Having arrived at the Venice Biennale without having had the time to properly read any press releases (my sincere apologies to the hard-working press office), I was expecting a full immersion into VR, AI and all things virtual, digital and so on; after all, isn’t this what the last few years have been all about? And, as someone who despite recognising the importance and the potential of said technologies, isn’t at all happy about their takeover of pretty much every field, including art, to a point that I have begun almost resenting living in this day and age (I mean, is anyone still capable of picking up a paintbrush? Can anyone still knit? Sew? Carve? Do anything by hand?!) I wasn’t too excited. Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The title of the main exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams”, which this year is curated by Cecilia Alemani, should already have rang a bell: Milk, dreams, Milky Way, oneiric white settings... Moreover, had I done my homework properly, I would have known that the exhibition takes its name from a book, a children’s book nonetheless, by Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) in which the Surrealist artist describes a magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of imagination; a world set free, where everyone can change and become something or someone else. Hence, as I approached the Padiglione Centrale of the Biennale Gardens expecting to find someone at the entrance handing out 3D glasses, or VR masks, I was instead greeted by an elephant, which turned out to be artist’s Katharina Fritsch’s, 1987, manically accurate, reproduction of the animal.

Katharina Fritsch, Elefant / Elephant, 1987. / Photo: Marco Cappelletti / Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

Basically, what Cecilia Alemani has done is invite Carrington’s otherworldly creatures to accompany the visitors on an imaginary journey through the metamorphoses of bodies and definitions of the human. As the curator reported, “the exhibition is grounded in many conversations with artists held in the last few years. How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human?” So while Alemani and her guest artists do acknowledge all the new and revolutionary technologies which have recently taken our life by storm. (And I must accept that it would be way too anachronistic if they didn’t.) They do so by using Carrigton’s surrealistic approach: not a “digital exhibition” but an investigation of the contradictions that society is currently exposed to, the promises of science and industry on one side, and the fear that artificial intelligence might eventually take full control of our lives on the other.

It is hard, if not altogether impossible, to walk around the packed full Giardini or to queue outside the Arsenale (and it’s supposed to be the press preview!) without thinking about the last, pre-pandemic Biennale, the one curated by Ralph Rugoff whose title, “May You Live in Interesting Times”, ended up being painfully accurate.

Rugoff’s exhibition was dominated by a post-apocalyptic vibe which urged to reflect on the world’s many catastrophes, in particular global warming and the progressive deterioration of our planet. The alarming condition of our habitat have inevitably also been at the center of Alemani’s iteration, in fact, the questions that kept emerging from her dialogues with the artists were very much focused on this moment in history when the very survival of the species is threatened, but they also summed up many other inquiries that pervade the politics, arts, and myths of our time. As a result, the subject is tackled in a rather different way compared to the “reportage” manner that so many curators are currently adopting: in this case, artists use their imaginative and creative skills to give a depiction of reality which translates into a stratification of multiple perspectives; a less didactic, less blatant and perhaps less “shocking” approach, but the result is just as effective.

Frantz Zéphirin, The Slave Ship Brooks, 2007. / Collection Marcus Rediker / Photo: Roberto Marossi / Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

Given all these premises, the artworks showcased in “The Milk of Dreams” are very much real, tangible even, and often quite impressive. Many artists challenge the modern Western vision of the human being − and especially the presumed universal ideal of the white, male “Man of Reason” − as fixed center of the universe and measure of all things. Others envision the end of anthropocentrism, celebrating a new communion with the non-human, with the animal world, and with the Earth, cultivating a sense of kinship between species and between the organic and inorganic, the animate and inanimate. They react to the dissolution of supposedly universal systems, rediscovering localised forms of knowledge and new politics of identity. A lot of space is given to indigenous artists, who reflect on the dramatic effects of colonialism but also on the clash between their traditional culture and contemporary society. It is the case for instance of Haitian artist Frantz Zéphirin, whose practice is focused on the complex history of his homeland: his painting The Slave Ship Brooks (2007) depicts in a terrifying manner the ship that brought thousands of slaves to the Caribbean. In a similar manner, an installation by Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill titled Counterblast (2021) representing a primordial female figure coated in tobacco and sporting Nike-like sneakers, denounces the imposition of capitalism onto indigenous populations. On the other hand, Shuvinai Ashoona’s fantastical drawings inject a surreal vision into the depiction of contemporary Inuit lifestyle.

Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Counterblaste, 2021. (Foreground) / Photo: Marco Cappelletti / Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

Installation view of colour pencil and ink drawings by Shuvinai Ashoona. / Photo: Marco Cappelletti / Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

“The Milk of Dreams” includes over two hundred artists from 58 countries. More than 180 of these artists have never been in any international art exhibitions until now. For the first time in its 127-year history, the Biennale includes a majority of women and gender non-conforming artists. Born in Italy, Cecilia Almeani herself is now 44 years old and has spent half her life living in the US. As she stated in an interview for Italian magazine Rivista Studio: “Today, nobody in the US would dare to do an exhibition featuring 90% male artists. When I open Italian art journals, I still see advertisements of male-only exhibitions.” And while there is a need today to go beyond gender stereotypes and clichés, there is undeniably a lot of femininity in Alemani’s exhibition. I do not remotely see this as an issue, in fact, I very much appreciate it; the problem with gender is not gender per se but the way it ends up categorising the world: the fact that something is “feminine”, doesn’t mean, or shouldn’t mean, that those who define themselves as males or non-binary could not relate to it. Not to mention the fact that for centuries women artists, and all that comes with them in terms of practice and research, have been very much left outside the spotlights of the international art scene, and it’s about time that they reclaimed their space, as creatives and as females, with a narrative of their own.

Installation view of Simone Leigh, Brick House, 2019, with works by Belkis Ayón. / Photo: Roberto Marossi / Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.

This automatically brings us to the entrance of the Arsenale, where, just like with Fritsch’s elephant at the entrance of the Central Pavillon of the Giardini, the visitors are greeted by yet another massive sculpture, this time by Simone Leigh (one of the first artists invited by Alemani to take part in the exhibition) of a sphynx-like woman with no eyes. Why does this woman have no eyes? Is she forced not to see or has she simply no need or no desire to do so? Indeed, recent history features many things that women may not wish to see and at the same time it has shed a light on their need to be seen (and heard, but that’s another story). The sculpture is surrounded by the powerful black and whites of Cuban artist Belkis Ayón which increase her assertiveness.

It is not just the presence of women artists that contribute to the exhibition’s overall feminine feel. Domesticity, motherhood, sexuality and “Ancient Mothers” also occupy a big part of the exhibition. For example, straight after Simone Leigh’s towering sculpture, we find Gwendolyn (1966-1990), one of Nike de Saint Phalle’s famous Nanas (girls). The French artists creates bulbous sculptures of women (and men) with prosperous breasts and protruding bellies covered in splashes of color, exploring the possibilities and potential of the human body by distorting its proportions. At the same time, an entire room is dedicated to the paintings of Miriam Cahn who, from the 1970s to the mid 1990s, shunned painting as an act of feminist resistance against the Western art world’s male, Abstract and Minimalist Zeitgeist. For the Biennale, Cahn exhibits 28 new works depicting birthing imagery, gender-bending beings, erect phalluses and sexually overt creatures, directly or indirectly addressing darker aspects of all things uterine as well as the #metoo movement. Similar matters are also tackled by Paula Rego, whose works fill another room with psychologically charged domestic scenes, while the Mama series (2018) of Aneta Grzeszykowska subverts the traditional mother-daughter relationship by portraying the interactions of her own daughter with an eerily lifelike silicone depiction of herself. Traditionally feminine crafts such as weaving, embroidery and macramé, also find space in Alemani’s exhibition: it is the case Mrilnani Mukherjee’s gigantic hand-knotted sculptures, which guard one of the rooms like soft, monumental goddesses, or of the massive tapestry by Igshaan Adams, arguably one of the most elaborated works on display.

Aneta Grzeszykowska, Mama #45, 2018. / Courtesy of the artist and Lyles & King.

Miriam Cahn, unser süden sommer 2021, 5.8.2021, 2021. / Photo: Marco Cappelletti / Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

The exhibition unfolds in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini, in the Corderie, Artiglierie, and in the outdoor spaces of the Gaggiandre and Giardino delle Vergini at the Arsenale complex. As visitors move through the exhibition, they encounter five smaller, historical sections: miniature constellations of artworks, conceived like time capsules, clustered together to explore certain key themes. All in all, as tourists in Venice cram the Vaporettos diligently wearing FFP2 masks, while hotel prices in the city range between 300 and 700 euros per night, and the Russian pavilion stands empty and closed surveilled by armed guards, we should probably thank Cecilia Alemani’s Milk for nourishing the Dream of a new kind of humanity.