The Milk of Dreams: The same, different

In mid-May, all over Italy, white pollen particles fluttered through the streets, accumulating in less windy areas as small, soft, fragile clouds. This phenomenon, which also swept through Venice, coincidentally framed the main idea of the curator Cecilia Alemani. Choosing to display a comprehensive view of the universality of artistic output, I repeatedly see concepts such as motherhood, manual labour, bonding with nature and its consequent technological intervention. Following these three ramifications, I find in the two venues organised by the curator, the Arsenal and the Giardini’s Central Pavilion, a mysterious, fantastic and suspenseful element like these samples of organisms that pollinate and reproduce all over the city.

I wonder how it was possible to set up an international exhibition in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Perhaps the answer is the reaction to a new disease: the physical, psychological and spiritual care systems. In them lies the representation and multiplicity of forms of the body: the symbolic power of the body idea as seed, individual element, but also as the cell of a community. Through the reflection of its biological functions and mystical phenomena, work, imagination and technological evolution transform these care systems into a commonplace in this Biennale.

Carrington’s work is not only the title and starting point of the exhibition, but also an aesthetic premise. In her painting Portrait of the Late Mrs Partridge (1947), which I see in one of the Central Pavilion rooms, I find a woman with a long neck, wearing a long red cloak, with blonde hair standing upright, clutching a walnut-shaped basket and stroking a huge blue bird. This Celtic-influenced figure seems to decode the surrounding magical landscape, to provide support for the animal accompanying her, but also to impose herself as the painting’s central element. This artist is part of a group selected by Alemani, which I assume as historical references, but also as justification for his more contemporary choices. The “archive” rooms include for example Paula Rego, Dorothea Tanning, Josephine Baker, Remedios Varo and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. And on this foundation artists are introduced, most identifying themselves as Women, in a grandiose proposal that completely takes on the current discussions of contemporary art. We are curious to know whether, in two years’ time, the institution of the Venice Biennale remains a flexible, disruptive and CRITICAL platform… This experience of visiting the Biennale allowed above all to absorb the feeling of belonging and comfort, where pairs of artists admire, provoke, and complement each other. And, above all, to see an exhibition organised for its own time.

Starting with the exhibition in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion, I find in the first room a massive sculpture of an elephant (Katharina Fritsch, Elefant/Elephant, 1987). This first impression statement immediately establishes the order of what will be further on in the room. The elephant is the symbol of family structure and matriarchal societies, but also of human captivity and greed. This very important place occupied by the animal is what brings me to the work of Cecilia Vicuña, the rich paintings in a multi-coloured palette that frame scenes of a personal and geographical narrative, where animals have human gestures and positions, as in Leoparda de Ojitos (1976). This pure connection with nature bridges the gap to Rosana Paulino’s work (Senhora das Plantas series, 2019) which shows watercolour and graphite drawings of the torso of naked women, metamorphosing with the roots of plants they hold, recalling the connection to nature and the female body’s cosmos.

This observation of the exhibition’s base object also displays a more analytical standpoint on the present economic model, political changes and social injustices, criticising the hyper-exploitation of nature and its resources, like Rosemary Trockel, who engrosses large-scale knitting works (The Same Different, 2013 and Study for The Same Different, 2013). This is a critique of the increasing devaluation of manual craftwork in industrial society. Contemporary trends associated with work and body as a function of technology are also subject to critique. One example is Sidsel Meineche Hansel’s video (Maitenancer, 2018), where the mechanised and idealised bodies of sex dolls in a German brothel are documented. In the video, the author uncovers the physiognomy of these machines, and the maintenance techniques and even interviews some users.

In Arsenal, the previous narrative and tone continue in a larger room, and with a larger area occupied by the artists. I see here a passage from the evaluation of “us2, nature and history to a shift towards the enquiry of technological prowess. In relation to technology, I perceive its basic word – technique – and its articulation with a need for criticism. In Igshaan Adams’ tapestries (Bonteheuwel / Epping, 2021), for example, we see the minute work of beads, strings, wool and shells. From afar it forms a dotted image of an abstract landscape. Same for Gabriel Chaile – I see monumental clay pieces (Genealogía de la forma, 2019) that create a tight monolithic labyrinth for the throng of visitors. Sondra Perry recaptures the unstoppable breakthroughs of technology with Lineage for a Phantom Zone (still) (2021), where she collects audio-visual material about the exploration of black identity and body in virtual space. This draws attention to their recurrent dehumanisation online. In a striking finale, in Untitled(Beginning/Middle/End) (detail) (2022) by Barbara Kruger, we read slogans all over the space, from wallpaper to screens. Sentences like “Please Mourn” overwhelm the eye. The audience understands what they are supposed to feel, like emotionless bots wandering around Venice on autopilot.

At this zenith, we see the plurality sought by Alemani, the idealization of the ethereal and mythological body, as well as the scrutiny of contemporary standards that strongly comment on the degradation of contemporary society’s values. In my opinion, it proposes a renewed vision on issues such as rituals, traditions and other ancient knowledge, in parallel with VR, the planetary destruction and the distortion of our body matter. In this Biennale, unlike 2019’s May You Live In Interesting Times, the curator sought to create a collective and communal consciousness: to find humility in the difficulty of organising a Venice Biennale. Through great research of new (and old) practices overshadowed by the spotlight of contemporary art’s big stars, Alemani proposes a place for discussion and sharing that continues even after the end in November 2022.

The Venice Biennale and The Milk of Dreams exhibition can be visited until November 27, 2022.

With a background in Arts and Humanities (Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Lisbon, 2018) is a public programer and an independent curator in contemporary art. Currently, she is taking a Master in Fine Arts in Curating from Goldsmiths University of London while dedicating her research to non-conventional exhibition spaces and alternative curating methodologies. (portrait by Hugo Cubo, 2020)

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