movement’s chilliness. Instead, the piece aspires to provide a sensual experience that brings the viewer into greater unity with nature.
There isn’t much photography in the main exhibition—a sorely felt snub for all lovers of the medium—but thankfully what little there is of it is high-quality. Some of the best pictures come courtesy of Elle Pérez, who has repeatedly proven themselves to be one of the most exciting young photographers working today. Two of these understated photographs feature people in a wrestling position known as a “clinch,” which involves pressing together in a way that is difficult to escape. Near them are more abstract images, including one of a rippling ocean tide that was shot in Puerto Rico. In placing them together, Pérez evokes diasporas in which people are forced to try to hold on to the culture they call their own while also letting go of their homelands.
This late Tunisian artist produced delicious abstractions that take the form of woven tapestries. They share similarities with crafts of her home country and the look of European modernism; it is possible, scholars have suggested, that she had both in mind while working. The title of Gafsa & ailleurs (1983), a grand tapestry featuring a horse that races through a green landscape, alludes to the capital city of Tunisia, and the abstraction that frames its central figures could be said to mimic the hustle and bustle of the city. There are stripes of carpeting-like fabric that bulge out toward the viewer, moving this dynamic work into the third dimension.
Tatsuo Ikeda, who died in 2020, worked in Japan during the ’60s, a particularly fraught postwar moment when his home country was making amends with the U.S. Rather than portraying his disillusionment outright, Ikeda turned inward and began creating abstractions that resemble extraterrestrial beings. These creatures offer semblances of the human form—a belly button can be glimpsed in one painting included here—though more often than not, they seem animal-like. The paintings are impressive, and not only because they are so weird. Ikeda’s brushwork is intense and sensuous, with curvaceous lines that guide the eye across these beings’ tendrils and skin. There are more than a dozen Ikeda works on view, making this a relatively large showing compared to others (and outside Japan, where Ikeda is better known), but the display left me hungering for even more by the artist.
Perhaps the greatest new-to-me artist of this biennial was Célestin Faustin, a Haitian painter who died in 1981. Her resplendent figurations feature blue-toned people with bulbous bellies. The world they inhabit seems to bridge the gap between reality and some other spiritual sphere—elements of domestic interiors, such as tables and curtains, are present, but so are leashed lambs, genital-like abstract elements, and tassels that seem to be a part of people’s bodies. According to the Biennale’s wall text, the Taíno religion was a principal influence for Faustin.
Three enormous mask-like sculptures by Tau Lewis dominate an airy part of the Arsenale, looming ominously over viewers. Crafted from fabrics and furs that Lewis essentially upcycled into art, they are part of a series called “Divine Giants Tribunal,” the name of which suggests a meeting of otherworldly deities. (Indeed, Yoruba lore has been crucial for the artist’s work.) There are many works like these in this Biennale, but these sculptures prove so striking because of their handmade quality—the stitching is uneven in certain parts, and some of the furs show signs of light wear. Lewis fits right in within a lineage of female artists who have taken up sewing and craftwork in the service of incorporating practices that have been considered women’s work by some in the realm of sculpture.
Thao Nguyen Phan
The most hypnotic video of the entire Biennale comes courtesy of Thao Nguyen Phan, a Vietnamese artist who meditates on the aftermath of colonialism in her home country. The three screens of First Rain, Brise Soleil, an “evolving moving image” begun in 2021 (according to its title card), are arranged in an altarpiece-like format that invites prolonged viewing; so too does the installation’s meditative editing. The latter part of the video’s title refers to an architectural element that, as a Vietnamese-Khmer construction worker tells us in voiceover, has been used often in Vietnam to cool buildings. “The concrete brise soleil that I constructed is a diary of life,” the narrator says. Striking shots of flowers being crushed by motorcycles, concrete lattices, and flooding proliferate across the three screens in delicate choreographies. Then the video leaps backward several centuries to ponder the history of the durian fruit. Relying on a style that mirrors the magical realism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, this installation stuns with its fusions of past and present, fact and fiction, personal and political, and natural and supernatural.
The 28 paintings on view by Miriam Cahn, all made last year, constitute the installation unser süden sommer 2021, 5.8.2021, a taster of sorts for those unfamiliar with this under-recognized artist. She demonstrates a dexterity in multiple modes of working, although it’s clear that she is best when she is evoking violence and conflict. In one painting, a lumpy being with a single eye is jabbed by a fist; in another, a man with a smiley face for a head penetrates a less happy-looking woman. (The #MeToo movement seems to have occupied Cahn’s mind as of late.) While the paintings about conflict are sure to be the most attention-grabbing works here, do not skip over Cahn’s portraits of hairless (and sometimes noseless) people who materialize from void-like spaces and meet the viewer’s gaze.
This is a Biennale where kink proliferates, from a Mariann Simnett installation involving S&M to a Zheng Bo video in which dancers attempt to fornicate with plants. But perhaps nowhere in this Biennale is the fetishism quite so gripping as it is in Mire Lee’s giant sculptures, which resemble guts that slop and squish, thanks to the colored liquid glycerine that leaks out of them. These works are references to vore, the desire to be engulfed by someone, which, as Lee told me last year, could be seen as a “universal metaphor” for wanting to fully fuse with another being. Her sculpture Endless House: Holes and Drips (2022), which features her entrail-like forms draped over a scaffolding structure, towers over one room in the Arsenale. The effect is disgusting—and also, for whatever reason, strangely beautiful.