This year’s Venice Biennale featured an impressive number of British artists showing works in the city.
A powerful number of British artists were on show at this year’s Venice Biennale. Delayed by a year due to the pandemic, it was titled “The Milk of Dreams” by Italian curator Cecilia Alemani, Director and Chief Curator of High Line Art in New York. The name came from a book title by Leonora Carrington – an important British surrealist artist.
The two curated pavilions featured a number of British artists, including works by surrealists Carrington, Ithell Colquhoun, Mina Loy, and Eileen Agar, as well as more contemporary British artists like Paula Rego and Emma Talbot.
Sonia Boyce OBE RA secured the Biennale’s top prize – the Golden Lion – for her work “Feeling Her Way” in the British pavilion. Her installation revolves around a musical collaboration between four black female singers and a composer, which envelop you in sound as you walk between the rooms. She also champions British musicians with her display of music memorabilia, which even includes the first Spice Girls CD.
The jury said: “Sonia Boyce proposes… another reading of histories through the sonic. In working collaboratively with other black women, she unpacks a plenitude of silenced stories.” Boyce also makes a surprise appearance in the neighbouring French pavilion, where she appears in Zineb Sedira’s film.
But there’s more to the Venice Biennale than the 82 national pavilions. The programming also includes 30 collateral events, which include Alberta Whittle’s work for the “Scotland + Venice” exhibition. Tapestries and painting are shown alongside her key piece – a 40-minute film exploring colonialism, racism and migration, and closes with the artist reading the names of victims of police brutality in the UK.
Also on the list of collateral events is a collaboration between British artist Antony Gormley (best known for his “Angel of the North”) and the late Italian artist Lucio Fontana at Negozio Olivetti, which features a number of the British artist’s sculptures of his body alongside his drawings.
Gormley isn’t the only established British heavy hitter to appear in Venice. On top of the national pavilions and collateral events, there are also over 100 exhibitions taking place at this time, availing of the uptick in art-loving visitors to the city.
The main talk of the town was the colossal Anish Kapoor exhibition, which runs across two sites. The first part of the show is at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, where he is the first British artist to have an exhibition there. The second part is at Palazzo Manfrin – a space recently acquired by his foundation.
The works are enthralling and provide an opportunity to see some of his classic pieces alongside newer works, such as the ones made using Vantablack, which turn 3D pieces into 2D due to the way the coating absorbs light. The optical illusion makes them almost impossible to photograph so it’s a real treat to view them in person, as you spin from a side view to a front view and watch the 3D piece disappear into what seems to just be a black square.
Marc Quinn – one of the YBAs – also has work on show in the city at National Archaeological Museum. The paintings (and a sculpture outside the building) are based on screenshots of news stories that Quinn too during lockdown and has reinterpreted as paintings. These range from images of Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian to Time magazine covers and the war in Ukraine.
Another YBA – Fiona Banner – is exhibiting in the converted church at Patronato Salesiano. The focal point is her 10-minute film “Pranayama Organ”, shot on the south coast of England. She created two full-scale inflatable military aircrafts – a Typhoon and a Falcon – and the slow meditative video shows them slowly inflating on a beach as they conduct an almost ritual-like dance around each other.
Some artists, like Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego, also had solo shows at commercial galleries in the city, which complemented the works she has on show in the curated pavilion. Victoria Miro Venice is showing a small number of Rego’s deeply personal works, reflecting on themes such as her pregnancy and the death or her husband, many of which haven’t been exhibited to the public before and give a greater insight into her practice.
Scottish artist David Cass explores rising sea levels at his exhibition “Where Once the Waters” at Latteria Moderna. The show is split into two parts – one wall features 365 paintings of the sea on found metal tins and boxes, some of which are 130 years old. On the opposite wall, he has pinned 600 letters that he wrote to people around the world. While scientists have stated that sea levels have risen on average by around 200-240mm in the past century, Cass felt this figure wasn’t really meaningful to most people.
He contacted people across the globe, and provided them with the specific figure for their location of the increase of the sea level since they were born. For example, one man born in Edinburgh in 1954 was informed that the level had risen by 145mm, while a woman in Bangkok who was born in 1977 could see a more dramatic increase of 625mm.
London-based artist Helen Maurer is also influenced by water, having spent many years living on a boat. She is exhibiting works at Danielle Arnaud’s space in Venice, many of which feature found materials collected during lockdown, combined with sculpted glass pieces, to create drawings through projections with light.
Parasol unit, which sadly closed its space in London in 2020, organised a group show titled “Uncombed, Unforeseen, Unconstrained”, which features works from 11 international contemporary artists at the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello. Oliver Beer, who studied both musical composition and fine art, brings both together with his work “Little Gods (Chamber Organ)”. It features a keyboard connected to 32 kitschy objects that were selected for their varied resonances, and visitors are invited to play the organ to create their own sound works.
Rana Begum, who works with light and colour and whose work has been widely exhibited in the UK, including at Tate St Ives, has collaborated with artist-musician Hyetal for her work “No 694 Hyetal” in the Parasol show. Featuring 46 pieces of coloured Perspex mounted on the wall, lights on either side move up and down, casting ever-changing shadows, as the music draws the viewer into the work.
British human artists aren’t the only ones showing work in Venice. Ai-Da robot, the world’s first “ultra-realistic humanoid robot artist”, is exhibiting new works at the Concilio Europeo dell’Arte. Created by Aidan Meller, Ai-Da uses AI algorithms to create artworks including “Flowers on the banks of the Lethe” – composed of 3D printed flowers created from Ai-Da’s sketches.
The Venice Biennale runs until 27th November 2022. For more information, click here.