Cecilia Alemani: ‘I Think the Shows Have Become More Professional or More Perfected, and Kind of Lost’

The curator talks about her approach to the 59th International Art Exhibition and restoring energy to the Venice Biennale

BY Matthew McLean AND Cecilia Alemani in Interviews | 22 APR 22

Matthew McLean So the title of the Biennale's exhibition ['The Milk of Dreams'] is taken from that of a book by Leonora Carrington. It's based on the fables that Carrington created to tell her own children. Could you tell me what drew you to this text, and what it means for you to use this as a title for the Biennale?

Cecilia Alemani Since the beginning I knew that I wanted to do a transhistorical show and I knew that I would want to have Leonora Carrington in it. And then I started reading a lot of her books. She is a wonderful, really talented writer: she wrote incredible short stories and novels. And then right at the end of my research I bumped into this little kid’s book, which I honestly did not know before. And it just made so much sense, at the point I was at, to use the title to convey so much of the atmosphere and the temperature of the show that I already was building. The book, as you say, it’s a children’s book, but not really. When I read it to my son, who is six, he was like, 'Mama, you crazy!'

It's a book that, under the appearance of a children’s book, talks about transformations, and hybrid creatures. And in a way it celebrates a world where there is the freedom of transformation, of changing, of becoming something or someone else. And that was very much the spirit of the show. So it made sense to appropriate the book's title for my show.

It's interesting because there are other artists in the show, like Paula Rego, Claude Cahun and Lise Deharme, who have done either books or illustrations for kids. And there is a little cabinet in the pavilion where we gather them, and they’re all creepy and horrifying. So, something is in the air.

‘Capsula 1 – La Culla della Strega’ (Capsule 2 – The Witch’s Cradle), 2022, exhibition view, Central Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Roberto Marossi

MM Can you tell us some of the key themes or propositions you want to emphasize in the exhibition?

CA Yes, sure. 'The Milk of Dreams' is articulated around three main thematic threads. They run parallel; sometimes they’re evident, other times they’re a bit more hidden. But the first one, the one I started with, is the idea of metamorphosis. Which of course is something that has been in artists’ minds for millennia – artists and poets and writers. But I think it’s a topic that became so incredibly evident during the pandemic.

At first I was working on the idea of how our bodies are changing, through transformation, and also issues of identity and gender and race. And then the pandemic exploded. So, the reflections that were very much on the theoretical side became very, very real. The second theme is how bodies are changing also with the impact of new technologies. And not necessarily just new, but thinking also back to the introduction of computers and other machines. And then finally our relationship with what’s around us: other people, but also the animals and plants, and the planet as a whole. Let’s say that the body’s always the focus and the pivot of the show, understood or seen through these different lenses.

Kapwani Kiwanga, works from the ‘Sunset Horizon’ and ’Hour glass’ series, 2022, installation view, Arsenale at the 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist and La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Roberto Marossi

MM It's one of the larger Biennales of recent years in terms of the number of artists included, and there are also some really ambitious new commissions. Could you share some touchpoints visitors can use to navigate through the exhibition?

CA The show includes the work of 213 artists. They come from 58 nations, which is a very high number. And I say that because, as you can imagine, I did the show just from my desk. And so I tried to travel with my imagination and visit many countries that I couldn’t actually visit in person. I managed with the help of many people to do quite an international show. And the show is conceived as a progression, or alternation between very concentrated moments, which are these time capsules that I put together.

And then there are larger, more breathable experiences. And those are sometimes site-specific installations, like the work of Delcy Morelos or Barbara Kruger or Kapwani Kiwanga. So, when it came to the gallery space of the Corderie, which is a monotonous and long one, the idea of being able to alternate the experience for the visitor was very important.

‘Capsula 2 – Corpo Orbita’ (Capsule 2 – The Orbiting Body), 2022, exhibition view, Central Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Roberto Marossi

MM Were there any past editions of the Biennale, or other historic exhibitions, that were inspirations for you, or simply reference points – and is there a lineage of exhibition-making that you’d like this show to be understood in?

CA Well, there are exhibitions that I looked back at; I don’t know if they’re inspirational. I think the first Biennale I saw was 1999: it was the first Harald Szeemann one, and there was energy and excitement. I remember walking in the central room of the pavilion with this piece by Katharina Fritsch with the giant rats. It just blew my mind.

And then I think also Francesco Bonami's Biennale in 2003, which many people hated because it was so hot during the opening. But actually, retrospectively, it is one of the most unique and powerful shows that has been put together. Bonami also had a gigantic number of artists, many more than I do. But the effervescence and the freedom that that show had I have not seen afterwards. I think the shows have become, in a way, more professional or more perfected, and kind of lost.

And then a show that was in a way quite important was one I haven’t seen, the 1948 Biennale, the one after the World War Two, which was the last time the Biennale was forced to postpone or to cancel. So that’s kind of a scary comparison. But the ’48 show was really considered a rebirth Biennale, the moment where people came back together after 20 years of fascism. It was a show that both introduced new tendencies and new movement, but also looked back at what was cancelled and censored during fascism.

Delcy Morelos, Earthly Paradise, 2022, installation view, Arsenale at the 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist and La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Roberto Marossi

MM Well that leads me on nicely to the next question I want to ask you, about looking back. The historical span of this exhibition is an outlier in terms of recent Biennales; it doesn’t just focus on the ultra-contemporary, but reaches back to the 17th century.

CA Yes, the show is punctuated by five time capsules, basically five mini exhibitions within the exhibition. They are often focused around themes of the show, like the idea of metamorphosis, the idea of the cyborg as a hybrid figure. They function as the roots of the show.

And they bring together artists – mainly from the 20th century, but with some exceptions – who looked at similar themes, or adopted similar methodologies to artists that were often put aside by history. These presentations mainly include women artists. I was very intentional in putting them together. And I was only able to do it because I had the extra year, because otherwise it would have been impossible. These works have incredible museum loans, which take years sometimes to get.

The idea to me is for the visitor to enter these spaces and find themselves in a completely different dimension. They’re hung in different ways, they have trims, carpets, wallpaper and fabric. The idea is to find yourself in another dimension which could be maybe Paris in the 1920s, or Italy in the 1960s, in an Olivetti store. We evoke, through the exhibition design, a different time.

‘Capsula 3 –Tecnologie dell’incanto’ (Capsule 3 – Technologies of Enchantment), 2022, exhibition view, Central Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Marco Cappelletti

MM You talk about many historically overlooked artists being female. The edition has a majority of female artists, and more female artists in absolute terms than any before; I believe more trans and non-binary artists, also. To what extent was that a conscious objective, and to what extent an organic outcome of themes you wanted to explore?

CA It was very much a process. I think as a curator I’ve often worked with and supported women artists. But when I wanted to invite a man, I invited a man. I did not use any quotas or any percentage. Usually when you do the show, you have less than a year – so you invite people in three months. In this case I had a longer time. So, I think, first of all, the show is a reflection of the world, and the society we live in. It's not acceptable that you should do a show with 20 percent women artists, because it’s just not a reflection of our society. But it’s also a reflection on the history itself of the Venice Biennale, which has been around for 127 years. And just in the last edition, curated by Ralph Rugoff, he achieved an equity between male and female.

I think it is important to remember that in 57 editions of the Venice Biennale over 125 years, there has been always, always, always a great majority of males. And it’s never been a problem. And to me it’s interesting that gender becomes a topic of interest when you reverse it. Although, again, this is not a show about women artists. It’s a show that features the work of many great women artists. But my hope is that you can see this show without reading where the artists come from, or who they are, and just enjoy the show as it is.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Beginning/Middle/End), 2022, installation view, Arsenale at the 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist and La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Roberto Marossi

MM It makes me think of Komal Shah, whom you know, who resists calling her collection of work by women artists an ‘all-female collection’ – she says, ‘If it was a collection of all men, nobody would ever call it ‘an all-male collection.’

You curated the magnificent Italian Pavilion in 2017. But otherwise, a lot of your curatorial work has been quite different in terms of context to this one – on the Projects program at Frieze New York where we met, for example, and at the High Line in New York. Can you talk about how working in that sort of context might have informed or influenced your approach to this show?

CA There was definitely an influence. I think the most evident thing is that you have to deal with a space like the Corderie, which is not a museum. The Corderie is almost an outdoor space, because you can’t hang anything on the walls. And you cannot touch the column, you cannot hang anything from the ceiling. So it almost looks like the High Line in that way.

But I think what both the High Line and the other projects that I did, for instance for Frieze, taught me, is to always consider the space where the projects happen, and be respectful, and not try to neutralize it. Which is something that I tried to do, especially with the Italian Pavilion back in 2017. But also here in the Corderie, I tried to create a journey that does not cancel the space – you’re never going to win if you work against it. You think about how you can create a rhythm, a pace that alternates between larger moments and more concentrated moments.

‘Capsula 4 – Una foglia una zucca un guscio una rete una borsa una tracolla una bisaccia una bottiglia una pentola una scatola un contenitore’ (Capsule 4 – A Leaf a Gourd a Shell a Net a Bag a Sling a Sack a Bottle a Pot a Box a Container), 2022, exhibition view, Arsenale at the 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Roberto Marossi

MM Going back to something you said earlier, it's interesting to hear you talk about the impact of seeing Katharina Fritsch here in the past. And this is obviously an important year for her, winning the Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. It's interesting to see careers come full circle somehow.

CA Yes. When I started working on the show back in January 2020, I sat with one idea. I knew how I wanted to start the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale. I knew I wanted [Katharina Fritsch's] Elephant (1987) in the Sala Chini, which is this gorgeous 1920s room, the only circular room in the Pavilion, and to start with [Simone Leigh's] Brick House (2019). They both caused me a lot of stress, because it was so late; we didn’t know if Brick House would make it on time.

I have a soft spot, of course, for sculpture, and Katharina Fritsch has done incredible public artworks; I think she is one of the most talented artists working today. And of course she’s known, but she has never gotten the same recognition as someone like Jeff Koons or Charlie [Charles] Ray. And she’s as talented, if not more so.

‘Capsula 5 – La seduzione del cyborg’ (Capsule 5 – Seduction of the Cyborg), 2022, exhibition view, Arsenale at the 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Roberto Marossi

MM So finally, what are you most looking forward to doing after this?

CA To be in silence, and never do a Zoom call again. Never. Because I spent two years talking to the screen, and it ruined my life.

The Milk of Dreams’, curated by Cecilia Alemani, is on view at the Giardini and the Arsenale at the 59th Venice Biennale from 23 April to 27 November 2022.

For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main image: Simone Leigh, Brick House, 2019, installation view, Arsenale at the 59th Venice Biennale, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Roberto Marossi

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.

Cecilia Alemani is an Italian curator based in New York. She is the Artistic Director of the 59th International Art Exhibition (2022) in Venice.