Art review: Venice Biennale | The week Great Britain
“With all the horror coming out of Ukraine, a contemporary arts festival seems more than ever an irrelevant indulgence,” said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. But for better or for worse, the Venice Biennale “carries on regardless.” Delayed by a year due to Covid-19, the 59th iteration follows the usual script: as usual, it’s a massive main exhibition – titled The milk of dreams for the occasion – as well as no fewer than 80 different country pavilions, in which the nations of the world compete for the coveted Golden Lion.
This year the winner of the national competition was Britain’s Sonia Boyce, marking the first time that a black British artist has received the top honour. The Biennale also includes myriad side events, from a massive Anish Kapoor show to a hastily constructed “Ukrainian piazza” outside the central exhibition. This biennial is full of the usual silliness: “indecipherable images projected onto floating pink udders; a ridiculously fluffy setup in the Danish pavilion with a suicidal centaur’, but there’s also an unusual practicality behind it.
The 59th Biennial signals an “epochal shift in attitudes,” Laura Cumming said in The Observer. For one thing, the otherwise conspicuous Russians have stayed away: the country’s pavilion is empty, and the oligarchs’ superyachts are nowhere to be seen. More importantly, for the first time, there are more female artists than male artists at the event: in the main exhibition, only 21 of the 213 exhibiting artists are male, while the best of the national pavilions were all designed by women.
A “wildfire hit” is the French Zineb Sedira, whose show – a mixture of film and “walk-through” sets based on memories of her childhood as the daughter of Algerian immigrants – is “a living magic”. Malgorzata Mirga-Tas covers Poland’s pavilion with a “colossal frieze” made entirely of applique, while Simone Leigh transformed the neoclassical American pavilion into “a traditional West African building” full of large sculptures – the best of which, like a “monumental” bell-shaped one Figure, “wall the viewer with their sheer material power”.
Boyce’s British pavilion is a real highlight, said Jackie Wullschläger in the FT. She has filled the UK space with “films of black women singing a cappella with jazz, folk and blues” in an installation that champions the values of “collaboration and play”. It’s the ‘happiest, liveliest’ British effort of this century and a deserved winner. the main exhibition, The milk of dreamsis less impressive: In selecting almost exclusively women, the curators “paid a high price for the quality”.
Still, there are some wonderful moments in the show. A room of Paula Rego paintings and sculptures is simply ‘magnificent’: her triptych Oratorio, depicting ‘abandoned babies and traumatized mothers’, is a truly ‘shocking’ work, revealing the academic rigidity of much else here. A “few excellent male painters make it through”: the “most unforgettable” pieces here are by Noah Davis, one of the leading American painters of his generation before he died in 2015 at the age of 32. Full of “black figures in eerie settings”, his canvases are sad and “ethereal”. Ultimately, however, this is a “fun” biennial that has “galvanized” its artists to reach new heights.
Various places, Venice (labiennale.org/en). Until 27.11
https://www.theweek.co.uk/arts-life/culture/art/956665/venice-biennale-art-review Art review: Venice Biennale | The week Great Britain