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Un-folding Dreams: A brief journey through 59th Venice Biennale


Irish artist Alex Pentek guides us through the iconic show.

The title of the 59th Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, comes from the writing of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington and is Influenced by Carrington’s personal traumatic experiences in Europe during WWII. Through the theme of processing experience on a subjective, internal, personal level through surreal dreams, nightmares and fantasies, Curator Celia Alemani exposes artists’ inner horizons for us to relate to. With so much to respond to, here are some of the highlights that stood out for me.

Beginning with collateral events in the city near Teatro La Fenice (an historic theatre building), in Chiesa di San Fantin, the heavy medieval church doors opened to Field, a visually disruptive and thought provoking installation by Portuguese artist Pedro Cabrita Reis. In the nearby Ateneo Veneto building (a decorative guild-hall), Daniel Richter presents a very different response by creating a series of large colourful and gestural paintings, titled Limbo, which almost seem like graffiti. In Palazzo Palumbo Fossati, San Marco, Uganda participates for the first time as a national pavilion with artists Acaye Kerunen and Collin Sekajugo. Radiance, They Dream in Time is a mixture of intricately woven works by Kerunen and mixed media and paintings by Sekajugo and received a special mention by the Biennale. Moving to Campo Santo Stefano, there are a number of collateral events including Life Forms, inaugural exhibition at Barbati Gallery by LA artist Kelly Akashi. In the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Abduction from the Seraglio – Roma women: Performative Strategies of Resistance is a collection of paintings and woven tapestries by Eugen Raportoru. As the first Roma artist to participate in the Biennale and taking pride in his Roma origins, Raportoru recreates imagery from his childhood memory. Nearby, in the Conservatorio di Musica is a powerful exhibition titled Uncombed, Unforeseen, Unconstrained. Curated by Parasol Unit around the theme of entropy and disorder as the measure of our plundering of earth’s natural resources, a number of artists respond in various media including Martin Puryear, who represented the US in Venice in 2019.

This year, Ireland is represented by Niamh O’Malley with her exhibition Gather. This is a mixture of sculptural and moving image works that flickers between formal and conceptual responses to communality after lockdown and was designed specifically for this industrial exhibition space. O’Malley spoke eloquently at the launch from a very personal point of view which the audience strongly related to. Curated by Cliodhna Shaffrey and Michael Hill of Temple Bar Gallery and Studios and commissioned by Culture Ireland, this exhibition gives a clear sense of its supporting structures, and it is actually the theme of support systems and infrastructure that O’Malley formally explores here. From a gracefully curved cantilevered glass and steel ‘shelter’, a heavy carved limestone drain-like work, to the exposed circuitry of a video work displaying an air-vent to extremely delicate glass and steel wall hanging works, there are overlapping edges, blurred boundaries, and a shared space that has a unifying and persuasive aesthetic. It is a strong body of work from an important female Irish artist.

On the day of the Irish pavilion launch at the Arsenale building, there was a large queue snaking around the street corner. Of course, it had to rain! Inside, the Arsenale complex is a cavernous L-shaped industrial building that used to be a rope factory, with brickwork, columns and a beamed wooden roof. The first thing to encounter is a powerful 4.9m bronze figure by American artist Simone Leigh. Fittingly titled Brick House (originally created for 10th avenue, Manhattan, in 2019), this piece continues  Leigh’s theme of the female body as a site of multiplicity by this eyeless female figure whose upper body recalls traditional African mud-hut buildings. Historically, Leigh is one of the first two black women ever to have been awarded the prestigious Golden Lion Award for best Arsenale exhibit this year, with British artist Sonia Boyce being awarded for best Pavilion in the Giardini.

Moving through the international pavilions in the Arsenale and Giardini is like a litmus test of contemporary art across the world, represented by possibly the most powerful gathering of mainly female and non-binary artists ever seen. Oscillating between visceral, shocking, quiet, and disturbing, the surrealist theme re-surfaces throughout. At the L between the main Arsenale buildings, a black curtain reveals an unassuming video work by Diego Marcon. Titled The Parent’s Room, this was also one of the high points of the Biennale for me, with a haunting and disturbing mix of music, film, and animation. Also at the Arsenale was a multi-sensory work, Perpetual Motion, by Icelandic artist Sigurður Guðjónsson. Blurring boundaries between reality and fiction by depicting intense magnetic fields at CERN, this work was curated by Mónica Bell. At the Malta exhibit titled Cunning Diplomacy, drops of molten metal from a 16-ton steel plate fall into street water to reinterpret Caravaggio’s 1608 painting The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

In the Giardini, the French pavilion shows the work of Zineb Sedira and her captivating installation DREAMS HAVE NO TITLES. Inspired by an overlooked Algerian film legacy and a family history of French Algerian connections, Sedira transforms the pavilion into a live movie set, complete with actors and musicians, behind-the-scenes installations and culminating with a seated movie theatre to show her short film. We are brought humorously to an infinity of sets within sets (mise en abyme), but with a directly personal and largely unspoken message to shake the tyranny of sexism, prejudice and colonialism. Even if it means dancing to cheesy ’60s and ’70s music!

While this was the high point of the Giardini for me, installations in the US, Australian, British and German pavilions by Simone Leigh, Marco Fusinato, Sonia Boyce and Maria Eichhorn also made a powerful impact on audiences. In parallel to the chosen surrealist theme and radically different subjective experiences shared, the exhibitions that stood out the most were the ones that most carefully considered, integrated and transformed the architecture of each space. I look forward to a return visit.


Photo: Simone Leigh. Brick House. 4.9m. Cast Bronze. Awarded the Golden Lion for best Arsenale exhibit. Originally commissioned for 10th Avenue, Manhattan, 2019.