Venice Biennale review: full of the usual silliness, but with a sense of purpose

The 59th festival of contemporary art signals an ‘epochal shift in attitudes’

Brick House, a 2019 bronze sculpture by artist Simone Leigh, exhibited at the 59th Venice Art Biennale
Brick House, a 2019 bronze sculpture by artist Simone Leigh, exhibited at the Venice Biennale
(Image credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)

“With all the horror emerging from Ukraine, a festival of contemporary art may seem, more than ever, an irrelevant indulgence,” said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. Yet for better or for worse, the Venice Biennale is “carrying on regardless”. Delayed by a year due to Covid-19, the 59th iteration follows the usual script: as usual, it involves a massive main exhibition – entitled The Milk of Dreams on this occasion – as well as no fewer than 80 different national pavilions, in which the nations of the world battle it out for the coveted Golden Lion award.

This year, the winner of the national competition was the UK’s Sonia Boyce, marking the first time a black British artist has ever been awarded the top honour. The Biennale also involves countless collateral events, from a huge Anish Kapoor show to a hastily erected “Ukrainian piazza” outside the central display. This Biennale is full of the usual silliness: “indecipherable imagery projected onto suspended pink udders; a risibly schlocky set-up inside the Danish pavilion, featuring a suicidal centaur”, but there is also an unusual sense of purpose to it.

The 59th Biennale signals an “epochal shift in attitudes”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. For one thing, the normally conspicuous Russians have stayed away: the country’s pavilion lies empty, and the oligarchs’ super-yachts are nowhere to be seen. More significantly, it represents the first time that women artists have outnumbered men at the event: in the main show, just 21 of the 213 exhibiting artists are male, while the best of the national pavilions are all designed by women.

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A “wildfire hit” is France’s Zineb Sedira, whose show – a mixture of film and “walk-in” stage sets based on memories of her childhood as the daughter of Algerian immigrants – is “a living enchantment”. Malgorzata Mirga-Tas covers Poland’s pavilion with a “colossal frieze” made entirely in appliqué, while Simone Leigh has transformed the neoclassical American pavilion into “a traditional west African building” full of large sculptures – the best of them, such as a “monumental” bell-shaped figure, “stonewall the viewer with their sheer material force”.

Boyce’s British pavilion is a real highlight, said Jackie Wullschläger in the FT. She has filled the UK space with “films of black women singing jazz, folk music and blues-infused a cappella” in an installation that champions values of “collaboration and play”. It’s the most “joyful, vibrant” British effort this century, and a deserving winner. The main exhibition, The Milk of Dreams, is less impressive: by choosing almost exclusively women, the curators have “paid a severe price in terms of quality”.

Nevertheless, there are some marvellous moments in the show. A room of Paula Rego paintings and sculptures is simply “magnificent”: her triptych Oratorio, depicting “abandoned babies and traumatised mothers”, is a truly “shocking” work that exposes the academic stiffness of much else here. A “few excellent male painters manage to scrape through”: the most “unforgettable” pieces here are from Noah Davis, one of the leading American painters of his generation before his death at the age of 32 in 2015. Full of “black figures in eerie settings”, his canvases are mournful and “ethereal”. Ultimately, though, this is a “fun” Biennale which has “galvanised” its artists to reach new heights.

Various locations, Venice (labiennale.org/en). Until 27 November

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