Art in Culture is covering the entire Venice Biennale 2022. Extending from the Giardini park to the Arsenale located in a former shipyard, both the curated exhibition of various artworks and the foreign pavilions that immediately catch our eyes. The International Art Exhibition features a full range of artworks by powerful female artists. The painted and sculptured works celebrate a new communion by focusing on keywords such as: human bodies, technologies and nature. Such themes are woven intricately between many of the national pavilions and the International Art Exhibition. Yunchul Kim, who represents the Korean Pavilion, explores ‘the world of materials’ through his large-scale installation of kinetic arts. In it, the ‘machine creature’ - a fusion of science and visual art - awakens in a whirlpool in the pavilion and offers a new sense. We are now broadcasting this exciting scene.
I flew from Incheon to the Marco Polo Airport via Warsaw, and arrived in Venice after a very long 15 hour flight. While waiting for the bus to the main island, I looked around and saw exhibition placards and posters stamped with a ‘red lion’ - the symbol of the Venice Biennale (hereafter VB). After 30 minutes I climbed aboard, and quickly discovered the true scenery of ‘the city of water’ unfolding in front of my eyes. This strange landscape was made up of noisy crowds in the late evening, suitcase wheels rolling loudly on stone floors, flocks of seagulls circling overhead for food, amongst many other sensations. The pandemic had wiped out many of the air routes and for a long time this had seemed such an unrealistic scene to encounter. I immediately bought a ticket for the ‘vaporetto’, a Venetian public waterbus, and headed to the Giardini: the heart of the Biennale.
The Reality of ‘Women Power’
The Giardini is the VB’s main venue, and this area of parkland has been the heart of the exhibition since its inauguration in 1895. Since 1980 the old Arsenale shipyard has been added to host exhibitions, which means that the main exhibition stretches to both sites of the Central Pavilion of the Giardini and the Corderie of the Arsenale. At the helm of the 59th International Art Exhibition stands Cecilia Alemani, an Italian curator based in New York and the first female Italian director of the VB. In 2017 she served as the artistic director of the Italian Pavilion at the VB, and currently works as the chief curator of the High Line Art Program in New York. It was Alemani who suggested the theme The Milk of Dreams, which takes its title from the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington’s book. The story The Milk of Dreams describes a magical world where all creatures can change, be transformed, or become something or someone else.
Alemani thus brings Carrington’s ‘power of magic’ to the current 21st century, where the survival of various species is threatened. How is the definition of human changing today? What is life made up of, and how can animals and plants, or humans and non-humans be distinguished? What responsibilities do we feel when dealing with the Earth, with other planets and beings? What would life look like without humans? 213 artists from 58 countries addressed these broad questions, and offered their responses in the 1,433 works and 80 new projects occupying the Giardini and Arsenale. Alemani weaves these artworks back into three key themes: the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses; the relationship between individuals and technologies; and the connection between bodies and the Earth.
Even before the official opening, the hottest issue of the VB this year is ‘women power’. Let's explore in greater detail. The first thing to note is the gender ratio of participating artists: 90% of the 213 participating artists are women or gender non-conforming. This represents the largest ratio in the 127-year history of the biennale. In addition, 180 of the artists have never previously participated in the theme exhibitions, so we can expect something fresher than ever from this new talent. Two Korean artists – Jeong Geum-hyung and Lee Mi-re – have also join the main exhibition. The second thing to note is the rediscovery of an older generations of female artists. Alemani has planted ‘time capsules’, which travel back to the past, and can be found across various places in the contemporary art festival. The exhibition is anchored by five special Historical Capsules, which bring together artworks and objects, as well as archive materials from major museums. Thirdly, one needs to pay attention to the recipients of the Golden Lion Awards. The VB awards the Golden Lion to the best artists of the year. The Golden Lions are also awarded to artists for Lifetime Achievement, the Best National Participation, and the Best Contributor to the International Art Exhibition. The German artist Katharina Fritsch and the Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña are the Golden Lion recipients for Lifetime Achievement. The Best National Participation was awarded to the pavilion of Great Britain, created by artist Sonia Boyce, while the Golden Lion for Best Contribution to the Biennale's International Art Exhibition, The Milk of Dreams, went to American artist Simone Leigh for her sculpture. Special mentions for the International Art Exhibition went to Inuk-Canadian artist Shuvinai Ashoona and American new media art pioneer Lynn Hershman Leeson. All the recipients were women. Of course, the Golden Lion Awards cannot provide an absolute criterion for evaluating an artwork. However, this level of official recognition given to women artists will create a driving force and offer future momentum for all other female artists to continue their own work.
Dreaming of a Matriarchal Community
Now let’s enter the lively exhibition scene. When you enter the Giardini, walk straight to the left and you will see the white Central Pavilion that used to be the Italian Pavilion. The façade of the Central Pavilion and marine creatures running on the front lawn lead you in and open up The Milk of Dreams exhibition. These dolphins jumping high over boats, sharks munching missiles, and marine creatures dancing happily with guitars are the work of a German sculptor, Cosima von Bonin. When you enter the room after passing this welcome, you will be greeted by a statue of an elephant standing proudly. Elefant/Elephant is a sculpture of a female elephant by Katarina Frich, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Gold Lion. Elephants are matriarchal animals that are led by their grandmothers, and spectators can explore the exhibition hall while being escorted by this elephant.
The Giardini’s Central Pavilion is a labyrinthine space in which corridors extending from a large hall are intertwined. In the large hall connected to the entrance, a work of color abstraction by Rosemary Trockel and a cyborg sculpture by Andra Ursata welcome the audience like a 'trailer' for the exhibition. This is because the ‘fiber’ - the material of Trockel’s work, and the ‘human body’ shape of Ursata’s sculpture are motifs that appear repeatedly throughout The Milk of Dreams. Winding up and down the passageway connected to this hall, you will find strange female bodies by Cecilia Vicuña, Christina Quarles, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami and Miriam Cahn, as well as textile works by Paula Rego, Mrinalini Mukherjee and Sara Enrico. The main focus remains on traditional genres, such as paintings and sculptures, or intricate handmade objects, rather than eye-catching installations or flashy media art.
From the keywords selected by Alemani, the Giardini focuses on ‘the representation of bodies’ whereas ‘the relationship between individuals and technologies’ and ‘the connection between bodies and the Earth’ are what stand out in the Arsenale. This is probably because the Arsenale’s Corderie space can accommodate relatively larger installation works. If the Central Pavilion was protected by a female elephant, the ‘goddess’ protecting the Corderie is Simone Leigh’s Brick House. The colossal bronze statue, about 5 meters high, depicts a Black woman. Although the artist did not intentionally depict the eyes racially, they are nonetheless understood as being intended to deviate from Western-centric perspectives and instead emphasize various other senses. In the Corderie hall, the work of the Cuban-born female printmaker Belkis Ayon is juxtaposed with Simone Leigh’s piece. In contrast to Brick House, Belkis Ayon’s characters appear with no mouths. The motif was taken from the myth of ‘Princess Sikan’, who was condemned to die for revealing the secrets of the secret male society 'Abakua'. The exhibition dreams of a matrilineal-centered community by illuminating the voice of a woman in a male dominated society. As such, the prominent themes of the Arsenale are mythology and indigenous culture. There are many reliefs and installations using natural materials such as soil, stone, and wood, as well as works with themes based on regional narratives. Perhaps that is why The Milk of Dreams offers a similar impression to last year's 13th Gwangju Biennale, which focused on indigenous cultures in non-Western regions. The two biennales share a theme in that they summon a community of matriarchal traditions that have been suppressed by the modern Western civilization of rationalism.
Since its opening, The Milk of Dreams has received polarized reviews. While critics acknowledge that underrepresented female artists have been brought to the fore, they also argue that the quality of each artwork and the exhibition displays falls somewhat short. However, the exhibition still provides important contributions to the following questions: Why does the body appear so often in the work of female artists? Why is the body so important to these artists? How is the contemporary body represented today, and how does it differ from the work of male artists or from past art?
Meanwhile, a total of 80 countries held pavilion exhibitions at the 59th VB. Among them, the Republic of Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, the Sultanate of Oman, and Uganda participated for the first time, and Uganda even enjoyed a special mention awarded to national participation. Due to the on-going war in the Ukraine, Russian curators closed their national pavilion and Russian artists relinquished their participation. Instead, a temporary square was erected in the Giardini as a space to pray for peace in Ukraine. The national pavilion exhibitions are controlled by the commissioners of each country, but are also closely connected in order to address the critical theme of the art exhibition, as it is a global agenda shared by all peoples. Simone Leigh of the U.S. Pavilion, who also participated in the theme exhibition, and Sonia Boyce of the British Pavilion, who received a Golden Lion award, emphasized the existence of black women through sculpture and sound installations. Switzerland and Uganda used the unique culture of the region as a reference, and the German, Danish, French and Polish pavilions presented exhibitions looking back on their own histories. The Austrian and Brazilian pavilions responded to the exhibition theme with transformed and enlarged body images. The Belgian Pavilion is also worth seeing, as it focuses on the bodies of children playing. While most national pavilion present similar discourses on women, history, and bodies, the Korean pavilions take a slightly different route by presenting a gigantic ‘mechanical creature’ depicting the rendezvous of science, technology and art.
**Korean Pavilion, A Whirlpool of Fluid **
The atmosphere is tranquil between the Swiss Pavilion, near the entrance of the Giardini, all the way to the Japanese Pavilion. However, upon arrival at the Korean Pavilion the feeling is drastically different. The Pavilion was incredibly busy, and the audience were packed into the space like sardines. People were taking a close look at the installation, both with appreciation and surprise, and were busily taking photos and videos. This year’s Korean Pavilion showcases the Gyre exhibition, curated by artistic director Young-chul Lee and presented by the installation artist/electronic music composer, Yunchul Kim. The three main themes are represented there in ‘The Swollen Suns’, ‘The Path of Gods’ and ‘The Great Outdoors’. These are accompanied by five large-scale installation works, including three new productions, and a site-specific drawing made by the artist.
Kim studied electronic music in Korea and studied under renowned composer Wolfgang Rihm in Germany. While studying music, Kim decided to turn his practice into visual art and so studied media art at the Cologne Academy of Media Arts (Kunsthochschule fur Medien Koln). His main interest lies in the ‘potentiality of materials’: Kim’s fascination with trans-disciplinary practice lead to his investigation of fluid, light-crystallization, meta-materials, and nano-particles. His large-scale art works are produced by transforming the energy he finds/discovers in such investigations into kinetic art installations. As a leading transdisciplinary artist, Kim is peerless: He was chief researcher of the research group ‘Mattereality’ at the Korean Institute for Advanced Study’s Transdisciplinary Research Program. He is also a member of the art and science project groups ‘Fluid Skies’ and ‘Liquid Things’, at the Art and Science Department of the University of Applied Arts, in Vienna, Austria. His debut exhibition was at Gallery KunstDoc in 2009 in Korea. His work has also been showcased in various gallery spaces, including Alternative Space Loop (2014), Songeun Art Space (2016), Gallery Baton (2017) and Barakat Contemporary (2019).
In the Gyre exhibition, the artist imagines the pavilion as one single body and unfolds the ‘whirlpool of fluid’. According to the artist: “There is ‘gyre’ in the matter and movement of the artwork. It refers to the newness and confusion in the boundary between now and the future to come. In this exhibition, matters with no names gain their own rights - regardless of their usage or value – to be connected to universe, space and audience. As such, I wanted to deny the absolute authority of a sole sun, but to show a brand new age of a number of suns as well as a new sensation that dynamically awakens in that.” In his work, these suns became swollen and finally exploded. The debris left from these explosions adheres to itself and is reborn as a new planet. This ‘gyre’ revolves between infinite openness and infinite subsidence.
The highlight of the Korean Pavilion is Chroma V, which fills up the space. This serpentine installation consists of a 50m long, parametric structure with an 8m knot. Like a whirlpool amidst a deep sea, energy is condensed in the cold and strong figure. Chroma V represents the core of the pavilion’s presentation, and not only visually. Like the scales of an ancient dragon, 382 cells consisting of transparent laminated polymers cover the entire structure, and the kinetic machine controls its pressure and infinitely changes its skin colors. As the shifting red and blue colors gradually change its appearance, the machine resembles a living organism. It is particularly notable that the artist decided to remove the ceiling of the Korean pavilion, in order to maximize the interaction between natural light and the installation work. The Chroma V is closely connected to the Argos - The Swollen Suns work that occupies only one room in the Pavilion. Argos detects Muon particles, which are formed when universe particles collide in the earth’s atmosphere. This imperceptible matter becomes visible to the giant ‘Argos’ with its ‘hundred eyes’, and thus sends the signal to trigger the movement of Chroma V.
Along with Chroma V and_ Argos, La Poussiere de Soleils_ was specifically produced for the new exhibition. Kim melted minerals at 1,000˚C, added water for mass, pulverized it with ultrasonic waves of 20kHz, again melted it with heat, and finally evaporated and then condensed it into a fluid. La Poussiere de Soleils consists of three transparent, hexagonal panels, in which this fluid endlessly circulates throughout the machine structure. The dust of the sun that encloses the atmosphere is seen as the glow of the setting sun, while the density and gravity of the fluid suggests a diverse spectrum. The Pavilion also holds the installation Impulse (2014), which circulates the water of Venice city, and Flare (2014), which experiments with the contrasting materiality of different fluids in one place, as well as Kim’s site-specific wall drawing constructed with curved lines. The drawing is completed by countlessly repeated thin lines and reminds viewers of the various unperceivable cosmoses in wave, tree, cell, light, universe, planet etc. Kim engraved this with an aphorism by the film director Robert Bresson: “Let nothing be changed and all be different.”
How can the Korean Pavilion be considered in the context of this year’s VB? As a wondrous science laboratory that stimulates our strange senses, within the waves of repeated themes and images? Or is it a world of ‘machines’ letting ‘nothing to be changed’, and thus demanding no change? Those attendees who came so closely together in The Milk of Dreams are now individuals once more, clapping for the swollen suns.
Hyun Lee is working as an editor for monthly Art in Culture. Lee organized an exhibition Nocturnal Animals in the White Night (Hapjungjigu, 2016) and co-organized Deeper Layers of the Past (Artspace Boan, 2017).