by Rahul KumarApr 20, 2022
The 59th international art exhibition at the Venice Art Biennale is curated by Cecilia Alemani. The overarching theme that ties the event conceptually takes its title, The Milk of Dreams, from a book by Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) in which the surrealist artist describes a "magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination". Visual artists have worked with the idea of transformation, both as a concept and through the very act of creating their art. The biennale aspires to explore this in its totality, layered with the contemporary circumstances of rapid technological advancement and the globe becoming one large melting-pot of cultural influences. “What she (Carrington) did with her work and books was to break out of the identity that was imposed onto her. Now, 80 years after, artists are trying to break out the fixities of identities, celebrating new communions with other beings and new forms of being-in-the-world,” says Alemani.
The show is structured around five key sections, each interpreting and responding to the core theme in a unique way. Ranging from Dada and the Bauhaus movements, there are works that are immersive and futuristic in the use of technology. The exhibition will take place in the Central Pavilion (Giardini) and in the Arsenale, including 213 artists from 58 countries. Over 1,400 works and 80 new projects have been conceived specifically for the Biennale Arte.
I speak to Cecilia Alemani on the eve of the upcoming edition of the Venice Art Biennale as she discusses her references for the curatorial theme, the urgency of it in our contemporary times, and her views on initiatives to democratise access to art.
Rahul Kumar: How did you arrive at investigating The Milk of Dreams, a book by Leonora Carrington, as the core theme of the 59th Venice Art Biennale? Carrington describes a magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination. Were recent global events and the pandemic factors that navigated this idea as the theme for the event?
Cecilia Alemani: I was already interested in focusing the exhibition on themes of metamorphosis and transformation, and when I read The Milk of Dreams, it seemed to be a book that contained, both linguistically and visually, many of the curatorial preoccupations I was focusing on. I always like to ‘steal’ titles from books because writers are much better with words than curators. During the pandemic, many of the themes of the exhibition became suddenly very real. Many artists I was talking to were thinking of new ways of being together, of new forms of symbiosis, and were rethinking our complex relationship with technology. So, I think it is very much a convergence of general interests and the result of the deep crisis we have lived in these past months.
Rahul: Further, taking off from the literary work of Carrington, how are artists responding to the ideas of transformation and the metamorphosis of the human body itself? Specifically, "this moment in history when the very survival of the species is threatened, but also to sum up many other inquiries that pervade the sciences, arts, and myths of our time."
Cecilia: Artists have been thinking and depicting transformation and metamorphosis for centuries in many different ways, including physical, bodily transformation, but also touching upon broader issues of gender, identity, and race. Transformation is a vast category, but one I believe summarises many of the most urgent issues our generation is facing. And in a way, these are also very similar issues to those that an artist like Carrington might have faced in the aftermath of the Second World War, in a time where the idea of being a woman was probably very normative and contained. What she did with her work and books was to break out of the identity that was imposed onto her. Now, 80 years after, artists are trying to break out the fixities of identities, celebration new communions with other beings and new forms of being-in-the-world.
Rahul: You have broadly focussed the biennale on three thematic areas: the representation of bodies and their metamorphosis; the relationship between individuals and technologies; the connection between bodies and the earth. Please illustrate how you anticipate installations providing a unified experience of the key curatorial theme, as the layout "weaves a web of references and echoes that link artworks of the past to the pieces by contemporary artists."
Cecilia: The exhibition is structured around five historical presentations that include works and objects mainly from the 20th century. I see them as the pulsating hearts of the show, the roots that keep this exhibition grounded. They present constellations of works that revolve around some of the key themes of the show: for instance, our relationship with technology, which will be explored through the figure of the cyborg mainly in Dada and the Bauhaus movements, or the idea of metamorphosis, as seen through the work of many artists closed to the surrealists. I like to create echoes and connections between artworks that are often separated by 100 years, in the hope that the viewer could create his or her own narrative or rhymes through the show.
Rahul: What is the role of an international exhibition of this scale in the context of a historical juncture of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Cecilia: I hope the next edition of the Venice Biennale and the many other large events opening around the same time like documenta or the Berlin Biennale will mark a sign of recovery from the pandemic, a moment of celebration of what we love the most, and above all a sense of being physically present with our bodies in a communion of spirits. The Venice Biennale in its 127 years of existence has taught us to look at art as a beacon of hope even in the darkest times.
Rahul: Are you taking initiatives to democratise the access to art at the biennale?
Cecilia: The Venice Biennale is visited by thousands of schools and young people during the year, as well as many Venetians and Italian people. This, of course, besides the thousands of art professionals and art lovers that come from all over the world. It offers a wide spectrum of experiences and art languages, it engages with many different forms of art production, and it expands in the city of Venice through its many national pavilions and collateral events. Art is everywhere during the Biennale in Venice!
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.