After four days of crisscrossing Venice, mostly on foot, for the pre-opening of the 59th Venice Biennale, I sat next to a curator from Sweden on my Scandinavian Airlines flight leaving Venice for Copenhagen. As we waited impatiently inside a warming plane still on the tarmac—our delay due to the imminent boarding of the Queen of Norway, whom I blame for what became my lost luggage—we compared notes. The Swedish curator seemed less enthusiastic about the Biennale’s main exhibition than I did.
“All of the artists in the Giardini Central Pavilion were women—is that kind of statement really necessary in 2022?” she asked, I think rhetorically.
“Perhaps not in Sweden,” I thought. But my out-loud, knee-jerk response was:
“After countless major exhibitions of all men throughout art history, it’s high time we have the world’s first Biennale with all women.”
And thus begins the oft misdirected conversation around this year’s Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani and which takes place through November 22, 2022.
Note for the uninitiated: There are two distinct parts to the Venice Biennale. One is a mammoth international group exhibition by a chosen curator—this year called The Milk of Dreams—so large it is installed in two locations: the Central Pavilion inside the Giardini parkland and in the nearby Arsenale, a vast 12th c. shipyard and armory complex. The second part is the 90-plus exhibitions in the national pavilions—usually a solo show of one artist and curator from each country. Most pavilions, each named for their country, are situated within the Arsenale and Giardini areas. A few others are in spaces throughout Venice. In addition to this, there are significant exhibitions at museums, palazzos, and churches across town that capitalize on the global event but are not officially part of the Biennale.
Consider how Financial Times critic Jackie Wullschläger declared The Milk of Dreams “absurdly gender-unbalanced.” Huh? On average, only 10% of artists during the first 100 years of the Venice Biennale were female, and only 30% after that. Until now. Wullschläger goes on to make an even more bizarre observation, quite near the opposite of mine:
“By choosing almost exclusively women, Alemani has paid a severe price in terms of quality, a cost obvious too in contrast with many superb exhibitions by male artists across town.”
Two of the male artist exhibitions across town to which she refers, and the most talked about, are the installations of Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer. The other most talked about exhibition across town, by a woman, was the much stronger Marlene Dumas takeover of Palazzo Grassi—not mentioned by Wullschläger. Indeed, my response to these three major concomitant exhibitions in relation to and contingent on The Milk of Dreams confirms the significance of the latter. More on this later.
Cecilia Alemani does make clear in her exhibition notes the intention to challenge “…the presumed universal ideal of the white, male ‘Man of Reason’ − as fixed centre of the universe and measure of all things.” And to show us, “In its place, artists [who] propose new alliances between species, and worlds inhabited by porous, hybrid, manifold beings….” Which she does, I believe. That most of these largely excellent artists are women is remarkable but should not be all we remark upon. It’s more about how this collection of artists makes us aware of the prevalence of straight-white-male-dominated everything else.
Alemani proposes something like an archaeological slice view upon which the avant-garde may have evolved. In this case, on and by the bodies of women. The literal foundation of her thesis rests on the lowest level of the Central Pavilion in a collection she calls, The Witch’s Cradle, the first of her five “time-capsules,” or shows within the show, linking historical art and artifact to the timelines of contemporary artists that make up the bulk of the exhibition. We see the work of early Surrealists—including paintings by Leonora Carrington, from whom the title The Milk of Dreams was borrowed—and artists of the early avant-garde as connective tissue and precursor to our contemporary moment. One of the most compelling juxtapositions here was the inclusion of silent film footage of a bare-breasted, exuberant Josephine Baker performing the Charleston. The exaggerated and exoticized African clichés that she enlists to transform herself become daring strategies to declare her then radical Black female sexuality.
Whether or not you like Surrealism, as emphasized in The Witch’s Cradle, is no more the salient point than how many women are in the show. I’m not partial to Surrealism. But I am interested in its links to anarchism and a post-WWI, Freudian-influenced shift from an externalized world view to an interiorized one of imagination, emancipation, transfiguration, and transmogrification. Indeed, Cecilia Alemani shows us how Surrealism’s DNA imprints us to this day.
Ingeniously, she connects the first time-capsule, The Witch’s Cradle, with her last, Seduction of the Cyborg, where we see costumes, models, and puppets—early Dada, Constructivist, and Bauhaus fantasies of robotic-hybrid humans that share a surrealist metaphysical, transhuman aesthetic. This, in turn, forecasts our future-current posthuman relationship between our bodies, technology, and science while it expands the context for many of the participating contemporary artists throughout the exhibition. Artists such as Andra Ursuta (Romania), who casts her own body with found objects into beautiful-horrible, translucent hybrid beings, or Felipe Baeza (Mexico), who creates large collaged, mixed media, egg tempera paintings of part-human part-flora figures. Or how Mire Lee (South Korea) makes hideous kinetic sculptures that resemble machines with internal organs bleeding, leaking, and feeding. The Milk of Dreams looks back to look forward, unflinchingly, at an imagined utopic and dystopic posthuman, post-gender future.
Near the entrance of the Arsenale, we encounter another pivotal time-capsule, A Leaf a Gourd a Shell a Net a Bag a Sling a Sack a Bottle a Pot a Box a Container. Its title is taken from Ursula K. Le Guin’s metaphor as rendered in her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” where she convincingly suggests that the first cultural object creation was the container. How to gather more oats, berries, nuts, seeds, roots, and grubs for later? Place them inside a Leaf, a Gourd, a Shell, a Net, …, a fired clay urn, a blown glass bottle, or a chased metal vessel. And free up both your hands while doing so by containing the baby in a woven Sling. Thus, Le Guin “links the birth of civilization not to the invention of weapons [the club, the rock, the spear—indeed, the cock], but to tools used for providing sustenance and care.”
The artists’ work in this capsule, such as Toshiko Takaezu, Ruth Asawa, Aletta Jacobs, Bridget Tichenor, and Tecla Tofano, illustrates an iconology of the vessel with the body and nature that is reflected throughout the show. In The Milk of Dreams, bodies are everywhere. Bodies as symbolic, spiritual, metaphorical, and literal containers in the works of participating artists.
Take, for instance, Louise Bonnet (Switzerland), who paints bodies that betray us—Botero-meets-Guston figures failing, cramping, and leaking urine, saliva, and blood. Feet and hands are proportionately even larger than the bodies, which have minuscule heads. These (d)evolved humans are at the mercy of pure bodily function. Zheng Bo (China) portrays the erotics between plants—especially ferns and trees—and queer men in his startling video Pteridophilia. Naked men are seen in ecstatic congress with vegetation, the camera view often flipped upside down so queer bodies appear as the literal fruit of a verdant canopy. Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s (Denmark) severe sculptures and videos explore surveillance, reproductive labor, pornography, and robotic bodies as instruments of a digitized industrial complex that erodes the space between public and private life. A large monitor on the floor plays Maintenancer about the maintenance of sex dolls at a German doll brothel. Next to it sits a life-sized wooden sex doll, more like the wooden articulated mannequin for figure drawing; its hollow eyes and splintery orifices open and ready. Nearby are half-body mold sculptures that could act as passive armatures for the bottom positions of doggy-style and mission.
The Venice Biennale is the show we love to love and hate, a barometer of the art world, not only by the measure of artists represented but by those left out. This time, men are mostly left out. Of the 213 artists from 58 countries in The Milk of Dreams, around 90% are women. The Milk of Dreams essentially queers the western hetero-male-centric canon by feminizing it, thus destabilizing the Club Rock Spear Hero culture story—Clobber Culture—to make way for a more introspective, fluid, open one. Paradoxically and courageously, this renders The Milk of Dreams itself obsolete, as it insists on an ongoing, non-centric reinterpretation beyond its permeable borders.
Back across town, the installations of new and retrospective work of Anish Kapoor at the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Palazzo Manfrin (The Manfrin recently purchased by the Kapoor Foundation) may make the best argument for the urgency and necessity of The Milk of Dreams. Kapoor’s obsession with vaginas, blood, and violence feels worse than tone-deaf. It is literally a bloodbath—his Shooting into the Corner, 2008-2009, involves a sizeable phallic cannon that pneumatically shoots 20 tons of blood-red wax via 11-kilogram ‘balls’ into a vast room, at a particular vantage point directly at the viewer. Other works that aren’t his minimalist mirror pieces include disturbing bloody paintings of slit-vaginas in crotches (Portrait of Pink triptych, 2019) and metal sculptures of vaginas engorged and disemboweled (Split In Two Like a Fish For Frying, 2022).
Google “Anish Kapoor vagina” and see what comes up, as it were. The best headline I found: “Vandals attack Anish Kapoor’s vagina – but is it a sphincter?”
I’ll let Mr. Kapoor speak for himself, as I am mostly speechless. From a Guardian piece in 2021:
“Yikes,” he says. “I’m not doing it intellectually. I just wanted to make a many-breasted quasi-female figure and see what happened. Could I unwrap her pristine exterior and look at her problematic interior, full of blood and guts and breasts and bits and pieces, and all that? Fuck knows. Freud would have a field day.”
The breathtaking alpha-male callousness.
Just weeks after the Biennale pre-opening, the brutality of Kapoor’s work came flooding back to me during the recent nationwide emergency protests. News images of women and their allies holding placards that read, “STAY AWAY FROM MY WOMB & FROM BETWEEN MY LEGS!” If the majority white male SCOTUS has its way with women of the United States, as suggested by the draft opinion leak to overturn Roe v. Wade, they will have turned ‘pussy grabbing’ into a legally sanctioned national pastime.
A Leaf a Gourd a Shell a Net a Bag a Sling a Sack a Bottle a Pot a Box a Container
Over at the Palazzo Grassi, Marlene Dumas counter-slams this misogynist Club Rock Spear Knife approach, but with the most profound nuance. Among a collection of smallish works of naked women, two paintings depict a single woman on all fours from behind, libidinously displaying her genitals; in one, she reaches back and touches herself, while in the other, she turns to look at the viewer straight on. Two other paintings show a woman standing from behind. One is a closeup revealing bushed labia protruding below her anus framed by the mostly blue symmetrical outline of her inner thighs and buttocks. The other presents the backside of a full standing figure, arms and legs outstretched and spread like an X on the canvas. Nearby, a small painting, easy to pass over, of the soft underbelly side of a splayed frog pinned to an inky black and grey ground. The frog’s genital duct, a tiny heart-shaped black dot, vulnerable and in full view, ready for dissection by the likes of Anish Kapoor.
This stunning Marlene Dumas exhibition inside the elegant galleries of the Palazzo Grassi is in contrapuntal dialogue with The Milk of Dreams. Her turped-down oil paint, almost like watercolor, creates a tightrope of tension between control and its loss. The resulting suspense and her frank subject matter lift these paintings into the stratosphere. At her virtuosic pinnacle and as one of our greatest living painters, Dumas gives us room after room of confident, hardcore yet vulnerable images of bodies, beautiful, imperfect, bodies standing, fucking, in supplication, and dead. And faces kissing, and mouths—mouths, mounds, and cocks. Her paintings write the tangled, intimate stories of lives lived. If each were a roman à clef, the fictitious names would be our own.
No doubt, the paintings of Anselm Kiefer deserve our attention too. They certainly have earned mine in the past. But what to make of his commandeering the Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s Palace over on Piazza San Marco?
Kiefer is known for his massively ambitious history paintings that address the German Nazi past. They are images of destruction, fire and brimstone, shame and renewal, often made with actual scorched earth, crops, wood, molten lead, bronze, and found materials covered with paint, clay, and plaster. These are impossible surfaces, and you can’t help but stand beside them, diminished and in awe.
In the magnificently ornate Sala dello Scrutinio, the room for public elections of the Doge, itself designed to diminish, every surface is decorated. The ceiling alone is an acid trip of gilt and paintings. But the room is probably most famous for the prodigious frescoes by Tintoretto covering the upper walls. This time, in this room, Anselm Kiefer has out Anselm Kiefered himself. He has covered every wall, floor to ceiling, save for the windows, with his hulking paintings—14 works in all, made of zinc, lead, gold, clothing, books, shoes, a coffin, and parts of shopping carts. These are paintings the size of palace walls. And yes, he has covered Tintoretto’s ‘smaller’ paintings with his own. And like Tintoretto’s, they are paintings about the history of Venice, in this case, the 16th c. burning of Venice and part of the palace. The show, titled Questi scritti, quando verranno bruciati, daranno finalmente un po’ di luce (These Writings, When Burned, Will Finally Give Some Light), is to mark Venice’s 1,600th anniversary.
Still, I was hyper-aware inside that completely altered room that Kiefer uses the language of death, destruction, and God-like creation to address the subjects of death, destruction, and God-like creation. This exemplifies alpha-male-centric Club Rock Spear Hero logic. A logic not so unlike what I encounter in today’s news cycle as I write these words—Ted Cruz, after the recent Uvalde massacre, proposes we fight potential gunmen with more armed gunmen (guards in schools). I am not comparing Anselm Kiefer to Ted Cruz exactly. Or to God. But a connecting line can be drawn. If anything, I have begun to take Kiefer less seriously, which may be my harshest critique. While standing inside this colossal hall, now subjugated by Kiefer’s sensational floor-to-ceiling installation, I had the urge to retitle it:
Beyond Anselm Kiefer: The Immersive Experience
Yes, I’ve gone there.
Perhaps the most lavish praise for The Milk of Dreams is to say I feel changed by it. A far cry from the questionable ‘wet dreams’ of Anish and Anselm, Cecilia Alemani’s incisive compilation of visual artists stimulates a compelling dialogue between the past and present and between cultural inclusion and exclusion, offering its viewer a new perspective sans Clobber Culture. Mercifully, much of the artwork in this 59th Biennale is the ‘thing itself.’ Art that stands alone without bombast and is not dependent on nearby conceptual-political explanatory wall text. Alemani honors the work by trusting it, not forcing it into an in-vogue feminist critique. In this way, The Milk of Dreams can and should avoid the stigma of “The Women’s Biennale.” It is not their Biennale; it is our Biennale because it speaks to who we really are. And who, and what, we may become.
Bradley Wester (New York/Rhode Island) is a visual artist and writer. His work has been exhibited extensively in New York, as well as other parts of the U.S. and Europe. His agented creative non-fiction manuscript “ARTIST UNDERWATER: A Journey to the Surface” is making rounds to publishers now. “Brothers Katrina,” its first chapter, won the 2016 Fresher Writing Prize for Nonfiction. More of his writing here and his art here.