Back to the Biennale

Back to the Biennale

After a three-year break, the world-famous event returns for its 59th edition – and those with a connection to Venice can’t wait
After a three-year break, the world-famous event returns for its 59th edition – and those with a connection to Venice can’t wait
A man on a gondala on a Venetian canal
Photo: Stuart Milne

T he Biennale will represent the rebirth not only of Venice itself, but of the whole art world,” declares Toto Bergamo Rossi, director at Venetian Heritage. His statement is bullish, but it’s also reflective of the widespread optimism surrounding the return of the Venice Art Biennale exhibition, which after a year-long delay will open to the public on 23 April.

For the curator Cecilia Alemani, this prospect is “beyond exciting”. Unable to travel during the pandemic, this year’s edition was organised almost entirely from her New York apartment, via hundreds of Zoom calls. “It has been devastating,” she says. “I can’t wait to get back together, to look at art in a physical way. The relationship I’ve missed the most is with art.”

Emma Dexter, director of visual arts at the British Council, which runs the British pavilion at the event, feels the art-loving public are ready, too. She senses a “real hunger among audiences now to get out and about and see as much art as possible”.

For Venice itself the significance of these visitors cannot be overstated. As a city heavily dependent on its tourism economy, the impact of Covid-19 has been immense. According to the City Council’s tourism department, visitor numbers in 2020 dropped by 76% compared with 2019, and though figures for 2021 have yet to be released, the ongoing effect of the pandemic is plain to see. Around the streets, many shops sit empty and the shutters of some rental properties have been closed for months.

“The return of the Biennale means first and foremost the return of artists; the energy and magic they bring with them will flood back into the city”

For some Venetians the absence of mass tourism has been a mixed blessing. Servane Giol, author of Soul of Venice, describes the experience of living in the crowd-free city during the pandemic as “total magic”, but acknowledges that many businesses “suffered intensely”. She adds that for the hospitality industry in particular, the return of the Biennale will be fundamental.

Remedios Varo, Simpatía (La rabia del gato), 1955 (detail) © Artists Rights Society

At The Gritti Palace, which will be Sotheby’s headquarters during the vernissage, General Manager Paolo Lorenzoni is feeling encouraged – the hotel has been sold out for over a year for the preview period, with more enquiries than ever for the following months. Raffaele Alajmo, chief executive of Alajmo restaurant group, is also upbeat, describing the Biennale as a vital injection of “pure energy” for Venice.

A portrait of two people in Venice
Venice Biennale president Roberto Cicutto with this year’s curator Cecilia Alemani. Photo: Andrea Avezzu. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

At museums, preparations are under way for a slew of exhibitions, which directors hope will pull in the crowds. Highlights include Marlene Dumas: Open-End, at Palazzo Grassi, and a site-specific installation by Anselm Kiefer at the Doge’s Palace. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection will present Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity, and director Karole Vail says: “There’s no doubt that having the Biennale back is exciting for us, and for the city, as it means the art world will, we presume, be coming in droves.”

She refers to the event’s broader impact, too, saying she hopes Alemani’s edition, which focuses in part on our relationship to nature, will encourage “an appreciation of a wider range of artists, different ideas and, above all, really serious thought about our environmental footprint”.

Dealer Victoria Miro, whose Venice gallery will present an exhibition by Paula Rego, welcomes the influx of collectors, but the importance of the Biennale is “first and foremost the return of artists; the energy and magic they bring with them will flood back into the city”.

A portrait of a woman with her mouth open
Marlene Dumas, Mamma Roma, 2012

© Marlene Dumas

Within Miro’s roster of artists is Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, who was selected to take part in the 2021 Biennale College Arte for emerging artists. She was subsequently awarded a grant of €25,000 to produce a work that will be included in Alemani’s International Exhibition. Contemplating the time she’s spent working in Venice over the past months, Hwami says: “Having experienced the city in its skeleton form, ghostly and mostly quiet, I look forward to seeing it come to life.”

Alma Zevi, whose art agency and consultancy Paterson Zevi has offices in London and Venice, is also excited at the thought of seeing the city buzzing with life again. She notes that after its three-year hiatus the Biennale will represent “a key moment to reconnect” with friends and professionals from across the art industry.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” says Nathan Clements-Gillespie, director at Frieze Masters: “As one of the first major international art world events [the Biennale] brings people together from all across the world – everyone goes to Venice.”

The Gaggiandre, one of the Biennale venues. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

In her curatorial statement, Alemani reflects on what role the International Art Exhibition should play at this historical juncture. “The simplest, most sincere answer I could find is that the Biennale sums up all the things we have so sorely missed in the past two years: the freedom to meet people from all over the world, the possibility of travel, the joy of spending time together, the practice of difference, translation, incomprehension and communion,” she says.

Will it represent the rebirth that Bergamo Rossi and others foresee, I ask? Alemani replies with a laugh: “We can certainly hope.”

Must-See Pavillions

T he title of the 59th Venice Art Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, comes from a children’s book by Leonora Carrington. In it, the Surrealist artist evokes what curator Cecilia Alemani describes as “a magical universe inhabited by creatures that can change and be transformed, shifting between human, animal and machine”. Drawing inspiration from Carrington’s imaginary world, this year’s edition has three principal themes: the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses; the connection between bodies and the earth; and the relationship between individuals and technologies. The event will feature 81 national pavilions alongside the International Exhibition, which will present almost 1,500 works by 213 artists – the vast majority of whom are female or gender nonconforming and including many who are participating in the Biennale for the first time. Interspersed with contemporary works will be five “time capsules” displaying unseen and historic works and objects. Alemani says: “It was important for me to focus on those voices and stories that have been for too long considered minor or put aside.”

Pauliina Feodoroff. Photo: Marta Buso/OCA


This year the Nordic Pavilion is changing its name to the Sámi Pavilion in recognition of the region’s indigenous population, the first time an indigenous nation has taken over a national pavilion at the Biennale. Three Sámi artists – Pauliina Feodoroff (pictured), Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna – will present installations that combine painting, sculpture, video and performance with the smells and sounds of the tundra. Co-curator Katya García-Antón says: “[They are] leaders of their generation; their art expresses their daily activism to defend the Sámi way of life, their reindeer, forests, rivers and lands from colonialism and climate change, as well as a manifesto of hope in their people’s capacity to build a sustainable future.”

Nana Opoku (Afroscope), Dreamer Series, 2021. © Nana Opoku


The Ghana Pavilion will present Black Star - The Museum as Freedom, referencing the black star in the centre of the Ghanaian flag, which acts as a symbol of liberation from colonialism. Designed by architect DK Osseo-Asare, the pavilion will feature large-scale immersive works by young artists Na Chainkua Reindorf, Afroscope and Diego Araúja, who, according to curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim, “use historical imperatives to create all new visions of the world, by drawing on mythology, infusing technology with spirit, and creating new creole languages not born of separation, trauma or pain”.

Sonia Boyce. Photo: Sarah Weal


Sonia Boyce’s exhibition will feature a multi-media installation involving video, sound, wallpaper and sculptural objects. It will draw on the highly collaborative practice Boyce is renowned for: she often invites participants to come together and speak, sing or move as forms of response to the past or present. By depicting these social encounters she explores the dynamics between people, often focusing on gestures. In doing so she shows the importance of intuitive risk-taking in leading to artistic innovation. Emma Dexter, director of visual arts at the British Council and commissioner of the pavilion, says: “Boyce’s work celebrates overcoming difference and division through creative collaboration and dialogue – now needed more than ever in these challenging times.”

Simone Leigh, 2021. Artworks © Simone Leigh. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo credit: Shaniqwa Jarvis


Featuring a new body of work by American sculptor Simone Leigh, this will be “the first time the US Pavilion is dedicated entirely to the experiences and contributions of Black women,” according to curator Eva Respini. The exhibition will draw on artistic traditions from within Africa and the African diaspora and merge disparate narratives, featuring monumental figurative sculptures in bronze, as well as work in Leigh’s signature materials – ceramic and raffia. In October, Leigh will convene scholars, performers, writers and artists from around the world for Loophole of Retreat: Venice, which will, Respini says, “mark the pinnacle of this historic project”.

Venice Art Biennale 2022 The Milk of Dreams runs from 23 April to 27 November

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