Remembering the 59th Venice Biennale to re-enchant the world
“Don’t try to intellectualize art,” Leonora Carrington said (1).
Sacred cosmogonies converse with each other in this hugely spiritual artistic journey that was the 59th Venice Biennale. And Carrington’s work was there to remind us what we missed by ignoring, in the way we talk about art, what is called the female gaze.
Tracing its provenance to the effects of Carrington’s creative production as a mother, The Milk Of Dreams (left; 2) is actually a series of illustrations she drew on the walls of her sons’ room in Mexico, which later survived in diaristic form. Her son, Gabriel, in his book The Invisible Painting (3) suggests that near the end, when she was close to her 94th year of life, she didn't really talk or communicate much. Other than
saying “yes” or “no” and expressing basic concepts of like and dislike, the once vivace Carrington didn't really use the eloquence of speech to communicate. It is also known that she grew more suspicious towards the obsessive search for meaning and artistic motivation behind the dreamy images of her paintings.
The form of Cecilia Alemani’s curatorial desires for a re-enchantment of a troubled (4), patriarchal world is, at first, human, then vegetal, then animal, then vessel, then machine, then land, then language. It is precisely that language that I know I can speak, the one I share with these women artists, the exiles from the male-dominated geography of art who have found a way to exist in this sacred silence.
Entering the Arsenale, Simone Leigh's huge, almost totemic sculpture without eyes acts as a living figure of the fantastic, a protective ghostly appearance which introduces us to the world of female artists with the ultimate symbol of art: the eye (below). There was a feeling that those missing eyes were all around us, watching us acting and judging as beholders. This internal shift of perspectivism, the sense of art as an embodied experience is what, despite the curational faults of an otherwise kind of chaotic Arsenale tour, managed to make Alemani’s curatorial choices profoundly successful.
Mythical beings and gods of the overlooked Haitian culture, brought to life by Célestin Faustin and Myrlande Constant, float around in the second room, showing the curatorial endeavor to cast light into a less eurocentric historiography.
The drawings of Rosana Paulino in The Wet Nurse Series (below) consist of entangled networks of veins leading from reddened breasts sprouting from nipples, indicating milk, while also suggesting blood and leave me absolutely stunned, intricating physicality with oppression and the hybridity of the female body.
In the third “capsule” of the Arsenale reigns nature and the omnipotence of plants. There is a strong feeling that one is too contained in the papier mache replicas of the uterus seen inside the big exhibition vessel, in the thorough and bright touches of Maria Sibella Merian’s flowers, or the morbid vegetation of Birgit Jürgenssen (above).
Reminding us the central part botanical study played in the work of many professional female artists, who could travel unaccompanied for the first time for the sake of epistemology and research, this part of the exhibition could also be examining the special relationship women artists have had with floral painting as a means of expression and liberation (5).
At the end of the room, the incredible illusionary work of Firelei Báez that casts diasporic histories into an imaginative realm throws me into a dazzlingly spectral orbit.
The deeper we go, the ordinary seems to transform into extraordinary through objects. In the sculptures of Candice Lin, a kind of historical alchemist known for her inventive use of materials, we see intricate cartographies (6) lurking behind macro-narratives, while later the amazing kinetic sculptures of Mire Lee reinforce Asian surrealism in a way that seems to be missing from the rest of the exhibition. While thinking that Asian surrealism in painting could be more present, Raphaela Vogel's white, carcass-like giraffes fill me up with a sense of internal terror. Puppets, dolls, cyborgs and prosthetic parts reign in the hall of Dada art and post war art.
In the post human garden To See The Earth Before the End of the World (left), artist Precious Okoyomon stages sculptural topographies composed of living, growing, decaying, and dying materials to tie the historical marks of colonization and enslavement with nature - although the whole experience seems to express a state of threshold between sleep and wakefulness, not so much delivering the end-of-the-world experience as intended.
In the main Pavilion of the Giardini, I experienced that indescribable thrill of the familiar. Winding around the central exhibition of the surrealist women whose works embodied the mythical “Witches Cradle”, we slipped between Paula Rego, Christina Quarles, Kaari Upson, Mariam Khan, Claude Cahun, Sonia Dealunay and many more, to the heart of the exhibition, where we saw the works that we were all secretly there to see, the unique and different surreal manifestos of female nature that moved us more than anything.
Above: Inside The Witches Cradle.
Exiting TheWitches Cradle, the mythical, folky dyed roped sculptures of Indian artist Mrinalini Mukherjee looked like ancient deities who once ruled the world (7).
The towering figures of Mukherjee, Katharina Fritsch’s huge Elephant sculpture and Simon Leigh’s Brick House-no eyes- sculpture, at the end and at the beginning of our Biennale tour, take on the vestiges of fables of intellect, captivity, and matriarchal societies. Full of expression and animation, those figures come alive and command power through their silent grandeur. One really gets the sense that they are inhibited by otherworldly, ancient matriarchs frozen in time. Monstrous, totemic figures that loom above us and alternate between goddess, animal and abstraction feel truly protective. This is the civilization of the possible, the alternative cosmology, the other condition of existence that could have been, if men perceived women, black people and minorities as equals. This is the very culture that remained oral, rooted in fairy tales, in the childish stories of our past, in what we will call pre-literacy, in the imagination, in the magical, zanny illustrations on the walls of a child's room, in the unspeakable realm of dreams. What is experienced at the 59th Venice Biennale are only milk drops of this never existing female culture that did not involve speech, only this unbroken lineage feeling of togetherness.
In The Invisible Painting, we learn that when Carrington reached the age when she could no longer read, two of her grandchildren, Pablo and Daniel, read her the stories she wrote for their father and uncle, which were also read to them by their fathers. We know she didn't say much, but through her art we understand that she did speak and still speaks to us.
It is just a language that does not involve the kind of speech our predominant, male culture has taught us to understand.
By Mirela Dialeti. Dialeti is a journalist based in Athens, Greece. She has worked in feminist media platforms, advocating for women's rights and as a culture columnist, interviewing women artists worldwide. Her love for the surrealist women of the 20th century drove her to seek contemporary surrealist women worldwide that deal with the themes of feminism, mysticism and the occult.
1. This is the phrase used by Leonora Carrington in one of her last interviews before she died, answering the question of the interviewer about the origin of the images she painted.
2. Carrington started paintings murals in the nursery of her children after WWII, circa 1947.
3. See The invisible painting: My memoir of Leonora Carrington, Gabriel Weisz Carrington, Manchester University Press.