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‘The Milk of Dreams’ – The 59th Venice Art Biennale

Friedhelm Mennekes, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Mar 15th 2023

Cosima von Bonin. The entrance to the Biennale Arte 2022 (photo: Roberto Marossi. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia)

The curator of the 59th Venice Art Biennale, Cecilia Alemani (born 1977 in Milan), lives with her family in New York. Like her husband, Massimiliano Gioni, she is an art director and currently curates exhibitions in New York, where she has led the brilliant High Line Art program since 2011. At the same time, also in New York, she has broadened her experience in artwork for public and unusual spaces, both commissioning and producing.

The 2022 Venice Biennale involved many female artists from all over the world. Between the Central Pavilion, the Giardini and the Arsenale, more than 213 women artists from 58 countries exhibited about 1,500 works of art and 80 new productions. Certainly the Covid-19 pandemic hindered the preparation of the exhibition, but Alemani was able to guarantee the necessary contacts with the artists through visits and video conferencing.

She succeeded in winning over to her project artists interested in “expressing in the language of abstraction their reflections on screens, skin, technical devices and all the possible membranes that connect us and the world,” as she stated in conversation with the German art critic Heinz-Norbert Jocks.[1]

The curator drew the title of the exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams,” from the children’s book of the same name by the surrealist author Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), which evokes a magical world where life is continually re-discovered through the prism of the imagination. For Carrington, in image and text lies a world where everyone can change, transform, become something or someone else. The book contains short, far-fetched stories and drawings, while fantastical creatures and magical beings, including spider-eating children and upside-down women, populate the illustrations. The book is by no means easy to decipher, but it is a fruitful introduction to the exhibition. Everywhere you turn, you find a fabulous mixture of fantastic beings.[2]

Alemani takes visitors on an imaginary journey through a bubbling world of ever-new metamorphoses of bodies, thus questioning the dominant current definitions of the human and the person. She is credited with using this ambience and flow for the exhibition, which, by dealing with three themes – the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses; the relationship between individuals and technology; the link between the body and the Earth – engages with posthumanism.[3] “In the exhibition, however, traditional bodies are not represented, but rather expanded, fragmented, disassembled and transcend both physical and canvas boundaries. The idea of fluidity and a hybrid identity here relates to contemporary considerations of race and gender.”[4]


On the whole, however, for Alemani the Biennale also aims to transmit and rescue myths, legends and stories of ancestors, wherever they lived. Even with all the distinctions, this  review of the art focuses on the traditional spaces and structures, the Giardini and the Arsenale, the two main exhibition sites and their pavilions.

The first part of the main exhibition at the Giardini

A prelude to this year’s lively presentations can be found outside the majestic doorway of the grand exhibition hall in the Giardini (the Gardens). At the end of the 19th century, this room was reserved for art of Italian origin. This time, however, above the entrance to the exhibition, in the bright light of day, fantastic living beings, made of different materials and plastered in blinding white, stand out on the roof. In addition, at mid-height, next to the columns is a plastic lobster left swinging by Cosima von Bonin (born 1962 in Mombasa): What if they bark 01-07 (2022). Its dangling extremities emerge from a red cement mixer. On the other side, to the left, hang two mussels, their bulging eyes peering curiously at the rows of visitors. Positioned above the roof are two sharks with rockets, between which are moving five mackerel, about two meters high, playing the guitar, dancing and warming up the atmosphere. This is a vivid surreal prelude that sets up expectations for the inner room.

Inside, in the imposing octagonal hall with the dome and its frescoes by Galileo Cini, among the mirrors that surround it, is the famous life-size elephant, in dark green chromium oxide polyester, the work of Katharina Fritsch (born 1956 in Essen). She is placed on a white pedestal, and is completely focused on herself. The work, called Elephant (1987), is a cast of a stuffed elephant from the Naturkundemuseum (“Museum of Natural History”) in Berlin (420 x 160 x 380 cm). A text on the wall reminds us that elephant families have a matriarchal structure, and thus gives posthumous glory to a poor elephant named “Toni,” who with stoic resignation lets the crowd of visitors parade before her.

In a conversation with Helga Meister about this work, the artist said: “One cannot ignore the physical presence of an elephant. It is a prehistoric animal. If you look at it for an extended time, you are struck with  astonishment which occurs  when you stand next to it and wonder why you  have two ears, a nose and a mouth or two arms. Sometimes there are moments when you are a stranger to yourself. There is something wonderful about the elephant that is in the museum, because there are simply no green elephants.”[5]

In the next large room, spread over three walls, is the brilliant performance of Rosemarie Trockel (born in 1952 in Schwerte), a series of abstract works in cotton, some previously unseen, others already known. Distributed around the room, there are also glass sculptures by Andra Ursu?a (born 1979 in Salonta). Thus an excellent play of contrasts is achieved. Here, seemingly unrelated elements are joined, expanded or cancelled. In this way, significant pairings of images and sculptures are again formed in the exhibition. There is, for example, the part of the room in which Rosemarie Trockel’s cotton – on the one hand warm and soft, on the other hand in coldly minimalist arrangement – links up with Andra Ursu?a’s glass sculptures, on the one hand rigid and, on the other, made from their soft bodies. In this regard, Alemani states: “A look […] at Andra Ursu?a’s sculptures makes it clear how close her methods of representation are to Surrealism, with its fragmentation of the body.”[6]

The next room is lower and painted yellow-brown. Here appear for the first time two paintings by the artist who inspired the title of the Biennale, Leonora Carrington, who “was a Surrealist painter and writer. At the beginning of the Second World War she left France, embarking on a long journey that eventually led her to Mexico. There she joined a group of European émigré artists. In general, the art world by that time had distanced itself from Surrealism, but Leonora and her friends – including the Spanish painter Remedios Varo and the Hungarian-born photographer Kati Horna – continued undaunted in their Surrealist orientation. Then came Leonora’s marriage to Hungarian photographer Chiki Weisz, the birth of two children, work, involvement with feminism, writing and subsequent stays in New York and Chicago. In 2006 Leonora returned to live in Mexico City. For much of her life her chosen themes – feminism, self-determination, spirituality outside institutional religion, ecology, the correlation of all things – appeared eccentric. They were actually prophetic. In 2022, Leonora’s spirit, her art, her conceptions and her visions of life continue to be extremely relevant.”[7] 

‘Historical capsules’

These are five small thematic exhibitions, dedicated to historical artists whose names and works have for too long been excluded from the artistic canon. “This is also the reason,” says Alemani, “why I collected artists from international surrealism and futurism and the so-called ‘Harlem Renaissance.’ My goal was a constellation of meanings that went beyond the grand  history of art, to mock, among other things, with humor and irony, the usual stereotypical, often sexist male fantasies about women in these great modern movements.”

“With historical capsules,” Alemani continues, “I set myself several goals. First of all, I look back at the history of the Biennale and examine the movements and the history of the Biennale that have not been told as the great narrative has been. So we took things that had been set aside, forgotten, things that had been little, or even never, seen in public, and integrated them and placed them in relation to contemporary art. One of these historical capsules, which serves as the mainstay of the exhibition in the pavilion, revolves around the idea of metamorphosis and transformation.”[8]

These exhibition islands create “a historiography that is not based on systems of direct inheritance or conflict, but on forms of symbiosis, solidarity and fraternity,” says the curator of the Biennale.

The second part of the main exhibition at the Arsenale

The main exhibition at the Arsenale opens with a bronze sculpture of a black female with a “mud hut shaped body” entitled Brick House, by Simone Leigh (b. 1967, Chicago). This sculpture is a kind of description of a confident black woman. It represents the strength and solidity of such a “mud hut,” which serves as her home. This monumental, eyeless figure serves as a sentinel or protective goddess. For this work Leigh was awarded the Golden Lion for the best contribution to the main exhibition.

“Leigh was the first black artist entrusted with the animation of the U.S. Pavilion, at the center of which is another bronze, five meters high, entitled Sentinel. It has the form of a female body and as its head there is a spoon, a sort of concave shape. In this way the artist alludes to a ladle traditionally used by the Zulu in fertility rites, but also to the so-called “sticks of power of the African diaspora,” to which divine energy and knowledge were attributed.”[9]

Chilean artist Sandra Vásquez de la Horra (b. 1967 in Viña del Mar) has built a very delicate  house, made of wax-impregnated paper, covered with drawings and located almost halfway along the long corderie of the Arsenal, entitled Las Cordilleras Encontradas (2017-21). She used pencil and pastels to create this work, often on used paper, managing to impress  in ever new ways, viewers who are ideally transported to strange, fantastical worlds. When the drawing is ready, the artist has the habit of covering her works with a layer of liquid wax, giving the drawings the character of a particular materiality; they look like actual objects, and with their parchment-like appearance they convey a soothing grace. But this also reinforces the surreal, and sometimes grotesque, content of these images.

As a child, Vásquez de la Horra came into contact with both the culture of her homeland and the European culture of Spain and Italy. When she was still young, she experienced the Pinochet dictatorship, and her current work is strongly marked by these experiences and personal memories. At the same time, her sources include the history of cinema, art and literature. She is also passionate about the popular art and literature of Latin America.

Dreams and their processing also occupy a special place in her work. In this way, she always looks at what is near and constantly awakens what is often forgotten, thus allowing dream and reality to merge . Her drawings are pervaded by corporeality and focus on the inner experience. On the one hand, they let it blossom into vivid phantasmagorias; on the other, they submerge it in that which arouses disquiet. Dream and trauma are juxtaposed here, yet easily form a close alliance.

Next to the drawings, when you enter the house she built, you can also see her new three-dimensional works on paper for the first time. These “little houses” in the house, produced in ever new ways in the wax-immersed drawings typical of the artist, are called “stages” and “dream rooms” by her, where everyday situations and landscapes are staged from time to time. In this way they show the complex relationships between humans, nature and the universe, and also the different phases of life, as in a life cycle.

In this room-and-tent-shaped installation, Las Cordilleras Encontradas, the Chilean artist alludes to the symbolic world of indigenous and marginalized South American cultures, to works such as Santa Muerte, Der Tod und das Mädchen (2015) or Pachamama (2019). The female figures are drawn to resemble a creator, a “Mother Earth,” who yet at the same time appears wounded and oppressed.

In the tall, almost infinitely long Arsenale, these figures stand out as if in an immensely large celestial space, as in Joseph Beuys’ Überraum (“superspace”) and Überzeit (“supertime”). And yet they are “rooted to the earth” as in a small tent, which the artist has set up with her drawing. Thus Vásquez de la Horra succeeds in awakening in the viewers a new world vivified by these representations and creations in graphite, watercolors and wax. They relate to a complex elixir of life, sexuality, religion and myths, corruptibility and rebirth. But one can also find references to Christian apocalyptic literature, and in particular to the last book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse: “Behold the tent of God with men! He will dwell with them […] and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, because the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:2b-4).

Toward the end of the Arsenale there is another masterpiece, the installation by the Nigerian-American artist Precious Okoyomon (born 1993 in London). This artist is also a tribal chieftain, and in her large and impressive work she refers to a fantastic place made of stones and earth, kudzu (a wild vine), sugar cane and more. Thus she creates a large and vibrant garden with many meanings, which she has entitled To See the Earth before the End of the World. In this space there are local figures made of earth, of organic materials, that seem to be one with nature. Apparently they sit without moving, feeding and being fed. “These dark and heavy beings eschew clarity and give space to a species that, more than any other, is symbolic of change, transformation and renewal. And all this in a form of almost fantastic enchantment that only nature itself can produce: the butterfly.”[10]

In all this the artist reconnects with a “centuries-old history of migration (forced, hopeful, accidental) to which she always remains attached.”[11] Yet this recreated environment has a light atmosphere, which can even be described as serene.[12] Okoyomon has shaped here a landscape full of hope, full of living beings and living in the course of a small river in eventful synthesis, symbiosis and new creations.

Forty years after her first appearance at the Biennale, the grand lady of conceptual art, the American Barbara Kruger (born 1945 in Newark), concludes the main exhibition at the Arsenale with Untitled (Beginning/Middle/End) (2022). This is an installation conceived specifically for the corderie at the end of the Arsenale. Her slogans, poetry and verbal objects are brought together here to create a crescendo of hyper-communication. Her words on the walls, which usually pose therapeutic questions to machismo and capitalism, this time revolve around existential questions. In the structure of an altarpiece, a triptych speaks of the ages of life: In the Beginning there was Crying / In the Middle there was Confusion / In the End there was Silence.

The pavilions of the participating nations in the Giardini

Belgium. The Belgian pavilion (curated by Hilde Teerlinck) can certainly be considered one of the public’s favorites. Under the title The Nature of the Game, the artist Francis Alÿs, who lives in Mexico, shows, next to miniature paintings, a selection of short films made since 1999 documenting children’s games all over the world. There are, for example, three little girls jumping rope among the skyscrapers of Hong Kong: with each jump, their joy seems to increase. Then there is a young man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who in turn engages viewers in a daring descent inside a car tire. With a keen visual sense and narrative clarity, Alÿs manages to focus on the children’s creativity as they play. In this way, the emotional power of the video footage is unleashed. On the one hand, it is moving to observe the children; on the other, it is clear that this is about competition and the collective practice of rules. The clips thus portray children’s play as a means of cultural rootedness and personal development, as well as pointing to the creative interactive relationship between the individual and the world, which is constantly marked by conflict.

“Dominating the pavilion, projected on large screens, are videos produced by Alÿs’ Children Games series, as well as *29: La Roue, shot in 2021 around a mine in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A little black boy, wearing a colorful T-shirt, climbs tenaciously up an abandoned mine tunnel, pushing a tire that is bigger than he is, and then, when he gets to the top, he gets inside the tire and lets himself roll haphazardly down a slope. He repeats this operation several times, even when it becomes more and more tiring for him, rather like Albert Camus’ Sisyphus. The last time he no longer climbs into his dusty toy, but gives it a push. Thus he frees himself from the compulsion of repetition. We have to imagine that this little boy is a happy person.”[13]

Germany. For the German contribution to the 59th Venice Art Biennale, curator Yilmaz Dziewior commissioned the artist Maria Eichhorn (born 1962 in Bamberg). In her project, entitled Relocating a Structure, she addresses the troubled history of the German pavilion since the beginning of the Biennale and the role of art as resistance in the context of social relations.

The project consists of several interacting components. The artist had the idea of moving the German pavilion for the duration of the Biennale and reinstalling it in the same place where it was originally located. She broke up the floor, making a huge hole in it, one meter wide. The plaster was peeled off the walls. You can see the red brick walls, the cement, the concrete bars and, if the light is right, you can also see white letters, indicating what has been exposed: the places where the Nazis operated. For although in 1938 the pavilion, with its massive bulk, comprehensively  represented the German Reich, the architects commissioned by Joseph Goebbels had only hastily renovated the previous classical Bavarian building dating from 1909: the roof had been raised, the rooms had been brought together to form a single pavilion, the doors enlarged and the parquetry replaced by marble slabs. Where delicate columns had previously marked the entrance to the temple of art, after the renovation they were replaced by powerful pillars clad in light-colored stone.

Eichhorn had the plaster removed that covered the joints where the old, carefully built walls met the new, obviously hastily and roughly erected walls. The foundations of the original load-bearing wall, which were hidden beneath the stone slabs, were also laid bare. In the end the whole does not necessarily appear to be the work of a single artist.

Now Eichhorn’s plan to move the pavilion for a time competes with these considerations. From a technical point of view, two methods were possible: dismantling and storing, or transporting the entire pavilion, on a floating pontoon for example. The reflections on the possible transport and relocation of the German pavilion were accompanied by an analysis of the specific structure of the pavilion, which ultimately consists of two elements: the building originally constructed in 1909 as the Bavarian pavilion and the Nazi extension in 1938 into its current form. Where does the original building stand, and where do the renovation and extension fit in?

One can recognize not only the transition lines between the original architecture and the renovation and extension, but also the different spatial volumes. While the proportions of the Bavarian pavilion maintained a human scale, the extensions of the side rooms and the main space – carried out in 1938 – as well as the facade have an intimidating impact, making people appear small.

In this regard, the curator wrote: “The title of Maria Eichhorn’s art project Relocating a Structure can be interpreted figuratively. In fact, the ‘displacement of structures’ into new contexts not only creates a connection with the architecture and history of the pavilion, but also refers to fundamental questions of human existence and ethical responsibility.” 

Great Britain. This year the British pavilion (curated by Emma Ridgway) featured lots of singing, wailing, strumming and shouting. The video installation by Sonia Boyce, a key figure in Britain’s Black Arts Movement and known for her feminist performances, revolves around four black singers: Jacqui Dankworth, Poppy Ajudha, Sofia Jernberg and Tanita Tikaram, accompanied by composer Errollyn Wallen. For the recordings, the artist took the musicians to London’s famed Abbey Road Studios and filmed the singing rehearsals. Boyce explains that with her piece, called Feeling Her Way, she wanted to show what conditions these great singers need to feel truly free. The videos feature the usual singing exercises and unspectacular songwriting, reminiscent of 1980’s jazz and hotel bar entertainment. This is matched by the kaleidoscopic paper on the walls, the golden bar stools and a Hall-of-Fame wall for black female musicians. The Biennale jury deemed Boyce’s pavilion worthy of a Golden Lion.

Malta. In 2022 Malta participated in the Venice Biennale for the first time. American Caravaggio scholar Keith Sciberras and curator Jeffrey Uslip made important contributions to the Maltese pavilion. The work Diplomazija astuta is essentially an homage to Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist – housed in Malta’s Valletta Cathedral – whose dimensions are 361 x 520 cm. This daring project was born out of long observations and reflections on the painting, examining the two women, the two torturers, the two prisoners behind bars and the saint brutally decapitated in a lake of blood.[14] The idea was a multidisciplinary reinterpretation of this painting for our times. Thus a relationship was created between the 1st and 21st centuries, passing through the beginning of the 17th century: from the biblical account of the brutal beheading of John the Baptist (cf. Matt 14:6-11), passing through Caravaggio’s moving 1608 painting, now in Malta, we arrive at its kinetic-multidisciplinary transformation in our time, created by the Italian artist Arcangelo Sassolino (born 1967 in Vicenza). This artistic reworking poses a radical challenge to our society: that of managing the future sustainably and saving life in times of absurd destruction.

Quickly a multidisciplinary team was formed. Alongside the artist and the curators were the steel sculptor Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci and the composer Brian Schembri, both from Malta. The team succeeded in convincing the Maltese authorities of the importance of the project, and then realized it on the occasion of this particular Venice Art Biennale, with a title that at first sight seems strange: Diplomazija astuta (Cunning Diplomacy).

The Maltese pavilion houses the kinetic installation by Arcangelo Sassolino, in a darkened light. In the center, at the end of the room, as in the apse of a chapel, rises a kind of altarpiece. But it is an altarpiece made of steel, weighing tons, unpainted, with the same dimensions as Caravaggio’s canvas: 361 x 520 cm. Opposite, on the floor, are seven large metal basins filled with water, each representing a figure from Caravaggio’s painting. Thanks to modern industrial technology, steel is melted above the vats at a temperature of 1,500 degrees. From here, at different moments, fiery particles of molten metal fall into the water, bright, shining drops, which are extinguished, hissing and condensing. Thus, in an enchanted silence, sounds and rhythms are heard. Frequency, sound and sequence are a composition of the musicologist Brian Schembri, who in the elaboration of his aleatory project has used, among other components, rhythmic themes taken from Gregorian chants in honor of Saint John the Baptist.

On the back of the steel altarpiece are imprinted and as if carved the touching graffiti by Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci. These are meant to be read and listened to in accord with his composition Metal and Silence. In  different languages, old and new, there is a succession of biblical statements concerning man’s creation and re-creation, with quotations from the Old Testament, from Ez 37 and Ps 139. The purpose is to recall the creation, the fall and return to new life.

By harmonizing the techniques of casting, steel plate engraving and the principle of rhythmic-harmonic randomness, the multidisciplinary team of artists has succeeded in creating a somber yet engaging atmosphere in which a new hope is born: an atmosphere embracing literary, emotional, metaphorical and spiritual components. But this can only be awakened if we strive, with the utmost effort, to practice a new astute Diplomazija, that is a witty, radical and yet cunning diplomacy. In those glowing moments , the molten metal shines and drips like blood, thus “we may dare to transform old conventions into new states of aggregation. However, what this glow drives us to, and what new hardenings are brought about, is something that resides in our design”[15] and in our hands.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 7, no.1 art. 10, 0123: 10.32009/22072446.0123.10

[1].    “Von den Künstler*innen lernen. Cecilia Alemani im Gespräch mit Heinz-Norbert Jocks”, in Kunstforum International, No. 282, July 2022, 58.

[2].    Cf. S. M. Schmidt, “Milch der Träume – Der Surrealismus der Frauen”, in Kunstforum International, op. cit., 82.

[3].    Cf. A.-K. Günzel, “The Milk of Dreams. Zur Hauptausstellung der 59. Biennale von Venedig”, ibid., 67.

[4].    “Von den Künstler*innen lernen. Cecilia Alemani im Gespräch mit Heinz-Norbert Jocks”, op. cit., 57f.

[5].    H. Meister, “Der Elefant hat etwas von einem Riesenwunderwerk. In Gesprächen mit Katharina Fritsch”, in Kunstforum International, op. cit., 235.

[6].    “Von den Künstler*innen lernen. Cecilia Alemani im Gespräch mit Heinz-Norbert Jocks”, op. cit., 58.

[7].    J. Moorhead, “Auf der Suche nach Leonora”, in Stayinart, Innsbruck, H. Astner, 2022, 21.

[8].    “Von den Künstler*innen lernen. Cecilia Alemani im Gespräch mit Heinz-Norbert Jocks”, op. cit., 59.

[9].    E. Respini, “Als Souvenir um die Welt. Heinz-Norbert Jocks im Gespräch mit der Kuratorin zur Arbeit von Simone Leigh”, in Kunstforum International, op. cit., 272f.

[10].   A.-K. Günzel, “The Milk of Dreams. Zur Hauptausstellung der 59. Biennale von Venedig”, op. cit., 71.

[11].   S. M. Schmidt, “Milch der Träume – Der Surrealismus der Frauen”, op. cit., 84.

[12].   Ibid.

[13].   M. Hübl, “Im Schatten”, in Kunstforum International, op. cit., 78.

[14].   Cf. J. Müller, “Öffnet die Tore!. Caravaggios “Enthauptung Johannes des Täufers in neuer Deutung” (, 1-18.

[15].   E. Wagner, “Malta. Arcangelo Sassolino, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, Brian. Diplomazija astuta”, in Kunstforum International, op. cit., 328.

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