PRINT April 2022



View of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection, Greek pavilion, Venice, 1948. From the 24th Venice Biennale. Photo: Studio Ferruzzi.

On April 23, the Fifty-Ninth Venice Biennale will open to the public, curated by Cecilia Alemani—a veteran of the show, having organized the Italian pavilion in 2017. Titled “The Milk of Dreams,” after a series of drawings the artist Leonora Carrington made during her time in Mexico in the 1950s, this edition arrives a year later than planned, its opening postponed due to the worldwide Covid-19 crisis. Artforum editor David Velasco spoke with Alemani over Zoom in February, then revisited the conversation over email in early March to address the Biennale’s role in light of Russia’s extraordinary invasion of Ukraine.

DAVID VELASCO: I want to begin with the unprecedented context for this Biennale. The show was scheduled to open in May 2021, but the global pandemic pushed the opening to April 2022. This is the first time since World War II that the exhibition has been postponed, and the recrudescence of land war in Europe has everyone fearing the worst. Your research phase coincided with Covid-19. You couldn’t see studios or visit artists in person. I wonder if, in fact, this opened new possibilities for approaching the show?

CECILIA ALEMANI: To give you a sense of the timeline, I was appointed in January 2020. I remember I went to the Frieze Art Fair in Los Angeles in February, and then I flew to Scandinavia for my first—and last—real research trip. Since then, I have been pretty much glued to my computer screen. So I have done massive research by other means, in a much more expansive way, and always absolutely in remote, as we now say. First, I asked a group of advisers—curators and museum professionals—from regions I couldn’t visit to recommend artists. Then I looked at thousands and thousands of lists and portfolios and did more than four hundred studio visits via Zoom. I asked artists to recommend other artists I should look at. I think one of the greatest privileges of being a curator is to be in the artist’s studio and to see the art, to smell it, to touch it, to be in its physical presence. I didn’t experience any of that, but these Zoom studio visits provided almost a confessional space for conversations that went beyond art, touching upon existential subjects and discussions about the current situation. There is a strange intimacy when you talk to strangers through your screen, peeking at their studios and apartments. . . . And because of the pandemic, people were less guarded and more open, so I could learn so much and engage in very deep discussions. On the other hand, I hope there won’t be too many surprises, because I have not been able to see many of the artworks being made in person.

“What I wanted to do for this show—and which I was only able to accomplish because I had more time—was to develop a trans­historical exhibition, one that could create a dialogue between different generations of artists across a whole century.” —Cecilia Alemani

DV: When you were appointed, I remember thinking it was such a smart choice. You had curated the Italian pavilion at the 2017 edition of the Biennale. I suspected that when your husband, Massimiliano Gioni, was artistic director of the Biennale in 2013, you might have become acquainted with the institution’s unique protocols. I think many people don’t understand that, even though it takes place every two years, Venice is challenging terrain, and curators have almost no time to put together a show.

CA: It’s not even two years, because the show ends in November. Usually, you’re appointed at the beginning of the year, and the show opens in the spring of the following year. So, really, the show is every thirteen months.

DV: Did you feel like you knew what to expect going in?

CA: I definitely had an advantage because, in part, I saw the process of his curation. I knew of the sleepless nights, the tough budget, the anxiety, the months spent waking up very, very early, and often in a panic. . . . Also, the Italian pavilion is the only national pavilion that is produced by the Venice Biennale, so I had already worked with many of my current colleagues. I think people assume it’s a little easier being Italian, but it also means you cannot play the card of “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” Really the main advantage—if we can consider it so, given the conditions in which we found ourselves in 2020—was having the extra time. That’s the most precious thing in doing this show.

View of Salvador Allende Brigade murals, Campo San Polo, Venice, 1974. From “Freedom for Chile,” 1974. Photo: Lorenzo Capellini.

DV: I wasn’t sure what kind of show to expect from you. You’ve championed women artists for your entire career, but you don’t necessarily have a signature. Or to put it better: I think of you as an artists’ curator, one who doesn’t arrive with a set of precepts but who responds directly to a context and to the artists with whom you’re working. There are a handful of artists in your list with whom you’ve developed projects before, like Sable Elyse Smith and Simone Leigh and Firelei Baez, but many of the artists are new for you. And this is the biggest art Biennale ever to be put together by a single curator: more than two hundred artists from fifty-eight countries. This is a long way of getting to asking how your curating style might differ from prior artistic directors’.

CA: That’s a good question. When you start, the first thing you do is look at the shows of your predecessors. You are in their shoes now. Before, I could say, “Oh, that’s terrible.” Now I’m like, “Oh my God. I should not have been so critical. Now it’s me!” But I think what I wanted to do for this show—and which I was only able to accomplish because I had more time—was develop a transhistorical exhibition, one that could create a dialogue between different generations of artists across a whole century. I was also struck by the fact that many recent curators of the Biennale Arte claimed that they did not want to have themes. I find it bizarre because—even though mine may not have a very tight theme—I think you are taking something away from the viewer by not providing an entry point or a key with which to read the show. I tried not to think of this Biennale as only a snapshot, and attempted to also pan out and look at it as part of a more extended historical lineage of exhibitions. And I thought it was my responsibility to say something about how art and the world around us are changing, and to offer a perspective from which to understand the way in which artists are helping us describe and experience the world beyond art. Of course, the idea of including many women comes from the fact that women have been so deeply excluded from the history of this institution and from many other institutions and histories. This exclusion simply does not represent the world anymore—or should not represent it anymore. In fact, the exhibition looks at the way in which the very notions of the “human” and “man” have been decentered in recent years, in the work of many artists and in the world at large.

“The Venice Biennale is really a palimpsest onto which all these different writings of history are encrusted.” —CA

DV: Let’s talk about this transhistorical dimension, which manifests in five time capsules scattered throughout the show. One of the capsules resurrects “Materialization of Language,” an openly feminist showcase of visual and concrete poetry at the 1978 Biennale. Did this come up during your research for “The Disquieted Muses,” the historical-archive show you worked on during the break in 2020?

CA: Not so much, in this particular case. I was already familiar with that show: I have always been a fan of concrete and visual poetry. In “The Disquieted Muses,” I learned more about the 1948 edition, which was the first after World War II; it’s referred to as the “rebirth” Biennale. It was an edition that, on the one hand, introduced many contemporary artists and new movements; on the other hand, it looked back at history to include many artists who had been censored or obscured during the Fascist and Nazi era. It was the Biennale that hosted the Surrealist collection of Peggy Guggenheim, presenting it for the first time in Venice, in the Greek pavilion because Greece was caught in civil war at the time. And it was the Biennale of the retrospective of Pablo Picasso, who at sixty-seven was celebrated with a major show as a kind of hero of antifascism.

The 1978 show you speak of was groundbreaking. The organization’s president at the time, Carlo Ripa di Meana, turned the Venice Biennale into a very politically engaged institution. The 1974 edition, for example, was in support of democracy in Chile, right after the Pinochet coup. The 1976 one was dedicated to Spain, following the death of Franco. In 1977, Ripa di Mena decided that the Biennale should not be one single exhibition but rather a constellation of events presented throughout the year and throughout the city, and he dedicated that edition to intellectual dissent within the Soviet regime; the radical project eventually cost him his job. The show in 1978 was perhaps a little more traditional, but “Materialization of Language” stood out and has been very influential for Italian culture and women artists.

Gennady Donskoy and Mikhail Roshal-Fedorov, The Iron Curtain, 1977, slide projection. From the “Biennial of Dissent,” 1977. Photo: Studio Giacomelli.

DV: Speaking of war, this Biennale opens in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The curator and artists of the Russian pavilion very swiftly canceled their participation in protest, and the Biennale expressed solidarity with their actions. Has the war changed the way you’ve seen the show? Have you considered any broader statements or actions?

CA: In the heat of the terrible events, images, and news coming from Ukraine, nothing seems to make sense anymore. What can stand in comparison or even in dialogue with the ferocious brutality and inhumanity of the invasion of Ukraine? I really don’t have any answer. It’s been one week since the beginning of the war, and I am just worried and devastated; I didn’t have a chance to formulate a coherent position. I used to go to Kyiv for work quite often, and, as stupid as it sounds, it gets so much more painful when you know the streets and the buildings and you have friends and colleagues there. It really makes no sense and makes me sick. All this is to say that any response I can give now is probably confused, emotional, and incommensurate with the gravity of the situation.

What I can say is that over and over again throughout the twentieth century, history came knocking at the door of the Venice Biennale. Sometimes it broke in with force—you’ve seen the images of Adolf Hitler visiting the Biennale in 1934 or the police repressing the student uprising in 1968—other times it just cast an ominous shadow on its proceedings. And there were also occasions of joy and collective transformation and awakening. The Venice Biennale—even more so than Documenta—is really a palimpsest onto which all these different writings of history are encrusted. Its very core structure, based on the national pavilions, is the result of the turmoil of history in the twentieth century, shaped by geopolitical dynamics and colonial expansions. The Giardini are built on the idea of the nation-state, a concept that always seems so obsolete, until the next invasion. . . . And you can see the traces of so many conflicts if you look carefully: the word JUGOSLAVIA still inscribed on the Serbian pavilion, or CECOSLOVACCHIA on the building now shared by the two republics. When in 1948, after the war, Germany couldn’t participate, its pavilion was used to host a major exhibition about Impressionism, which had been eclipsed by the nationalist agendas of Fascist Italy.

My hope, at least, is that we will be able to celebrate Ukraine and its artist Pavlo Makov in their national pavilion, in spite of the incredible difficulties the realization of their projects will require under the current circumstances. The Venice Biennale stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and we will do anything possible to make their representation succeed and to support other initiatives that might help Ukraine and its people. The Russian pavilion will remain closed, but, as The Venice Biennale history has taught us many times, pavilions are places that can be used also to challenge the very notion of national identity and politics—think of Hans Haacke’s and Ilya Kabakov’s pavilions in the 1993 edition.

Delcy Morelos, Inner Earth, 2018, soil, glue, water, wood. Installation view, Röda Sten Konsthall, Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.

DV: Are there any specific works that you’d like to talk about?

CA: There are about eighty new commissions in the show. Delcy Morelos is an amazing Colombian artist. She will be making a monumental installation, a roomful of earth—a maze that you can walk into—which will take over one of the large spaces of the Arsenale. The earth is filled with tobacco leaves and spices, so it has a very strong visual and olfactory presence. You could say it’s her own revision of Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room [1977], but one that is deeply embedded in conversations around nature, ecology, and Indigenous knowledge.

I’m also excited about Wu Tsang, who is going to present a breathtaking installation. She’s been working on a major project about Moby-Dick. She will premiere a chapter in Venice, installed in a special place outdoors, playing with reflections on the water of the Arsenale. Cecilia Vicuña will be presenting paintings from the 1970s to now, but also a new installation that is an homage to the Venetian lagoon and its fragile ecosystem. She makes precarious assemblages of things that she finds in the street. It could be a little piece of garbage, a stick of plastic, or a branch. She’s planning to spend time here in Venice collecting things that end up on the barene, those very low patches of land that are in the lagoon, that sometimes you don’t see because of the tides.

Alexandra Pirici, Aggregate, 2017–19. Performance view, Messeplatz, Basel, 2019. Photo: Andrei Dinu.

Alexandra Pirici, who is an artist I have worked with many times, will have an ambitious new performative work. I’m very excited about this project, but I still need to find additional funds to realize it because it’s quite complex. Those are the real challenges in an exhibition that lasts seven months. And the pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the organization of the show: sourcing paper for the catalogue, finding basic materials, and the total disruption of the international shipping system—I still don’t know when and if some artworks will arrive.

Barbara Kruger is also working on a major new site-specific installation. Giulia Cenci—an Italian artist who is also based in Amsterdam—will present an impressive intervention in that strange outdoor corridor in the Corderie of the Arsenale, where Ibrahim Mahama did that very spectacular installation with Okwui Enwezor in 2015. She often integrates found objects that she takes from factories and other places. She has a very humble language, but she will be doing something quite spectacular. I wanted to be able to support Italian artists in a meaningful way, not only because I’m Italian, but I want them to be considered on par with all their other international colleagues and not just relegate them to little corners of the show.

DV: In Claire Bishop’s review in this magazine of the 2011 edition, she argued that the biennial as an exhibition format peaked in the early 2000s, with Enwezor’s Documenta in 2002 and Francesco Bonami’s sprawling Venice in 2003. I wonder if the pandemic has reset our way of seeing. This is going to be the first time in years that many of us are going to be attending an international exhibition. There’s a certain enthusiasm going in. What are your hopes for viewers coming to the show?

CA: I do hope, perhaps in a bit of a romantic way, that it will be the first time where people come back together and look at art, love art, and have a visceral relationship with it. I want the visitors to be moved, fall in love, or even get angry in front of what they see in person. Because so much of the art we’ve seen in these past two years has been through the mediation of the screen.

DV: Elsewhere you’ve invoked Silvia Federici’s idea of the reenchantment of the world. Is this part of what you’re getting at?

CA: Federici was already involved in the catalogue for my Italian pavilion in 2017. This time around, she contributed an inspiring conversation with Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, in which she talks—in simple and touching ways—about the beauty of being surprised by nature, by a flower that blooms in a park, and this awe that we lost, not only during the pandemic, but even before. I think this sense of the marvelous, this stupor is also what many artists are thinking about when they propose a different relationship with nature and what surrounds us, a relation that is based not on extraction or exploitation but on symbiosis, collaboration, and sisterhood.

DV: A common story of modernity is that it initiated a disenchantment of the world; what more critical pivot could there be than reenchantment?

CA: I’m generalizing here, and I don’t want to speak for the artists, but many of the artworks in the show use a lens that you might call enchantment or magic or surreality to describe these past two years. I have looked at so many artists, and even the ones that tackle more political themes, it seems to me that they do it in a more personal, intimate, at times oneiric way. The content remains the same, but the methodology is no longer simply social critique, but something introspective.