3 Themes to Expect in Cecilia Alemani’s Venice Biennale Exhibition, From Ghostly Apparitions to Indigenous Perspectives

We parsed the artist list for the main exhibition to tease out some themes visitors might expect.

Ithell Colquhoun, The Pine Family, 1940. Photo © The Israel Museum Jerusalem. The Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collection of Dada and Surrealist Art in the Israel Museum. © SIAE

A whopping 213 artists will participate in the main exhibition of the Venice Biennale, which opens April 23 across the Arsenale and the Giardini.

As is tradition, exactly what we can expect from curator Cecilia Alemani’s show, “The Milk of Dreams”—which takes its title from a book by the Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington—will be kept under wraps until the preview next week. But what we do know is that it will draw on themes of Surrealism, otherworldliness, and transformation beyond human forms.

According to Alemani, a few fundamental questions underpin the exhibition: “How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human?” 

In looking forward, the curator will also look backward to mine history and explore overlooked moments, figures, and perspectives for new answers. In seeking to center women and non-gender-conforming artists, the show will look back to patriarchal narratives surrounding occultism and the history of the witch. Looking to the future, the show will also consider posthuman possibilities, such as cyborgs, as modes of survival for the human spirit.

We teased out some of the main themes to expect from this historic biennale, which includes artists from 58 countries and will span more than 100 years of art history.


The Pioneering Women of Tech Art

The landing page for Lynn Hershman Leeson's Agent Ruby (20010. Courtesy the artist.

The landing page for Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Agent Ruby (2010). Courtesy the artist.

Digital art may be all the rage right now, but Alemani has hit the rewind button to remind digital natives to respect their mamas by highlighting the work of female generative and computer art pioneers.

There will be a gallery devoted to Vera Molnár, the 98-year-old Hungarian artist who makes minimalist geometric compositions composed with algorithms written in the (now positively primeval) programming language of Fortran. Molnár began programming with punch cards as early as 1968—before computers had screens—and is still working today from her nursing home in Paris—and is about to drop a series of NFTs.

Then, there is Lillian Schwartz, an early experimenter with computer-mediated art. Born in 1927, the U.S. artist grew up during the Great Depression, and she created groundbreaking work in the 1960s and ’70s as part of the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) group, working with light boxes and kinetic sculpture. Schwartz went on to make a series of groundbreaking computer-animated films built from visual generative algorithms written by fellow artist-collaborator and software engineer Ken Knowlton

Another one to look out for is the legendary new media art pioneer Lynn Hershman Leeson, who made what is regarded by some as the first ever media work in 1966, by incorporating sound into her work.

“Nobody had ever done that, and consequently, I was told for years it wasn’t art and nobody would show it,” the 81-year-old artist told Artnet News. Leeson also began building an artificial intelligence, Agent Ruby, in 1998 as part of her practice of expanded cinema. The A.I. was a stand-in for a cyborg character who had a lonely hearts column on the internet in her film Technolust.

In Venice, Leeson is showing a film called Logic Paralyzes the Heart, about a 61-year-old cyborg played by the Chinese-American actress Joan Chen, who goes on a retreat to find ways to become more human. It will be installed in a room wallpapered with AI-generated faces of people who don’t exist.

“It is all about the two sides of existence of the future: the cyborgian side, and what that can accomplish without actually having human qualities, and humans who lack the capacity that A.I. can function with,” Leeson said. “It’s kind of like The Wizard of Oz, where you have these characters, and one doesn’t have a heart and one doesn’t have a brain, and they both feel inadequate. And it’s a matter that we need both, and one can’t be the master of the other. We need to collaborate with all systems that are alive on the planet in order to have a future.”


Spooks on Spooks

Medium Eusapia Palladino (woman in the background) during mandolin levitatation during a seance at the house of Baron von Schrenck Notzing in Germany march 13, 1903. Photo by Apic/Getty Images.

Medium Eusapia Palladino (woman in the background) during mandolin levitatation during a seance at the house of Baron von Schrenck Notzing in Germany march 13, 1903. Photo by Apic/Getty Images.

Superstitious visitors to the biennale might want to carry a smudge of sage with them, as Alemani’s artist list suggests that we should expect no dearth of witchery.

We counted at least six artists who have spent time communing beyond the veil. These figures include the obscure Italian psychic and artist Milly Canavero, who made automatic writings and drawings she believed were messages from extraterrestrials; Hélène Smith, a Swiss Surrealist and psychic medium who claimed to communicate with Martians; and Josefa Tolrà, a self-taught Spanish medium and artist whose sacred and cosmic visions fused traditional beliefs with vivid imagination.

These are by no means the only artists who claimed to be physical and spiritual mediums on the list. There is also Linda Gazzera, a spiritualist medium who captured her spectral materializations in photographs, Italian spiritualist Eusapia Palladino, and Georgiana Houghton, a British spiritualist medium and painter whose abstract works referred to as “spirit drawings” were produced during seances in the 19th century.


Indigenous Perspectives 

Gabriel Chaile Indudablemente estos músicos están rayados (II), (2019) Installation view at ChertLüdde, Berlin. Photo Andrea Rossetti

Gabriel Chaile Indudablemente estos músicos están rayados (II), (2019) Installation view at ChertLüdde, Berlin. Photo Andrea Rossetti

When it comes to negotiating a new relationship with animals and Earth, especially in the face of a climate emergency, the pains of late capitalism, and emergent technology, Indigenous voices will be among those most pertinent to listen to. In the Giardini this year, for example, Indigenous perspectives will have a landmark place among many pavilions, including at the Nordic pavilion, which has been renamed the Sámi Pavilion for a presentation of three Indigenous artists from the Sápmi region, which stretches across all three of the nation-states of Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

Inside the Arsenale, as a part of Alemani’s exhibition, work by another Sámi artist will be on view—70-year-old Britta Marakatt-Labba, who grew up in a reindeer-herding family in Sápmi/Northern Sweden. The artist’s hand-embroidered textile works tell stories about Sámi history and life in the communities.

Important perspectives from the Global south, including that of Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, an Indigenous Yanomami artist from Sheroana in the Upper Orinoco River of the Venezuelan Amazon, makes delicate drawings pulling from ancestral knowledge and symbols of Yanomami culture. His work appears in the Sydney Biennale, which on view until June 13, and was included in the Berlin Biennale in 2020.

Also from South America is Gabriel Chaile, from Tucumán in Northwest Argentina, who creates sculptures drawing on Pre-Columbian traditions. Jaider Esbell, an artist and curator who is of the Macuxi people in Brazil, made incredibly vivid drawings will also have work present. (The artist was found dead at age 41 last fall in his home in São Paulo.) 

From farther north in Canada, artist Shuvinai Ashoona, who is Inuk, will present intricate pen and pencil drawings that depict Inuit life in the far North of Canada. Cree and Métis rising star artist Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, who was subject of a solo project show at MoMA last year, works with found materials to consider issues around land, property, and economy.

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