Venice Biennale 2022 highlights: re-examining nature, technology and society
May 23, 2022
The 59th edition of Venice Biennale amplifies the questions we asked ourselves within these two years in which humanity took a forced break, pondering on which relationship(s) we might want to adopt inter-nos and inter-mundi. Categories of nature, technology, and society are constantly re-examined and re-mixed in an intertwined manner in both the central exhibition at the Arsenale and the national participations at the Giardini. The speculative exploration continues across the city, with 31 official collateral events hosted by majestic and atemporal historical palazzos. Leading leitmotifs can be found in the clusters of society, nature and technology. In order to make sense of the biennale with these three categories, the review is not in a typical order of location. Instead, the highlighted artworks and exhibitions are intertwined regardless of the showing location to enrich the experience of the Biennale through the history of Venice and the responses of contemporary artistic practice.
Among the invited artists, the need for re-configuring ourselves in the large scale of things is embodied perfectly by the monumental work of Katharina Fritsch named Elefant (1987). Situated in a chapel-like setting, with a ceiling that recalls Giotto’s frescoes, the large-scale statue of an Elephant looks at us with a majestic gaze, suggesting that, perhaps, it is time to re-configure our idols as the current might be at a twilight stage (to quote Nietzsche). Another presentation that invites us to rethink the unsettling and asymmetrical relationship between humans, animals, and technology, is Marguerite Humeau’s biomorphic sculptures that draw from science fiction. Titled Migration (2022), the installation comments on the interconnections of rituals, animal morphology and climate change.
Precious Okoyomon, who is a poet, artist, and chef, presents To see the Earth before the End of the World (2022), a large living installation in which sculptures are set against a field of wild growth. The work evokes reflections on politics of ecological revolt and (necessary) revolution. Delcy Morelos’ Earthly Paradise (2022) lets the spectator be surrounded by a large mass of soil, which captures our attention in a multi-sensorial manner. Informed by Andean and Amerindian cosmologies, the work suggests a vision of nature as something not to control but to harmonize with.
Among national participations, Saudi Arabia presents The Teaching Three (2022), where a monolith tree-like installation occupies and consumes the space it inhabits. With this work, artist Muhannad Shono explores investigations of life cycles and the power of nature and regeneration: we are reminded how much wisdom is held in the vegetal realm. Estonia’s brilliant work Orchidelirium (2022), unveils a complex and dark account of colonial ecological exploitation through the metaphors of tropical orchids. By re-discovering the biographical story of Emilie Rosalie Saal, an artist and world traveler herself, the pavilion narrates a living case study of entangled histories of self-determination, colonial experiences, botany, science and art.
Among the parallel events, organized by Parasol Unit and curated by Ziba Ardalan, Uncombed, Unforeseen, Unconstrained occupies the space of the “Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello'' with a reflection on the physical phenomenon of entropy. The exhibition invites us to look back at the history of humanity and its activities within our environment; as residents of the world, we must learn to own our responsibility for damages beyond repair. Stunning are the media works of Julian Charrière and David Claerbout, where the visitor is confronted by architectural and natural elements, such as fountains or trees, slowly and elegantly burning: beauty and terror convey in a poetic manner. The joint exhibition of Korean artist Chun Kwang Young and Italian architect Stefano Boeri, Times Reimagined lets us end on a positive note, reflecting on possible future ecological reflexivities. Hosted in the majestic venue of Palazzo Contarini Polignac, we are invited to look at Hanji (Korean traditional paper) as a symbol of interconnectedness between living beings and the socioecological values of their relationships.
“The seduction of cyborg” is the title of one of the historical capsules presented in the main exhibition which features works of artists such as Louise Nevelson, Anu Poder, and Liliane Lijin, re-discovering the intersections between feminism, surrealism, science fiction and post-human desires. The capsule is aligned with a quote from Donna Haraway, a renowned scholar who inspired Cecilia Alemani’s curatorial vision: “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated”.
Korean artist Yunchul Kim, whose work is featured in the national participation of South Korea, creates monumental machine-artworks drawing from particle physics’ notion of “entanglement”. The concept suggests that in the micro-scale of the cosmos, physical elements are more interconnected than we might perceive. Our rapidly evolving relationship with technology is then explored through several lenses: desires, repulsion, fear, fascination and everything in-between. Sometimes the human element is fully whitrawn, such as in another historical capsule “Technologies of enchantment”, which features the works of artists who brought somatic complexity to “programmed” artistic creations. Exemplar is the work of Nanda Vigo, who embarked in the 1950s kinetic and perceptual experimentations, investigating concepts of time and space through the minimalist use of natural and artificial light. At the time, Vigo was close to the “Zero Group”, a German movement who explored pure possibilities of materials.
Spectacularly poetic is the Pavilion of Malta, titled Diplomazija Astuta the exhibition de-constructs and re-imagines Caravaggio’s seminal Maltese altarpiece The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608) in a kinetic installation. Thanks to a technology realized ad-hoc using electro-magnetic forces, droplets of melted steel fall from the sky into bassins of water, in a completely dark environment. This multi-sensorial act brings hopeful humanist promises in re-thinking politics of the past. Similarly, the Uzbekistan’s Pavilion re-elaborates on the first scientific text to present algebra in a modern fascination, inviting us to challenge politics and geographies of technological development.
On the opposite side of the narrative, Geumhyung Jeong’s Toy Prototype (2021) in the main exhibition at the Arsenale, reflects on techno-capitalism in a dry manner, flipping the comfort of our everyday approach to technology into an uncomfortable sentiment. Her DIY robots are fragile, unstable and clumsy in their encounter with us; a question is left unsaid, will we be able to empathize with robots? Tishan Hsu is already a step ahead, looking forward to a fused human-technology future, he considers himself as a cyborg, announcing “Google is my memory”; and Andra Ursuta’s seductive and unsettling sculptures carry the narrative on, imagining our future cyborg bodies, constrained in their physicality and immobilized in their tension through a post-sculptural aesthetic which remains beautifully fascinating.
At the entrance of the Arsenale, visitors are welcomed by Simone Leigh’s monumental sculpture Brick House (2021). The artist, who won a long overdue Golden Lion for her artistic career, portrays the Black woman’s body as a site of multiplicity. The monumental sculpture acts as a statement as it welcomes the visitors to the main exhibition at the Arsenale. It announces how body politics (in a Foucauldian manner) become pivotal for the central exhibition: sexuality, gender, race, power relations are central themes. Possibilities on how to re-establish dynamics among them, often in an intersectional manner, are found through reflections on indigenous traditions, feminist lenses, and thoughts beyond post-colonialism.
Argentinian artist Gabriel Chaile explores impoverished communities, rituals and aesthetic customs, re-elaborating them in sculptural works inspired by the conjunction of historical past and present with indigenous epistemologies. His work for the Biennale consists of five monumental sculpture-ovens which portray members of his family, reflecting on body capacity for communalism, giving and care. Similarily speaking of looking back on history, but in a different medium, Ali Cherri’s multi-channel video installation Of Men and Gods and Mud (2022) traces the history of one of the largest hydroelectric dams in Africa, imagining the punishing construction of a dam as a portal to a fantastic world. Reflecting on Egyptian and Jewish imaginaries surrounding mud and deluge, he captures myth and history of the creation of the “Other”.
Firelei Baez goes beyond body figuration to create hybrid forms that oscillate between female avatars, plants, landscapes and bodies of water. The narratives of black resistance are given forms into layering paint drips, depicting illusory bodies and the materiality of presence. But then, the body becomes pivotal again in the re-construction of gender discourses, with Chilean surrealist artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña, mother of oppositional politics in South-American art. Receiving a Golden Lion for her life-tme achievement this year, Vicuña's paintings are presented at the central pavilion of the Giardini; poetically rebelling against the form of colonial portraiture by putting indigenous women at the center of a powerful narrative. In a similar manner, the Latvia Pavilion, featuring queer artist couple Inguna Skuja and Melissa Braden, present a multilayered porcelain installation which ironically maps the mental, physical, personal and political aspects of queerness between the east and the west.
Francis Alÿs portrayed the fundamental dimension of play in human behavior for Belgium’s national participation. Drawing from the artist's extensive documentary work, the pavilion is filled with large scale screens that reminds us of the power of cultural traditions and the autonomous attitudes of children, which learn to play even in the most conflicted situations. Outside the walls of the Biennale, the pictorial work of Claire Tabouret is presented in the spectacular setting of Palazzo Cavanis. The paintings’ vibrancy explore transformations of self, other, collective identities, struggle, release and refuge, suggesting alternative relationships in the context of social crises. Finally, Ugo Rondinone’s exhibition burn, shine, fly at Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista engenders contemporary versions of the sublime, letting us fall in love again with the mysteries of life. The artist brings hope in the context of a Biennale that condemns the wrongdoings of our own species. Like phoenixes, the seven flying bodies are reborn as cloudy skies, and we fly with them, redeeming ourselves and connecting to a wider beauty.
The 59th edition of Venice Biennale runs from Apr 23 - 27 Nov 2022, curated by Cecilia Alemani - the first Italian woman to hold the position. The Exhibition takes place in the Central Pavilion (Giardini) and in the Arsenale, including 213 artists from 58 countries; 180 of these artists are participating for the first time in the International Exhibition. 80 countries are participating in the historic Pavilions at the Giardini, at the Arsenale and in the city center of Venice. There are also 30 Collateral Events around the city adding a wide range of diversity of artistic practices to the main exhibition.