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Redressing the Balance: Gender at the 59th Venice Biennale by Rachel McHale

13 July 2022

Illustration by Finlay Thompson

For the first time in the 127-year-history of the institution, this year’s Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition features an overwhelming majority of women and gender non-conforming artists. Although the artists were not asked to gender-identify, Cecilia Alemani – herself the fifth woman curator of the Biennale – estimates that 80–90% of the artists included are women, and many of colour. Alemani sees this choice as a reflection of both the creatively bustling international art scene and ‘a deliberate rethinking of man’s centrality in the history of art and contemporary culture’. This statistic marks a great contrast from previous years, which have generally remained dominated by men artists; women artists made up only 33% of the total artists at the 2015 Biennale and 35% at the 2017 Biennale. Alemani turns the tide. The exhibition takes its title, The Milk of Dreams, from a book by surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, who also features in the exhibition. In her statement about this year’s Biennale, Alemani draws attention to the interrogation of ‘the presumed universal ideal of the white, male “Man of Reason”’. Weaving artistic, literary, and theoretical influences from women, this year’s Biennale exhibition celebrates the rich yet often forgotten legacy and promising future of women and non gender-conforming artists. Addressing the long-standing gender disparity both at the Biennale and in contemporary art, this year’s record-breaking gender ratio has also fed into the exhibition’s structure, concepts, and themes, resulting in a narrative that focusses on ‘forms of symbiosis, solidarity, and sisterhood’. Several of the artists’ works exemplify this shift in focus. Take, for example, Simone Leigh’s sculpture Brick House, which captures viewers’ attention at the opening of the Arsenale. The sculpture is a five-meter (16-foot) bronze bust of a Black woman whose hair is styled in cornrow braids and whose torso combines West African architectural forms with the human body. Alemani originally commissioned this sculpture for the High Line park in New York City, where it stood for two years overlooking Manhattan’s 10th Avenue. There, Brick House juxtaposed the towering skyscrapers and raised important questions about the architecture that surrounds us and the values and customs it reflects. Now, it stands majestically at the front of the Arsenale, surrounded by several paintings by the Cuban artist Belkis Ayón that rebel against patriarchal society and draw on Afro-Cuban traditions. Leigh was also chosen for the US Pavilion this year and her exhibition Sovereignty centres Black women and their subjectivities. Interested in creating a dialogue between generations, Alemani has created several smaller historical sections, or ‘shows within shows’, that aim to trace connections between artworks of the past and the present. These sections, reminiscent of time capsules, also integrate layers of the Biennale’s own history. For instance, one of the five capsules, exploring the relationship between body and language, takes its cue from Materialializzazione del linguaggio (Materialisation of languages), a showcase of visual and concrete poetry curated by Mirella Bentivoglio for the 38th Venice Biennale in 1978. Giving space and visibility to women in an arena dominated by men, Bentivoglio displayed the works of almost eighty women artists focussing on language and image, including Mira Schendel and Tomaso Binga. Similarly, featured in this year’s capsule are women visual artists from the 19th and 20th centuries whose works interrogate the bonds between word and image, such as the experimental poet Ilse Garnier, Unica Zürn, known for her anagram poetry, and French Surrealist writer Gisèle Prassinos and her hand-sewn tapestries. By referencing the Materialializzazione del linguaggio exhibition – one of the first historical and openly feminist retrospectives of women’s art shown at the Biennale – Alemani builds on and enriches a powerful legacy of women’s historical contributions and presence at the Venice Biennale.

Illustration by Finlay Thompson

Highlighting links between contemporary art and the past, Alemani has also chosen to include many deceased artists in the exhibition, and of the 100 deceased artists featured, only seven are men. Amongst the deceased artists are Hannah Höch and Claude Cahun, whose photomontage and photographic works respectively explore hybridity and gender identity. Höch’s hybrid bodies are featured in the part of the exhibition titled ‘Seduction of the Cyborg’, that highlights artists who have, in manifold ways, considered the body as a machine. As a member of the Berlin Dada movement, Höch favoured the technique of photomontage, which, with its contrasting and fragmentary style, provides an interesting lens through which to look at unstable identities. Critical of the Neue Frau (New Woman) ideal popular in Weimar Germany, Höch took images from magazines and incorporated them into her photomontages, recontextualising them and creating more complex depictions of women. This can be seen in her work Deutsches Mädchen (1930), in which a dark fringe and two small eyes have been pasted onto the face of a young woman, resulting in a figure that jars with images of the confident Neue Frau found in popular culture at the time. Cahun, who was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob before adopting the androgynous name Claude, was a surrealist artist primarily known for her photographic self-portraits made in collaboration with her stepsister and lover who went by the name of Marcel Moore. Playful and provocative, Cahun’s works often feature masks, mirrors, make-up, and costumes, all underlining the performative nature of gender. Cahun is included in ‘The Witch’s Cradle’ section of the exhibition, which explores the use of self-metamorphosis in response to the way identity has often been dominated by men. In her autobiography, Cahun famously wrote ‘Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me’. Providing a notion of gender which promotes a flirting with subjectivities, an oscillation between roles, and a defiance of categorisation, this statement is reflected in the artist’s works. Cahun’s depictions of androgyny, genderlessness, and performativity disrupt societal conventions and destabilise the gender binary. Refuting fixed identities in favour of fluidity, Cahun’s works highlight a ‘desire for transformation and emancipation’, a theme reflected more generally in the capsule featuring artworks by women artists of the historical avant-garde movements. Taking inspiration from the wide-ranging work of women artists, theorists, and writers of fiction and non-fiction alike, such as Donna Haraway, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Rosi Braidotti, amongst others, this year’s Biennale exhibition proves to be an exciting edition. The human and the technological merge, generational affinities are revealed, and hierarchies are destabilised as ‘The Milk of Dreams’ dislodges man as the ‘fixed centre of the universe and measure of all things’. Bringing representation to the fore, Alemani’s extensive inclusion of women and gender non-conforming artists paves the way and sets the tone for future years: possibilities abound. Rachel McHale is an MA student at The Courtauld and a Reviews Editor for The Courtauldian.

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