VENICE — It begins within the eyes: shy or seductive, gaping or sealed shut, aqueous frontiers between the thoughts and the world. There are the pupils of the German surrealist Unica Zürn, cohering out of dense, automated black squiggles. The enormous irises of Ulla Wiggen, every distinctive as a fingerprint and able to unlocking a bank card or blocking passage throughout a border, painted in close-up on circular canvases. Throughout city, on palazzo-side posters and the hulls of the vaporetti, there are eyes saying the 59th Venice Biennale: ghostly, milky corneas, drawn by the younger Mexican artist Felipe Baeza, disembodied, floating in deep area.

It’s a commonplace (and one you gained’t catch me utilizing) to name an artwork exhibition, particularly one as massive as Venice’s, a “feast for the eyes.” The 2022 Biennale, or a minimum of its central exhibition, is a feast of the eyes: an enormous, high-spirited banquet of trying and scrutinizing. Eyes emerge as the important thing metaphor of a present that’s all about bridging realms — the mind and the social community, the dream and the ecosystem. The eyes right here in Venice are portals to the unconscious but additionally analyzers of misrule. They stare out from work, bulge from movies, and now and again (as in Simone Leigh’s bronze totem “Brick House”) clamp closed. We could also be on show, however we’re trying again, or trying inward.

This 12 months’s version of the world’s oldest and most vital modern artwork exhibition has been organized with triumphant precision by the New York-based Italian curator Cecilia Alemani, who’s mounted a significant present in difficult circumstances: canceled studio visits, choked transport routes, galloping insurance coverage prices and, now, a land conflict 900 miles from the lagoon. Alemani’s exhibition, titled “The Milk of Desires,” was meant to open in Might 2021. The coronavirus pandemic pushed each this present and Venice’s architecture biennial again a 12 months, and she or he’s made excellent use of the delay.

Her challenges weren’t solely logistical. For some time I’ve felt that biennial exhibitions of latest artwork could have run their course. No coherent new fashion or motion will probably be rising from our perpetually imitative current, and in case you go to this 12 months’s largely appalling national pavilions (the opposite half of the Venice Biennale, over which Alemani has no management), you’ll see what slim pickings modern artwork is providing up. So the curator and her crew used their further 12 months to dip into the archives — in 2020 Alemani co-curated an exhibition on the Biennale’s first 100 years — and established a Twentieth-century lineage, notably by way of Surrealist and feminist traditions, for the themes of this present.

One in every of these Surrealist and feminist themes is that our bodies and applied sciences can’t be cleanly cleaved aside. Nature and society are all the time reshaping one another — greater than ever in time of local weather disaster — and on this present machines act like animals, our bodies twitch like robots, flesh merges with prostheses, and metals and plastics maintain drooping, leaking, melting.

One other theme is a reenchantment of our spiritless world to arrest the political and ecological crises that empire and patriarchy have reportedly consigned to us. If trendy life stripped the divinity out of Venice’s altarpieces, and made artwork appreciation a secular enterprise, this present needs to show the gondola again round. So put together for a biennial chockablock with spirits and shamans, mutations and metamorphoses, the place the world we dwell in — for higher, for worse; in magnificence and in kitsch — repeatedly takes a again seat to worlds past.

Junkies of current continental and feminist philosophy will acknowledge the temper music: Rosi Braidotti’s theories of the posthuman, Silvia Federici’s analyses of witch-hunting as gendered violence. And but: When too many biennials let the labels do the theoretical heavy lifting, Alemani’s alternatives are strongly opinionated and deftly chosen (although not with out following some current fashions: Indigenous cosmologies; weaving as metaphor for pc algorithm; two complete rooms full of piles of dust). They embody contributors from throughout, notably Latin America, and by no means decline into the tokenism that afflicts so many European and American museums.

The present is heavy on portray — return of the repressed, child! — and, regardless of its posthuman inquiries, gentle on new media. It has frequent surprises and moments of beautiful unhealthy style, comparable to a sculptural suite by Raphaela Vogel of a cancerous penis on wheels paraded by 10 cadaverous white giraffes. (You learn that proper.)

All this with out mentioning what, from a much less refined curator, could be the headline right here: that is the most important Biennale since 2005, and some 90 percent of its artists are girls. Simply 21 of the 213 contributors are males, and all are displaying within the Arsenale, Venice’s former shipyard; within the classical galleries of the Giardini, the variety of males is precisely zero. Elsewhere round Venice it’s nonetheless the previous sport, with concurrent exhibitions of Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Kehinde Wiley and different bombastic boys.

This Biennale would have been a failure if reversing the previous gender bias had been its mere endpoint. For Alemani, the exhibition’s disproportion has a way more exact goal: reconstituting the previous to allow us to see the current with keener eyes. She pulls this off primarily in 5 shows-within-the-show — historic parentheses that body her modern alternatives, every set off from the principle circulation through coloured partitions of dusty pink or robin’s egg blue. (The exhibition design this 12 months is by the young Italian firm Formafantasma, who’ve subdivided and tamed the Arsenale’s tough extensive areas.)

Within the mustard gallery of the mini-show “The Witch’s Cradle,” we meet girls artists who used masquerades or fantasias to evade or deconstruct male stereotypes. They embody the famend Surrealists Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini and Meret Oppenheim; Italians comparable to Benedetta, who redeployed Futurist drawing to new unconscious ends; and likewise many Black American girls, together with Josephine Baker, Augusta Savage and Laura Wheeler Waring, the final of whom drew Egyptian/Artwork Deco covers for W.E.B. Du Bois’s journal The Disaster. This metaphysical custom will get picked up at present by the Portuguese-British pastelist Paula Rego, who emerges as a star of this Biennale with a whole gallery of her fraught scenes of home violence, the place love and concern make people act like canine.

A second, delightful mini-show presents girls artists who examined the topologies of vessels, luggage, shells and containers: a beaded purse by Sophie Taueber-Arp, hanging nets by Ruth Asawa, punctured white plaster ellipses by Mária Bartuszová (eyes, eyes, eyes), and unimaginable papier-mâché fashions of the pregnant human uterus by Aletta Jacobs, a pioneering Nineteenth-century Dutch physician. (Let me add that, in literal phrases, that is the deadest biennial I’ve ever seen, with just below half the contributors within the grave.) The modern Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak, who paints hazy shapes that may be leaves, or breasts, or tear ducts, presents a gorgeous modern exploration of kinds with vague interiors and exteriors.

Prosthetics — human innovations that make human boundaries vague — are a associated leitmotif. I discovered myself engrossed right here within the lifetime of Anna Coleman Ladd (1878-1939), an American sculptor who used her classical coaching to craft gelatinous facial protheses, of latex and painted steel, for maimed World Struggle I veterans. That intertwining of flesh and know-how ripples by way of the sculptural works within the present: whether or not Hannah Levy’s drooping silicone on spidery metal legs, Julia Phillips’s bronze armature supporting a forged of an absent feminine physique, or Tishan Hsu’s resin hybrids of faces and cellphone screens. These are among the many present’s greatest works, although I want Alemani had gone all the best way and included Matthew Barney: grasp sculptor of prosthetic-grade plastics, whose consideration to permeable our bodies and fluid identities prefigures virtually all this present’s obsessions.

Then there’s the automated drawing and writing, séances, non secular channeling. We now have the Victorian mystic Georgiana Houghton speaking with the useless by way of tangled watercolors; the dense symmetrical fantasies of Minnie Evans, during which human eyes gaze out from butterfly wings. Mediums and religion healers. Spiraling vines, blossoming flowers. This all will get picked up, amongst modern artists, by Emma Talbot’s sentimental portray on material of starbursts and infants in amniotic fluid, Firelei Báez’s rebarbative murals of DayGlo Afrofuturist deities, or else beaded flags depicting animal-human hybrids by the Haitian artist Myrlande Constant. I clocked a minimum of three artists drawing vines and tendrils sprouting from nipples or genitalia.

How a lot you possibly can tolerate all this may rely by yourself explicit attunement to the music of the spheres. For my very own disenchanted half (and particularly as conflict rages), I’ve severe misgivings in regards to the escapism of this magical considering, as if, with just a bit extra respect for the divine female, every little thing will probably be all proper. You may’t take a break from modernity, not even in your goals — a lesson underscored on this Biennale by the quick-witted Inuk artist Shuvinai Ashoona, who attracts seals, whales and octopuses within the drab condo blocks and municipal buildings of the modern Indigenous Arctic. And essentially the most compelling initiatives in “The Milk of Desires” delve proper into the incompleteness and instability of the fashionable world, moderately than attempting to get again to the backyard.

Within the Giardini, Alemani has choreographed an excellent succession of 5 galleries that flip to gender and computing applied sciences, and the way artwork may reveal our algorithms’ powers and misapplications. They start with Wiggen’s new massive irises, in addition to unusual and interesting work she made within the Nineteen Sixties of networked circuits and motherboards. (The phrase “pc,” in spite of everything, referred initially to predominantly female clerical laborers.) Subsequent we encounter Italian feminine Op artists — Nanda Vigo, Grazia Varisco and 4 others — who put rational kinds to eye-bending ends.

After them come two incisive girls who reformatted drawing and portray for the pc age. One is Vera Molnár, who within the Seventies “drew” minimal compositions by outputting code to an early pc plotter (and who’s still working from a Paris nursing dwelling at 98). The opposite is Jacqueline Humphries, whose dense abstractions of halftone dots and emoticons reaffirm portray as a perfect medium of digital notion.

One of many artwork world’s favourite current catchphrases is “various data,” cribbed from anthropology and misapplied to absolutely anything that defies rational expectations. A dream could also be lovely, a dream could also be highly effective, however a dream isn’t any type of data in any respect. A greater form of “various data” is the data imparted by artwork, a minimum of at its most formidable: the pulse-racing perception into our human situation we all of the sudden understand when kinds exceed themselves and really feel like fact. One of the best artists on this decided, imbalanced, and correctly historic Biennale look proper at that human situation, with unclouded eyes.


59th Venice Biennale: The Milk of Desires
By Nov. 27; labiennale.org.