Despite the presence of several exhibitions and events devoted to Ukraine, there were, to be perfectly honest, limits to how much I was able to think about the war during the intense press days of the 59th Venice Biennale. But when I found myself standing on a layer of bark in the Piazza Ucraina – a makeshift, rapidly constructed exhibition in the middle of the Giardini that was included in the main exhibition The Milk of Dreams at the very last minute – looking at one of the many posters with reproductions of brand-new comments on the war from Ukrainian artists, it hit me with such force that I almost lost my footing.
Not that the imagery was full of drama. Yulia Tveritina’s poster showed a drawing of a mother with a small child on her lap; at first glance, the picture looked rather like a wholesome illustration from a children’s book. It was the text accompanying the picture that shook me: it explained that this mother wrote the child’s name, date of birth, and contact information directly on the child’s back because she feared that they might be separated during the evacuation of Kyiv. Of course, the fact that children and parents lose each other in war was hardly new to me. But in that very moment my defences collapsed, and for a little while I truly took in the unbearable realities.
We have become highly adept at living with a completely compartmentalised awareness, one where atrocities such as war, the climate crisis, and our own mortality for the most part just simmer on the back burner as we go about our usual business. In any case, the ability to divide one’s attention is very much required as a visitor to a gargantuan exhibition like the Venice Biennale, where more art is displayed than is, strictly speaking, humanly possible to digest in a few days – in a city that in itself consists of layers upon layers of history and art experiences.
The fact that there is a war on in Europe is not the only thing giving this instalment of the biennale a sense of historical momentum. This year’s main exhibition is promoted as the first in the biennale’s 127-year history to predominantly feature women and non-binary artists. Curator Cecilia Alemani’s The Milk of Dreams is, in fact, nothing less than a feminist feat and a deliberate revolt against the (white) male artist as the norm – not only in the here and now, but also up through the more than hundred-year long history of the avant-garde. The exhibition’s title is taken from a children’s book of the same name by the British-Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington, who is also among the women artists shown in the historical parts of the exhibition. Carrington has received a lot of international attention in recent years – including in Norway, not least due to Susanne Christensen’s book-length essay Leonoras reise (Leonora’s Journey, 2019).
The Milk of Dreams can be seen as a culmination of efforts that have taken place on many fronts over a long period of time, successfully inscribing women avant-garde artists in art history, especially Surrealist artists. Although this year’s exhibition includes an unusual number of historical works, the biennale is nevertheless primarily a showcase for contemporary art; this is not a purely historical exhibition. Rather, it is about the relevance of these artists today, latching on to their explorations of highly relevant themes such as gender identity and the relationships between humanity, nature, and technology, as well as their potential influence on Surrealistic tendencies in present-day art. The exhibition paves the way for seeing contemporary art engage in a dialogue with its historical precedents, an approach that feels meaningful and enriching.
Five historical “capsules” form their own exhibitions within the exhibition – with the most comprehensive, The Witch’s Cradle, also being the most central. This is where we find a small selection of paintings by Carrington presented alongside related Surrealist painters such as Remedios Varo and Dorothea Tanning. They all depict female figures far removed from the objectified female body that often appears in male Surrealist imagery. These figures appear strong, autonomous and in touch with universal forces, from the animal kingdom and the spiritual spheres alike. The title of this section, in which many of the works are unfortunately behind distracting reflective glass, is taken from an experimental film by Ukrainian-born Maya Deren from 1943. The Witch’s Cradle also works well as a collective name for the thirty-four women avant-gardists presented here; it is a distinctly “witchy” selection, not only because many of the artists, like Carrington, were preoccupied with the mythical and the occult, but also because of the rebellious and strong-willed attitude that characterises the works. The section is an art-historical treasure trove featuring a good mix of famous names, such as Meret Oppenheimer and Claude Cahun, alongside lesser-known artists. Although most are Europeans with connections to Surrealism, Futurism, or Dada, the selection also includes African and African American artists. For example, the African American sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller is represented with the work Ethiopia Awakening (1921), which shows a woman with one hand against her chest, seemingly waking up from a mummified state.
The other historical sections focus on: different forms of women’s writing – visual and concrete poetry, spiritualistic and automatic writing (interestingly, the phenomenon of automatic writing is here less associated with a Freudian understanding of the unconscious and more with the artist as a medium for the spirit world); optical and computer-programmed art (which is also about transcending the artistic self, here in the form of a more rational technological approach); various forms of containers and their connections to the body and nature (with reference to an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin in which the container is seen as a metaphor for thinking and storytelling); and the cyborg – especially the female cyborg – as a figure in avant-garde art.
The pervasive feminist perspective on art history not only lifts women avant-garde artists out of obscurity and assigns the leading role to the mediums and “muses.” Here, one does not find André Breton, but Nadja; not Hans Bellmer, but Unica Zürn; not Marcel Duchamp (except in a small role in Maya Deren’s film), but Mina Loy. It also tells a slightly different story, not least by applying a different understanding of the female body. I am also left with the impression that the focus is more on contact and connections with something greater than the individual than on acts of transgression as provocation or revolt against norms.
Incidentally, this point seems to apply to most of the contemporary art contributions. We find many works and oeuvres that connect with something larger, whether in the form of human and political collectives, nature and spirituality, or more undefined and ambivalent forces. Connections are also established between the various works in the exhibition – partly through the exhibition’s thematic interests, and partly through the many carefully thought-out juxtapositions of different works of art. Indeed, this is a very diverse exhibition overall, both in terms of the artists’ backgrounds and the media with which they work. The Milk of Dreams is an exhibition of the traditionally oppressed: women and colonised ethnic groups dominate, and the only demographic that is clearly underrepresented – and, in fact, is almost completely absent – is white men. I can’t say I missed them.
Even among the painters, there are no white men – instead, the wall space is devoted to doyennes such as Cecilia Vicuña from Chile and Ulla Wiggen from Sweden, young painters such as Kudzanai-Violet Hwami from Zimbabwe and Felipe Baeza from Mexico, and the recently deceased self-taught artist and activist Jaider Esbell from the Makuxi people in Brazil. The latter shows a striking series of colourful paintings on a black background with a mix of schematic depictions of nature and more freely imaginative and pure abstract patterns, all in a style dominated by dots and lines.
Textile art is also relatively well represented, with Sámi artist Britta Marakatt-Labba’s exquisite narrative embroidery as one of the highlights. Also worth mentioning are Indian artist Mrinalini Mukherjee’s burlesque macramé humanoids and South African artist Igshaan Adams’s large tapestry Bonteheuwel / Epping (2021). At first glance, I saw it as an abstract image, but the accompanying text informed me that it depicts a landscape with “desire lines,” footpaths formed during the apartheid era by people who defied the ban on moving between different places.
Among the more bizarre explorations of the relationship between humankind and nature is Chinese artist Zheng Bo’s eco-erotic film Le Sacre du Printemps (2021), in which a group of naked Nordic men engage in sexual intercourse with the forest, enacting what looks like a mixture of masturbation, upside-down yoga in the trees, and ecstatic dancing. Among the projects that deal with technology, we find works ranging from Swedish artist Charlotte Johannesson’s small pixelated images created by means of computer technology to South Korean artist Mire Lee’s nightmarish machinery where something resembling clusters of intestines splash around, producing a flow of maroon gore.
South Korean artist Geumhyung Jeong’s homemade robots lie, seemingly out of order, forlornly dissected across a long table. Mobile phones showing videos of these partly humanoid creatures on wheels in action are scattered around the table. Several of them attempt a kind of kissing, thereby connecting with German artist Rebecca Horn’s classic Kiss of the Rhinoceros (1989), a kinetic sculpture in which two metal “rhinos”, each attached to a semicircle, move towards and away from each other, causing electric sparks every time they meet.
Overall, romantic love is not held in high regard in The Milk of Dreams. Rather, it contains several depictions of the nuclear family and intimate relationships as downright dangerous. But among the more notable video installations, we find Vietnamese artist Thao Nguyen Phan’s – admittedly unhappy – folkloric love story First Rain, Brise-Soleil (2021–ongoing). Lebanese artist Ali Cherri’s three-channel video installation Of Men and Gods and Mud (2022), a meditation on life and death focusing on a community of men who make bricks for a living, also merits special mention. As does the Chinese new media artist LuYang’s video game-like DOKU – LuYang’s Digital Reincarnation (2020–ongoing), where we follow the artist’s avatar on a kind of philosophical journey of discovery.
The opportunities for presenting monumental works and large installations provided by the biennale’s premises are put to good use, and many of these works are among the strongest in the exhibition. In the Giardini, a large green cast of an elephant sits by the entrance, courtesy of German artist Katharina Fritsch. While the first thing that meets visitors in the Arsenale section of the exhibition is American artist Simone Leigh’s towering sculpture Brick House (2019), a vast head of a woman resting on a foundation reminiscent of the dome of a larger building or a small earthen hut. The most striking thing about the sculpture is that the woman lacks eyes; the area where they should have been is completely smooth and empty. Perhaps a reference to the goddess of justice, Justitia? Regardless of how one interprets this blindness, it is made particularly striking by the fact that the statue is surrounded by Cuban artist Belkis Ayón’s collography prints in which template-like black-and-white human figures lack facial features, but do have very prominent staring eyes.
We find another interesting correspondence between a seemingly odd couple: Ovartaci and Nan Goldin. The intriguing Danish transsexual artist Ovartaci spent much of their life in a psychiatric institution, creating an entire world populated by distinctive female figures with feline features, reminiscent of aliens. We meet with a nice, small selection of these figures, both in the form of paintings and as paper dolls. The next gallery features Goldin’s collage film Sirens (2019–2021), making it impossible to overlook the similarities between the skinny intoxicated models with their heavily made-up eyes and Ovartaci’s mysterious female figures.
Norwegian artist Sandra Mujinga fills an entire gallery with green light and her distinctive sculptures – a group of human-like but inhumanly large beings and a glistening black tent. Encased in coarsely woven fabrics, the broad-shouldered yet unsubstantial figures look like ghostly warriors taken from a sci-fi game. Just as when entering a new setting in a game world, I was struck by the feeling that something unexpected and dramatic might happen; it is a scene of suspension and suspense.
Also impressive are two vast installations that, each in their own way, use soil as a material. Colombian artist Delcy Morelos’s labyrinth-like Earthly Paradise (2022) fills most of the room with a massive structure of dark, moist soil that is said to smell of cocoa, cloves, and cinnamon – scents which I, with my still somewhat reduced sense of smell after a bout of Covid in March, was only vaguely able to sense. The term “earthly paradise” is taken quite literally here, and despite the installation’s fragrant properties, the title makes it difficult not to think of this soil as a possible end to one’s journey: a burial site.
One sees more visible signs of life in the soil that forms the basis of Nigerian-American artist Precious Okoyomon’s fantastic installation To See the Earth before the End of the World (2022), a cultivated landscape in which visitors can roam on winding paths. Here, we find flowers, green foliage, and butterflies as well as some enigmatic women-like earthen figures, guardians of the earth. Or perhaps they could be more accurately described as earth’s avengers; they have a mildly threatening air, and I felt them at my back as I walked out of the exhibition.
Not everything is strong. Parts of the exhibition in the Giardini in particular feel uneven, giving off a haphazard art fair vibe. But all in all, The Milk of Dreams is an effective and timely problematisation of the hierarchies in art. Alemani’s exhibition comes at a time when criticism of major institutions is palpably felt everywhere as decolonisation, BLM, and #MeToo have all become mainstream movements. One might say that the only way the institutions can stay relevant is to incorporate, and thus to a certain extent render harmless, the forces that want to challenge or undermine them. But one might also ask whether an institution such as the Venice Biennale could endure – at least in its current form – if the revolutionary forces that simmer in The Milk of Dreams had truly been given free rein.