How Cecilia Alemani shakes up the Venice Biennale
Excerpt from the April 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
VSecilia Alemani saw the Venice Biennale for the first time when she was 22 years old. Luckily, it was a good one: “dAPERTutto” by Swiss curator Harald Szeemann in 1999. It inaugurated the concept of a large-scale thematic exhibition presented by a single director, alongside the pre-existing hodgepodge of pavilions national, museum exhibitions and one-off shows that had characterized the 47 previous iterations. “I was very young, I didn’t even know if I wanted to be in the art world – and I was shocked by the amount of things to see, the scale of the central exhibition and the fact that Szeemann’s exposure was so incredibly global. It had a huge impact on me,” says Alemani.
Twenty-three years later, Alemani, now 45, is at the center of the art world. Italian based in New York, she is part of a powerful curatorial couple with Massimiliano Gioni. He is the artistic director of the New Museum and in 2013 became the youngest director of the Venice Biennale, at the age of 39. She is the artistic program director of the High Line, a disused elevated railway that winds through the Meatpacking District and Chelsea that has been transformed into a public garden and sculpture park. She also organized Frieze Projects, the non-commercial program accompanying the Frieze New York art fair, from 2012 to 2017, and the Cities project of Art Basel in Buenos Aires in 2018. And this year, she is also the director of the Venice Biennale.
Alemani is one of five women to lead the Biennale so far. She has a reputation for commissioning emerging and critically acclaimed artists who can wow audiences (since she started at High Line Art in 2011, she has worked with over 350 artists, including Barbara Kruger, El Anatsui and Carol Bove). In 2017, she rocked the normally conservative Italian pavilion in Venice, obscuring cavernous industrial spaces and filling them with dramatic installations. One, by Roberto Cuoghi, created a series of X Files type plastic tunnels, which he used as a workshop for making sculptures of Christ.
The same year, she commissioned African-American artist Simone Leigh to create the enormous bronze A brick house at the northern end of the High Line near Hudson Yards. It was a 16ft tall bust of a black woman whose skirt resembles a West African shell or clay house. Leigh was then chosen as this year’s holder of the United States pavilion.
Alemani speaks in New York shortly before return to Venice to finalize the installation of his show. It’s been hampered by logistical issues caused by the pandemic but, she says, the team’s biggest goal now is to try and ensure Ukrainian artists can participate, after the Russian invasion.
She says she guessed she might be in Venice when she picked up the phone in late 2019, and the caller was the Biennale’s outgoing president, Paolo Baratta. “I kind of knew that because he calls people out of the blue like that,” she says. When he told her she had the job, she said, “For a few minutes I was ecstatically happy. And then it was like, holy cow, I have to do this and I barely have time. The next morning I got up at six o’clock and started to work.
The lack of time to mount a huge exhibition is just one of the many challenges faced by Venetian directors. The title of the exhibit is another, and the butt of many inside jokes. Alemani opted for “The Milk of Dreams”, a reference to a chilling 1940s children’s book by surrealist Leonora Carrington, which – in the decade since her death in 2011 – has returned to prominence. The book features a host of strange characters, including children with wings for their ears, a mustachioed two-faced man who eats flies, and a monster-machine called Janzamajoria. “It’s a world of hybrid creatures, which can go from human to animal to machine, a world in which everyone can become something else,” says Alemani. It evokes an exhibition that places identity, ecology, technology, the body and the irrational at its center.
In the end, Alemani found herself with more time to plan ideas than she had anticipated. Two months after starting work, the pandemic hit and, for the first time since World War II, the Venice Biennale was postponed. “It was a really weird start,” says Alemani. “I had taken what I thought was a good start. At that point, I thought to myself, “Let’s take advantage of all this extra time to talk to the artists, find out what they are doing. Normally you just decide what you want to do and do it, because you don’t have time to do anything else. The trips were over but, says Alemani, she spoke to “hundreds of artists” and watched their work on Zoom.
What emerged in this “confessional space”, as she puts it, were some common themes: “So many artists question the centrality of the individual, the Renaissance and Enlightenment idea of man – a white man, European at the center of the world. Our adversarial relationship with technology and our reliance on an ecosystem that we seem to want to destroy were other recurring concerns.
“It opened up the idea of presenting a majority of women and gender non-conforming artists, artists trying to portray a different universe, a more symbiotic, synergistic and fraternal way of living together in this world,” she says. . Of the 213 artists and groups exhibited, approximately 90% will be women, a record in the history of the Biennale. Contemporary artists from 58 countries are exhibited, including indigenous artists.
Alemani is keen to emphasize that she is not at the forefront of rewriting art history to recognize women and marginalized groups. Other exhibits such as ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” (which toured the United States in 2007), “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985” (Hammer Museum and Brooklyn Museum, 2017/18) and “Fantastic Women” (Schirn Kunsthalle and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020) have already started the process. “But you have to remember that this show is set in Italy, where the attitudes are still quite medieval,” she says.
She also says that the show will not be “political with a capital P”: “The political issues are obviously present: but it is less about grand declarations and more about introspection, identity, fantasy. It will also be a very “physical” show, with a lot of painting, sculpture and installation, few works on screen and no virtual or augmented reality. She quotes the Colombian artist Delcy Morelos: she makes labyrinths of earth, tobacco, cocoa powder, spices and coal, through which visitors can walk. They refer to Amazonian and Andean cultures and ecology, but are also a more fragrant and sensual version of Walter De Maria. New York Earth Hall (1977).
Unexpectedly for a show that is typically about today’s art, there will also be works by around 90 historical artists, many from the turn of the 20th century. Alemani says she wanted to include older material initially – something she’s done before. In 2010, during the five-year survey of Greater New York at MoMA PS1, she showed four artists most associated with the 1970s and 1980s: Jack Whitten, Sylvia Sleigh, Judith Bernstein and Leslie Thornton.
But it was the pandemic that made that possible, giving him time to do academic research and arrange museum loans. “I doubled the exhibit,” Alemani says, picking up on what she sees as contemporary artists’ connections to Surrealism, Dada, Futurism and Bauhaus. These will be presented in five performances in the show, focusing on female artists such as Eileen Agar, Georgiana Houghton, Leonor Fini and Baya Mahieddine. Like Carrington, many are artists who were at the center of artistic movements (Carrington was for a few years in a relationship with Max Ernst) but who were then largely forgotten.
“I told contemporary artists I would have the historical works, but I didn’t show them any lists or ask them to respond in any way,” Alemani says. “I didn’t say, oh look, there’s a Leonor Fini that looks like your work. I’m not claiming that, say, Christina Quarles is influenced by Ithell Colquhoun. But I hope that visitors will see, as I did, similar methodologies tackling similar themes, 80 years apart.
Blending the contemporary and the historic is a difficult undertaking, as museums like the Dulwich Picture Gallery have found with its Twombly and Poussin exhibition in 2011, bringing together a group of culturally diverse artists into a cohesive spectacle.
The historic industrial spaces of the Venice Biennale present another challenge. The budget of 18 million euros, meanwhile, is significant but less than half that of the comparable German exhibition Documenta.
It’s always risky to judge a Venice Biennale by the director’s pre-show press conference. The 2015 edition of Okwui Enwezor promised a tedious Marxist lecture but delivered beautiful and powerful galleries. Christine Macel’s 2017 exhibition, by contrast, evoked a magical, meditative approach to contemporary art, but was hippy and well-meaning at best.
But the times may be on Alemani’s side. Two years of absence from major exciting international fairs: critics, curators and art lovers are eager for ideas. And while auction houses have done well selling art online, major galleries have struggled commercially without physical venues to show artists’ work. The Venice Biennale isn’t just the hottest art show, it’s the biggest marketing event on the planet for living artists.
Alemani showed that she had an eye for spotting emerging talent and was on top of contemporary themes. She has demonstrated that she can commission captivating works that appeal to audiences and critics alike, and manage challenging industrial spaces. She has a less recent record of staging large-scale multi-artist themed exhibitions. But the director of this year’s Venice Biennale has most of the art world roots going for her.
Excerpt from the April 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.