The Venice Biennale, often described as the Olympics of the art world, can be a gruelling experience as there’s so much to see and experience. This year’s main exhibition features 213 artists from 58 countries, alone. There are also two other venues, the Giardini and the Arsenale, as well as countless offsite venues, official and unofficial. This year’s biennale is heavily female focused with 90% female artists in the main exhibition. And the artistic director of the 2022 biennale is Cecilia Alemani, curator of New York’s Highline contemporary art project. Golden Lion winners were just announced as American artist Simone Leigh for her brilliant sculpture in the Arsenale and Sonia Boyce’s UK pavilion.
With so much art in the two main venues, the 29 country pavilions in the Giardini and the former shipyard, the Arsenale as well as in churches, palazzos and shops, it’s difficult to choose highlights but here are 18 must see exhibitions.
In the public gardens, the Giardini
1. United States of America
Simone Leigh’s large sculptures at the US pavilion depict black women whose traditions “have been left out of the archive or left out of history.” The neo-classical architecture of the outside of the pavilion is also a new work of art. It has been cleverly transformed with thatched roof and wooden poles to replicate an African Palace. Standing at the center of the outdoor forecourt is ‘Satellite,’ a 24-foot-high sculpture that recalls traditional D’mba, a headdress shaped like a female bust created by the Baga peoples of the Guinea coast.
2. Great Britain
Another groundbreaker at this biennale is Sonia Boyce as the first black woman to represent Great Britain. Boyce’s colorful videos feature five black female musicians (Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth, Sofia Jernberg, Tanita Tikaram and Errollyn Wallen) who improvise, interact and play with their voices.
French Algerian artist Zineb Sedira’s immersive installation features film, sculpture, photography and collage, punctuated with live tango performances in a 1960s style bar. The entire pavilion has been arranged like a series of studio interiors in an ongoing film shoot. A screening in a room behind the bar is based on the first film made in newly independent Algeria in 1964 – Les Mains Libres (the free hands). Sedira’s film includes re-enactments of scenes from that first film, as well as personal and family stories and a critique of colonial legacies.
In an historic first, the Nordic Pavilion has become the Sámi Pavilion, showing the work of three indigenous artists, Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna whose nation extends across the Nordic countries and into the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Máret Ánne Sara shows sculptures made of reindeer sinews and wax to highlight the struggles reindeer herders face by the Norwegian State’s attempts to cull their herds.
Artists Kirill Savchenkov and Alexandra Sukhareva and the curator Raimundas Malašauskas have pulled out of representing Russia at the 59th Venice Biennale as they disagree with the invasion of Ukraine. Their decision means that there is no official Russian representation this year. Regular performances protesting the Russian aggression are taking place outside their pavilion. And nearby, a temporary Ukraine installation symbolises strength and resilience: a wooden pavilion burned to strengthen the wood and a stack of sandbags used to protect statues.
Ghana’s second appearance at the biennale is as spectacular as their 2019 show. The large scale installations by three artists (Na Chainkua Reindorf, Diego Araúja, Afroscope) feature the Black Star that symbolizes the country, is shown on its flag and is linked with the national football team and the most important monument in the country. With paintings and a large installation, Na Chainkua Reindorf creates her own mythology of Mawu Nyonu, a fictional secret society made of seven women.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it looked unlikely that the country would be at the biennale. However, the intrepid artist managed to smuggle his work out the country to Venice. Focusing on climate change, Pavlo Makov’s 12-tier steel sculpture, The Fountain of Exhaustion guides the flow of water, so that there is a steady stream at the top and just a few drips by the time it reaches the bottom.
8. Wallace Chan, Fondaco Marcello
Viewers are invited to walk through the multiple pieces of Totem, a deconstructed 10 metre titanium sculpture (A Dialogue Between Materials and Time, Titans XIV) by a former monk, installed on the floorspace of this historic piazza on the grand canal. in order to sustain life. The calm, enigmatic face depicted in Chan’s sculpture is an ancestral spirit, a form of totem that expresses the artist’s reverence for the natural world and the innate qualities of the materials he uses in his sculptural work.
9. Anselm Kiefer, Palazzo Ducale
German artist Anselm Kiefer is well known for his large scale paintings and here in the Duke’s palace on St Mark’s square, he was invited to create site-specific works in response to the 33 monumental paintings on the ceiling by great masters like Tintoretto. Painting meets sculpture in this show which mixes a range of materials — from acrylic and oil to resin, steel, zinc, lead, metal wire, gold leaf, wood, fabric, earth, straw, rope, paper and charcoal, as well as shoes and books. The installation is part of the celebrations for the 1600th Anniversary of the Foundation of Venice.
10.Raqib Shaw, Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna, Ca’ Pesaro
Unearthly realms, populated by cavorting monkey kings, centaurs and fierce tiger-headed warriors fill Raquib Shaw’s colorful, detailed canvases. Enamel and industrial, metallic paints, manipulated with a porcupine quill create sharp detail and rich surface textures, including coral, feathers and flowers. Embossed gold, Japanese wedding kimonos, the prints of Hokusai, Kashmiri shawls, medieval heraldry, Persian carpets and jewellery are all sources of inspiration here.
11. Stan Douglas, Magazzini del Sale
Stan Douglas’s work often features marginalized people. Here he demonstrates that society hasn’t changed much in the past century by comparing events of 2011 and 1848, when the working classes fought against a lack of democratic freedoms, restrictions on the press, and the ongoing dominance of a wealthy elite. As well as photos in the Canadian pavilion, a video is screening in a former 500-year-old salt (the “oil” of the Venetian Republic) warehouse.
12. Daniel Richter, Museo Ateneo
Large scale, pastel colored oil paintings, in the German artist’s trademark style that blends abstraction and figuration, are a startling contrast to the heritage building.
13.Anish Kapoor, Gallerie dell’Accademia and Palazzo Manfrin
The Accademia gallery is world famous for its stunning collection of paintings by Italian masters Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto so it’s a surprise to see contemporary sculpture here. And Anish Kapoor is the first British artist to have a major exhibition at the museum, a retrospective that also includes brand new works, created with Kapoor Black, a ground-breaking nano-technology material, a substance so dark that it absorbs more than 99.9% of visible light. As if this show wasn’t impressive enough, more large scale works are at his newly opened museum and foundation in the Palazzo Manfrin, a crumbling former public picture gallery that was one of Venice’s main tourist attractions in the 19th century, visited by Lord Byron, George Ruskin and Edouard Manet.
14. Fiona Banner, gymnasium Patronato Salesiano Leone X111
One of the only exhibitions where you’re actually among the locals, a basketball court within a converted church and a community playground, is the site of British artist Fiona Banner’s mesmerising film.Two full-scale inflatable military decoy aircrafts, a Typhoon and a Falcon slowly inflate on the beach, coming to life like two long-slumbering creatures. The setting of the film then shifts to a grassy precipice, where two figures, including the artist, are dressed as fighter planes and dance around each other. The church organ soundtrack is equally captivating.
15. Georg Baselitz, Museo di Palazzo Grimani
The title of German artist Georg Baselitz’s exhibition Archinto is a reference to a 1588 portrait by Titian of Cardinal Filippo Archinto. In an homage to historical portraiture, Baselitz created twelve paintings that hang on eighteenth-century stucco-framed panels where portraits of the palace’s Grimani family had been on display.
16.Julian Opie, Ai Weiwei, St Regis hotel
British artist Julian Opie is best known for digital artworks using LED screens which allow the artist to convey movement in his figures through a simple grid of alternating lights. However, the Venice government forbade the use of such technology on the grand canal so four of Opie’s aluminium sculptures are on show outside of the city’s newest luxury hotel. Inside is a spectacular Venetian glass chandelier by the controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Made of clear glass from the workshops of the best of the island of Murano’s master craftsmen, at first glance the piece appears as a traditional Venetian chandelier but contains some of Ai Wei Wei’s trademark surprises upon a closer inspection.
17. Kehinde Wiley, Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore
Inspired by Holbein’s The Dead Christ in the Tomb, as well as historical paintings and sculptures of fallen warriors and figures in the resting state, the American artist has created a haunting series of prone black bodies, reconceptualising classical pictorial forms to create a contemporary take on portraiture. For this new body of work, Wiley sheds light on the brutalities of American and global colonial pasts using the language of the fallen hero.
18. The illy Art Collection, Royal Gardens, Piazza San Marco
The entire collection of 459 artist designed espresso cups from the famous Italian coffee company are on show in a special exhibition in the glorious garden beside the grand canal until 30 June. International visual artists, musicians and filmmakers including Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, David Byrne and Francis Ford Coppola have made their mark on the iconic white cup designed in 1991 by Matteo Thun.
The 59th International Venice Biennale Arte, until 27 November 2022. The cost for a one-entry ticket is 25.50 euros for access both to the Giardini area and the Arsenale area. Off-site exhibitions throughout the city are free.