STIRring Dreams: A look at the exhibition design of the Venice Art Biennale

Exploring from curatorial dialogue to exhibition flow, STIR speaks with Formafantasma about how they designed and planned the Venice Art Biennale 2022, titled Milk of Dreams.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Jul 05, 2022

While the Venice Biennale, as its name suggests, takes place every other year, the truth is that between art and architecture versions of the biennale, the archipelago of Venice is an important cultural hub between the months of April and November every year. This year New York-based curator Cecilia Alemani spearheaded the curation of the Art Biennale with its theme The Milk of Dreams. The international exhibition is on display between the Central Pavilion of the Giardini, and at the Arsenale complex. Both these spaces are enormous volumes that require a very strategic and careful exhibition design intervention. This is where research-based design studio Formafantasma played an important role in how one experiences Alemani’s curation.

Exhibition view at the Central Pavilion at the Giardini | Formafantasma | Andrea Trimarchi | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | Cecilia Alemani  | The Milk of Dreams | STIRworld
Exhibition view at the Central Pavilion at the Giardini Image: Marco Cappelletti, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

With over 200 artists from 58 countries, for the first time in the biennale's history the majority of the presented artists are either women and gender non-conforming artists. This presentation is then presented in dialogue with historic works from 19th century onward. This curatorial dialogue manifests in the exhibition flow. The physicality of this conceptual dialogue is an important aspect of experiencing this iteration of the biennale. Part of Alemani's curatorial note emphasises the need to "deliberate rethinking of man’s centrality in the history of art and contemporary culture"; with the historic capsules the supposed linearity of patriarchal inspiration is questioned.

To better understand the nuances of the biennale's exhibition design, STIR speaks wtih Formafantasma's Andrea Trimarchi. Here are extracts from the conversation.

Exhibition view at the Arsenale | Formafantasma | Andrea Trimarchi | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | Cecilia Alemani  | The Milk of Dreams | STIRworld
Exhibition view at the Arsenale Image: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Devanshi Shah: Having designed the central pavilions for the Giardini and the Arsenale, can you elaborate on how you conceptualised them and the five historic sections?

Andrea Trimarchi: We designed both the five historical capsules of the Biennale, and we also designed the entire exhibition of the Biennale. I would start by saying that when we got in contact with Cecilia (Alemani), the curator of the Biennale, she was interested in our approach. And we had previously done another exhibition at the biennale two years ago, called The Disquieted Muses that was about the history of the biennale. So we knew already a bit about the space from before.

Exhibition view of The Disquieted Muses (2020)  | Formafantasma | Andrea Trimarchi | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | Cecilia Alemani  | The Milk of Dreams | STIRworld
Exhibition view of The Disquieted Muses (2020) Image: Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

The Arsenale in particular is very difficult to do an exhibition design in. It's a very long space, and of course, there is another issue in the case of Venice and that is of course building walls. The division of the space had to make sure that people don't get lost and they don't lose the artworks. I would say our first concern, with Cecilia, was to work out a route. And I think it has been quite successful. There is clarity in the route and the flow of people. So, let's say that was our first commission. The historical sections came a bit later, after the summer when the curatorial approach became sharper.

Historical Capsule 1, The Witch’s Cradle at the Giardini | Formafantasma | Andrea Trimarchi | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | Cecilia Alemani  | The Milk of Dreams | STIRworld
Historical Capsule 1: The Witch’s Cradle at the Giardini Image: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Cecilia wanted to have five historical sections, and they are the anchor points within the main exhibition. They contextualise the work of the contemporary artists shown in the biennale. All the capsules use one material, that is textile, but in different ways. We wanted to play with the colours and textures of the material to convey different atmospheres. All the material was sponsored by Kvadrat, a Swedish textile company, that very kindly agreed to work with us. We also tried to work with the biennale in terms of ecological thinking, because that is very important when you work at such a scale. All the plastic walls will be recycled instead of being disposed of, and all the other materials, such as the textile and the carpet will be reused, and upcycled for other projects.

Historical Capsule 2: Corpo Orbita at the Giardini | Formafantasma | Andrea Trimarchi | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | Cecilia Alemani  | The Milk of Dreams | STIRworld
Historical Capsule 2: Corpo Orbita at the Giardini Image: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Devanshi: One of the challenges with this particular location is the old Venetian walls, many of which you can not engage with, how did you deal with that?

Andrea: That's also the problem and the challenge especially of the Arsenale because at the Giardini you can use the walls. In the Arsenale, you cannot because they are brick walls, and those are protected by the government. The problem here is that you need to build, especially for paintings, white walls. The big problem of the biennale is that every year, the Venice Architecture Biennale will tear down walls and the Venice Art Biennale will build walls. This is something that we addressed with the president of the biennale and the team because the best solution would be to have the walls built in and leave them there forever. Especially with contemporary art and paintings, the fact is that the majority of artists want to have a white cube, and that gets very complicated.

Historical Capsule 3: Technologies of Enchantment at the Giardini | Formafantasma | Andrea Trimarchi | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | Cecilia Alemani  | The Milk of Dreams | STIRworld
Historical Capsule 3: Technologies of Enchantment at the Giardini Image: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Devanshi: How did you approach the two spaces, the contemporary and the historical, individually?

Andrea: For the contemporary part of the exhibition, we worked very closely with Cecilia, we met twice a week, and we worked together on arranging the artists and the artworks. For the historical collection, it was a bit looser. We could approach the artwork in a different way.

Historical Capsule 4: A Leaf a Gourd a Shell a Net a Bag a Sling a Sack a Bottle a Pot a Box a Container at the Arsenale | Formafantasma | Andrea Trimarchi | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | Cecilia Alemani  | The Milk of Dreams | STIRworld
Historical Capsule 4: A Leaf a Gourd a Shell a Net a Bag a Sling a Sack a Bottle a Pot a Box a Container at the Arsenale Image: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Devanshi: Between planning and executing the design of the exhibition, what did you have to change or adapt?

Andrea: We had a lot of surprises; a lot of work was done for the first time for the biennale. We had sketches, but then there were some surprises, works that were not supposed to be as big or as colourful, so that disrupted or changed the feeling of the space. When it comes to the Arsenale or the Giardini, it is very technical, it is really about dividing the space, being sure that people don't lose track and that the work is exhibited well with the right lighting and with the right spacing.

Historical Capsule 5: Seduction of the Cyborg at the Arsenale | Formafantasma | Andrea Trimarchi | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | Cecilia Alemani  | The Milk of Dreams | STIRworld
Historical Capsule 5: Seduction of the Cyborg at the Arsenale Image: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Devanshi: How does one conceptualise a volume, as exhibition design? How does spatial design work, when you are dealing with such a large volume?

Andrea: Yeah, that has been very difficult I have to say. But we have been working with the exhibition design for five to six years and we have worked with spaces around 1000 square meters, they are manageable. Here you have 30,000 square meters, so we are talking 30 times more. We worked on it in sections. In the first month, we worked on the first two rooms of the Arsenale and two or three rooms of the Giardini. Once we understood what kind of system we should use, we then started to repeat it. It is a very technical intervention, compared to other exhibitions we have done in the past. It is not about scenography here. It's about allocating the right space.

First installation at the entrance of the Arsenale | Formafantasma | Andrea Trimarchi | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | Cecilia Alemani  | The Milk of Dreams | STIRworld
First installation at the entrance of the Arsenale Image: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Devanshi: Could you tell us a little more about the process of converting a conceptual note into an exhibition? What was that process?

Andrea: First we looked at what previous exhibitions had done. I think that's the secret. You need to go through all of them. We went through the last 20 years and we understood the parts that we liked and what worked and what did not. When you need to build walls that are six to seven meters, the space becomes incredibly heavy. The walls we have designed go from three to five, six, and seven, the diversity makes the space more pleasant. I think we got a lot more freedom, in the historical capsules, we could express our interests as designers.

FExhibition view at the Arsenale | Formafantasma | Andrea Trimarchi | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | Cecilia Alemani  | The Milk of Dreams | STIRworld
Exhibition view at the Arsenale Image: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice.

Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year's edition of the art biennale.

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