Andrew Berardini at the 59th Venice Biennale

View of Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Devi, 1982, Rudra, 1982, Vanshree, 1994 in the Giardini della Biennale. Photo: Chloe Wyma.


The traditional death notices along the passages and vaporetto stops around Venice have more faces than usual. The blue and yellow flag of Ukraine flaps in the cold breeze blowing off the lagoon. The carnival masks stare from shop windows at the face masks of those on the other side of the glass. Mingling with the throngs of holiday tourists, an art world sweeps in on boats and trains, buses and planes into the Most Serene Republic for the professional days of the fifty-ninth Biennale di Venezia after a long pandemicked wait of three years, and amid a war of aggression in Europe.

On the train ride in, I read a cynical article by a respected art critic proudly declaiming their intentions to skip the Biennale as it has rotted into corruption, a gangrenous limb of profane commerce and a champagne sink for the cruelly wealthy. But a community, even one so often gangrenous and corrupt, can still truly sparkle to me. As I struggled down narrow passages bottlenecked by ambling bodies, I realized how much I had missed the multitudes under the spires and ornate architecture of this ridiculously beautiful if sometimes difficult city. In every corner of Venice, I recognized the faces of friends and loved ones from a scattered planet and a long life in art, some wealthy maybe, but most not, many of whom I had not seen in three long, diseased, and bloody years. The monsters of this world would like nothing more than to strangle our joy, steal our poetry, smash our celebrations, and extinguish our hopes. There is a pandemic; there is a war; we still embrace along the canals flowing with the milk of dreams.

The Milk of Dreams, a children’s book by British-Mexican Surrealist Leonora Carrington, provides the title for curator Cecilia Alemani’s central pavilion at the Biennale: an exhibition imagined from the visions of an artist who was female, corporeal, occult, fantastical, dark, funny, heartbreaking, transnational, and well, dreamy. In the face of certain horrors, we need our dreams to help us survive. In Alemani’s exhibition, I held back a few maudlin tears watching Nan Goldin’s Sirens, 2019–2020, thrilling in the bodies electric with dance and the costs that can accompany such ecstatic release. Throughout “The Milk of Dreams,” in both the Giardini and Arsenale, I found dozens of works by artists who astonished and were (perhaps embarrassingly) unknown to me, from the voluptuous ropes of Mrinalini Mukherjee to the concrete poetry of Ilsa Garnier and Mary Ellen Solt.

Curator Klaus Biesenbach. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Outside, the Giardini went from sunstroked to soaked day after day, the collected humans breaking into a sweat under heavy coats one hour and shivering from stormy winds the next. Standing in front of the vacant Russian pavilion, I tried to convince a queer Lithuanian architect I know to piss on it, but they were put off by the prowling policemen keeping it unmolested, and settled instead for a middle finger and a sigh. I spotted curator Klaus Biesenbach stand and stare at the building (with similar thoughts perhaps?), snap a picture, and stroll on through the dusty clay along the Giardini’s paths.

An elegantly dressed duo tangoed through a cinematic cafe set alongside a recreation of artist Zineb Sedira’s apartment, a valentine for post-liberation Algerian cinema in the French pavilion, titled “Dreams Have No Title.” A family of uncannily hyperrealistic centaurs, one giving birth, another hanging from a noose, bewitched Uffe Isolotto’s pavilion for Denmark. A trio of couples, queer, trans, and disabled, found intimacy and bliss across the nine screens in Adina Pintilie’s Romanian exhibition. Nearby in Poland, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, the first Roma artist to represent the country, reinterpreted the calendar frescos of the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara as a beaming rainbow quilt depicting the everyday life of her people. I entered an ear by Jonathas de Andrade in Brazil, and watched Yunchul Kim’s kaleidoscopic techno snake pulse and squirm in Korea.

Performers at Zineb Sedira’s French Pavilion.

One of the most significant national outings for me this year took place in the building that typically houses the Nordic pavilion, transformed for this turn into a pavilion for the Sámi, the Indigenous people of far Northern Europe whose ancestral lands span Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The trio of Sámi artists Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna were not alone. The first time (or so I was told) an occupied native people have received a national pavilion, Indigenous people from all over the world turned up in Venice to support and gather, and I spoke with Raven Chacon (Diné), Zack Khalil (Ojibway), Kite (Oglála Lakȟóta), and Aqui Thami (Thangmi), among the many Indigenous artists filling the streets of Venice. At 1 AM, Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore tells me, “I don’t know you, but I love you.” At 2 AM, sitting in an empty Piazza San Marco, I listened to Sámi yoik resound off the stone lions and Christian saints, the song casting a spell I won’t soon forget. 

So many of us didn’t make it, and are not making it now, and we still needed to mourn the dead and celebrate life together. And we mourned and celebrated, wept and danced.

Artists Laura Ortman and Raven Chacon, curator Candice Hopkins, and artist Jackson Polys.

Few artists I saw talked directly about the pandemic, but the memory of isolation was always there. melanie bonajo, representing Holland off-site of the Giardini this year (a friendly trade with Estonia) in the Chiesetta della Misericordia, crafted a den of touch and sensuality, sex and body posi, satin and oil, lush with video of naked humans finally together after so much sorrowful separation. (All in the same Little Church of Mercy where the French Pavilion had its legendary dance party last edition; do the walls remember the crush of our bodies?)

Around the corner, Ukrainian businessmen Victor Pinchuk had called off his foundation’s Future Generation Art Prize to host “This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom,” an exhibition devoted to Russia’s brutal, genocidal war against his home country. Between the opening remarks, I watched a video of a young woman from her basement beg us, the world, for help. She was murdered days later by the Russian military. A rite of mourning and a call to arms, a message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reminded those gathered that all free people must stand together with Ukraine now as it defends itself: “There are no tyrannies that would not try to limit art. Because they can see the power of art. Art can tell the world things that cannot be shared otherwise. Support the fight with your art. But also support it with your words and influence.”

Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro, businessman Viktor Pinchuk, and Biennale president Roberto Cicutto.

There I met Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan, who I later learned received special dispensation to come to Venice this week and would soon after return to Ukraine.

The war goes on. The pandemic goes on. But for just a moment, this moment, we can strengthen our hearts with art and friendship and dance, renew our bonds and sublime for a moment into something other than sorrow, if only to give us endurance for what lies ahead.

DJ and producer Carl Craig. Photo: Xenia Benivolski.

One night, a caped impresario guided me past servers liveried in eighteenth-century finery at a dinner to celebrate Alexandra Pirici thrown by Audemars Piguet, which concluded with a performance of darkling camp mastery by #FLUID (Paula Dunker & Alex Bălă). Two boats later, iconic Detroit DJ Carl Craig shivered the wood and stone of a cavernous warehouse with creamy beats (the milk of dreams?) to honor Stan Douglas’s riotous turn in the pavilion of Canada.

The next night, I stood at the feet of Mykki Blanco as they called to the audience, “This ain’t no Biennial shit, come closer!” before launching into one of the best concerts in memory, full of rapturous heat and hard poetry: “From the silence of Duchamp to the noise of Beuys . . . White supremacy is directly responsible for climate change.” And a day later in the same venue, I heard the voice of the ethereal, crystalline Lafawndah fight the rain to salve the hearts of a rowdy crowd.

Artist and rapper Mykki Blanco.

I’m sure for many those opening professional days ended, as so often do, in a weary hangover, barely catching the boat back home with puffy eyes and a smoky cough, but I wish to conclude this diary slightly differently, with two endings.

Choose which best suits you.

The first ending comes from a war diary entry I read by Ukrainian artist Yevgenia Belorusets in “This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom.” The statement is simple and necessary and if we repeat it enough, hopefully, the world will hear it:

“Fuck War. . . Fuck Putin.”

The second ending happens a few meters away, on a sunny afternoon where on the steps of the former church that houses “Defending Freedom”: Nikita Kadan, before returning to Ukraine, married his partner AntiGonna in a ceremony presided over by Nan Goldin.

Art and love and dancing and dreams are worth fighting for, in whatever way we can.

Artist Nan Goldin with newlywed artists Nikita Kadan and AntiGonna. Photo: Francois Ghebaly.
Newly wedded spouses Nikita Kadan and AntiGonna. Photo: Francois Ghebaly.
Artists Krista Belle Stewart, Kite, and Zack Khalil. Photo Xenia Benivolski.
Artist Anders Sunna.
Center for Contemporary Arts Estonia director Maria Arusoo.
Artist Becket MWN.
Curator Leonardo Bigazzi.
Artist Marianna Simnett.
National Gallery of Canada senior exhibitions manager Clément Lormand and curator Jonathan Shaughnessy.

Artist Michael Portnoy.
Artist collective Lou Cantor (Kolja Glaeser and Jozefina Chetko).
Artist Pilvi Takala being interviewed.
Sound designer Manuel Grandpierre, artist Adina Pintilie, and exhibition designer Martin Backhaus.
Artist Dora Budor with Kunsthaus Bregenz director Thomas D. Trummer.
Actor Alexandra Morozova of the Orta Collective in the Kazakhstan Pavilion.
Artist Hajra Waheed and writer Jayne Wilkinson.
Editor Matthew Anderson and curator Xenia Benivolski.
Florian Lüdde, Jennifer Chert, and Clarissa Tempestini of ChertLüdde.
Artist Robertas Narkus.
Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Artists Paula Dunker & Alex Bălă of #FLUID.
Artists Max Hooper Schneider and Kris Lemsalu.


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