Review of the 59th Venice Biennale – the women’s biennial | Venice Biennale

IIt is the most important biennale in living memory. I have never seen anything like it. It has nothing to do with the war, of which later, although the Russian pavilion was closed and the borscht-colored super-yachts all duly banned. Nor does it have to do with the year-long delay caused by a pandemic that has no visible reflection in the thousands of artworks; it doesn’t even have anything to do with the art itself.

It is rather a change of era in attitudes. For the first time ever, there are many more women than men, everywhere from the Giardini to the Arsenale and more specifically in the main collective exhibition which takes place in both. A whole cast that has been waiting too long behind the scenes is now playing center stage. The 59th edition will go down in history as the biennial for women.

Already, the shot is the Algerian-born artist Zineb Sedira in the French pavilion of the Giardini. His show is a living enchantment. We step straight into a seductive performance: a couple in evening dresses swinging a swooning accordion in a Parisian bar that looks like a set from a period film. Indeed, with the other single-storey sets that surround it – the salons of Algiers in the 1950s, Paris in the 1960s and London in the 1980s – which all reappear on the screen of a cinema old-fashioned art and test at the back of the pavilion.

“A Living Enchantment”: Dreams Have No Titles by Zineb Sedira. Photography: David Levene/The Guardian

Here, Sedira shows a film that weaves her family history into postcolonial history using the medium of cinema itself in the most captivating way. You seem to be looking at a snippet of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 black and white masterpiece The Battle of Algiers, for example, except that the scene is mysteriously colored: is it a living actor playing the role now? Who’s Who movie? A hand enters a scene and rearranges the room before your eyes. Sedira herself appears, in one way or another, among the Algerians who arrived in France in the 1950s, even before she was born, with her friends and family. She uses the continuous flow of the film to question what is real and what is fiction, in history as in cinema. And it all dances with such elegance and complexity, like Sedira herself, still shaking against the final credits.

One of its characters is none other than Sonia Boyce, the first black woman to represent Britain in the pavilion next door. Her work is even more collaborative, a thrilling female polyphony involving five singers, including the wonderful Tanita Tikaram and Jacqui Dankworth, weaving their way through musical improvisation on separate screens. They cannot see each other, as we can, and yet their voices intertwine, adjust, harmonize, however distinct they may be. Ranging from blues and folk to pop and jazz, humming and hymning, low and guttural, high and tremulous, they kind of go in the same direction. Boyce’s 3D gold sculptures become seats for listeners and plinths for a slew of discount albums by black artists from Shirley Bassey to Beverley Knight. The whole setup is like a jam session for black history dream bands.

Feeling Her Way by artist Sonia Boyce.
Feeling Her Way by artist Sonia Boyce. Photo: Action Press/Rex/Shutterstock

Like Boyce, Simone Leigh is the first black woman to represent her country in the American pavilion, which she has thatched to resemble a traditional West African building. A female figure with a concave disc for a head dominates the forecourt: 24 feet of black bronze. Leigh’s oversized sculptures express themselves in black and white – a white woman in a porcelain crinoline, easily broken; a black slave bent over linen, cast in durable bronze. The best of his works, such as the monumental bell-shaped figure titled Brick House, impress the viewer with their sheer material force.

Closet (2022) by Simone Leigh.
Closet (2022) by Simone Leigh. Photography: David Levene/The Guardian

This year’s major group exhibition, The Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani, takes its title from a fairy tale by British-born Leonora Carrington, which is at the heart of an intensely intimate and eerie mini-investigation of surreal women to rival the massive surreal blockbuster at the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Dorsoduro. There are “capsules” like this everywhere, some historical and even scholarly – from art brut to cyborgs and mannequins – and much of the work, in this context, looks like late-blooming surrealism.

Of the 213 artists, only 21 are men, which represents a complete reversal. Even more striking is the novelty of walking half a mile of art with barely a single male body in sight. The Triumph, by all accounts, is a magnificent display of paintings and stuffed figures by Paula Rego, culminating in an altarpiece of ancient cabinets filled with disgraced women of literature and folklore. Some are adults but still wear their Foundling hospital uniforms, with one holding his own foundling. Society will never let them free themselves from their past.

A visitor looks at Oratorio, 2009, by Paula Rego.
A visitor watches Oratorio, 2009 by Paula Rego. Photography: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Sewing, weaving, knotting, tapestry – threads of all kinds run through this biennale, from the immensely delicate hanging gardens of venerable Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña to the dazzling op-art carpets of a reborn Kosovo in her pavilion. The most prodigious is the colossal frieze that runs all around the Polish pavilion (including the trompe-l’oeil pillars) entirely made in appliqué by the young Roma-Polish artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas with her three colleagues.

Based on Renaissance frescoes in Ferrara, this takes the form of a three-tiered narrative: the history of Poland revolving around the top, above a zodiacal cycle of golden sheep and glittering crabs, supplemented with images of Polish heroines; below them a sequence of everyday tableaux: women meeting, singing, drinking coffee, in the fields picking potatoes (the ingeniously designed plastic baskets), from birth to old age and death . It’s a vision of generosity and humor – characters wittily depicted in the very fabrics they might wear in life – requiring great aesthetic dexterity to convey everything from gently falling leaves to deep grief in shards. tissue. Just consider that four Polish women created it all from scratch in five short months while Germany invented nothing, literally – the floor, the exposed masonry, the empty pavilion while another artist “rediscovers” his past. It is almost impossible to ignore the geopolitical analogy.

Of course, the pavilions were ordered before the war, art is not a tool, etc. But the spectacle in Venice is that of Ukraine valiantly coping. The artists and the curator of the Russian pavilion resigned at the start of the war, so the biennale never had to make the moral decision to close it (one of its contracted “producers”, is- this step, is the daughter of Sergey Lavrov). But speculation about the value of soft diplomacy – or Russian art money – is not enough to explain the timid institutional response. The biennale finally offered Ukraine a small lawn in the Giardini as a temporary pavilion two weeks ago, where its artists have erected a sandbag monument, and art will be spontaneously produced until November. But where is the massive banner that should be visible from Piazza San Marco at the Lido? I have seen more Ukrainian flags in my part of South London.

Max Is in the Army by Lesia Khomenko, 2022, at the PinchukArtCentre in Venice.
Max Is in the Army by Lesia Khomenko, 2022, at the PinchukArtCentre in Venice. Photography: David Levene/The Guardian

The official pavilion is just a wall between Kosovo and Turkey in the Arsenal. But even in such cramped conditions, the “fountain” of 78 bronze funnels by Pavlo Makov, through which the water gradually dwindles to meager drops, has a deep, melancholy beauty. It was originally conceived in 1995, but no one watching it today can’t help but think of the Ukrainians dying of dehydration in Mariupol.

This Is Ukraine: Defending Our Freedom is a side event, offsite in Cannaregio, supported by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk. Lesia Khomenko’s larger-than-life paintings depict civilians in ordinary clothes holding a rifle in one hand and saluting with the other. Max Is in the army, 2022, is the title of the series. Max, also an artist, is Khomenko’s husband.

Children's game #26 by Francis Alÿs.
‘Glorious’: Children’s game #26 by Francis Alÿs. Photography: © Francis Alÿs

There is strength and consolation everywhere, if you look: in Malta’s wondrous drops of fire lighting up the darkness in homage to Caravaggio, in Cameroon’s inaugural pavilion with its photographs of women moving from monochrome to color, in the hilarious pavilion of New Zealand, where a Polynesian artist sends Gauguin on a television talk show. Especially in the glorious films of Francis Alÿs at the Belgian pavilion. Games for children – a permanent tribute to Alÿs’ compatriot Bruegel – features snail races, games of hide-and-seek, competitive jumping, elaborate matches involving nothing more than pebbles and holes in the sand. And all of this, all of this rising joy, this tantalizing improvisation, is playing out in the ruins of poverty and war all over the world.