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At the Venice Biennale, Art Begins to Leave Identity Politics Behind

By James Tarmy

Things quickly get weird when you step inside the 19,000-square-foot Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The installation by artist Gian Maria Tosatti has no obvious wall text, signs, or directions. There’s nothing to indicate how to walk through the chilly, fluorescent-lit rooms made to look like abandoned factories and sweatshops, with rows of desks and sewing machines. At the end you can walk—very tentatively—onto what appears to be a concrete pier surrounded by water in an almost pitch-black room.

It’s a nod to industrial decline and climate change that the artist intended to discomfit and unnerve. “When the curator asked me to do the Italian Pavilion, he asked me to make work around a statement about our future,” Tosatti says. “We had to create some sort of mirror that could show everyone what we are today—the ashes of a broken dream, a dream we had about a future, or a present, that isn’t sustainable.” He points to the pandemic, environmental degradation, and the war in Ukraine. “Now it’s all collapsed,” he says, “so what are we going to do about it?”

Every two years massive crowds form at the must-see installations of the Venice Biennale, widely considered the most important art show in the world. After a one-year delay because of Covid-19, excitement for the 59th edition, which opened in April, was even higher.

Related: The War in Ukraine Has Seeped Into Venice’s Glamorous Art Biennale

Fueled by word of mouth, lines snake outside the cluster of 30-odd pavilions in the city’s Giardini, a park at its southeastern tip, and in the Arsenale, a huge exhibition space inside a former shipbuilding factory. The longest waits are outside the Italian Pavilion; the French Pavilion, which features stage sets, videos, and performances created by the artist Zineb Sedira; and the Greek Pavilion, where audiences view a contemporary adaptation of the Oedipus story on virtual-reality headsets.

This year a preoccupation with humanity’s future seems surprisingly widespread among the works. That’s no small feat given that the 80 national pavilions, the enormous central exhibition containing work by 213 artists curated by Cecilia Alemani, and hundreds of satellite exhibitions spread across the city are all planned with little to no coordination.

And yet at the Giardini’s edge, here was the Estonian Pavilion, which nods to ecological destruction and colonialism; the Korean Pavilion, focused on our technological future; the Chilean Pavilion, arguing for peatland conservation as a way to fight climate change. “It’s the artist’s job to disappear,” Tosatti says. “And I would say the artist isn’t even the creator of the work—the artist is just a translator of the zeitgeist.”

This year, it seems, artists are looking beyond the market-driven contemporary art world’s main preoccupation for the past decade: identity politics, manifested most visibly in the form of figurative painting by artists of color.

This is a substantial change from the status quo. Visit exhibitions in London or Paris or New York, and you’ll see variations on a theme: images of the artist, or her friends, or even fictional characters, rendered in styles ranging from photorealist to nearly abstract. Amy Sherald, who rose to fame as the portraitist of Michelle Obama, depicts elegant Black subjects, usually in stark lines against a monochrome background. Salman Toor, whose small show at the Whitney last year attracted outsize interest, paints scenes of queer Brown youths in a style reminiscent of the French rococo.

Prior to this movement, the vast category of work by non-White artists was neglected in favor of art created by White men. So the simple act of showing portraiture by these artists on museum walls—displaying non-White bodies—can be considered a political act. “I paint because I am looking for versions of myself in art history and in the world,” Sherald is quoted as saying in the exhibition text of a recent gallery show. Toor has expressed similar sentiments. “I see myself as part of a multiethnic generation of painters in the US who are taking on art history to update, critique, and tweak it, to write ourselves into its rich story,” he said in a recent Q&A in Bomb.

After belatedly realizing what they’d been missing for centuries, museums and collectors have rushed to correct this omission. In 2018, for instance, the Baltimore Museum of Art sold seven major works by Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Franz Kline, and other artists and used the funds to buy pieces by artists of color.

“The BMA has increased its already strong holdings of contemporary works by women and artists of color,” it said in a statement at the time. The works, spanning a range of media, “demonstrate the museum’s ongoing commitment to expanding the narrative of art history through the representation of diverse artists.”

Other museums that have explicitly ramped up their acquisitions of Black art include LACMA in Los Angeles, MoMA in New York, and the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

The art market has responded accordingly, pushing prices for figurative painting through the stratosphere. At this spring’s marquee auctions in New York, Sotheby’s has figurative paintings from Kerry James Marshall (estimate for his 1993 painting Beauty Examined: $8 million to $12 million); Lynette Yiadom-Boakye ($1.2 million to $1.8 million for the 2011 painting 11pm Sunday); and Amoako Boafo. Christie’s had its own Boafo, along with works by Matthew Wong and other in-demand figurative painters.

The exhibitions in Venice, however, reveal an art world entering a new phase. It’s not that the artists aren’t from diverse backgrounds, and it’s not that their art isn’t political. Much of it still addresses identity. But participants say identity politics are no longer the point.

Instead they’re trying to tell other stories. “I didn’t want to do a show about women artists,” says Alemani, who included just 21 men in her 213-artist exhibition, titled “The Milk of Dreams.”

Broken into two venues—the Central Pavilion in the Giardini and the Arsenale’s main exhibition halls—the show is a striking meditation on human potential in the age of the machine. Works include a massive maze filled with packed, pungent soil by the artist Delcy Morelos, which is intended to force visitors to reckon with nature, and slick metal and silicone sculptures by Hannah Levy that look like surreal medical devices. “I just want to do a good show that happens to be made by women artists,” Alemani says.

The creators, in other words, matter far less than the art and the message. “I feel like the ego has been a bit removed,” says Audur Jorundsdottir, director of Iceland Arts Center, which commissioned the Icelandic Pavilion’s 20-foot-high video of drifting metallic dust by the artist Sigurdur Gudjonsson. Along with a sound installation, it’s intended to lull visitors into a meditative state. “Maybe it’s a new way of presenting, but it’s maybe also because it’s a female-focused Biennale.”

Or maybe, multiple artists say, it’s simply because they have other things they’d like to talk about. “I think one of the loudest things we can do is to say, ‘This is my place, and this is my territory, don’t touch it,’ ” says Shubigi Rao, a Mumbai-born, Singapore-based artist who filled this year’s Singapore Pavilion with an installation containing her project Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book. “And I’m really tired of that heightened volume.”

Rao has devoted much of the past decade to documenting how knowledge is controlled and disseminated. “This project is ostensibly about book and library destruction and cultural genocide, forms of silencing, erasure, etc.,” she says. “But in reality it’s me trying to understand our species’ propensity for violence in every form.” Rao keeps herself out of the frame, she says, because she’s looking outward, not in. “I’m not particularly interested in myself,” she says. “I’d rather find my place in the world and my responsibilities to it.”

The Moving, Must-See Art Exhibitions of the 2022 Venice Biennale

Anselm Kiefer at the Doge’s PalaceEven self-professed haters of Kiefer’s work can’t dismiss this colossal installation—panels are 18 feet tall—set within Venice’s ornate former center of government. Painted in seven parts and commissioned to celebrate the 1,600th anniversary of the Republic’s founding, they overwhelm visitors with their lush, pulsing depictions of violence, war, and devastation. Titled These Writings, When Burned, Will Finally Cast a Little Light, the paintings were created in 2020‑21. But they’ve taken on an unexpected visual and symbolic resonance as they echo images from the war in Ukraine. Through Oct. 29

“The Milk of Dreams”The biggest exhibition at the Venice Biennale, divided between the Central Pavilion in the Giardini and the Arsenale, would be hard to miss even if you tried. Carve out most of a day to soak it all in. Curator Cecilia Alemani has managed to inject young voices into the contemporary conversation while also including historic “capsule” rooms in the show that feature very good, but overlooked, artists from the last century. They’ll dazzle even the most jaded visitor. Through Nov. 27

“Uncombed, Unforeseen, Unconstrained” at the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto MarcelloThis group show organized by the not-for-profit foundation Parasol Unit features 11 artists inside the exquisite Palazzo Pisani, a private mansion-turned-music conservatory. Visitors can hear the distant sound of classical music wafting through its courtyards and grand rooms as they peruse installations by artists including Martin Puryear and Teresa Margolles. An official collateral event of the Biennale, it’s worth the 20-minute detour. Through Nov. 27

Danh Vo, Isamu Noguchi, and Park Seo-Bo at Fondazione Querini Stampalia Conceptual artist Danh Vo has curated an extraordinarily elegant show featuring his own photography alongside the work of deceased American sculptor Isamu Noguchi and nonagenarian Korean modernist painter Park Seo-Bo. Noguchi’s famous Akari light sculptures are shown in clusters alongside the house’s ornate furnishings, while Park’s “ecriture” paintings, where he’s run a pencil through wet paint, serve as a counterpoint to the existing frescoes and sculptures of the 17th century palazzo. Through Nov. 27

Kehinde Wiley at the Fondazione Giorgio CiniThe word “monumental” has been overused so much it’s almost meaningless. But Wiley, known for his paintings, has created bronze sculptures that depict young Black men and women who are dead or dying—some seemingly shot, others prone in a cryptlike state. Massive, exquisitely rendered, and weighted with significance, the work proves both of the moment and transcendent of it. Through July 24

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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