At the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale art exhibition, the earth and its uncertain future are taking center stage.
Director Cecilia Alemani wants this year’s edition of the world's oldest international exhibition to ask some fundamental questions: "How is the definition of human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human? What are our responsibilities towards the planet, other people, and other life forms? And what would life look like without us?"
The questions are inspired by "The Milk of Dreams," a book by British-born Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington that is also the title of this year’s Biennale.
“It is a world where everyone can change, be transformed, become something or someone else,” says Alemani. “The exhibition takes Leonora Carrington’s otherworldly creatures, along with other figures of transformation, as companions on an imaginary journey through the metamorphoses of bodies and definitions of the human.”
Visitors to the 80 national pavilions and dozens of collateral events will confront probing questions about how humans interact with technology, the possibility of a posthuman world and the ecological crisis facing the planet.
As the world begins to return to a fragile sense of normality amid the ongoing pandemic, the Biennale asks what that is going to look like.
A surreal, uncertain world at Denmark's Pavilion
Visitors to Denmark's national pavilion enter into a space that is both hauntingly beautiful and unsettling. It is a world inhabited by a family of centaurs set in an undefined moment of the future. These hyperrealistic transhuman creatures of Uffe Isolotto’s We Walked the Earth seem to represent the result of a biotechnological experiment. As Isolotto explains, “They are attempting to survive in a world where it is no longer enough to be human as we know it.”
In one room, the male centaur has taken his own life, his half-man half-horse body hanging limply from the ceiling. In the second room, the female centaur is giving birth.
"I think we are in a moment where the world is changing amid the pandemic and the ecological crisis," Isolotto says, "and this artwork suggests something has to die for something to be born."
Beneath the male centaur are small sculptures of mutated farm crops oozing a bright blue liquid. "These could be the nutrition of their future world, or perhaps a drug," says the artist, who deliberately avoids giving concrete explanations in order for the installation to represent the deep ambiguities of current times.
Instead, Isolotto wants visitors to meditate on this liminal world that includes elements from traditional Danish farm life merging with sci-fi-like forms. It is up to the viewer to decide if this is a tragic or a hopeful view of the future.
Italy's pavilion explores the relationship between man and nature
Italy's national pavilion is being taken over by a single artist for the first time this year. Gian Maria Tosatti's site-specific installation fills the vast nearly 2,000 sq.m Tese delle Vergini space with replicas of industrial warehouses. They represent Italy’s history of industrial boom followed by decline. Tosatti travelled the length of the country gathering scraps from abandoned factories to create the exhibition.
The thought-provoking work, entitled History of Night and Destiny of Comets, is separated into two sections. In the first, representing the historic part, rusty warehouse interiors are illuminated by harsh LED lights. The Destiny of Comets section instead looks towards the future and ends with a message of hope.
Together, the two sections ask powerful questions about the relationships between man and nature, industry and sustainability, and the exploitation and protection of the planet.
The future of the planet at the Swiss Pavilion
Latifa Echakhch is representing Switzerland this year with an eerie, immersive installation. On entering the pavilion, burnt sculptures and scattered ash on the ground suggest a catastrophic event that has ravaged the area. As Echakhch describes, “You are walking in the ashes of what was played in that space.”
With forms recalling giant heads and hands, the burnt wooden sculptures were inspired by the ritual fires lit in Switzerland to mark the end of the winter season. “Fire is always both the end and the beginning on a constantly turning wheel of time,” says Echakhch. The wooden sculptures themselves reuse materials from previous Biennials, continuing the idea of life cycles.
In collaboration with musician and composer Alexandre Babel and curator Francesco Stocchi, Echakhch’s The Concert then takes visitors backwards through time as light and darkness alternatively illuminate and veil the monumental sculptures.