For the past 127 years, the Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition has been dominated by male curators and artists. But the 59th iteration of the show—which opens this week and borrows its title, The Milk of Dreams, from a text by the surrealist Leonora Carrington—primarily features women artists. Among them is the Iranian-born American Sheree Hovsepian, who makes multidimensional work from a unique cocktail of media (including photography, natural materials like wood, and ceramics) that center human form and identity.
Hovsepian will be showing seven new works she created especially for her debut at the exhibition, which are composed from silver gelatin prints and tactile materials—an approach similar to the one Hovsepian employed during a 2021 group show she participated in at Rachel Uffner Gallery in New York. Coincidentally, that’s the very first place the Biennale’s 2022 curator, Cecilia Alemani, spied Hovsepian’s work; she was instantly hooked, and reached out to the artist to inquire about including her in the Venice lineup.
“The work that she saw aligned with her ideas of what she envisioned for the Biennale—already at that point, she had a structure for the show in mind,” Hovsepian tells me, speaking via Zoom from a family vacation in Utah. “It must have resonated with her.” Here, Hovsepian reflects on the significance of this year’s exhibition, her early photographic influences, and why reading is an integral part of her artistic practice.
Who were some of the first artists who caught your eye when you were starting out?
I studied photography in undergrad and grad school in the ’90s. It was a really precarious time for photography because there was always a threat of its disappearance; there was this sense of having to adapt to something, some new technology, something new coming. Meanwhile, painting was for the nerds. Like, it was so boring. There were a lot of feminist artists working with photography. I was looking at Lorna Simpson, I loved her work. I loved Sophie Calle, and I loved Annette Messager, who was making collage and objects that broadened the definition of what photography was—they were more material and psychological investigations, as well as identity-based works. That was really what I was mostly influenced by.
Tell me about the new work that will be featured at the Venice Biennale. Were you looking to your previous artworks for inspiration?
I come from a photography background, but I was never a picture maker, going out into the world and photographing. I always use the camera as a means to another end, and I think of photography more in terms of the material aspects: the paper, the weight, how it feels as an object. With this work, I’ve used the collage strategy, and dabbled in ceramic. Ceramics has an interesting tie with photography: they’re both materials that take an impression. Also, both go through a chemical process—and then there’s this threat of failure, something that’s out of your hands as it goes through this transformation. In making these works, I was thinking about finishing the body, or building a body through these materials that I’ve established in this body of work: the wood, the string, the pieces of ceramic.
It seems like the body, and body parts, are key themes in your latest pieces.
I was almost thinking of the body as an exquisite corpse. And the figures are actually all my sister, who I photographed exclusively for this work and have photographed for a long time because she becomes kind of a stand-in for myself. We’re physically similar, so in that way, I’m able to be both the subject and the maker of the work in two simultaneous positions.
Did you have any major revelations while working on this series?
Oh, gosh. As an artist, one can only hope for major revelations, but I am not that blessed. I have to work really hard for my revelations and sometimes, things take time. One thing I did realize, though, is how timely this exhibition is, and how fortunate I feel to be included among this group of artists. To tackle, bring in, and even talk about Surrealism right now makes so much sense. To gather so many women and people who have been marginalized in the art world before, giving them a voice, it’s been a nice guiding light. It makes me feel connected, like I’m part of something bigger, and reminds me that I’m on the right path.
Now, onto the Culture Diet questions. What is the first thing you do when you wake up?
It’s horrible, but I check my phone. And then I wake up my son to get him ready and take him to school.
What books are currently on your bedside table?
Too many! I love to read and it is a huge part of my practice. And I actually brought three of them with me to Utah: Afropessimism by Frank B. Wilderson III, Master of the Eclipse by Etel Adnan, and Photography and Belief by David Levi Strauss
What is the last piece of art you bought or have your eye on?
My husband [the artist Rashid Johnson] does most of the buying—he’s a little bit more into that. But like everything else in our collection, we ultimately decide on our purchases together. The last thing we bought that I am really excited about was a print by Ellen Gallagher. I love Ellen’s work; she is an artist who also uses collage as a medium. Her references are really wild and it’s interesting to consider what she is trying to say about how she views her subjectivity through her depictions of aliens and historical monuments.
What are your favorite social media accounts to follow?
I try not to stay on social media too much because I feel like it can be such a time suck. But I follow a lot of fashion accounts—many of them are my favorite fashion brands, like Alaïa and Balmain. But I also love Chloe Fineman, who is absolutely hilarious, and my friend Rita Nakouzi, who is the editorial director at The RealReal. I think Cindy Sherman does a great job on Instagram because she treats it as a platform in itself to show her work.
Who are some young and up-and-coming artists that you have your eye on right now?
There are a few I am excited to see in the Biennale whose work I’m not super familiar with. I really like Aneta Grzeszykowska, and I’m also interested to see Precious Okoyomon’s presentation.
Do you remember the last movie that you saw in theaters?
It's been a while, but I saw The Wife at the Angelika Film Center in New York.
What is the final thing you do before going to bed?
I like to have some tea. When I’m in bed, I try to be conscious about my day—going through it, thinking about what happened and then thinking about what I have going on the next day, instead of just passing out and falling asleep. I want to be aware and give myself a little like psych-up, an acknowledgement of what’s happening, so I can be more present.