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And the Golden Lion Goes To…: Our Predictions for the Venice Biennale’s Award Winners

With the preview days for the Venice Biennale having come to close, everyone is now buzzing about who will win the show’s awards. There are two main ones: one for a national pavilion, the other for a participant in the main show—plus another, the Silver Lion, for a promising young artist.

The jury for the prize’s are also allowed to make one special mention for national pavilions and two special mentions for artists in the central exhibition. The lifetime achievement awards, also for artists in the main show, were given to Cecilia Vicuña and Katharina Fritsch already.

This year’s jury, who were recommended by the main exhibition’s artistic director Cecilia Alemani, consists of Lorenzo Giusti, the director of GAMeC Bergamo in Italy; Julieta González, artistic director of Instituto Inhotim in Brazil; Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, the founder of Savvy Contemporary in Berlin, artistic director of Sonsbeek 20–24 in the Netherlands, and the incoming director of Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin; Susanne Pfeffer, director of Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt; and the jury’s president Adrienne Edwards, director of curatorial affairs at the Whitney Museum in New York and co-curator of the 2022 Whitney Biennial.

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Who will reign victorious at the world’s biggest art festival? We won’t know for sure until the weekend. For now, however, ARTnews has made some guesses about the winners.

Golden Lion for National Participation

Who will win: There’s still no obvious winner for this award—which is a surprise, given that by the time previews are over, a clear frontrunner has typically emerged. But looking at what has received the most attention is a good way to predict the outcome.

Ahead of the Biennale, the Sámi Pavilion garnered notice because of its name change—it’s typically called the Nordic Pavilion, though it now is titled after Europe’s only Indigenous nation. The three artists who showed there, Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna, are all members of it. Reporters were given special access to the artists in advance, and lengthy pieces about the pavilion’s making appeared in these pages, the New York Times, Artnet News, and other publications prior to the Biennale’s opening. While the pavilion failed to generate the crowds that other national entries received upon the show’s inauguration, it still could be a strong contender.

Because of the war being waged there, Ukraine has the other pavilion that was lavished with international attention ahead of the Biennale’s opening. Curator Maria Lanko lugged Pavlo Makov’s installation to the Biennale in the trunk of her car, and against all odds, the work appeared as planned. The consensus seems to be that the work itself wasn’t as high-quality as some hoped, but the conditions of its display are for obvious reasons highly notable. Even if this pavilion does not win a Golden Lion, it could still receive a special mention from the jury in some way or another.

Within the U.S., Simone Leigh’s pavilion earned her national attention, partly because she was the first Black woman to represent the country and partly because a rush of praise has followed her sculptures over the past few years. Many were impressed by the pavilion’s spare curation (which came courtesy of Eva Respini) and the scope of the works on view. If Leigh won, it would be the first time the United States took the prize since 2009. Zineb Sedira’s French Pavilion also was drawing winding lines after its initial opening, and the work inside was also widely praised.

Who should win: Sedira’s French Pavilion evinced a wit and a conceptual density that was missing from so many other pavilions this time around. In this show focused on the Algerian independence movement, Sedira debuted installations, photography, sound, performance, archival materials, and a film, all of it focused on representations of Algeria in works by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, and more. She aptly considered the role that these images continue to play for people of Algerian descent like herself and made a solid claim for the importance of solidarity that goes beyond borders—a more nuanced way of resisting the concept of nationhood than other, more performative pavilions that were on view this year.

Golden Lion for Best Artist of the Central Exhibition

Who will win: This is also a difficult award to peg, for both the usual reasons and ones more particular to this specific Biennale. Traditionally, the jury has awarded its main show Golden Lion to somewhat idiosyncratic choices. This time, however, there’s also the issue of so many artists in the main show being dead—never before has a deceased winner been named. Could a dead artist be named the winner? It’s not impossible—nowhere on the Biennale’s website does it say the winner has to be living—but it seems unlikely.

What it may come down to, ultimately, is the placement of works. Cecilia Vicuña and Katharina Fritsch, the two winners of the lifetime achievement Golden Lion awards, were afforded particularly big spaces for their art, so it would seem that someone who has a grand display of their work would be named the winner.

If that is the case, it will probably be Delcy Morelos, whose installation Earthly Paradise (2022) is an angular sculpture composed of packed-in soil that is augmented with the scent of cloves, cinnamon, and cocoa. Delicious in both a conceptual sense and an olfactory one, it has charmed visitors by dint of its maze-like structure, which encourages viewers to spend some time navigating it.

Who should win: Morelos would not be a bad winner of this prize, as one of the works here that strikes the right balance between crowd-pleasing aesthetics and weighty ideas. But given her under-acknowledged contributions to the field of painting over the years, it should be Miriam Cahn. While Cahn’s work is starting to be seen with greater frequency, primarily in European museums and biennials, her paintings alluding to psychological and physical violence still do not have the attention they deserve. At the Biennale, an installation of them that functions as a mini-survey is among the best offerings. It features misshapen figures being punched, a couple fornicating in a seemingly nonconsensual embrace, and her signature images of people without various facial features emerging from abstract backgrounds—and makes a great case for giving her this distinction.

Silver Lion for Most Promising Young Artist of the Exhibition

Who will win: Precious Okoyomon, the artist behind a gorgeous installation that closes out the Arsenale section, has been the talk of many in Venice. Their work in the Biennale features kudzu, sugar cane, butterflies, sculptures of deity-like beings, and more, in what is certainly the show’s most spectacular piece. One of the youngest artists in the show, Okoyomon has produced what may be the sole work that is universally agreed to be a must-see here.

Other contenders might include Mire Lee, whose pleasantly gross sculpture composed of entrail-like elements slumped over scaffolding dominates one room in the Arsenale, and Tau Lewis, whose gigantic sculptures resembling masks are attention-grabbing without resorting to gimmicky tactics. Curator Mark Godfrey, formerly of Tate Modern, posted pictures of Lewis’s sculptures, writing, “Surely award winner!” That’s never a bad sign.

Who should win: Okoyomon’s installation would be well deserving of the Golden Lion, not only because it syncs up so well with the show’s theme, but also because of the clarity of its vision. “The Milk of Dreams” focuses on a resurgence of Surrealism as a means of coping with a chaotic world, and indeed, the universe Okoyomon presents is one that looks quite unlike our own. It is effectively a work about nature acting as anti-colonialist protest, forcing humanity to wind its way through flora brought from Asia to the U.S. in the 19th century as opposed to the other way around.

That sort of subject matter can often feel dry and academic, but Okoyomon’s take on it is rather moving and quite beautiful. Plus, it is has excellent landscaping—something you couldn’t say for any other work involving biological material here.

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