The Venice Biennale is more than a singular exhibition. It’s a wave that washes over the historic lagoon, setting up shop in all her glamorous quarters. In addition to the main event, there are collateral shows, performances, and pop-ups that all feed the mission of the season—international exchange dosed with Aperol spritzes. The 59th edition of the Biennale, curated by Cecilia Alemani, is titled The Milk of Dreams, the most appealing name of the past decade. Perhaps it’s because it is lifted from a book by Leonora Carrington, or maybe because it so vividly hints at the heavy pour of feminine energy that is its artist list. Outside that main stage, which twists its way through the main buildings of the Arsenale and the Giardini, there are the national pavilions, where artists are invited to represent their countries in a bid for the Golden Lion Prize. Usually a time for name-brand, spectacle artists to go buck wild, this year’s iteration, with its emphasis on previously untold stories and subtler practices, has a somewhat more sober feeling that aligns with the global mood. That being said, it’s still an exciting spread. Here are the sights you won’t want to miss:
The American Pavilion is an unmissable stop—and one that typically accompanies a wait in line. This year, the whole of the Jeffersonian-inspired building has been given over to the artist Simone Leigh, who has populated the space with her stoic, idiosyncratic figurative sculptures. These newly commissioned, monumental works synthesize references to the African diaspora and early Black American history, communicating holistically about the Black experience in all its tongues, triumphs and tragedies.
The Korean Pavilion eschewed its typical group presentation in favor of something a little more animated. They’ve handed over the keys to Yunchul Kim, an artist whose kinetic, cyber-punk-looking sculptures transform the space into a mechanical beast composed of parts old and new. Pumping through the veins of Kim’s sculptures is water from the Venetian lagoon.
The Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia’s epically proportioned retrospective of Anish Kapoor is so large that it spills over into the Palazzo Manfrin in Cannaregio to accommodate Kapoor’s archive of room-defining sculptures. Like any great Kapoor presentation, the show unfolds like an odyssey—sending the viewer through obstacles and wonders on the way to the crux of it, which, in this case, is a grand sun suspended over a puddle of red wax. Is it setting or is it rising?
A nice balance to Kapoor’s light-sucking black pigment is Mary Waterford’s exhibition, where you’ll find just about every other color of the rainbow. The Los Angeles-based painter has imported a suite of new artworks that respond to Titan’s chaotic masterpiece The Flaying of the Marsyas (1570-6) to dress the historical walls of the Museo di Palazzo Grimani. Rendered in her signature neon tubes and acrylic abstractions on canvas, these paintings investigate Titan’s bizarre talent for charming the warm and beautiful out of mayhem.
When billionaire François-Henri Pinault renovated the Palazzo Grassi with architect Tadao Ando in 2005, he created a new mecca for contemporary art. But it wasn’t until 2012 that the space found its niche, by honing in on a cycle of retrospectives dedicated to living artists. These solo shows, now standard Biennale fare, are always a highlight. This time around, the star is South African painter Marlene Dumas, whose confrontational figures finally have room to truly stretch out.
If you think art world has taken conceptual artist Bruce Nauman’s Contrapposto Studies as far as they could/should go, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised circumambulating the Punta Della Dogaana—where a survey highlighting the artist's self-taped walks takes up residency until November. Bottega Veneta designer Mathieu Blazy is the secret ingredient: He commissioned and designed the costumes for a suite of performances inspired by Nauman and choreographed by artists like William Forsythe, Lenio Kaklea, Ralph Lemon and Pam Tanowitz; and these live events reclaim the stakes of Nauman’s original private performances—taking the whole tableaux to new heights.
Sustainability and climate change are top of mind in Venice, given the threat that rising sea levels pose to the waterlogged city. And while the main exhibition doesn’t dwell too much on its vulnerable location, satellite shows are picking up the slack. Nicolas Bouriaud’s new nomadic project, Radicant, brings together work by Phillip Zach, Agnieszka Kurant and Max Hooper Schneider, for a three-part exhibition that looks at climate collapse through the sublime as defined by 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke: “a delight tinged with terror.”
Once the throne of Venetian political power, the Palazzo Ducale continues to be a cultural beacon for the city. This year, the gilded halls of the palace on St. Mark’s Square were given over to a living legend who always drapes himself in history: Anselm Kiefer. Kiefer characteristically approached the baroqueness and density of the space in kind by creating paintings that stretch all the way up to the frescoed ceiling. Their content? Sweeping, modern landscapes that meditate on the same essential questions the doges duked out.
No trip to the Venice Biennale should unfold without paying respect to your elders. This means a trip to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, where a new group exhibition examines the entanglement of surrealism and the occult. And who wouldn’t want to have their tarot read by Paul Delvaux or Dorothea Tanning? Who wouldn’t ouija board with Salvador Dalí? The show is frighteningly good and stuffs in all sorts of magic you might never have noticed before.
The elevator to the top of the Espace Louis Vuitton deposits you in an almost pitch black environment where your only choice is to head towards the light—which in this case is Apollo Apollo, a singular gesture by German artist Katharina Grosse, who has put her signature rainbow pigments aside to create a kaleidoscopic metallic mesh curtain that flows down from the wall like a waterfall across a sea of Louis Vuitton accessories. Enveloped in the embrace of Grosse’s curtain, the familiar shapes of desire become new again.
And if you are still in history mode, it would be wise to end up in the lush halls of the Fortuny Museum, which recently underwent a needed makeover. Once the home and atelier of Spanish fashion and textile designer Mariano Fortuny, this intimate museum illuminates the blueprint for the lifestyle brand makers of today. Not only did Fortuny deal his famous fabrics and garments out of this space, he also used it as a laboratory for his varied other interests, which ranged from theatrical lighting design and architecture to painting and photography.
If you are willing to go a little farther for a thrill, head to the Lido, the original vacation island, where the Milanese design gallery Nilufar has curated an exhibition in a 1920s terminal at the Giovanni Nicelli private airport. Nilufar founder Nina Yashar’s signature blend of contemporary and historic excellence (from Gio Ponti to Martino Gamper) plays nice with the scenic locale–and hints at bigger things to come as the recently renovated airport turns its attention to Venice’s art crowd.