Sovereignty, Simone Leigh
Simone Leigh has transformed the US pavilion with her Façade installation that runs a thatch skirt and wooden columns around the building. It covers the classical architecture that is reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, where more than 400 enslaved people once lived and worked during his lifetime. This is a pavilion reclaimed by the first Black female artist to represent the US and Leigh’s 7m-tall bronze sculpture, based on D’mba headdresses in the shape of a female bust, towers over visitors as they arrive.
Leigh’s work explores the Black female body and imagery from the African diaspora—how it has been portrayed and used by other people. But while here the objects take on that familiar imagery, Leigh gives it her own spin, blowing them up in scale. Inside, two huge white stoneware pieces, Jug and Anonymous (both 2022), segway into the totemic bronze Sentinel (2022), based on fertility objects, which rises up into the rotunda space.
An accompanying black and white film shows the manual labour of making the work: pieces being moved, hands slowly coiling clay and being scrubbed clean in water as the artist’s hair falls into shot. The video seems to be a meditation on the craft of the studio. The final room of sculptures brings in colour: the Yves Klein blue glaze of the Martinique (2022) and the sage greys and sandy browns of Sphinx (2022) complement the raffia grass skirts of Cupboard (2022). A lone fire extinguisher sits idly behind the pieces, an unintentional symbol of the quiet combustibility of these works.
The Nature of the Game, Francis Alÿs
The whoops, howls, chatter and laughter of unruly children are not normally welcome in art exhibitions, but here they take centre stage, filling the Belgian pavilion with a joyful cacophony. The sounds accompany a “playground” of screens showing a selection of short films of children’s games made by the Belgian-born, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs (weary Biennale visitors will be gratified to know that most are around five minutes long).
Among them are snippets of competitive snail racing in Belgium, kite-flying in Afghanistan, mimicking mosquitoes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and pandemic-era tag in Mexico—where one viral child in a red mask gradually catches and contaminates all the rest.
Though the films were shot on four different continents, what emerges is the universality and natural ingenuity of child’s play. The games rely less on the scant props—a few broken shards of mirror, a tyre, a marble—than on the power of collective imagination. Alÿs’s postcard-sized paintings in the side galleries complicate the picture of innocent fun, situating the figures of children within zones of political conflict.
2011 ≠ 1848, Stan Douglas
“Be careful what you consume.” “Tomorrow will be better.” “Time is running out.” These profound messages rain down, at breakneck speed, from the mouths of the rappers Lady Sanity and TrueMendous, in an improvised studio in Tottenham, north London, and their Egyptian counterparts, Joker and Raptor, from their makeshift bunker in a not-so-salubrious corner of Cairo. They are facing off as they rap, communicating and collaborating via phone lines.
The artist Stan Douglas has beamed the interiors of each studio onto two huge opposing screens for one part of his Biennale presentation, located in the Magazzini del Sale No. 5, a sixteenth-century salt warehouse on Dorsoduro. To stand between these videos is to be immersed in a sonic barrage—a superlative call and response between London Grime, the contemporary hip-hop/garage/jungle offshoot, and Cairo Mahraganat, a form of electro-infused Egyptian folk music. Douglas describes this new form of musical exchange as “the soundtrack of the revolts and protests” that erupted across the world simultaneously in 2011.
In the second half of Douglas's presentation, at the Giardini, hang four massive photographs, each of which stage and re-enact historic moments from 2011, from the protests on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis on 12 January 2011 to the Occupy Wall Street protesters on New York’s Brooklyn Bridge on 1 October 2011. Douglas’s photographs are a technological masterclass. He has turned chaotic scenes into dramatic tableaus of impossible detail. They are peans, in sound and light, to what is increasingly a truism: art at its best is an act of resistance.
Gyre, Yunchul Kim
Pulling off a small technological and artistic feat in the Giardini's art offerings is Yunchul Kim’s series of five large-scale kinetic installations and a site-specific drawing. The exhibition combines technology and mythology, transforming matter and particles into poetry and philosophy.
Kim studied music, and it is music above all that lies at the heart of his practice. All his structures, he explains, are time based and event based; they are also fluid and dancing. This transdisciplinary approach is dramatically embodied in the giant installation Chroma V (2022), which resembles a dinosaur skeleton but is entirely generated by algorithms. This 50m-long structure, looped in a special knot, also has fish-like scales that behave like living and breathing cells. The installation's internal kinetic device causes these polymer layers to change their brightness and colour gently and mesmerically.
Equally spectacular is Argos–The Swollen Suns (2022), which detects and responds to cosmic particles as they collide with our planet’s atmosphere. This is the masterwork, sending signals that trigger the movement of the other installations in the exhibition, while emitting uncanny, pure pulsating sound. Both Chroma V and Argos, the artist says, came to him in a dream, appearing as a coiling snake among large flowers.
Dreams Have No Titles, Zineb Sedira
Stepping into the French pavilion is like venturing onto a film set—which is exactly what happens when you experience the Biennale presentation of Zineb Sedira. The French-Algerian artist focuses on Algerian cinema of the 1960s and 70s and its links to the Italian and French film industries. The subject matter is timely as 2022 is the 60th anniversary of Algeria achieving independence from France. On 5 July 1962, Algeria became a sovereign state after an eight-year war that resulted in the deaths of at least 400,000 Algerians.
The film sets are drawn from real scenes in classic movies such as The Battle of Algiers (1966) but also reflect aspects of Sedira’s life and upbringing (one of the most vibrant pavilion sets is based on Sedira’s home in Brixton, London). In a film, shown in a specially constructed cinema in the pavilion, the artist draws on autobiographical elements, melding the story of her own life with scenes directly mimicking episodes in the historic Algerian co-productions (the pavilion curators Yasmina Reggad, Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath take on a number of roles in these remakes, displaying good humour and impressive acting skills). L’Institut Français is supporting the pavilion; other sponsors include Arts Council England and the dealer Kamel Mennour who represents Sedira.
The Sámi Pavilion, Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna
Flooded with natural light and centred by three trees growing through the roof, the architecture of the Nordic pavilion subtly resonates with the themes of land dispossession and guardianship that underpin the complex works of the three artists this year. In a symbolic act of transformation, Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna have been chosen to represent the Indigenous Sámi people of Europe’s Arctic circle.
Visitors may be struck first—and most viscerally—by the olfactory elements of Sara’s suspended sculptures, which take the bodies of reindeer calves as both their subject and material. One hanging piece has the rank smell of "fear", while its pendant offers the freshness of "hope", a duality that is also explored in Sunna’s cycle of densely collaged paintings. Together they depict his family’s 50-year saga of court battles to defend their reindeer herding livelihood against the Swedish authorities. Five paintings of their struggles to date culminate in the burnt remains of a sixth, an act of destruction symbolising the open possibility of a better future.
You Are Another Me—A Cathedral of the Body, Adina Pintilie
Out on the periphery of the Giardini, it would be easy to skip the Romanian Pavilion. But arrive there on the hour (when the 45-minute video installation begins) and you will be rewarded with a profound, if deeply uncomfortable, experience.
In one room, the nine-channel work is shown on enormous screens, while a smaller installation next door shows more videos, reflected onto mirrors and held on a sculptural robotic arm that is an enlarged version of the equipment used to do the filming.
The videos are incredibly explicit. The woven narrative brings together individuals who all appear naked and tackle issues of the body, sexuality and intimacy through talking, dancing or touching. The soundtrack shifts between the interview dialogue and the magnified sounds of breathing and moaning. The videos switch from one room to the next, creating an undulating motion of audience members (all of whom are avoiding one another's eyes).
The discomfort one feels as a viewer comes from the deeply sexual content as well as the bodies themselves, which challenge "institutionalised normativity". Adina Pintilie's on-screen collaborators include a gay couple, a disabled activist and a transgender sex worker. Many visitors entered only to immediately walk out when confronted with the often difficult imagery. But stay the duration and you might find the installation quite enrapturing: a visceral and unsettling experience that will stay with you for the rest of the Biennale.