When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.1
Cecilia Alemani has, with her edition of the Biennale Arte, conjured for the audience a tangled and textural experience that ripples through the senses. One line wraps around another, one material around another, one surface seems to invite touch (although we know we mustn’t) and another surface (the surface of a screen or photograph) contains embracing, slopping and fetish. The motley textures of the 59th Biennale Arte, The Milk of Dreams, together indicate a communal and primordial knowledge outside the hierarchies of art world prestige. Although, here we are, meeting atop the pinnacle of international art, thousands of us crammed on a high perch in the middle of Venetian summer. Did she achieve this feat of entangled and earthy curatorship by laying a laurel wreath in the stone circle at the Piccolo San Bernardo and inviting the ancients into her curatorial team? I didn’t ask her. But from what we did speak about I understand that the direction she took was largely driven by a simple act: talking with artists.
A message akin to the words of the early ecologist John Muir, quoted above, is spoken by the two hundred artists included in The Milk of Dreams – yet, instead of the English-speaking male voice, these artists are speaking from 58 countries, predominantly as women and gender non-conforming artists, communicating across myriad forms and media, and with knowledge grounded in a multitude of communities, cultures and First Nations cosmologies. These artists are speaking both from now and from history, and from the moments in between and from the futures of the past. Multitude is the driving language of Alemani’s exhibition, with a strong sense that this multitude is interconnected and in a constant state of transformation.
Being connected across generations through shared concerns and practices is a potent message in the exhibition. As well as including historic art alongside new works in the central show, Alemani has designed five smaller sections in the exhibition that represent time capsules of practice, an original exhibition model made possible, in part, by the extra time afforded the curator when the Biennale was postponed a year. These five capsules of historic practice – with titles like The Witch’s Cradle and Technologies of Enchantment – invite the visitor to step outside the myopia of our notification-driven world and observe an expanded fluidity between the past, present and future that is constantly in process. As the exhibition demonstrates, we share experiences with artists from the past, many of whom looked to the future with the same bamboozled fascination as we do. In particular, the time capsules reintroduce artists whose practices and stories have been consistently excluded from the canon of art history, particularly female artists from the last century.
In the capsule Seduction of the Cyborg, creative imaginings of hybridity between the human and the artificial are brought together with help from Donna Harraway’s ideas of the cyborg as signalling our future posthuman condition. Included in this section are photographs of facial prostheses by American sculptor Anna Coleman Kadd, which she made for WWI veterans disfigured during the conflict.
Another capsule takes its title from a sentence in Usula K. Le Guin’s 1986 essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container.2 Once again, nothing in this title is separated, Alemani rejects traditional demarcation as Le Guin did before her – no punctuation, only fluitdity and the rhythms of language. Here vessels are presented from across the world and across generations of artists: wombs, shells and pouches. A small cloth bag decorated with glass beads by Dada artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp, titled Geometric Forms and Letters (Pompadour) (1920), draws our gaze into its unassuming form, an experiment not only in light, texture and scale, but also in avant-garde practice as functional form. Made at a time when artists, including Taeuber-Arp herself, used manifestos and absurdist impracticality to try to understand modernity, this small pouch represents a doubling-down of the intention. Ornamentation is irrational, but it is intrinsic to the human experience, even as we move into the desperations and challenges of the modern era, wars and all. This beaded bag reflects ourselves back to us.
As Le Guin taught her readers in ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, with subtle dexterity and brilliant humour, containers are the technologies that hold our stories. Our realities as humans have been held together by everyday vessels – not by the bombastic stranglehold of hero-tape. Le Guin notes, ‘I said it was hard to make a gripping tale of how we wrested the wild oats from their husks, I didn't say it was impossible. Who ever said writing a novel was easy?’ Surely as much can be said of writing an exhibition that rejects the falsehoods of the ‘Ascent of Man’, as The Milk of Dreams does.
When the title for the 2022 Biennale Arte came to Alemani, crucially towards the end of the curatorial process, it came through the imagination of British-Mexican Surrealist, Leonora Carrington (1917-2011). Carrington is known for her fantastical and absurdist art and writing, such as her notebook of stories The Milk of Dreams. This title is undoubtedly alluring, evoking innocence and nourishment alongside the high-stakes recklessness of subconscious enquiry. For Alemani, the themes of Carrington’s work were particularly relevant and urgent to the conditions of now, portraying “a free world where creatures move from human to animals to machine without any judgment or hierarchy.” This closely aligned with what she saw in artists’ practices over the last few years, “a refusal of the strictures of identities and categories, celebrating a fluidity beyond the polarities of gender and the human and non-human.”
Included in the exhibition, Haitian artist Myrlande Constant uses her training in drapo Vodou – Vodou flag-making – to represent the entaglement of Hatian history, contemporary culture and Vodou religion. In the striking, largescale flag Sirenes (2020), Constant uses the reflective energy of glass beads, sequins and silk tassels to depict a dynamic scene set in a fantastical environment, in which human-animal hybrids are in the process of transmogrification. The cultural knowledge held here by both the artist and the work celebrates a perpetual remaking of the relationships between environment, culture and religion in Haitian society, in turn remaking the participants in these relationships, both human and non-human. This knowledge has clear comparisons with that of contemporary theoretical physicists, such as the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, who find ‘the world is nothing but change.’3 There is a powerful reflection on universal existence, whether intentional or not, in Mylande Constant’s flag works.
In Alemani’s larger exhibition, the emphasis on fluidity or metamorphosis imparts not only a sense of reality as process, but also a rejection of the certainty of enlightenment rationality in asserting the meaning and make-up of existence. Almost none of the stories held, momentarily, in the exhibition give an impression of being fixed or stable – instead, dreamlike instability informs the absolute magic of the overall experience. In this we necessarily find a distrust of the hubristic, oftentimes masculine traditions of dictatorial knowledge-making that our cultural institutions have been built on. In 2022, having a certainty that you know something fully and the thing you know will never shift or change reveals nothing more than a not-paying-attention within the conditions of our pandemic-changed world. This is undoubtedly part of what artists and curators are speaking about at the moment, “a refusal of the strictures of categories”.
While Alemani was building her vision for the Biennale, our global community was entering crisis mode with the COVID-19 pandemic. From the early moments of 2020, many of us – privileged enough to do so – shut ourselves away in private nooks, hiding our faces behind surfaces and locking away both our shameful breath for the greater good and the increasingly devastated expressions that lay beneath our masks. We became, by increments, two dimensional avatars of ourselves, living and working inside filtered screens. We avoided surfaces in public, utilising railings or handles with as little finger contact as possible. Yet in our physical nooks, we became that little bit more textural – making, walking, cooking, playing. It is understandable that for many artists and curators in 2020 and 2021, touch was sitting at the back of their minds, a remembrance as distant and close, and powerful, as an ancient memory of belonging to cosmic dust. A memory of a time when, in the words of American poet Marie Howe, “There was no Nature. No them … before this awful loneliness.”4
Through this lens, The Milk of Dreams can be seen as a breaking free of enforced separation, isolation and contactlessness. A hallelujah chorus for a secular community of art makers and supporters who, since they had last met together in Venice in 2019, had been torn asunder by viral load and rebuilt with care and caution. Tapestries, clay pots, kink and mess, soil and plants – touching and being physically present are preconditions of these repeated forms in the exhibition.
Beyond a rejection of the shiny two-dimensions of isolated living and working during the pandemic, there is an underlying sense that, during this time, we lean into rough and warm textures in acknowledgement that the smooth surfaces reflecting our world back to us – contemporary artefacts of the petrochemical industry – have borne out a living and breathing disaster in the form of our communal ecological crisis. We are surrounded by the threat that our glossy lifestyles have created. Unless your head is buried in a Scrooge McDuck pile of cashola, the crisis is nothing less than enveloping. Where do we live now, can we recycle enough to save us, is the unbearable heat and rising water coming soon? How can we have we caused this much devastation to a perfect miracle of a planet?
Over the last century, we have grown into and with a new world of limited friction. For the majority of us, our palms brush effortlessly against plastic upon plastic upon plastic from day one of our lives on earth. I, for one, do not blame our friends and family who embraced the clean and bright surfaces of the plastic world – emerging from two world wars, ideologically-mandated deprivation and an overwhelming sense of greysh, our predecessors found pleasure in the new plastified comforts and conveniences hitting their shelves. Who wouldn’t? They also found new access to health and protection as plastics began to wrap around our lives, our vegetables, our penises, our pills. Keeping us safe. We couldn’t have foreseen the depths of mess we would live in fifty years later – although early environmentalists yelled from the parapets of storms a-brewing. In a now infamus advertisement by Dow Chemical from 1938, the earth is shown enveloped in plastic wrap, or as the public relations folks of the time would have it, ‘all wrapped up in Ethocel’,5 the trade name of ethyl cellulose used to make a plethora of plastics. From a contemporary perspective, it is a claustrophic image that cuts off air supply with just a glance, an image of our world entombed in transparent film.
But, we humans like to breathe. One might say, it’s the thing we like to do most. Columbian artist Delcy Morelos, through her mammoth Biennale installation Earthly Paradise (2022), asks us to breathe in and breathe out deeply – not through didactic instruction, but by implication through causing a shift in the atmosphere of the exhibition space. Rich, moist soil emits cool air into our lungs. The heat of the room is instantly brought down as we move towards the contained masses of earth rising up around our bodies. Our line of sight shifts from innumerable colours to masses of dark brown. As we breathe in, a damp and cool waft from the soil mixed with cloves, cinnamon, hay, cacoa powder and cassava flour enters our living bodies; as we breathe out, our warm breath is incorporated into the work and remade as part of the enriched soil. This is the opposite of shiny and plastic – and, in the middle of an elite art exhibition, we find a refuge for our climate crisis brains.
Morelas’ installation is not born out of Minimalist aesthetics, however much it might owe to those modernist practitioners who paved the way for this work to be considered, in the Western canon, art. The knowledge encountered in Earthly Paradise is firmly situated in Andean and Amazonian Amerindian cosmologies: “nature is not something inert we access and control …. we are earthly beings – we become, live, die, and decompose with and as the earth.”6
On Ash Wednesday, a billion Catholics around the world utter together words to this effect: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It may seem more than a little odd to include, in a commentary on an exhibition featuring a majority of women and gender non-conforming artists, a quote from Christian liturgical tradition. But I present it here to foreground an important thread in human meaning-making that appears again and again in The Milk of Dreams. Humans, non-humans and the environment are in a constant renegotiation of closeness and separateness, with metamorphosis at the centre of the process.
There is a response to the Ash Wednesday utterance in the Milk of Dreams, spoken by First Nations artists, women artists, queer artists, artists who have historically struggled through thick prejudice to be present in spaces of high art. They address our patriarchal institutions and demand them to exercise a new form of humility.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Response: No, you remember. I live it every day.