4. Rapport: Venice
By NiccolòAcram Cappelletto et al.
Published on September 5th, 2022
Venice is the only Italian city that was not under the direct control of Muslim rule and yet carried an Arabic name: Al-Bunduqīyya. I learned this fact during my first semester of Arabic of my Bachelor’s degree at New York University Abu Dhabi and I became fascinated by what this entailed for a city I am deeply familiar with. My own name is the union of an Italian-Greek name, Niccolò (winner of the people), and an Arabic one, Acram (the most/very generous), an interesting choice as I have no Arab relatives and the name stemmed from the pure desire of my parents at my birth. I am starting this E-Issue’s Rapport on Venice with these two anecdotal notes because of the curatorial themes chosen for this edition of the Venice Biennale, the oldest and arguably the most prestigious exhibition of contemporary art of our times.
Venice is the only Italian city that was not under the direct control of Muslim rule and yet carried an Arabic name: Al-Bunduqīyya.
Curated by Cecilia Alemani, Director and Chief Curator of High Line Art in New York, the 59th edition of the International Art Exhibition - Biennale 2022, The Milk of Dreams, deals in an excellent way with issues of self-identity, narratives, and bodily metamorphosis. As a young writer from a small town close to Venice, who ended up studying in the Arab world, precisely in Abu Dhabi, I am experiencing these worlds colliding as never before.
This piece will navigate through the themes of the Biennale and expand it to the current situation in Venice, after two years of a pandemic that drastically reduced its visitors. It is only this summer that Venice went back to its pre-COVID tourist counts and safety protocols, with all the issues related to these changes. Indeed, the municipality of Venice decided that from next year the city will have a cap on visitors per day and anyone wanting to come will need a ticket to book in advance. This decision, along with many other problems of livability in the city, does not make the flashy news as easily as the huge number of exhibition openings, chic events, and contemporary art shows happening throughout the year of the Biennale. However, they do have an impact on a city's fabric and give food for thought to economic models that have been established for so long and have to be negotiated for the future of the city.
The Milk of Dreams
This year’s Biennale was the first one that I visited so carefully to mark the occasion of this E-Issue. Each visit, each pavilion, each exhibition became an encounter with something new and radical. I say “new” because more than 180 of the participating artists have never had their work in the International Art Exhibition [The Milk of Dreams and the National Participations] until now and “radical” thanks to the contribution of artists that are a majority of women and gender non-conforming artists. This choice “reflects an international art scene full of creative ferment and a deliberate rethinking of men’s centrality in the history of art and contemporary culture” (Alemani, 2022). These two core points of the exhibition made me reflect on the meaning of curating a platform such as the Biennale in 2022. The title is taken from Surrealist artist, Leonora Carrigton (1917-2011), who worked on a children's book in the 1950s and was published only posthumously. The Milk of Dreams is a work of imagination, “a world where everyone can change” (Alemani, 2022). For the curator, it helped center the exhibition on change, transformation, and metamorphosis in light of current events, climate change, indigeneity, and many other issues represented by the contemporary artists chosen to exhibit.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are Paula Rego’s and Cecilia Vicuña’s paintings, Simone Leigh’s monumental busts, Ali Cherri’s installations in multiple media, Monira Al Qadiri’s sculpture and videos, and many many other stunning artworks. I here want to give one example that I believe is most representative of the relevance of The Milk of Dreams. In one of the sections, The Witch’s Cradle, the artworks on display gives a new image of the modernist movements of the first half of the 20th century. By showcasing in the same space artists such as Josephine Baker, Baya Mahieddine, Meret Oppenheim, Rosa Rosà, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, and Augusta Savage, among others, not only does the impression leaves us with a recodified canon of modern art history but also an alternative to imagine new art worlds that may or may not have met in the same constellation. If the quality of contemporary art is to be global, this section demonstrates how global visions of the past bring to the surface issues that do not only constitute frustrations and injustices of the present but are legacies of long-standing power structures at the expense of marginalized narratives.
If the quality of contemporary art is to be global, [The Witch’s Cradle] demonstrates how global visions of the past bring to the surface issues that do not only constitute frustrations and injustices of the present but are legacies of long-standing power structures at the expense of marginalized narratives.
Surrounding the exhibition that develops between the Giardini and the Arsenale, the national pavilions expand the conversation of the Biennale. This year’s pavilions respected the theme carefully and you can find some of them in our GAD’s Top Picks. However, I must admit that the thematic coherence among the pavilions made me question the nation-based model of the Biennale.
The Venice Biennale originated in 1895 when Europe was developing its imperialist nation-states at the expense of its colonies in the rest of the world. This year's edition shows how contemporary art can be, when successful, a vehicle for social issues and solidarity. Hence a question: is the national model still useful for the Biennale? If on one side, national participations can highlight marginalized discourses in an international arena, such as the Sami Pavilion or the Ghana Pavilion, on the other it keeps reinforcing power structures in a difficult binary such as the West vs the Rest, considering the majority of European and rich countries exhibiting in the historical area of Giardini. Maybe The Milk of Dreams with its unhinging of art historical paradigms represents a step towards a new vision for the mother of all Biennales.
A City Torn by Overtourism and Contemporary ArtOvertourism represents one of the main problems of the city. The incredible density of contemporary art events in Venice at the moment, from Anish Kapoor’s exhibition at the Gallerie dell’Accademia or Anselm Kiefer at Palazzo Ducale, brings intense streams of people. In a city that struggles with overwhelming tourism, how does an accumulation of events of this kind benefit the local community, or what is left of it? Venice is emptying with most locals moving to the mainland. A possible solution found by the municipality is to close the city and have a limited number of people visiting in order to restrict tourists coming only for day trips and encourage longer stay periods. The reality is that the city offers a minimum amount of services since most of the businesses are catered to tourists, such as souvenir shops. The measure of closing the city will accomplish the ongoing “disneyfication” of Venice: its evolution into an outdoor amusement park, or outdoor museum at best. Criticism of the initiative has been increasing among the few residents in the city but the problem of mass tourism is not getting smaller. In the world of The Milk of Dreams, imagination plays an important role to think of alternatives to the patriarchal society. Can contemporary art institutions contribute also to the reimagination of a city whose destiny is doomed?
In the world of The Milk of Dreams, imagination plays an important role to think of alternatives to the patriarchal society. Can contemporary art institutions contribute also to the reimagination of a city whose destiny is doomed?
As someone who lived in the vicinity of Venice for most of his life, I experienced the worsening of the tourist situation with local shops shutting down and tourists leaving behind garbage anywhere, swimming in the (unsanitary) canals, or trying to bring their bicycles into the city. Venice was recently on the cusp of obtaining the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site In Danger due to overtourism. In particular the passing of cruise ships throughout the city was threatening the lagoon ecosystem and the buildings’ stability. Looking ahead to the future, how can global events such as the Biennale bring attention to the local environmental impact? While there are art and research spaces dealing with these issues, such as the platform Ocean Space, bringing action remains limited as the dialogue among stakeholders is difficult to achieve, as tourism constitutes one of the city’s principal sources of income. Yet, to dismantle the same system that The Milk of Dreams denounces, Venice must play the exemplary role of being the sustainable space for dialogue and connections that has characterized it since its foundation.
This Rapport could not be the work of just one writer’s perspective, considering the reach of such an event as the Biennale. Hence, I asked a few of my peers to leave their opinions on how they experienced the city and its events.
Christopher Benton, artist 📍Abu Dhabi - Boston
NiccolòAcram Cappelletto: The exhibition was first presented at last year’s edition of Abu Dhabi Art and it was reiterated in Venice. Did you change anything from the Abu Dhabi version?
Christopher Benton: There were many changes, refinements, and additions to the original presentation of the show in Venice. Most obviously, the rules of presenting a show in a purpose-built white cube is different from showing work in a 14th century Palazzo in Italy. While I wasn’t able to rig and present a palm tree in such a space, I was excited to be able to relay a powerful message about diasporas, and cultural production, and commodity circulation.
N.A.: How did you feel about exhibiting in Venice? Did you feel a new response to your work?
C.B.: Presenting in Venice was a dream and I thoroughly thank fair director Dyala Nusseibeh and the hard-working Abu Dhabi Art team for creating an international platform for UAE-based artists. In general, my work is site-specific, so the context of what and how the work presents itself is crucial. This complicates the question of remounting: how do we keep the story intact? How can we respond to presenting in a new place? And perhaps most importantly: who is the audience and what do they already know or think they know? In this way, I made adjustments to the exhibition to support an international audience who may not have the same level of regional knowledge, or have the same connection to our local narratives.
N.A.: About the Biennale Exhibition: What did you think of this year’s edition (also compared to past editions, if you have been/remember)? Anything that particularly struck you?
C.B: The headline for this year’s Venice Biennial is that the main exhibition features 90% female artists. While some may see this as a concession to our overly identitarian era, this authorial shift has made a show that is more sensitive, emphatic, contemporary, and emotive. From the spectacular to the most intimate of gestures, the exhibition is one of the best Venice Biennale showings in recent memory, with a strong conceptual framework that ties it all together. The Guggenheim’s new surrealism show also complements the biennial well.
N.A.: Favorite pavilion?
C.B: I loved the French Pavilion, which featured the work of Zineb Sedira. It was commissioned by Till & Sam [Till Fellrath and Sam Bardaouil], who also curated Hashel [Al Lamki], Maitha [Abdalla], and I for the latest edition of Abu Dhabi Art’s Beyond Emerging Program. The show really expanded my idea of what an exhibition could do. I also appreciated Zineb’s commitment to meta-reference, mise-en-abyme and mise-en-scène.
Samuel Cimma, photographer📍 Venice
Sometimes an installation strikes you immediately but then they leave little in your memory. This was not the case for the Dutch Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Art Biennale entitled When the body says Yes by artist Melanie Bonajo. After going through the door of the old Chiesetta della Misericordia, the visitor enters in a soft world, as in a maternal womb made of soft lights, colored cushions, drapes hanging down the ceiling beams. Lying on the ground, you feel welcomed while the Dutch artist’s documentary is projected. The video contains recordings of collective skinships and individual personal experiences. Everything pertains to the relationship between oneself, one’s body, someone else’s body and the social body, a macro-theme within which we all have an experience more or less aware. Thus, I believe that the strength of this piece relies on its own universality that allows anyone to find a different opening into each one of us. In my case, because it is about one’s self that is talked about in front of such a work, I was struck by a single frame, which says: If this body gives you so much pleasure, why do you hate it? – this struck a bare nerve of mine, the nerve of non-acceptance of my body, that I cannot fit into the grids of social beauty standards. Yet, this single sentence triggered a spark in me: my body gives me pleasure, cuddles me, makes me enjoy, so why do I hate it, why do I always wish to have another one? Today I feel better, I no longer feel discomfort in looking at myself, and above all I don’t feel ashamed in standing in front of other people without a shirt. I accept my body, and I have also come to appreciate it, something that the myself of one year ago could not even imagine taking into consideration. My path will still be long, but thanks to Melanie Bonajo I made a big leap forward, and I don’t feel alone.
Insun Woo, editor📍 Istanbul / Abu Dhabi
As the latest addition to the Giardini’s permanent national pavilions, the Korean Pavilion, established in 1995, is relatively small in size. For this year’s Biennale, however, transdisciplinary artist and electronic music composer Yunchul Kim created a system that defies the Pavilion’s spatial boundaries, opening up an interconnected world that kindles awe and imagination. Though the exhibition title, Gyre, is intended as a “metaphor for the current swirling state of confusion the world is in as we wait for change to come,” the experience of the show is far from unsettling. As I traversed the naturally-lit space inhabited by bizarre yet spectacular structures, I was filled with wonder. The centerpiece, Chroma V (2022), hangs from the ceiling and is an imposing fifty-meter-long structure coiled into a knot. The colors of the opalescent cells swell and subside as the cells pulsate at irregular intervals. This movement is caused by another installation in the exhibition: Argos – The Swollen Suns (2022). Similarly impressive in its scale and technological feat, Argos detects muons –cosmic nanoparticles created when colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere– and sends signals to other installations in the exhibition to trigger their movements. Looking at Argos, it becomes clear how the pavilion has been conceived as a “sprawling body”; the works, like organs in a body, are connected with one another and the surrounding environment, as they receive and react to signals as small as muons and as big as the ocean (Impulse (2018), one of the installations, circulates seawater from Venice). At a time when technology is being discussed as a powerful collaborator in creating enhanced systems or as a threat to humanity, it was refreshing to see machines freed from such responsibilities and fears to just exist as beings, in tune with the “natural” environment. It is the beauty and poetry of such redefining of the relationship between the human, non-human, machine, and material happening in Gyre that made it stand out amongst the many impressive exhibitions at the Giardini.
NiccolòAcram Cappelletto is an Editor at Global Art Daily. After completing his B.A. in Art History with specialisations in Political Science and Heritage Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi, he was conducting research on the connections between heritage and contemporary art in the context of postcolonial Italy as a Postgraduate Research Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi, based in Treviso and Abu Dhabi. Niccolò previously worked as a gallery and curatorial assistant with galleries in Venice, Paris, and Abu Dhabi. Interested in decolonial and demodernising practices, he believes in the need to translate into an accessible practice the heavy theoretical frameworks of the present.
Many thanks to the guest contributors to this Rapport.