Biennale Microdosing

A firsthand account of what visiting art lovers can expect from the Venice Biennale’s 59th edition.

Sonia Boyce (left) shows her Golden Lion to Alberta Whittle (right) and Alissandra Cummins, Director of the Barbados Museum & Historical Society. Niccolò Moronato

The art world is back to the city on the lagoon, and although nobody was missing the 750$/night rooms and the sore feet, everyone seems to be so happy that the circus is back in town. 

The “exclusive” opening week was above all a wet, cold, and humid one – congrats to all those who brought their rainboots and resisted the urge to pack their summer attires. Venice is no Miami, and every other year the Biennale is there to remind us by opening earlier and earlier. 

I’ve heard people say they missed their pajamas (after 2 years on Zoom, you bet) and that they couldn’t believe the Biennale still hasn’t figured out how to add more toilets at the Giardini. Yes, toilets: big opportunity for future pavilion ideas there!

My honest advice is to not try to see everything for the sake of saying that you’ve been there. Focus on a few exquisite works and maybe hop to a couple shows in town. You can always come back another time. Go “low and slow”: see how you feel and add more activities as you progress.

Overall, the underlying themes of this Biennale are women, hybridation (of all kinds and with all species) and diasporas of bodies and cultures. The rising media in this exhibition is definitely audio, and since the crowd always interferes, try to spend a minute more to really enjoy it. With this in mind, you’re good to go.

Simone Leigh’s “Brick House,” 2019, at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams” curated by Cecilia Alemani. Photo by Ela Bialkowska OKNO Studio. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.
Day 1 

Grab breakfast, wear sneakers, pack your bag and head to the Arsenale. Buy a small official guide – really, it helps so much.

Make sure you don’t miss on the following works (in order of appearance):

Belkis Ayòn’s skillful collographies (a mix of etching and collage), which blur the boundary between black and white, creating worlds that explore the mysteries of the Abakuà, a secret Afro-Cuban lodge founded on the myth of a woman here represented only through her eyes. 

Simone Leigh’s Brick House – pretty hard to miss, it’s the monumental woman-house-skirt sculpture right at the opening. It used to dominate the High Line for the whole of 2019, and is now gracing Venice with its half woman-half house presence, with a skirt-shaped bust recalling both traditional Cameroonian houses and tacky Deep South soul food diner architectures. A megalith but not a monolith, since it embodies the multiple layers of macro and micro-histories that reverberate through generations of black women bodies.

Gabriel Chaile’s oven-sculptures, which are simply gorgeous;
Ruth Asawa’s basket-nets in the first “time capsule”(separate setups that delve into historical artists and artworks). This one
Eglė Budvytyté’s video Songs from the compost, a good (strong) appetizer for the theme of hybridation;

Zheng Bo’s video Le sacre du printemps (Pteridophilia), which presents another intense and ironic way to rejoin Mother Nature (“sensitive content”, says the sign at the entrance). It is 

one of the most beautiful and most absurd videos of the entire exhibition, ironic and intense, featuring a crew of queer humans trying to have sex with a forest somewhere in Sweden.

Ali Cherry (Honor Mention) – Titans: “if humans were made in God’s image, then the Gods must have been made of mud, too.” Let this phrase from his video (showing right around the corner) guide you while you familiarize with the appearances of these unsettling, vulnerable godlike sculptures.

Carolyn Lazard’s installation, which really deserves some time to grasp its irony and profound disillusionment and alienation.

Wu Tsang’s immersive audio-video piece at the basins near the Italian Pavilion.

Once you’re done, maybe take a look at the Italian Pavilion – it’s an experience. It feels like Universal Studios but with an eerie feeling that permeates every inch of it until the final touch of poetry, hopeful with the kind of hope of those who know that better times will come although they’ll never get to personally see them. 

Are you tired yet? If not, get on a vaporetto and go see Kehinde Wiley at Fondazione Cini on San Giorgio island.

Sonia Boyce in front of the Pavilion of GREAT BRITAIN at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams.” Photo by Marco Cappelletti. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.
Day 2

AM – Giardini / National Pavilions

These pavilions usually have a long line so why not try to access them first thing in the morning?
Here’s a good sequence to follow, considering how packed they quickly get:

Greece – a VR experience like no other, with so much poetry, irony, and reality in it that it will haunt you for days. When the Greeks do Theatre, nobody can compete. Good job to former ViaFarini resident Loukia Alavanou.
Brasil: the pavilion is actually an ear’s pavilion, and inside you will find a treasure trove of sculptures that play with idioms about body parts. More profound than it seems.
UK: use Sonia Boyce’s space to think about how many black voices have shaped your memories or experiences. This pavilion is there to prove they were not simply “ingredients” in pop culture, but the very flesh and bone that made culture in the past decades. Strong and long overdue.

US: this is great sculpture, so you can’t miss.

France: journey into the creation of the image of the brown and black diasporic identities in France and beyond.

Australia: it’s a love or hate – either it will put you off or you’ll be captured forever by Fusinato’s durational performance. All the colors of white noise.

Grab a snack and check out the main exhibition.
Quite frankly, I found its setup a bit confusing, so you might as well just wander freely without trying to follow a linear logic – who needs that anyway.

The main time capsule here is stunning. Despite its old school displays, it carries some gems, such as Remedios Varo’s surrealist paintings which are so, SO rare to encounter. Or feminist futurist Rosa Rosà’s works: I mean, feminist + futurist: I think we all need a lot more of that.

I fell in love with Mirnalini Mukherjee’s enigmatic hemp fiber sculptures, they date back to the 80’s but seem like deities from the future. Try to take some time and see what their enigmatic facial expressions try to tell you. Finally, my favorite: Alexandra Pirici’s exhilarating, touching, surprising, addictive (in the good way) performance Encyclopedia of relations. It feels like entering the dreams of an AI brain, only in flesh and bone, to then be catapulted into the ocean floor where creatures try to interact and intertwine with humans, all with a cherry on top consisting of a Tony Braxton dance. It’s all so random and all so perfect. I could watch it over and over again. Don’t miss.

The exhibition “Human Brains: It Begins with an Idea,” at Fondazione Prada, in Venice. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.
Day 3

A day for all that is outside Biennale. A few hints:

Fondazione Prada has a gorgeous and vast show focused on the mystery that is the human brain. It might seem odd, but where do the “dreams” in the “milk of dreams” of the Biennale ultimately come from?

Penumbra at the Ospedaletto brings together some of the very best video artists around for a magical, intense and surprising selection.

Afro’s show at Ca’Pesaro is absolutely one of the best ever organized for the painter of the Scuola Romana.

Claire Tabouret’s show at Palazzo Cavanis and Monica de Miranda’s are very close to one another (Zattere) and they might be a good stop on the way to Giudecca.
Marlene Dumas at Palazzo Grassi – it was funny to see families with kids unfamiliar with Dumas walk in only to come out in shock. It’s a great show, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The same goes for Hermann Nitsch on Giudecca island.
Easier picks are Bruce Nauman at Punta della Dogana, and Anish Kapoor at Gallerie dell’Accademia.

A special mention to a few initiatives that only lasted for the duration of the opening week but were truly unique:

Pauline Curnier Jardin’s touching work at the Giudecca Women’s Jail, curated by F.U. Ragazzi – heart-breaking and liberatory at the same time.
ICF’s Diaspora Pavilion 2 at Teatro Groggia, curated by Jessica Taylor, with the works by Shiraz Bayjoo creating a magical space to nest and reverberate the performance of singer Siyabonga Mhleli and dance artist Nicolas Faubert (France Pavilion 2019).

Abbas Zahedi’s talk/performance at Fondazione Querini – a mesmerizing and hilariously on-point talk to challenge the usual representation dynamics. A rising promise of the London scene, formerly trained as a neurosurgeon and now shaking societal assumptions one by one in their artistic practice.

Niccolò Moronato is a constantly travelling and polyglot artist based in Chicago (US) and Chioggia, a small fishing island in the south Venice Lagoon. Their practice is informed by training in languages, economics and marketing, therefore their writing aims at cultivating curiosity among readers who do not necessarily come from an art background. Moronato teaches Language Design at Politecnico di Milano and he is also a professional ‘namer’ for objects, concepts, and brands.