Interested in becoming a member?

The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places

The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places | Soho House

After a year-long hiatus, the art world’s biggest and oldest exhibition returns to the lagoon city – along with the parties (and a lot of walking)

Saturday 30 April 2022 By Osman Can Yerebakan

‘Visiting the Venice Biennale is about missing out as much as showing up,’ I convince myself on a brutally early morning at Marco Polo Airport. Even for the most seasoned art-goer, attending all of the exhibitions packed into the vernissage of the world’s most-celebrated art affair is gloriously unfeasible. After four days of seeing, registering and internalising, the way back home requires pacing down on the process: a recalibration of sorts.

The biennial fatigue is fated, given its 59th edition is mammoth in scale and ambition, with its main exhibition – organised by New York’s High Line curator Cecilia Alemani – joined by surrounding national pavilions and collateral exhibitions positioned in palazzos across the city’s lagoons. This past week, the who’s who of the art world boated to La Serenissima for a first look at the fair, topping off the daily marathon with goblets of Aperol Spritz on the Grand Canal.

Alemani’s show, The Milk Of Dreams, does justice to the fact that she is the first Italian woman curator to helm what many call the ‘Olympics of the art world’ – in her 218-artist roster, 90% are women, most of whom are either quite young or are enjoying a late-career bloom.

Referencing the early 20th century Surrealism art movement, and its poignancy today in the face of social and environmental collapse, the art is feminine, introspective, bodily, and of the unconscious. Status quo is also shattered in some of the pavilions, like the US, which handed its platform to a Black woman artist, Simone Leigh, for the first time – as did the UK with Sonia Boyce.

The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places | Soho House

At the start of the week, artists and curators were given an opportunity to flex their muscles. The main show and the pavilions are divided between the Arsenale, an 11th century armory with an industrial labyrinthine atmosphere, and the Giardini, which houses art amid trees and the vistas of the Venetian sea. At the latter, the long lines in front of the French, Canadian and UK pavilions seemed intertwined. I notice the extended queue to enter Boyce’s mixed media installation of collaged wallpaper, golden-coloured geometric sculptures, and videos of five British women singers of colour, such as Tanita Tikaram or Poppy Ajudha, singing improvised songs.

The Canadian pavilion stages Stan Douglas’s large-scale energetic photographs of protest from London, Tunisia and New York, shot in a cinematic crispness that renders images of turmoil in both glory and chaos. At the Israeli pavilion, Ilit Azoulay starts her intervention by feminising Zeev Rechter’s masculine Bauhaus-inspired building. The artist’s addition of round edges and velvet surfaces in the space continues with her photo montages of Islamic medieval metal vessels that all currently sit in western art collections.

The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places | Soho House
The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places | Soho House
The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places | Soho House

Veering away from the Giardini, the narrow streets lead me to the Arsenale where Precious Okoyomon’s immersive garden installation invites you for a stroll through its large-scale female figures made out of earth. Steps away, the Malta pavilion’s lure starts outside, with an echoing sound of splash. Arcangelo Sassolino’s installation recreates Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St John the Baptist, minimising the Renaissance juxtaposition into seven tanks of water in lieu of the figures. Induction technology helps the artist to create a looping cycle in which droplets of molten steel fall into the water to create a hissing sound before cooling off.

At the Turkish pavilion, Füsun Onur embodies storytelling with tiny bent metal wire sculptures, breaking down a story of cats and mice from Istanbul and Venice into 21 pedestals. Each lit within an otherwise dim setting, the vignettes narrate the non-human tale of drift against the human destruction on Earth. Arsenale’s industrial past pairs with Niamh O’Malley’s sculptures at the Irish pavilion where she exhibits a mixed media installation that blends into the rawness of the exposed architecture. Each positioned between use and aesthetic, as well as familiarity and peculiarity, the enigmatic sculptures in steel, glass, limestone and wood add a layer of activation to the space.

The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places | Soho House

Fancy being part of the club? Join Soho House's creative community

35+ global houses, a diverse, inquisitive creative community, exclusive access to our bedrooms, gyms, rooftop pools and much more

Venice’s utterly ornate architecture plays backdrop to side shows that zigzag between tiny bridges and quick boat rides – but I am not alone: coming out of the pandemic’s hiatus, the city is boasting with tourists riding the gondolas and drinking cappuccinos at Piazza San Marco. Stanley Whitney’s paintings occupy Palazzo Tiepolo Passi, yielding mesmerising vistas of the water through windows along with the artist’s striking abstractions on canvas. Including a three-decade work that Whitney exclusively created in Italy, the show’s bright colours capture the Mediterranean light during a week scarce in sunlight.

Lushness surrounding Italy is also celebrated in the British artist Raqib Shaw’s exhibition of paintings and film at Palazzo della Memoria. Fresh out of the artist’s London studio, 12 mythological paintings, some of which are encrusted in rhinestone, show the artist himself introspecting amid impossibly abundant forests, secluded from an urban heft afar. Some of the pavilions guide my Google Map to other islands, such as the Scottish post, positioned at Docks Cantieri Cucchini in San Pietro di Castello. There, Barbados-born filmmaker Alberta Whittle’s takeover includes film and tapestry that ties the brutal history of the slave trade to the present reality of violence against the Black body. The artist’s shots oscillate between those from Sierra Leone to contemporary police brutality, showing racism in its various forms throughout history.

The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places | Soho House
The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places | Soho House
The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places | Soho House
The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places | Soho House

Scale is also tested by Isolarii, an art book publisher known for releasing tiny size titles, printed in Italy. After publishing with big names in art such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, they launched their new book during a benefit exhibition titled This Is Ukraine: Defending Freedom at the Scuola Grande della Misericordia. Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky first noticed Isolarii’s daily newsletter of artist Yevgenia Belorusets’s The War Diary and invited them not only to exhibit the diary, but also create a catalogue of the show. In addition to Belorusets, the book shows works by two other Ukrainian artists, Nikita Kadan and Lesia Khomenko, who present works next to Takashi Murakami or Damien Hirst in the solidarity exhibition in the city’s Cannaregio region.

On my last night, I am at a party where the Detroit-based techno master Carl Craig spins in honour of his friend Stan Douglas. The warehouse atmosphere and the raving crowd scream Berlin or London, but we’re at a naval complex called Tese 98 not too far from Venice where the neon light washes the brick. Hanging with Craig’s friends and crew adjacent to the set, I see partygoers deliriously react to his escalating beats. After two encores and a brief appearance on stage by Douglas himself, the music stops as the crowd lines up for boats in the pouring rain. Lucky me, I am back to Venice on a boat with Craig and another DJ from the line-up, Yu Su. Breaking the waves somewhere between the departure and the destination, I reminisce the past few days – at 3am, art seems mixed with places and people. Yet, all shall make sense with the impending daylight.

The 59th Venice Biennale: the art, people, and places | Soho House