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Cecilia Alemani on Curating a Venice Biennale Heavy on Female Surrealists: ‘I Didn’t Need to Include to Salvador Dalí’

On Wednesday morning, the Venice Biennale, the biggest art exhibition in the world, revealed the artists lined up to participate in the 2022 edition of the Italian art festival, which opens in April. With 213 participants, this Biennale, curated by Cecilia Alemani, will be a very different one for a couple key reasons: more than three-quarters of the artists are female or gender nonconforming, and around a fifth of the list is composed of figures more closely associated with the 20th-century avant-garde. This Biennale promises to be a very different one from ones held in years past. To hear more about it, ARTnews spoke by Zoom with Alemani shortly after the list was revealed.

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A pair of mysterious eyes loom

When we first spoke about the Biennale in 2020, you mentioned that you didn’t want to do a “coronavirus biennial.” How did you ensure that your biennial would remain contemporary while also largely avoiding the pandemic?

The short answer is that I listen to artists. It’s been the hardest for artists to internalize all this uncertainty. I wanted to talk to them, to see how they were actually dealing with the pandemic. In many of the works that you will see on the show, it’s in there, but not in a sort of illustrative or didactic way. There is very little that talks about the virus in that way. And that was not necessarily a choice—it was very much what they found and what I discovered.

This isn’t the first time that historical artists have been included in the Venice Biennale, but rarely do they account for such a large part of the list. Had you always known you wanted to include so many?

Oh, I think it was more related to the fact that I had ended up having more time [to curate the Biennale’s main exhibition]. While maybe in the beginning I might have thought about including some historical art, this idea of the “time capsules” really came because I had more time to deepen my knowledge and talk to artists. That’s something that I think will feel different from other shows that have included historical artists because the structure is so isolated—they’re kind of bubbles around the show, the time capsules. They’re installed within vitrines and with special carpeting. It will feel very different.

How did you go about finding these artists? Did you know in advance which ones you wanted to focus on?

I started, but then, I really learned a lot. I had a lot of people helped me. I had an amazing person called Stefano Muthu, who is a Ph.D. student here in Venice, help me do research and find us some weird things that are not necessarily art. It was very much a digging process. What I showed today in the presentation is very much part of what you’ll see, but there are also things that are really unknown and weird and quirky. And I really like the idea of having things that are not necessarily art objects because I think they just enrich this idea of the time capsule or the cabinet.

What I’m noticing based on the more historical artists in the show and some of the younger ones being positioned alongside them is that we’re seeing two themes emerge. We’re seeing a new kind of Surrealism being played out by many of these younger artists, as well as an interest in the possibilities of the body. Am I right in seeing those themes?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think in a way, just going back to what I said in the conference, the artists summarize it is so much better than I do. I love the idea of overcoming the centrality of man and then becoming earth, becoming machine, becoming nature. These are certainly the leitmotifs of the show.

Much of the artist list—perhaps an unusual amount for the Biennale—is women and gender nonconforming artists. Was that a goal that you had had in mind while organizing it, or did that evolve organically?

It actually really evolved. It’s a very different pace, organizing the show in one year versus two years. If I had to stick with the original timeline, as soon as you were nominated, you have to start inviting people. I had invited a few artists in April, and then the show was postponed in May, so I had the luxury of taking a break. Well, not a break. I used that to study and to expand knowledge and do a lot of research, not physically but with people who helped me. I started, as I often have, with a lot of women artists, and then I started thinking of these historical works. With those capsules, I made a point of focusing on women artists because I wanted to try to bring to the surface those stories that have been considered by many to be minor. Surrealism, Futurism, all those movements—they all had female artists. But very few are able to actually mention a female Futurist artist or a female Bauhaus artist. I wanted to make the point of focusing on their stories because I felt I did not need to include Salvador Dalí or Marcel Duchamp or Max Ernst, who are very well-known. That was intentional, but in the rest of the show, quite honestly, it wasn’t. I didn’t put up any stats or hurdles in place.

This also may have been unconscious, but it seems that there’s more Indigenous artists than usual. Was that intentional?

I think that was something that came very much from, again, the sort of anthropocentric themes of the show and thinking about different forms of epistemology and different forms of knowledge that are not the Western ones. And of course, you know, there are plenty of exhibitions and institutions that are giving relevance to Indigenous artists. I think it was important for me. And, to be very honest and maybe cheesy, I just love these artists’ work. Some of them I had the pleasure of meeting, some them I couldn’t. It is an important element of the show, not just because they are Indigenous, but because they bring to the fore a different way of storytelling that is not the traditional one.

Around 80 of these artists are making new works for the show. Some, like Cecilia Vicuña, are even responding to the site itself. How is the production of those new works going, given that they can’t travel there?

You know, we’ll hopefully figure it out! [Laughs.] I just want to be optimistic that in the next few weeks, things will get better, and we have an excellent team here. We’ll do everything possible to protect the spaces and to do preliminary works before so that when the artists come, they can really focus on the finishing touches. But that’s unfortunately the sort of question marks of these big shows. You assume that people will be able to travel, and I still think they will, but if that doesn’t happen, we’ll find a solution to make that happen remotely. I mean, nowadays, you can do anything with Zoom. I don’t want to do everything with Zoom, but you could.

I think that all of us will be glad never to have to use Zoom again once the pandemic is done, at whatever point that is. Other than that, what are you most excited for?

I’m excited to start installing. I’m excited to start seeing the artworks in the space. You know, I was so excited yesterday when I went to the Arsenale and they built already half of the walls. It’s getting so real. It’s been so long working on this virtually that I just want to get my hands dirty. I want to install. I want the artists to be here. I want to discuss. I’m sure they’re going to have a lot to discuss, but I want to get to the juice of things.

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