A friend sent me a great Venice Biennale Bingo Card as I set off for the airport, and not long after my arrival it was filling up.1 There are patterns that repeat every two years at this monster show, tensions between the market and public funding, shouty PR and actual art, with lots of inequality and excess. The super busy retro Austrian pavilion encapsulated so many of these contradictions, accompanied by a catalogue that was more furniture magazine than manifesto, but strangely both.2
As you may have heard, the 59th edition shifted its historic gender imbalance towards women, with an 80% dominance in artistic director Cecilia Alemani’s Arsenale and Central Pavilion exhibitions. Putting the emphasis on women artists does not mean the curatorial agenda was above critical reproach however, as the work was very mixed with strong modernist overtones. Meanwhile, the independently curated national pavilions did not follow suit and had a roughly equal three-way tie of women, men and group shows.
The enormous Simone Leigh sculptures dominated and punctuated all exhibition venues.3 A firm favourite and Golden Lion winner, the simplicity of form and message in these works are complicated examples of cultural appropriation with decolonising potential. The huge financial support to realise these sculptures sharply contrasts with the meagre budgets from some African nations and other indigenous artists’ projects who struggled for visibility.
Within the strange geography of the national pavilions, G7 not G20 nations still rule – former colonial powers and their pavilions mostly prevail. There is a pretend level playing field which The Netherlands chose to act on and gave their Giardini space to Estonia, who have no permanent building. The gesture did not pay off so well, as the Dutch ended up beside the Victor Pinchuk Foundation funded show, which even had President Zelenskyy Zooming in for the opening.4 Despite propaganda weighing heavy over a range of practices and art stars there, the adjacent Melanie Bonajo film installation was rendered incredibly self-indulgent, despite touch, intimacy and loneliness being so relevant and post-Covid. Estonia did not fare much better with a squabble between artist and curator, which made for a very confused show.
More money does not always make the best art but , my favourite pavilions were France and Italy (who have budgets that run into millions of euros.). Zineb Sedira’s movie set installation and biopic film contained content I found missing from the main curated shows. Her life story told through militant film and underground dance culture, shifted styles and techniques with a good humoured density that should not have worked but did brilliantly. The French5 pavilion was part cinema and film set – dressed as living room, bar, film storage area and more, where the work was shot. Similarly the Italian5 presentation accentuated the former warehouse setting, turning it into an abandoned post-industrial factory, with a strange mix of redundant machinery, air-conditioning hoses, sewing machines and a dark watery pier with simulated fireflies. While it was an amazing immersive installation that kept you guessing, once I read more about the main sponsors being a couture fashion house and superyacht manufacturer, Gian Maria Tosatti’s narrative seemed compromised and made the work oddly literal or complicit.
I may have drawn some connections to the war in Ukraine, but it was too recent a catastrophe to be reflected in exhibits that were three years previous in the making. The biggest elephant in the room was not the Katharina Fritsch sculpture (of a large elephant at the entrance lobby in the Central Pavilion) but the pavilions of Germany and Spain, who kind of had the same show. They both had architectural interventions, resulting in empty galleries, and instead provided guides and maps of the city for visitors and tourists. Germany showed sites of resistance and war memorials and Spain showed places to collect free books. These anti-spectacle gestures, rooted in detailed research, made for better catalogues – a difficult gamble to make at an event such as this.
Between them in the Giardini ironically, was the empty Russian pavilion, from which curators and artists withdrew just as the biennale banned their participation. The constant police presence and visitors photographing the closed building sadly created something from nothing. I witnessed a very dynamic shoot of a cleaner with a wheelbarrow of rubbish bags, which no doubt made some kind of statement on a social media feed. Opposite was the Nordic Pavilion which has temporarily become the Sámi Pavilion, populated for the press days by many happy, ethnically dressed folks. Participation rather than presentation seemed key here as the artworks appeared incidental to this grand gesture of the Nordic nations, who share this indigenous population and culture. Australia and New Zealand had strong indigenous acknowledgements and content, offering a welcome burst of sonic, strobe and camp.
In an era of Instagram friendly post-internet art, the best works were surprisingly un-photographable. The viewer was required to be physically present to experience the work. A series of laser and prisms projected ticker-tape text across the entire Japanese pavilion interior by the collective Dumb Type, flashing words and dots, making it super hard to read and impossible to capture.
The main curated shows offered many works with highly crafted details that were at times overwhelming but mostly exasperating. The maze of works had an emphasis on making, with a clatter of modernist narratives that I found difficult to parse with contemporary art and thinking. What made wonderful sense after the long walk through the Arsenale was Niamh O’Malley’s Irish Pavilion.6 It was here that the hand crafted, elegant and sparse work spoke more to me than the maximalist main show. The works have a different sophistication which was absent elsewhere that also rejected the abject. O’Malley’s show hit the right notes, connecting better than the biennale curator could articulate in her selections.
Alan Phelan is an artist who lives and works in Dublin. His trip to Venice was self-funded with press accreditation provided by VAI.
1 See: hyperallergic.com/725426/venice-biennale-bingo-card
2 Austria (biennalekneblscheirl.at)
3 USA (simoneleighvenice2022.org)
4 See: new.pinchukartcentre.org/thisisukraine
5 Italy (notteecomete.it)
6 Ireland (irelandatvenice2022.ie)