The power of works displayed at the 59th Venice Biennale has the male canon lying in smithereens. By Fiona Kelly McGregor.

The Milk of Dreams

Simone Leigh’s Brick House, part of the 59th Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams.
Simone Leigh’s Brick House, part of the 59th Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams.
Credit: Roberto Marossi

I have heard it said that in the Anthropocene, any art that doesn’t address climate change is irrelevant. As the 59th Venice Biennale was preparing to open, war erupted on the European continent, increasing what was already the largest movement of displaced people the planet has ever seen. What on earth could Cecilia Alemani’s The Milk of Dreams – its title drawn from a children’s book by early 20th-century writer and artist Leonora Carrington – say about these urgent issues? Actually, almost everything.

Stretching across the Giardini and Arsenale, two vast venues at the eastern end of Venice’s main island, the exhibition begins with a dive into 1930s female and gender non-conforming artists, including Dorothea Tanning, Claude Cahun and Remedios Varo. Entitled The Witch’s Cradle after Maya Deren’s groundbreaking experimental film from 1943, this room’s golden walls and floor bring to mind another germinal work of oppressed womanhood and hysteria, Charlotte Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper.

Small in scale, both hung and displayed in vitrines, the artworks are fever dreams of human morphing with flora (Ithell Colquhoun), fauna (Carrington), insects (Eileen Agar) and technology (Jane Graverol). Gender roles are reversed, as in L’Alcove (1941), Leonor Fini’s broody, romantic painting of a couple in bed, an androgynous man supine in the foreground watched over by a woman seated behind. Portuguese artist Paula Rego, now 89, completes the room with charged sexual and religious motifs.

These lay the foundation of ideas – fluid identities, ecological determinism and the subversion of hierarchies, including of nationhood and authorship – that underpin the exhibition. The Milk of Dreams excavates the rare and unseen, and accompanies it with lucid, spare curatorial notes that allow the works to speak for themselves.

Harlem Renaissance artist Loïs Mailou Jones’s portrait of three women, Africa (1935), with its angular planes, flattened facial features and slabs of strong colour, smashes out of the park Picasso and his ilk, who took so much from what they termed “primitive art”. With characteristic legerdemain, Caribbean writer Suzanne Césaire is billed alongside husband Aimé as co-creator of landmark journal Tropiques. African American publication The Crisis is in the same showcase.

All through the exhibition, elegant synchronicities such as these convey the intertwining of politics, activism and art, of dreams and actuality, steadily rectifying inequity. With rigorous scholarship and installation choices sensitive to the spatial idiosyncrasies and histories of the venues, connections between the artists form across time and space through media and practice, and the shared yet diverse navigation of humanitarian crises. Works vibrate off one another, often only obliquely; energy builds from room to room.

Tau Lewis’s three-square-metre lion’s face, Angelus Mortem (2021), in the Arsenale, painstakingly assembled with castoff furs and fabric, draws from her ancestors’ Yoruba mask-making and more broadly, women’s artisanal histories with textiles. It harks back to Katherina Fritsch’s life-size Elephant (1987) in the Giardini’s central pavilion, which is mounted on a high plinth, painted an eerie dark sea green. Originally exhibited in 1987, this animal knows it’s on its way out of nature. Alemani’s placement of it here also recalls the elephant named Toni (“the prisoner in the Giardini”) who lived in what was then parklands, just before the biennale began
127 years ago.

There are four other time capsules scattered throughout the exhibition as touchstones. A section titled Body Language shows text and language massaged into new meanings. Tomaso Binga’s Dattilocodice (1978) – 55-centimetre by 50-centimetre grids created with blue and red typewriting – are both typographic experiments and ideograms. Born Bianca Menna in Salerno in 1931, the artist married her male-named alter ego, Tomaso, in a gallery in 1977.

Brazilian Lenora de Barros’s POEMA (1979) is a visceral enactment of being stuck for words, a strip of black-and-white photos showing close-ups of the artist’s tongue caught between the spoked letters of a manual typewriter. All feed the last work in the Giardini, a giant neon prose poem by one of the youngest artists, American Sable Elyse Smith, born in 1986. Landscape II (2021), segues from the threatening touch of a correctional officer to an ecstatic ode to fisting.

Some of the most intimate, domestic pieces are huge in scale. The Arsenale begins with Argentinian Gabriel Chaile’s 2021 clay and adobe sculptures drawn from his Spanish, Afro Arab and Indigenous Candelaria heritage. Combining forms from archaeological sites and vessels used in villages today, with titles such as Mama Lucha, these huge, bulbous, warm orange structures are a marvel whether viewed from the mezzanine or up close on ground level. Delcy Morelos from Colombia brought in tonnes of soil for Earthly Paradise (2022) to fill another cavernous gallery. Dark, chest-high blocks surround your body; lifting your mask away, you are assailed by the scents of hay, coffee and spices.

The theme of bodies and their metamorphoses leads to the relationship between individuals and technologies. Again, the curation eschews the obvious. Tucked into a corner, sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd’s delicate latex, copper and ceramic masks for World War I veterans with facial injuries herald the fusion of medicine and art and recollect a source of the misshapen physiognomies that run through early modern art. Introducing another gallery, fittingly, is a giant photo (1920-25) of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the real auteur of Fountain, signed by R. Mutt (1917) before Marcel Duchamp stole it. Prancing about in stripy pedal pushers and a kooky hat, she could easily be at a party in 1985 Darlinghurst.

There’s a larger than usual inclusion of contemporary Italian artists. Diego Marcon’s video The Parents’ Room (2021) is a morbid fable of familicide filmed with real actors masked to look like dolls. The father sings his crime in a high, wistful voice to chilling, funny effect.

Another monumental sculpture in the Arsenale is American Simone Leigh’s Brick House, which Alemani commissioned in 2019 when curator of New York’s The Highline. A five-metre-high bronze cast, Brick House inverts traditional white male European statues not only in subject and form – the torso of a Black woman melding skirt and grass hut – but also in how it conveys power: with endurance, integrity and the quotidian, as opposed to grandiosity, entitlement and conquest.

Leigh occupied the American pavilion this year, thatching the entire structure in homage to West African architecture and Paris’s 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale, the event that precipitated the Négritude movement of African cultural pride and self-determination founded by Aimé Césaire. Leigh filled the pavilion with figurative sculptures of Black women engaged in labour and statues combining the anthropomorphic, utilitarian and talismanic.

It’s stupendous work, in my opinion more fitting of the Golden Lion for best national participation than British winner Sonia Boyce, whose video installation of Black British female musical artists was a great idea cluttered by busy wallpaper and kitsch gold sculptures. In compensation, Leigh won the Golden Lion for best artist in the main exhibition. Other stand-out pavilions were Belgium, Romania, Slovenia, Philippines, Malta and France.

It’s impossible to do justice to everything in this year’s biennale. The Milk of Dreams is a game changer. The canon has been chipped away at for years: now it lies in smithereens. Indeed, artists such as Claude Cahun are practically establishment in this ocean of talent, ingenuity, daring and wonder. One’s euphoria is amplified by the feeling of restitution: but there are two caveats.

First, the suffering so many of these artists went through, the myriad lost works. Carrington herself suffered a mental breakdown. Norwegian artist Tomas, who today would be considered non-binary, trans or intersex, spent the final 56 years of her life inside an asylum. Her tall, thin, lugubriously coloured catlike creatures are unforgettable.

Second, the lack of Oceanic artists leaves another supremacy intact: that of the global north – extending as it does over swaths of Africa, Latin America and Asia. As I wandered through, I thought how perfectly artists such as Megan Cope, Taloi Havini, Katthy Cavaliere or arts collective VNS Matrix would have completed this show, to name just a few.



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EXHIBITION OUTstanding: International Art Project

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VISUAL ART Pyrenees Art Exhibition

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Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, until June 4

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Dreams of equity".

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