VENICE — It’s a little lost in the brain fog of time now, but in March 2020, one of the first memes of the coronavirus pandemic arose from the waters of this Most Serene Republic. A fraudster posted a photo of dolphins supposedly swimming in the Bacino di San Marco, and of swans cruising an unpolluted blue Grand Canal. The people were gone and Venice was a natural paradise! The city Henry James called his “storehouse of comfort” had been compressed into divisible dimensions: an aquatic utopia, seen on a touchscreen, as the virus made its way to us.
The dolphins were a hoax. But the sense that humanity is the enemy of life and beauty: That part may be right, judging by the heaving, confusing, crowded preview days of the 2022 Venice Biennale. The world’s oldest and most prestigious international exhibition of contemporary art opens to the public on Saturday after a year-long delay, and the pandemic has barely diminished the exhibit or the self-interest of the visitors. Yes, in mid-April the crowds are a few taps thinner in Venice. (I’m not complaining.) Yes, the mega yacht quotient has dropped somewhat. (I’m certainly not complaining.) This is still Venice, though, and the Biennale remains the most combustible mix of creative minds, spectacular wealth, and a global culture headed for the future.
For newcomers to the lagoon, a quick introduction: the Venice Biennale is a show of two halves. It includes an important international exhibition – this year it is the 59th edition; the first was in 1895 – that takes the temperature of contemporary art, along with over 90 pavilions in which countries host their own shows. Usually these pavilions present solo exhibitions; the United States Pavilion this year has gone to popular sculptor and ceramicist Simone Leigh. Plus, Venice’s many museums open their biggest shows during the Biennale, as dealers, foundations, and contenders rent out canal-side palazzi for pop-up exhibits ranging from museum-quality to cash-and-carry.
This year’s main show, hosted by Italian-born New Yorker Cecilia Alemani, is a tightly argued and often successful exhibit. An overwhelming majority of the participants are women, and surrealism, cyborgism and animal and plant life are important themes. There are very nice new paintings in the main show from New Yorkers Amy Sillman and Jacqueline Humphries; the last works of Kaari Upson, the hugely ambitious Los Angeles artist who died last year; and fascinating historical inclusions of overlooked 20th-century figures, many Italian, all women. I’ll be publishing a full review of Alemani’s exhibition next week, though I’ll say this a lot now: her feminist, surreal, and ecological approach has produced a coherent and challenging show, whose optimistic vision of emancipation through imagination is very rare today.
But the national presentations are the worst collection I’ve seen in 20 years of attending the Biennale: a Garibaldi Street nightmare of half-heated conceptualism, lame jokes, lead political scoring, and at least one genderqueer cuddle puddle. Great artists, such as Maria Eichhorn, an astute analyst of art institutions, and the Japanese theater and technology collective Dumb Type, are submitting the least interesting work of their careers.
Breakout surprises, such as the great climate opera ‘Sun & Sea (Marina)’ in the Lithuanian pavilion of the last edition, are nowhere to be found. Young artists faceplant one after another. In the pavilions of both Serbia and Italy, we encounter distant views of the sky meeting the sea, a screensaver evocation of migration and loss. If you don’t “critique” or “question” existing material, you’re stuck making empty fun houses like the Danish Uffe Isolotto, which places hyper-realistic sculptures of dead centaurs amid sharp hay, or the Austrian Jakob Lena Knebl and Ashley Hans Scheirl, whose soft sculptures have a color scheme more suited to ‘The Price Is Right’. Venice is a city where the present has not lived up to the past for 500 years. This year, the present is really taking a beating.
By my count, only two artists in the national pavilions have risen completely for the occasion. One is Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, a Roma artist who has filled the Polish Pavilion with an enveloping 12-piece tapestry whose images of Roma migration and everyday life are associated with countless pieces of stitched toile, paisley, lace and burlap. (Mirga-Tas is the first Roma artist to represent Poland here.) Her lavish scenes of archers and guitarists, activists and pallbearers, have a stentorian grandeur equal to the frescoes all over this city, finally applied to those at the sidelines of European history.
The other is Stan Douglas, Vancouver’s towering intellect in photography and video art, who delves into the intersecting uprisings of 2011 (the Arab Spring, the London riots, Occupy Wall Street) in a contribution split between the Canadian Pavilion and a old salt storage depot. Accurately staged photographic reconstructions of these 2011 uprisings make Occupy and the Arab Spring history, but it’s a two-screen video entitled ‘ISDN’ that reveals Douglas’s keen ability to reconstruct the present through fictitious interventions in the past. .
Here we see two grime artists from London and two Cairo rappers of a related Egyptian style, engaged in a thrilling call-and-response across borders. But this is much more than a concert film: Douglas recorded the lyrics and the 140 beats-per-minute bass line separately, and an algorithm cuts and stitches the British and Egyptian sounds into a constantly new performance, an imagined community made up of music and fiber optic cables.
Among some stark national entries, Leigh’s American Pavilion stands out for its ambition, its production values, and its lofty character. Inside are new works in ceramics and bronze, mixing motifs from Baga masks, Egyptian tomb statues, and the modernist stylizations of Giacometti and Ernst, who themselves rearranged African (and Oceanic) sculpture. (Leigh’s “Brick House,” the 4-foot-tall bust that previously stood on New York’s High Line, is also here in Venice, in Alemani’s central exhibit.) Outside, Leigh has fitted the entire neo-Palladian pavilion with a temporary thatched roof, in imitation of the colonial pavilions of the world exhibitions of the last century.
Reshaping or obscuring a pavilion’s architecture as a historical indictment has been a reliable approach here since Hans Haacke picked up the German pavilion in 1993. white ‘Jug’, an oversized reconstruction of a southern-faced jug whose surface is embedded with enlarged cowrie shells, and ‘Cupboard’, whose stone shell atop a large raffia skirt builds on African appropriations and the Caribbean afterlife of surrealism.
Leigh’s bronzes are tackier and her works become more trite the more figurative they become: ‘Last Garment’, a candid depiction of a Jamaican laundress performed in a real pool of water, loses none of the weighty medium or imposing scale. The kind of intercession in history that Mirga-Tas’ Roma tapestries and Douglas’ transcontinental music perform with such vitality happen here only occasionally, and, as for a black-and-white film that sets a Burning Man-style bonfire of one of Leigh’s totem sculptures, the artist must rely on her original medium.
So welcome to the most lopsided and exciting Venice Biennale in recent history, which came together amid a global pandemic and now begins under the guise of a European land war. Never has it been so clear that the national pavilions are an afterthought of the central exhibition of the Biennale, and that a country-by-country exhibition of new art is decades past its sell-by date. (Courage for the international jury who had to see them all and will award the Biennale prizes on Saturday.)
Is it Covid? I wonder if the isolation of these years, and the immersion of our closed lives by digital screens, has wiped out the last remaining dedication to art as anything more than a medium of communication. However, Venice is the city that has defined epidemics for the whole world: the word quarantine comes from the Venetian, and the “40 days” ships had to be stationary in the lagoon before their crews could disembark. Titian died of the plague here in 1576, while Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” turned a cholera outbreak into an emblem of social decay. Now we have FFP2 masks, which are mandatory in the exhibitions; by prosecco hour it’s every respiratory system for itself. A good Venetian lesson is that teasing eventually ends. What art emerges from it is another question.