The 59th International Art Exhibition, better known as the “Biennale” after the name of the organizer, opens in Venice on April 23. It is one of the most important and longest running exhibitions of contemporary art in the world and the largest in Italy. It was born in 1890 at the initiative of a group of local intellectuals and was conceived from the outset as “a series of biennial art exhibitions, partly free, partly by invitation”.
The 59th exhibition, which will be open until November 27, marked both the return of the art exhibition to Venice after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic and alternation with the architecture biennale, and the return of the public in full force. capacity. The only restriction still in place concerns the use of masks required inside the pavilions, especially those that are completely enclosed.
Over the years, the Biennale has expanded throughout Venice, including the islands of the lagoon, but the main focus has always been the old gardens of the Castello, built in the early nineteenth century by decree of Napoleon and then mainly known by the name of the exhibition. they accept. .
Before they were almost completely used for the Biennale, the gardens included, among other things, an elephant given to the city in the nineteenth century by the Italian royal family, whom the Venetians called “Tony” or “prisoner of the gardens”. At the entrance to the central pavilion – the main building of the exhibition – the audience is greeted by a statue of an elephant by the German artist Katharina Fritsch, who was awarded the Golden Lion for her services to life. The statue in this position was commissioned by this year’s curator Cecilia Alemany, former artistic director of New York’s High Line Park, who, in reference to the old Venetian landmark, suggested the exhibition’s theme song titled dream milk.
The title refers to a children’s book by British author and illustrator Leonora Carrington, set in a fantasy world populated by mutant creatures born of the imagination. Revisited specimens of these creatures surround the central pavilion from the outside, and then reappear in other areas of the exhibition.
Based on the images of Carrington, Alemany conceived an exhibition that develops around three themes: the image of bodies and their metamorphoses, the relationship between people and technology, the connection between bodies and the Earth. Through these themes, the Biennale more generally offers a less anthropocentric worldview. “The pressures of technological change, escalating social tensions, the outbreak of a pandemic and the looming threat of environmental catastrophes remind us every day that we are not invincible and self-sufficient, but are part of a symbiotic web of interdependencies that bind us to each other, to other species and to the planet as a whole,” explained Alemany.
This year, the Biennale features the work of 213 artists, most of which are housed in the exhibition space allocated to participating countries, some pavilion owners from the beginning of the twentieth century, such as Belgium, Germany, Hungary and the United Kingdom, others are housed in temporary premises. Most of the pavilions are located between Giardini and Arsenale, but they are scattered not only throughout the city – from Giudecca to St. Mark’s Square – but also on some islands in the lagoon, for example, in San Servolo and Charterhouse Island. .
Some pavilions, such as the pavilions of Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Austria, Romania and South Korea, are closely related to this year’s themes in a rather obvious way, with installations that offer imaginary creatures and an atmosphere worn by time. natural elements struggling for survival and analysis of human relationships, even intimate ones (as can be seen in the Romanian pavilion). The Italian, on the other hand, is in the Arsenale and, unlike previous editions, contains only one great work by one artist, Gian Maria Tosatti. History of the night e The fate of comets it tells the story of the Italian economic miracle in two parts, between industrial and domestic scenarios, and with the help of some visual and literary quotations such as Pasolini’s fireflies. In this way, work reconnects with the complex relationship between man and nature.
However, as always, the Biennale’s numerous venues also allow you to experience the exhibition in your own way, between different and apparently unrelated events. This is the case, for example, with the United Kingdom Pavilion, winner of the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, divided into different spaces in which British singers perform together or individually; or Greek in which the installation is located Oedipus in search of Colon Directed by Lukiya Alavanou. To see it, you are escorted inside a pavilion where there are a dozen stations in the dark set up for augmented reality. At this moment, the person is isolated from the environment and the viewer is projected into the Roma camp at Nea Zoi, near Athens, where improvised local actors perform an opera.
Another pavilion that is easy to spot is the American pavilion, whose neo-Palladian structure has been transformed into tribal architecture that already anticipates from afar the theme of the installation created by the sculptor Simone Lee: the artistic traditions of Africa and the African diaspora.
In addition to the national pavilions between the gardens and the Arsenal, there are five so-called historical capsules in which Alemany, the first Italian curator of the Biennale, wanted to collect works and objects from all over the world that explore themes. exhibitions and that they represent “artists and cultural figures whose work has over time been eclipsed by predominantly male narratives”.
This year’s edition was also influenced by the international context in which the exhibition was organized. The Russian Pavilion, one of the largest structures in the gardens, is closed: in February, the curator and artists resigned after the invasion of Ukraine, canceling their participation. A few meters from the Russian house, guarded by security after the protests of the first days, the so-called “Ukraine Square” was set up in the green zone, where some work surrounds a pile of sandbags, like those that used to protect monuments from hostilities. But the Ukrainian pavilion in the Arsenal and the curators are the same.
The spaces in the city have also been enriched with the opening of the Perpetual Prosecutor’s Office in Piazza San Marco, next to the Clock Tower. So named because it was once home to the Procurators of San Marco – the highest Venetian authorities after the Doge – they were restored by British architect David Chipperfield and are open to the public under the concession of the Assicurazioni Generali, the group that owns the buildings, nearly five centuries later. During the same period of the Biennale, the Procuratie Vecchie will host an exhibition by Ukrainian naturalized American sculptor Louise Nevelson, former curator of the American Pavilion in Giardini. Here is all the useful information for visiting the Biennale events.
– Read also: The history of Venice in the words she left us