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Emilie Trice is a writer, curator and artist based in Denver, Colorado. Her writing has been published online by The New York Times, The Paris Review, Artnet and Artforum, among other outlets.

The world's most important art festival returns to show us how far we've come...and how far we still have to go.

Every two years (give or take)—as racial, gender, and social inequities are brought to the forefront of cultural dialogue and challenged—the Venice Biennale does its best to reflect the zeitgeist back to us, so we can continue to do the work. This year, the Biennale runs from April 23rd until November 27th.

Walking around the Giardini, the “gardens” in Venice—where 29 national pavilions exhibit their countries’ most exceptional artists—can seem like an antiquated exercise in nation-state parodies. There’s the “Nordic” pavilion, a minimalist marvel that represents the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Finland; then there’s the German pavilion, an imposing brutalist monument with fascist overtones; the Russian pavilion is embellished to recall the Red Square’s iconic onion domes. You get the idea.

The United States’ pavilion, meanwhile, is housed in a “stately” neoclassical structure that feels like a whitewashed maquette of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello mansion. All things considered, the overall vibe of the Giardini is like walking around a life-size architectural model of national stereotypes, and it’s been that way since the Biennale was originally established in 1895. (It bears stating that the Arsenale, an industrial shipyard where other national pavilions are positioned, is less obtuse than the Giardini, as are the national pavilions spread across the city in a variety of palazzos.)

This year, the Venice Biennale may seem like a frivolity. After all, war is still raging in Ukraine, the coronavirus is still claiming victims, and severe climate events are still becoming increasingly violent and destructive. Venice, specifically, embodies the urgent threat of climate change—and could ultimately succumb to sea-level rise.

It all begs the question: what role does art play in contemporary society, when human lives literally hang in the balance? That’s a rhetorical question and a matter of opinion, to be sure, but one thing is certain—art serves many purposes, especially in times of crisis. 

This year’s Venice Biennale has been a long time coming, both literally and figuratively. It was postponed for a year due to the pandemic. Its intrepid curator, Cecilia Alemani, has openly discussed the myriad challenges she faced whilst trying to organize an epic international exhibition during a global public health crisis via zoom. 

Entitled Milk of Dreams, after a children’s book by the surrealist artist Leonora Carringon, Alemani’s main exhibition is significant for a number of reasons. For starters, Alemani has selected predominantly female and femme-identifying artists for her show. In fact, “male artists constitute less than 10 percent of the 213-person artist list this year,” a symbol of shifting attitudes towards gender and other social inequities in the art world.

Here are some of the breakout artists, pavilions and other “biennale firsts” that serve as a poignant reminder that, in art—as in life—there is always more to discover, explore, and learn. 
 

Women artists sweep the art festival’s top prizes.


British Pavilion featuring artist Sonia Boyce. Image: Room 1 in the British Pavilion featuring four performers - Errollyn Wallen, Tanita Tikaram, Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth – 2022 – Image Credit – Cristiano Corte  © British Council
 

“For the first time, both of the Venice Biennale’s top honors went to Black women,” as reported by Artnews. The Golden Lion for best pavilion went to the British Pavilion and artist Sonia Boyce, who presented a multimedia installation that honored historically overlooked Black female musicians. Boyce is the first Black woman artist to represent Great Britain in Venice.

American artist Simone Leigh won a Golden Lion for her contribution to Alemani’s main exhibition—a 16-ft tall sculpture entitled Brick House, that was previously shown at the Highline in New York. 

Furthermore, this year two female artists—Katharina Fritsch and Cecilia Vicuña—were both recognized with the prestigious lifetime achievement award (that normally goes to just one artist), which hasn’t happened since 2013.
 

Ukraine’s artists and curators escaped a literal war zone to represent their embattled country and bring attention to their nation’s plight.


Ukrainian Pavilion featuring Pavlo Makov’s installation Fountain of Exhaustion. Image courtesy the Ukrainian pavilion.

As the world watches in horror, Ukraine’s citizens have become paragons of strength, determination, and grit— and the country’s artists and curators are no exception. Artnet published a harrowing account of curator Maria Lanko’s journey to Venice, after she awoke in her hometown of Kyiv on Februrary 24th to the sound of explosions and terror. 

Lanko spent the next three weeks driving to Venice with precious cargo—in her trunk were boxes of bronze funnels that comprise Pavlo Makov’s installation Fountain of Exhaustion. The sculpture wasn’t finished yet, but Lanko was determined to make it to Venice and bring urgent attention to her country and culture. A Milan-based fabrication firm ultimately reached out to Lanko during her journey and offered to complete the work’s production, so it could be fully installed in time for the Biennale’s opening. 

Fountain of Exhaustion is a political work that Pavlo Makov first created in the 1990s, when Ukraine was facing a water crisis. The artist lives and works in Kharkiv, his home for 30 years, which has been the target of brutal Russian attacks since the start of the conflict and, today, is almost completely destroyed. 

Makov explains that the fountain, composed of 79 funnels, is meant to symbolize the grief, sorrow and sheer depletion that Ukrainians are experiencing en masse. By the time the water reaches the base of the fountain, it has nearly run dry. The remaining water is then returned to the top of the fountain and the cycle continues. 

Other notable Ukrainian contributions to this year’s biennial include the celebrated folk artist Maria Prymachenko, whose paintings have been called the “spirit of the Ukrainian people”and have been targeted by Russian forces. Alemani was able to include one of her works at the last minute, an important addition signifying Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression.

In the Giardini, Ukraine’s curators have also created an “open-air” pavilion, which includes references to Ukraine’s attempts to shield its historic monuments from Russian bombs by surrounding them with sandbags. The Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund (UEAF) is also in the mix with the “Wartime Art Archive”—which includes posters and other ephemera created by Ukrainian artists since the onset of the war. 

Al Jazeera reports that Lanko has also created public programming around the current political and humanitarian crisis: “Our public programme is focused on this cultural resistance and on the decolonising of this imperialistic narrative of Russia: refusing Ukraine to exist, refusing our identity and our difference from them,” says Lanko (to read more about why archiving culture is an act of political resistance, click here.)

Ukrainian President Zelensky even made a (virtual) appearance, stating: “Art can tell the world things that cannot be shared otherwise.” 
 

Simone Leigh thatches the US Pavilion’s neoclassical roof.

US Pavilion featuring Simone Leigh. Image: Simone Leigh, Façade, 2022. Thatch, steel, and wood, dimensions variable. Satellite, 2022. Bronze, 24 feet × 10 feet × 7 feet 7 inches (7.3 × 3 × 2.3 m) (overall). Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

The first Black woman artist to represent the United States in the Giardini, Simon Leigh reimagined the US pavilion entirely, covering its neo-palladian roof with thatching reminiscent of a West African palace from the early 20th century. Entitled Sovereignty, Leigh’s pavilion was commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, together with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

According to our friends at Berlin Art Link, in this body of work:
“Leigh employs a strategy that she calls 'the creolization of form,' combining disparate cultural languages linked through histories of colonization. With this series of works, she brings together references to 19th-century West African art, early Black American material culture and the colonial history of international expositions.”

In the US pavilion, Leigh incorporated her signature materials of ceramic and raffia, with symbolic forms like shells, spoons, and other connotations of tribal—and feminine—regency. It's the ultimate act of decolonization and a reminder that the unpaid labor of trans-Atlantic slaves (especially women) laid the literal foundation of the United States.
 

The Nordic Pavilion becomes the Sámi Pavilion in honor of indigenous artists.

This year the Nordic Pavilion renamed itself to honor the Sámi—an indigenous and semi-nomadic group that’s among Europe’s oldest, with an estimated population of about 80,000 that’s “spread over 150,000 square miles in Russia, in Finland, Norway, Sweden and the northern parts of the Kola Peninsula.” (source) Three Sámi artists—Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna—were invited to represent the three countries normally represented in the Nordic Pavilion.

Artnews reported that Katya García-Antón, the lead commissioner of the 2022 Nordic pavilion, released an official statement that stated: "The global pandemic, the impact of climate change, and worldwide calls for decolonization are leading us all to focus on alternative possibilities for our future and that of our planet. At this pivotal moment, it is vital to consider Indigenous ways of relating to the environment and to each other."

While this isn’t the first time that indigenous artists have been featured in Venice, the renaming of the Nordic pavilion and the long-awaited recognition of the Sámi peoples’ plight is an important step in redistributing some equity across the “national pavilions” of the Giardini. To learn more about the Sámi Pavilion, watch this video.

 

Germany’s pavilion pays homage to invisible victims of the Holocaust.

German Pavilion featuring Maria Eichhorn, Relocating a Structure. German Pavilion 2022, 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 2022, detail: Joins between sections of the building from 1909 and 1938; wall lettering; doorway to the left rear side room from 1909, walled up in 1928; foundations of the rear wall from 1909; rear wall of the building from 1909, interior wall from 1938, demolished in 1964; doorway to the right side room from 1909, walled up in 1912, exhibition view, © Maria Eichhorn / VG Bild- Kunst, Bonn 2022, photo: Jens Ziehe

Maria Eichorn is the artist representing Germany this year; her multi-faceted work acts as a remembrance for the Holocaust’s many victims and critiques the German Pavilion itself, which consists of two main buildings: the Bavarian Pavilion that was built in 1909, and the extended building which the Nazis redesigned in their facist style in 1938—and which still stands today. 

Eichorn wanted to explore questions of accountability, erasure, and the invisible becoming visible. Her artistic contribution, entitled Places of Resistance, also includes twice-weekly tours led by historical experts that will be offered “during the Biennale to monuments and places that commemorate the activities of the anti-fascist resistance and the deportation of the Jewish population.”

Undoing facism is no small feat, but Germany’s efforts to critically reflect on its own horrifying history do offer a glimmer of hope for political progress—and an ongoing reckoning with the country’s past crimes against humanity. 

 

Iconic 98 year-old female generative artist exhibits for the first time.

In the late 1960s, after multiple rejections, Hungarian artist Vera Molnar convinced the Sorbonne to give her access to a computer. According to Artnet, who interviewed Molnar in her Parisian nursing home, “Computers were reserved for scientific computing at the time. Having taught herself Fortran, she began feeding in instructions on a punch card.” Molnar’s resulting works were minimalist creations that introduced randomness into an algorithmic formula—and thereby ushered in the controversial beginnings of generative art as an art historical genre. 

This year, Molnar’s work is featured in Venice for the first time. With the recent, rapid ascent of digital art and NFTs, generative art is currently enjoying a renaissance. However, the artists gaining traction in the digital art market skew heavily male, since computer programming is still a fairly homogeneous field, at least in terms of gender. By featuring Molnar’s work, Alemani has done a major service to aspiring female and femme-identifying creative coders worldwide—it’s a coup for women in tech, as well as for women artists in general.

 

Representation matters.

The overarching takeaway from this year’s Venice Biennale is that representation matters, and that we still have far to go. As one human race, we are collectively still working to undo crimes of colonialism, imperialism, and other injustices committed in the name of nation-states or political ideologies. While visiting the Venice Biennale is certainly a luxury that connotes privilege and exclusion, the spirit of the art on view is radical, progressive, unsettling, and yet beautiful to behold. 

These ideas, these forms, these redemptions and remembrances are all part of our zeitgeist and part of the Venice Biennale’s legacy, for better or worse. To bear witness to this legacy, through the creation and contemplation of art, is to acknowledge the pride—and pain—of all humankind, no matter the country of origin.

If nothing else, the Venice Biennale serves as a profound reminder that the human spirit carries on—and that is something to celebrate. 

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