The Venice Biennale, the world’s longest-running major retrospective of contemporary art, reconvenes this weekend after a year-long postponement due to the pandemic. Barring a new wave of coronavirus, the 59th edition of the world’s oldest international exhibition, which opens to the public on Saturday and runs through November 27, should draw hundreds of thousands of visitors.
But while the Biennale’s popularity is undeniable, its track record of gender representation is mediocre. For the past 127 years, its flagship show – the International Art Exhibition – has been curated primarily by men and a predominantly male selection of artists. In 1995, about nine out of ten artists in the exhibition, curated by Jean Clair, were men. It was only in 2019 under artistic director Ralph Rugoff that gender equality was achieved for the first time.
This year, the male-female ratio is radically reversed. The Italian-born Artistic Director of the Biennale, Cecilia Alemani, the director and chief curator of High Line Art in New York, has chosen 213 artists for the central exhibition – and about nine out of ten are women.
Ms. Alemani, the first Italian woman to curate the event, is making up for more than a century of low female visibility by filling her show with female performers, most of whom have never shown work at the Biennale. Her title for the exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams”, is taken from a book by British-born Mexican surrealist painter Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), one of the many overlooked women whose contribution to art history will be honored.
“We’ve obscured the work of female artists in an unfortunately dramatic way,” Ms Alemani said in a recent video interview.
She added that despite the “radical changes” brought about by the #MeToo movement in recent years, her native Italy, Italy, remained “very, very sexist”. The Biennale, she said, was “no longer a representation of our society”.
“It’s important to call out these things,” she said.
Art world insiders have applauded Ms. Alemani’s female-dominated Biennale.
“It’s daring and smart and too late,” said Allan Schwartzman, a New York-based art consultant and the director of Schwartzman&. “She breaks a mold.”
He said that while feminism has influenced art more “than pretty much anything in the post-war period” — introducing a more intimate scale and brighter colors into painting and sculpture, as well as opening a path for the “personal and diary” – its impact has not been sufficiently recognized by scholars, museums and the art market. He said he hoped this year’s Biennale would present women’s work “as a slightly different history.”
Male artists exhibiting in Venice this year have embraced the influx of women. “I’m fascinated to see how the art world has become more open over the years,” said Raqib Shaw, an Indian-born artist based in London who is exhibiting new work inspired by Italian masterpieces at the International Gallery of Modern Art at the Ca’ Pesaro in Venice. “It’s great that the majority of the artists are women – way too late.”
The Biennale takes place in two sprawling sites: the Giardini, Venice’s public park, and the Arsenale, the former shipyards and armories that have provided the Venetian Republic with its naval power for centuries. Both sites are dotted with national pavilions that serve as cultural outposts for the countries they represent. There are a total of 80 national pavilions this year, with five countries participating for the first time: Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, Oman and Uganda.
The pavilions always reflect the global geopolitical situation, and this year all eyes will be on the Ukrainian pavilion and its artist, Pavlo Makov, who will present a version of his work “The Fountain of Exhaustion”, an installation of bronze funnels that drain water spraying that he conceived in 1995, but never fully realized.
Ukraine’s participation in the 2022 Biennale was nearly jeopardized by the Russian invasion of the country on February 24. But then, hours after the invasion, said a curator of the Ukrainian Pavilion, Maria Lanko, a founder and curator of the Naked Room gallery in Kiev, loaded the key pieces of the work into the trunk of her car and began the long journey. drive to Venice.
“We started that day with a new calendar,” Ms. Lanko said at the Talking Galleries conference in New York this month. “Now we count only the days of war.”
The invasion ended Russia’s own participation in the Biennale after the Lithuanian curator of the Russian pavilion — and the artists who would be showing work — walked out on February 27, effectively sealing the space. The following day, the Biennale released a statement noting that the curator and the artists had resigned, “causing participation in the 59th International Art Exhibition”.
Other rural pavilions are going to write history in a quieter way. The United States is represented for the first time by a black woman, Simone Leigh. And the United Kingdom is represented for the first time by a black, Sonia Boyce.
Although Ms. Boyce welcomed the award, she said it was a mixed blessing.
“I’m lucky enough to be recognized for the work I’ve done,” she said in a phone interview. “But in terms of being first, it really speaks to the large-scale inequalities that exist in the visual arts.”
Ms. Boyce also questioned the idea of being identified as a “representative”, saying her selection could be seen as “not a matter of individual merit, but of representative merit.”
In recent decades, along with the explosion of the art market, Venice has become a place to see and be seen, a stomping ground for the extremely wealthy, who moor their gleaming yachts in the Grand Canal. The preview days at the Biennale have become such a parade of wealth and glitz that some art lovers – like Mr. Schwartzman – skip them altogether.
“What has changed with the Biennale, especially at its opening, is the extent to which it is both a fashion and celebrity world and an art world,” he said.
Some of the artists who exhibited at the event this year recognized that the richness and glamor that swirls around Venice can be intoxicating.
“As an artist you always need resilience and clarity not to be tempted by success or big money, both in Venice and elsewhere,” says German artist Katharina Grosse, who will exhibit a site-specific work at the Espace Louis Vuitton in Venice consisting of an image of her hands printed on a metal mesh fabric.
Still, she wrote in an email, the Biennale has been a ‘dynamic and revealing environment’ for the arts for a century – and it will continue to be.
“If Venice were only about collectors on yachts,” she added, “no one would come.”