The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, opens with the following line, “April is the cruelest month, breeding.” With what became one of the most notorious verses of the 20th century, the poem, written in 1922, paints a ghastly landscape of Europe, a continent which lost nearly 100 million inhabitants to the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic.
As COVID-19 grips the world and Europe sees war for the first time since the defeat of the Axis, the desolate and demoralized reality depicted by T.S. Eliot echoes the current state of affairs. The opening of the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia was a respite from April’s proverbial cruelty. Curated by Cecilia Alemani, the biggest international art exhibition evokes our pre-pandemic memories and inspires hope for a return to normality. I sat with Cecilia Alemani to gain insights into the organization of what is arguably the most prestigious event in the art world under these challenging circumstances.
Natalia Gierowska (Rail): The title you picked for the 59th Art Biennale is “The Milk of Dreams.” Can you tell us more about the choice of the title and the theme for this year’s exhibition?
Cecilia Alemani: The title comes from a children’s book by Leonora Carrington. She is a British Artist who moved to Mexico during World War Two, where she established her life and her career since. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, she started writing short stories on the walls of her apartment walls for her two children. These were later gathered in a little notebook published under the title “The Milk of Dreams.”
I loved the book because it tells stories of imaginary figures, hybrid beings, and fantastic characters that can transform and morph into something or someone else. These transformations are achieved with a sense of freedom and easiness, but also by embedding them with a sense of irony and a bit of horror that you can also see in this year’s show. However, in her book, these ideas are translated in a very simple and iconic way. Before finding this book, I was already working on ideas of metamorphosis and transformation, and it all started with her wonderful writing. Leonora Carrington is not only an incredible artist but also an excellent writer- she wrote short stories and novels. When I came across “The Milk of Dreams” it simply made sense to use this title to convey some of the same preoccupations and feelings that the book and the show share. I often like to appropriate titles of books because writers are much better with words than curators. [Laughs]
Rail: The 59th Art Biennale has intersected two historical events, an outbreak of a global pandemic and the outbreak of a war on the European continent. How did the pandemic impact your methodology for organizing the Art Biennale, and what were the main challenges of opening the event 59 days after Russia waged an attack on Ukraine?
Alemani: The exhibition has been nearly entirely conceived during the pandemic. The pandemic began six weeks after I was appointed as the Art Biennale’s curator in January 2020. The practical effects of the pandemic were that I couldn’t travel and carry out studio visits in person. However, in the end, I did eventually meet numerous artists from behind the computer screen, many more artists than I would’ve otherwise. The discussions about art became less critical and instead opened up spaces for confessional conversations about the state of the world and the surreal situation that we found ourselves in for so many months without having clarity about the future. Those preoccupations that the artists shared with me influenced the ideas and concepts that informed the show. I think the most evident result of the pandemic is that because I have done everything through the mediation of the screen, the show is the opposite—it is concrete, it is corporeal, and physical—as this is what I missed the most about the experience of art during these two long years. That is, being in front of a painting, being able to smell the oil paint, being able to walk around a sculpture, to touch the art and experience it with your own body.
The show was done before the start of the war. When the conflict broke out, and a country so close to Italy is getting devastated and destroyed, you ask yourself: “What is the meaning of doing an exhibition like this?” But at the same time, I think that art and even an institution like La Biennale di Venezia can serve as a platform to bring people of different nations together. Throughout its 127 years of life, it has witnessed many comparable and horrific situations, such as the two World Wars. La Biennale di Venezia has always been a seismograph that records the shocks of history.
Rail: This year’s Art Biennale showcases 213 artists from 58 countries, 90% of which are women or non-binary, with the remaining 10% being male or male-identifying. Such a gender ratio, heavily favoring women artists, is without precedence in the event's history. As the fifth woman to ever helm the Art Biennale, was creating a majority female edition of the Art Biennale an intentional feminist curatorial gesture? (How is it different to the prior Venice Art Biennales?)
Alemani: I think it was a result of a long process. The genesis of my show has been very complicated, and I believe it is a convergence of several different matters. As a curator, I have often worked with women artists, and I think some of today’s best artists happen to be women. I am also aware that I am doing this show in Italy- even though it is an international show, it is not a New York-based show, where nobody would be shocked by that same ratio. [Laughs]
It is a show held in a society that continues to be incredibly sexist. The Biennale as an institution, with the exception of the last edition, gave great visibility to men for 125 years and 57 editions. My goal was to show that it is possible to make a good exhibition where most showcased artists are women, just like it has been done in the past with the majority of male artists. The only difference here is that male-dominated Biennales have never been questioned and were never seen as a problem.
Rail: Restoring balance in the art universe, right? In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the artists and curators due to represent Russia at the Art Biennale have voluntarily withdrawn from the event. It is a noble act of protest against war and aggression. However, when diplomacy and politicians fail, art represents an alternative platform that can be employed to promote dialogue and critical thinking. What is your stance on removing Russian artists from the cultural sphere- whether in the form of resignation or dismissal?
Alemani: It is a highly complex situation. I could not imagine the Russian pavilion taking place under the current conditions, as most Russian artists would not want to be remembered as the artists who represented Russia in 2022. The national pavilions in Venice are representations of the government; this makes it a very institutional exhibition. It cannot be compared to mere participation in a regular show; as an artist, you are representing your country. I would’ve maybe liked to see the Russian pavilion regardless of the context, but in the end, it is not our decision. I respect both the curator of the Russian pavilion, Raimundas Malaauskas, and the Russian artists that were to be exhibited.1
In general, and especially in America in recent years, we can observe a callous and quick response—a cancel response—to Russian culture. The climate is polarized, and the answer is always black and white. Perhaps now is the right time for mediation and finding the “gray” space? I do not think we should expel all of the Russians who have or have not voiced their dissent, as we must remember that this act often cannot be easily or safely realized in Russia.
My opinion is that I would not want to cancel or remove artists. I have a Russian artist in the show, and she will remain in the exhibition; her life has not been particularly easy during the last couple of months either. I hope that culture and art will continue as a platform for discussions, however tough these discussions may be. As my friend András Szántó said in an interview: “Once you close the door to exhibiting Russian artists, when will you reopen this door?” Why are artists the ones to suffer?
Rail: In 2017, you were the curator of the Italian national Pavilion, the largest Pavilion on site. In 2022, you are the curator of the Art Biennale in its entirety. How did the first experience prepare you for the demanding task of organizing the world’s most extensive exhibition?
Alemani: First of all, I felt lucky because it gave me the privilege to work with the same team. The Italian Pavilion is the only pavilion produced by the Venice Biennale team, while every other pavilion is organized by its respective country. Preparing the Italian Pavilion meant that I knew the team, and I had a taste of what it means to organize and present art in colossal spaces that are different but still part of the same large complex. It is a very long exhibition that lasts seven months, and people tend to focus on the opening. But what is most exciting to me is how many people will come throughout the months and the show's duration, people with whom we can engage after the opening.
Rail: You mentioned previously that states are very much involved in the direction of the national pavilions. In realizing your creative vision, which of the two curatorial tasks, one being the Italian pavilion, and the second being the Venice Art Biennale as a whole, required more cooperation with relevant stakeholders? In which of the two did you have more freedom?
Alemani: To be fully honest, I had much freedom in both. I had plenty of freedom in this exhibition. I was not subjected to any pressure whatsoever, as the Biennale is known and proud of giving the Director complete artistic and creative freedom. In the Italian Pavilion, you deal primarily with the Italian cultural minister, but I have been trusted completely. I felt that I was at ease and doing what I wanted in both cases.
Rail: Cameroon has inaugurated its first participation at the Venice Art Biennale by exhibiting NFTs (non-fungible tokens) at its national Pavilion. The appearance of the NFT at the Biennale represents validation and endorsement for the medium. What do you think about the contemporary turn towards crypto art? Can we expect a higher presence of NFT art at future Biennales?
Alemani: I must confess I have not seen the Cameroon Pavilion yet, so I do not know what it looks like. Personally, I am not particularly savvy about NFTs. The technology behind NFTs, like the blockchain, added an essential layer to our comprehension of how art is exchanged, how museums acquire art, and how collections are built. However, when it comes to the appearance of the NFTs, I always have a hard time understanding them. It is not a new technology, and it has not revolutionized the art world in the same way as, for example, photography, which allowed for the creation of incredible new art.
The physical appearance of an NFT is very underwhelming, and I am not quite sure how you exhibit one. As a curator, I am not necessarily excited by this phenomenon, as it is driven by speculation. To summarize , whilst I think that the technology on the blockchain is revolutionary, the manifestation of the NFTs itself is not. But I am sure you will use this quote in 10 years when the only thing left of our art world will be NFTs, and I will be contradicted (laughs).
Rail: I hope not! Since its founding in 1895, the Venice Biennale has been canceled only four times- twice during each World War. In 2021, it was postponed by a year due to the public health situation. In retrospect, do you agree with the decision of the Biennale’s postponement and preserving its status quo, or did the Biennale potentially miss an opportunity to adapt its format to the crisis and perhaps define a new direction for its future?
Alemani: The Art Biennale was postponed from 2020 until 2021—it was supposed to be the Venice Biennale of Architecture. It was not my decision, but I am sure that if that decision was made, it was because an exhibition of this scale could not have happened otherwise, and there were simply no alternatives. However, what we did as an alternative, which was the positive outcome of the crisis, was an exhibition we organized titled “The Disquieted Muses,” in the central pavilion that was left empty.
It was an exhibition that told the history of the Venice Biennale by using the historical archives of La Biennale. We were able to retrace the story of the Biennale as it intersected with key historical moments during the 20th century, particularly during the moments of crisis. Amongst the historical moments which came knocking at the Biennale’s door were the Second World War, the 19682 events, the 1970s3… The show was very rich in documents, and it was the first time that the six directors of different Biennale departments4 collaborated. It was an immense, multidisciplinary exhibition that could not have happened had it not been for the pandemic.
Rail: Fascinating. The 2022 edition of the Art Biennale is very environmentally conscious—it places the Earth and humans’ relation to it at the heart of the Biennale conversation. In your official statement, you have indicated sub-questions that underpin and further develop this year’s theme; among them is “what are our responsibilities towards the planet?”. The shipment and installation of temporary and bespoke art installations oftentimes leave behind a high carbon footprint. How can we ensure a more sustainable future for the Biennale?
Alemani: The Biennale as the institution has started reconciling this contradiction and addressing sustainability in various ways, such as reducing the carbon footprint or amending materials used for the show. The positive results of the shift towards sustainability can already be observed: the sheetrock used at the Biennale is 95% recycled and will be recycled, whereas every bid that we use for contractors, such as the catalogues, has an addendum that matches the green policy.
Of course, we are conscious that the Biennale is a giant institution which has been around for many years, and it will take many more years to adapt it to the green agenda fully. Interestingly enough, the most polluting aspect of the Biennale is us, the audience, coming to Venice to see it. That is why, upon arrival in Venice during the Biennale, you are required to fill out a document where you state the purpose of your travels, where you are coming from, and your mode of transportation (plane, boat, train or car). The data collection will give us a greater comprehension of how to adapt the Biennale to match the sustainability goals.
- Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savachenko
- The 1968 Venice protests
- The Vietnam War and the protest movement
- Art (Cecilia Alemani) , Architecture (Hashim Sarkis), Cinema (Alberto Barbera) , Dance (Marie Chouinard), Music (Ivan Fedele) and Theatre (Antonio Latella).