The real problem with the 2022 Venice Biennale: its Eurocentrism – ARTnews.com
There has never been a Venice Biennale like this. Of its 213 artists, more than 90% identify as women or gender non-conforming, a fact that has been rightly celebrated. Its curator, Cecilia Alemani, has chosen to focus on surrealism and the ways in which artists working today breathe new life into it. Dotted with sections devoted to surrealism and related movements of years past, the overwhelming amount of non-male artists included here is a vital way to rewrite the history of the movement.
But there is a problem: even after this Biennale, with all its hitherto unknown artists of past years, the picture of surrealism and its various ramifications that emerges is not yet complete.
This is because the vision of them presented by this Biennial is overwhelmingly European and American. It’s a take on history that’s almost entirely devoid of African, Asian, Latin American and Indigenous personalities that need to be written into the canon just as much as the under-recognized white Europeans that Alemani has chosen to spotlight. .
This is something that has been obscured in the Biennale’s demography debates, which have tended to focus on gender. Write in the FinancialTimes, Jackie Wullschäger argued that “by choosing women almost exclusively, Alemani has paid a heavy price in terms of quality”. In the art diaryBen Luke refuted Wullschäger’s argument, saying that this year’s main exhibition “confirms just how progressive and vital corrective projects like Alemani’s excellent Biennale are”.
During this time, the Guardian‘s Adrian Searle, while not directly addressing Wullschäger’s take, urged those who “need a shot of testosterone” to see shows outside of the Biennale that are dedicated to top-notch men. Laura Cumming, writing in the same publication, called Alemani’s exhibition “the biennial of women”. In the New York Times, Jason Farago hailed Alemani’s “definite aim” to “reconstruct the past so we can see the present with brighter eyes”. In Artnet NewsBen Davis praised the all-female sections devoted largely to deceased women as “the most distinctive curatorial flourish”.
What none of these reviews mention is where these women are from.
It is true that, overall, this Biennale is elevating living female and non-binary artists like few have done before. Throughout the Arsenale and the Giardini, vast spaces are given over to large-scale works by living artists like Delcy Morelos, Tau Lewis, Mire Lee, Precious Okoyomon, Cecilia Vicuña, Katharina Fritsch, Simone Leigh (who received a Golden Lion for his work), and a host of others. But an entirely different dynamic is playing out in the historic sections of the Biennale, which Alemani has called “time capsules.”
In previous editions, the Venice Biennale aspired to present the global art scene as it currently stands, and the capsules are therefore somewhat unusual – they look to the past rather than the future. The capsules explore elements of surrealism, but they hardly consider the movement to have taken place only between the late 1920s and the early 1940s, as the movement was historically taught in art history classes. Westerners. (Dada, Futurism, and other early 20th-century art styles are also covered, though it is Surrealism that has been most prominently featured here.) Inclusions in the capsules date back to the 18th century; mystical realms, body transformation, and vessels are some of the recurring question marks.
The surrealism we have come to know is defined by white Western European men such as André Breton, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, all of whom imagined worlds unbound by the laws of science and reason. . These men had every interest in undermining the rules of desire, but they often did so by making women their playthings, both in their work and in their lives.
Alemani is repairing this damage by reversing gender dynamics. She said women were explicitly her focus in the capsules because she “wanted to try and bring to the surface those stories that were considered by many to be minor.”
Jane Graverol, a surrealist working in Belgium at the same time as Magritte, is honored with a painting of a machine-like winged woman in a capsule, and Bridget Tichenor, a French-born Mexican painter who once studied with Giorgio de Chirico, is represented by a painting shown nearby depicting beings that stand on the border between arthropods and humans. In the five capsules, Alemani has also included artists who have transgressed gender binaries, including Toyen, Ovartaci and Claude Cahun.
The average fan of surrealism is unlikely to know many of these artists, and Alemani deserves applause for bringing her work into conversation with works by better-known artists like Ruth Asawa, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington (including art and writing lent this biennial its name). But the subversive edge of these historical sections ends there.
Take the section titled “The Witch’s Cradle,” which focuses on how women affiliated with the Surrealist movement disrupted traditional notions of gender identity. It’s the largest capsule, and the one with the most important works, including a portrait of Dorothea Tanning that previously appeared in her 2019 Tate Modern retrospective and a Varo painting that broke records when it sold out for $6.1 million at auction in 2020. (Alemani may have found Frida Kahlo over-expecting the choice to include her work here, but given that Kahlo also created proto-feminist dreamscapes that were all hers , the omission is glaring.) Of the 34 participants in this section, only 6 were born or settled outside Europe or North America. Several of these six are white artists born in Asia or Latin America; one is the newspaper tropicswho was trained in Martinique.
Other capsules don’t fare much better. All 20 artists included in “Corps Orbite”, a section devoted to concrete poetry and automatic art, are European and American. Likewise for a 17-artist section on artists whose works involve automatons and cyborgs.
In total, capsules make up less than half of Alemani’s roster of artists. So why bother with them? It all comes down to telling the story.
It is instructive to compare the clips to other recent shows that place surrealism in a global context. Most notable of these is “Surrealism Beyond Borders”, a massive survey that has just moved from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Tate Modern in London. There are plenty of personalities from the Biennale who also appear here – Alice Rahon, Eileen Agar and Maya Deren, to name just three. Still, the reason “Surrealism Beyond Borders” is significant is because of its non-Western focus, and even a cursory look at its roster of artists raises questions about why some artists didn’t make it to the Biennial.
Wouldn’t Cecilia Porras, a Colombian painter and photographer who envisioned her own body in dreamlike states, have been a good choice for “The Witch’s Cradle”? Couldn’t Cossette Zeno, a Puerto Rican painter whose abstractions look like twisted bodies, have been placed somewhere in those capsules? Shouldn’t the late works of Mexican artist Maria Izquierdo have been interesting for their ritual imagery?
Magical realism, a literary movement that took hold in Latin America in the 20th century and was a perfect fit with some of these works, is also entirely elided. You could say that writing doesn’t have much room in an art exhibition, but Alemani has included a good number of writers in a section on concrete poetry, among them the British journalist Djuna Barnes and the Italian poetess Mirella Bentivoglio.
Two 2016 shows on the Egyptian surrealist movement – one originally hosted in Sharjah, the other in Paris – are largely unrecognized influences on “Surrealism Without Borders”, which has a whole section on Egyptian surrealism. These shows helped canonize this group, known as Art et Liberté. By focusing solely on a kind of surrealism that came from an African country, these shows were irrefutable proof that there were different strains of the movement that emerged beyond Western Europe. These exhibitions should probably have been taken as a source of inspiration for this Biennale as well. Only two artists associated with Art et Liberté, Amy Nimr and Ida Kar, have entered the Biennale.
And although it focuses on the period after the end of Surrealism in Europe, “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965”, a 2016-17 survey of this era curated by Okwui Enwezor, Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, could have offered other ideas for the capsules. Nigerian painter Colette Omogbai, a self-proclaimed surrealist, and Japanese artist Atsuko Tanaka, whose famous dress made of lighting filaments is about as cyborgian as it gets, would have been helpful additions.
A criticism that could be leveled at Alemani’s historical capsules is that they are too diffuse – the version of surrealism offered is not really surrealism but something more than that, a messy web of intertwined artistic styles that are cohesive from an aesthetic point of view but not. of a history. But the problem is not that the capsules of the Biennale are too open. Instead, it’s that they’re too closed off – that they evoke the same Eurocentric narrative we’ve long nurtured, albeit with a feminist twist and a few additions.
Alemani’s additions include Baya Mahieddine, an Algerian painter of women in bulky clothing; Toshiko Takaezu, a Hawaiian-born Japanese potter; and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, a sculptor who, during the Harlem Renaissance, enlisted centuries-old Egyptian imagery for a new era. In a sea of European artists, these new figures come to appear as outsiders looking inward, rather than appropriate correlates for the Salvador Dalís and Max Ernsts of Europe. In order for these artists to seem at home in the canon, the whole project needs to be moved.