Our guide to the 59th Venice Biennale

This first edition of the Venice Biennale since the pandemic is a true success. Curated by American critic Cecilia Alemani, it is an ode to beauty with accessible exhibitions enjoyable for both art professionals and newcomers. And yet, the theme is not an easy one this year: it is about how the definition of the human is changing with all its implications. The artists selected for the Biennale answered this difficult question with an outstanding selection of works, from trending figurative paintings to monumental sculptures and more conceptual installations. It is a very balanced edition overall and one of which we enjoyed the most. To guide you through it, we prepared you a little guide of the best things to see at the 59th Venice Biennale.



1) The main exhibition


Simone Leigh's monumental sculpture at the Arsenale

This year, the main exhibition of the Venice Biennale has a very ambitious theme. The show curated by American critic Cecilia Alemani is named after the title from a book by Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington: The Milk of Dreams. The author describes a fictional world where her characters have the power to change radically and turn into new forms of life thanks to the power of imagination. Loyal to Carrington’s work, the curator built the exhibition on the two following questions: “How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human?”.


Alemani has gathered 213 artists to bring new answers to these old questions. Among them is an unprecedented number of female and non-binary artists, whose presence at the show is a “challenge to the figure of men as the center of the universe” according to the curator herself. Furthermore, the numerous conversations she had with the participating artists led her to define three main themes for the exhibition: “The representation of bodies and their metamorphosis”, “The relationship between individuals and technologies,” and “The connection between bodies and earth”.


Louise Bonnet's piss triptych

The artists took the brief very seriously this year, as the body—whether human or mutant—is at the center of the exhibition, especially at the Arsenale. For instance, the first room of the Venetian building is occupied by a monumental bronze sculpture by Simon Leigh. It belongs to a series called Anatomy of Architecture which combines black women faces and bodies whose shapes are inspired by architectural elements. In this work, the woman’s chest in molded after a traditional African house—a way for the artist to symbolize the fetishizing of black women while asserting the need for a better representation in society.

Tau Lewis's tribal mask

A few other artists worked on the theme of body transformations such as Jaider Esbell, whose colorful paintings represent hybrid figures that stand halfway between figuration and abstraction, using ethnic motives and patterns. Mendes Wood artist Solange Pessoa explored a similar subject through a series of monochromatic humanoid portraits painted in black.


Further in the exhibition, the American painter Louise Bonnet exhibited her monumental “Piss Triptych” specially conceived for the occasion. It features her trademark distorted female bodies caught in the act of peeing—a way for the artist to show the ambivalent aspects of body fluids, which have the power to both pollute and fertilize the outside environment.


The last piece we enjoyed the most on the first theme of body metamorphosis is a giant ethnic mask by Canadian artist Tau Lewis. The latter worked with hand-stitched textile to create this sacred artifact inspired by the Yorubas, a famous Nigerian tribe. The artist explored the transformative aspect of this material which can be turned into mythical figures thanks to the creative power of imagination.


Barbara Kruger's installation

Last but not least, apart from the Arsenale, we were stunned by the three first rooms of the central pavilion of the Giardini. In the first one, the curator tastefully combined a series of monochromatic tapestries by Rosemarie Trockel with a group of beautiful rock crystal sculptures representing strange humanoid creatures by Andra Ursuta. The two other rooms are filled with beautiful paintings by two of the young artists we love the most: Jadé Fadojutimi and Christina Quarles. In the second room, we saw a sef monumental canvases by Fadojutimi followed by a selection of horizontal works—some of the best we ever saw—by Quarles in the third room.om.m.

The second theme of the show—although less represented throughout the exhibition—is about the relationship between humans and technologies. The most outstanding work on the subject is undoubtedly Barbara Kruger’s installation. The artist covered the surface of an entire room with negative slogans aimed at creating confusion in the viewer’s mind. A video footage as well as an audio recording completes the installation and creates an immersive experience that can be interpreted as a criticism of the information industry, which continuously transmits contradictory injunctions. It is symbolized by slogans such as “PLEASE CARE” or “PLEASE MOURN”, written with the artist’s now famous Helvetica Ultra Condensed font.

Marguerite Humeau's installation

Not far from Kruger’s room, the French sculptor and conceptual artist Marguerite Humeau worked on three sculptures inspired by both ancient archeological sea fossils and technology. These three pieces were made using a 3D software and represent the hypothetical migration of a sea creatures towards land. Through the use of technology, Humeau was able to represent what could be one of the most important moment in the history of evolution, which would eventually lead to the birth of mankind a few hundred million years later.


One of Felipe Baeza's paintings

The last important theme of the show is about the connection between bodies and earth. One of the most impacting visual transcription of this subject is undoubtedly Felipe Baeza’s series of paintings representing human bodies with tree branches. This metaphoric image translates the artist’s vision of humanity as a bridge towards new forms of life rather than a fixed model. It also emphasizes Baeza’s strong relationship with natural environments, which are prevalent in his Mexican heritage.


Los Angeles-based painter Roberto Gil de Montes has another interesting viewpoint on the same theme. The Mexican-born artist made five canvases exhibited at the Biennale which represent queer men in aquatic environments—at see or in a river for instance. His works are full of references to pre-Columbian cultures—with a close link to nature— and revisit classical paintings such as Botticcelli’s Birth of Venus with a queer perspective.


A series of sculptures by Andra Ursuta in front of Rosemarie Trockel's tapestries

Last but not least, apart from the Arsenale, we were stunned by the three first rooms of the central pavilion of the Giardini. In the first one, the curator tastefully combined a series of monochromatic tapestries by Rosemarie Trockel with a group of beautiful rock crystal sculptures representing strange humanoid creatures by Andra Ursuta. The two other rooms are filled with beautiful paintings by two of the young artists we love the most: Jadé Fadojutimi and Christina Quarles. In the second room, we saw a set monumental canvases by Fadojutimi followed by a selection of horizontal works—some of the best we ever saw—by Quarles in the third room.


Visitors in front of a new painting by Christina Quarles

Last but not least, apart from the Arsenale, we were stunned by the three first rooms of the central pavilion of the Giardini. In the first one, the curator tastefully combined a series of monochromatic tapestries by Rosemarie Trockel with a group of beautiful rock crystal sculptures representing strange humanoid creatures by Andra Ursuta. The two other rooms are filled with beautiful paintings by two of the young artists we love the most: Jadé Fadojutimi and Christina Quarles. In the second room, we saw a set monumental canvases by Fadojutimi followed by a selection of horizontal works—some of the best we ever saw—by Quarles in the third room.


2) The pavilions


Among the national pavillons we visited, at the biennale, four particularly drew our attention. The first one was Francis Alÿs’s take on the Belgian pavilion, which was based on a series of videos of children games. The artist had recorded young people playing all around the world—from Mexico to Afghanistan—for the last twenty years prior to the Biennale. The result is a very touching installation showing the universality of innocence despite the cultural gaps that separate these children. It was completed by a series of painting with a delicate touch, representing young people in a blurry atmosphere.



It was impossible for us to talk about the Biennale without mentioning Simone Leigh’s work in the American pavilion, which was conceived as a sculptural ode to African women workers. Her pieces feature a wide range of materials, such as bronze, steel or ceramics, and span from figurative works to abstract ones. Much as her monumental sculptures at the Arsenale, the pieces presented at the American pavilion tackles current issues such as the perception of black women both in American cultural and on a global scale. By the way, Simone Leigh was awarded the Golden Lion of the best participant for her contribution to the Arsenale exhibition. Not bad for the first African American woman ever to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale!


The third pavilion we enjoyed the most was the Hungarian one, which is represented by sculptor Zsófia Keresztes. The latter produced four sculptures for the occasion on the theme of the search for identity. They deal with how we need others to develop as human beings while constantly being hurt in our relationships with them. This paradox, which was defined as the “porcupine dilemma“ by German philosopher Schopenhauer, is at the center of the exhibition, as well as a novel by Hungarian author Antal Szerb which tells the story of a man who rediscovers old mosaics in Venice. As a matter of fact, Keresztes’s colorful organic shapes, which stand halfway between figuration and abstraction, are covered with glass mosaics. We were truly amazed by these profoundly original works.




The high-tech snake from the Korean pavilion

Last but not least, Korean digital artist Yunchul Kim created a gigantic installation based on five kinetic sculptures. The most talked-about piece of the exhibition is a 50-meter-long snake comprised of 382 joints, which were made with a special substance conceived by the artist’s studio—laminate polymers. This material has the ability to change over time and deform itself, thus creating outstanding color transformations. One of the other pieces is called “The Swollen Suns”. It features 246 Geiger-Muller tubes, which are able to detect invisible particles called “muons” and send the information to the other pieces of the exhibition, especially the snake, which moves when it receives it. This high-tech exhibition was both aesthetically and conceptually stunning and attracted a lot of visitors to the Korean pavilion.


Aside from these four gems, we had to talk about the winning pavilion which was created by British artist Sonia Boyce. To do so, she recorded five black female musicians who were told to improvise with their voices. Their performances are presented through digital screens and speakers within a beautiful room decorated with Boyce’s trademark geometrical patterns and golden structures. The random combination of their voices creates an outstanding sonic environment with rich—and sometimes dissonant—harmonies. The goal for Boyce is to celebrate black women artists and their contribution to global culture.


Sonia Boyce's award-winning installation at the British pavilion

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