59th Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams” is Our Much Needed Reality

words and photos: Sophy Tio

This article focuses on four impressionable pavilions which, in the author’s opinion, bring forth transculturality and art beyond curatorial strategies that emphasis decolonisation and post-coloniality. These pavilions redirect what the Venice Biennale, the longest standing mega-exhibition, can achieve in our tumultuous times.

Faced with multiple challenges, the 59th Venice Biennale is ground-breaking in many ways. Titled ‘The Milk of Dreams’, the large representation from hitherto marginalised communities – women, gender-fluid, BIPOC and artists from the Global South – are astounding. As an audience, one must declare their mode of transport to Venice while purchasing tickets to the show. This is not done as profiling of its audience but an assessment of the Biennales carbon impact in a bid towards carbon neutrality. Together, this much needed show albeit delayed, proved that women and ‘non-dominant’ voices are key to uplifting humanity through the pandemic and global atrocities, and provide the compass to navigate post-pandemic predicament. 

Characteristically, the Biennale presents art that surveys the best of ‘the world’ and its zeitgeist. It is a show of technique and conceptual progressiveness. As the works become more demanding of the audience (time invested to watch a film or read a lengthy exhibition write-up) each edition, they are increasingly relevant and urgent. Every edition poses new challenge to the archaic traditions of the Venice Biennale and its framework of the national pavilion. Notwithstanding, this year’s national pavilions display post-pandemic contemplations which are less self-absorbed in the national narrative but digs deeper into history and further into our future. 

Delving into transcultural standpoints, this article investigates what it means for national pavilions at the Venice Biennale to present collaborative models of art at this juncture of the world catastrophes. These pavilions illustrate that our practices, cultures and histories and futures are intertwined, necessitating active collaboration and acknowledgement of agency as integral parts of the artistic production and processes.

The Philippines: Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana / All of us present, This is our gathering

A gathering is proposed at the Philippine Pavilion, one of two national pavilions of the Southeast Asian region represented this year. Entering a tunnel, a chant is heard and seen painted with squid ink using artist Gerardo Tan’s tongue in a two-channel video. This local Philippine sogna is sang as an invitation to enter a dialogue between traditions and modernity. Woven textures are suspended from the ceiling and some spread across the floor. Upon closer look, there’s something systematic and static about these patterns, not quite what is commonly seen in Southeast Asia. The musical qualities of sound produced from looms when weaving is ‘transcribed’ by ethnomusicologist Felicidad Prudente where she produces a new language of musical notes independent of the western musical system. A third-generation weaver, Sammy Buhle, then interprets accordingly to this language to create theses rhythmic patterns, creating a constant repeat loop of translation.

Installation view, Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana / All of us present, This is our gathering, Philippine Pavilion 2022, Arsenale, 59th Venice Biennale.

Photo by Sophy Tio.

The Philippine Pavilion presents a consideration of the disparate cultures (and tongues) across the Philippine archipelago. Through a multidisciplinary visualisation of music, sound and the craft of weaving, the exchange and reinterpretations across fields concocts a new language within the façade of the typecasted ‘old’ culture of weaving. Fetishising the exotic or cashing in on indigeneity is not the attempt here, but the exhibition signals to audience that this synthesis is contemporary, current and the everyday. What is yielded is this collective consciousness, invitation to a gathering and call for dialogue. 

Chile: Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol

The breadth and depth of collaboration in the Chilean precedes the queue that forms outside its pavilion. Hol-Hol Tolmeans “the heart of the peatlands” in the language of Selk’nam people, the indigenous of Tierra del Fuego (present day Argentina and Chile), in Patagonia. Chilean artists Ariel Bustamante (sound), Carla Macchiavello (art historian), Dominga Stomayor (film maker), Alfredo Thiermann (architect) takes us back to Mother Earth, as a solution to undo, if not slow down, climate degradation. 

Installation view, Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol, Chilean Pavilion, Arsenale, 59th Venice Biennale. Photo by Sophy Tio.

Installation view, Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol, Chilean Pavilion, Arsenale, 59th Venice Biennale.

Photo by Sophy Tio.

The immersive pavilion recreates the ecosystems of the peat bogs from Patagonia with scientists engaged in Germany alongside a theatrical multimedia installation with a scaffolding-like enclosure that invites audience to absorb the sight, scent and sounds of the peatlands. In order to establish this harmony the Selk’nams had with nature, this team of collaborators are conscious of the local knowledge and consultations needed with locals, scientists, researchers and activists to present a thoroughly sustainable project. 

At the core of this pavilion is to rethink the role of art (and an extravagant affair such as the Biennale) and mobilise communities towards the nature around us. Inspirationally, the ‘ongoingness’ of art that the pavilion espouses isn’t just all talk. A “Venice Agreement” was signed by peatland custodians around the world as transnational and transcultural commitment to cultural and ecological conservation. Furthermore, the afterlife of the pavilion is carefully transpired as the peat samples will be donated to a local Italian community with necessary knowledge. This transdisciplinary collaboration is complex and processual but a model we need for art to be an active agent of change.

Installation view, Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol, Chilean Pavilion, Arsenale, 59th Venice Biennale.

Photo by Sophy Tio.

Nordic: The Sámi Pavilion 

A piece of hide obscures the sign reading “Finlandia, Norvegia, Svezia” (Finland, Norway, Sweden) at the entrance of the Nordic Pavilion this year. The Nordic contingent has been challenging the nature of ‘national pavilions’ in the history of the Biennale, but the takeover by Sámi artists takes a step further with this transcultural approach. Transformed into the Sámi Pavilion, the pavilion cries out to a shared reality – the dire situations of the indigenous natives in the European artic region. 

This unprecedented act by indigenous artists Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna comes in due time to address the colonial oppression and its legacies amidst climate degradation. For one, Sara’s elegantly suspended sculptures look like a hygge piece by your fireplace from afar. Up close, they present an olfactory awakening of reindeer odours (artist worked with perfumiest to fabricate two scents – reindeer in danger and joyous), a carcass of baby reindeer enclosed delicately in a chandelier-like twines from nature and scattered around is the parts of reindeer, emptied out and decaying. The works seemingly convey the lives of the Sámi people; their struggles, land dispossession, humans increasingly strained relationship with nature and their reindeer population. 

The curatorial decision to invite not just indigenous artists but also Sámi descendants as pavilion assistants is a highlight of its own. The group of young Sami activists called ‘Path Finders’ don on their ethnic garb presents you not only the insights of the artworks, but the core of the project – the stories of their people. Ingenuity nested in sincerity shines through the pavilion as you speak to these passionate youths whose own culture is at stake. Here, the rhetoric of decolonisation becomes practice and art doesn’t just become a medium. It turns into an accomplice – its activates and form allies.

Estonia – Orchidelirium: An Appetite for Abundance

Colonial entanglements past and present is explored in the Estonian Pavilion as well. This Biennale, the Estonian Pavilion is housed within the Dutch-owned pavilion at the Giardini. A brave yet strategic gesture by the Netherlands to give up its historical pavilion to a Baltic country, Estonia who they share deep historical ties with. 

Installation view, Orchidelirium: An Appetite for Abundance, Estonian Pavilion, Giardini, 59th Venice Biennale.

Photo by Sophy Tio.

Estonia’s curator Corina Apostol is not blind to the politics of borrowing from the Dutch, as she toys with Dutch-Estonia connection through centering its curatorial approach on Estonian botanical artist Emilie Saal (1871-1954). Saal becomes the transcultural agent through which this intertwining of Netherlands, then Russian occupied Estonia and colonial Indonesia is investigated. The fascination with Saal who reaped benefits of a colonial elite in Dutch Indonesia but was a Russian colonised subject herself holds a grip on to the audience as the responding artworks- artist Kiraina Norman trilogy of films and Bita Razavi’s kinetic sculpture- deconstruct botany as the colonisers’ obsession to collect, study and co-opt. 

Installation view, Orchidelirium: An Appetite for Abundance, Estonian Pavilion, Giardini, 59th Venice Biennale.

Photo by Sophy Tio.

The pavilion refrains from dwelling on victimhood, but instead reminds us that these colonial legacies continue today as we get sorted into different entrances by the gatekeepers of the pavilion. Yet, this conscientious inclusion of Indonesian colonial history pleasantly gives voice to stories that unheard, necessary complicating the post-colonial binaries of us versus them, coloniser-colonised. 

Installation view, Orchidelirium: An Appetite for Abundance, Estonian Pavilion, Giardini, 59th Venice Biennale. Photo by Sophy Tio.

Assessing the Biennale in the Age of Crises

Thanks to the pandemic 2022 marks the rare occasion when the two major international art events, the Venice Biennale and documenta, coincide. While highly anticipated, recent controversies and debates surrounding documenta15 seem to suggest a disjuncture amongst ideas of post-pandemic contemplation. Any mention of the word ‘collaboration’ or synonyms that point to collective action may jolt the ‘Euro-American’ art public (the same group are seemingly allergic to the term ‘lumbung’ after the debacle at documenta15 mid-this year). Yet, these words are not just buzzword, but are vocabulary aligned with sustainable development goals that emphasis the vital need for a holistic approach for our future.

Curatorial strategies continue to question the relevance of these fixed categories of nations and borders. The transcultural approach seen in these pavilions recognise the common goal to strive towards, and hence use Biennale as that platform to invoke change not for the sake of a brand, but to make a statement, impress and reiterate urgency. 

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