Absolutely to be seen. Absolutely insufficient.
We cannot accept this Biennale curated by Cecilia Alemani without criticising its renunciatory lack of concreteness in terms of what to do and how to do it.
Just to be clear, the operation is accurate and intellectually fascinating, engaging as it is some of the most influential and relevant voices in the international debate of recent decades: in particular Donna Haraway, Silvia Federici and Giusi Braidotti. So: we must acknowledge the extraordinary research work of the curator and her collaborators, who offer us the chance to learn about ideas, stories, works and lives that (in our case) we were unaware of and from which there is much, much to learn. The in-depth historical (capsule) sections both in the exhibition and in the catalogue are a resource of knowledge that is probably vital today: the “witch’s cradle” is a cathartic journey that can help shed (some of) the many layers of patriarchal and anthropocentric mystification that profoundly afflict our societies; the “iconology of containers” – based on Ursula K. Le Guin‘s carrier bag theory – offers an effective example of a narrative alternative to dominant ideas (in this case about the birth of technology) that has the potential to change the cultural prejudices that continue to “justify” extractive practices and ideologies of conquest, which are at the root of many of the problems we are suffering today. These instances, like other ideas that inhabit the worlds that this Biennale invites us to (re)discover, not only seem to me to be fully valid, but I believe it would be appropriate for them to form the basis of any contemporary cultural operation committed to tackling the epochal challenges we are facing. So, fine. But in the Bienniales I would like to see, and which we need, there should be, in my opinion, much more. So what is missing in this milk of dreams? The rennet, i.e. practices of concrete change of the reality in which we live or which the artists who exercise these practices share with other people and organisations. Society derives from the interaction between these natural and artificial reactions, and it is known that this interaction can produce excellent results – delicious cheese, to stay in the metaphor – as well as less desirable outcomes.
Such a comment was certainly to be expected from me, given that since 2000 I have been living at Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto, which is a school of these exact practices, with the explicit mission of actively contributing to rebalancing the imbalances that tear apart the social fabric and our relationship with the world. Suffice it to say that as early as 2002 and 2003 we produced the exhibition The new agora: critique is not enough, “presenting twenty-seven works that go beyond a pure critique of social institutions by seeking new collaborations or new ways of reacting”1. Since then, many projects of direct intervention in the social sphere have been conducted all over the world, of which the art system has actually taken note, in some cases even promoting their cause: even the Turner Prize awarded the Assemble in 2015 and nominated the Cooking Sections in 2021, whose practice directly engages in changing things. Documenta 14 too has invited projects such as those initiated by Rick Lowe, who with his Row House is one of the (certainly not only mine) reference points for Socially Engaged Art2. Without disturbing Beuys or Arte Povera, we only need to mention Suzanne Lacy’s New Genre Public Art and Mary Jane Jacob’s exhibition Art in Action: we are in the 1990s, which means that the status of art has been directly, and not just symbolically, involved in addressing social issues for at least thirty years. In addition to the numerous artistic projects carried out at all latitudes (just think of Tania Bruguera’s Arte Util or the experience of Creative Time), devices such as Les Nouveaux commanditaires have even anticipated and facilitated developments in the law, like the Collaboration Pacts, which originated in Bologna and brought creative collaboration for the common good into the administrations of hundreds of Italian municipalities. And it is also very important for me to acknowledge the very effective contribution that design for social innovation has made to the so-called social practice over the last fifteen years or so, exploring this same terrain with a proactive approach (i.e. design), albeit using different concepts and vocabulary. To summarise: for years now art has overcome the limit of self-referentiality or, to use a claim made by the project Visible, which represents an essential point of reference in this field, it has left its own field and become visible as part of something else3.
Subodh Gupta, Cooking the world, Galleria Continua, Cipriani, A Belmond Hotel.
Instead, Alemani herself explains that “Art works in the domain of the metaphorical and symbolic, and has the power to show us the world we live in through different eyes and lenses. The power of art is not necessarily to change the world, but to give us the tools to be the ones to change the world. I have no illusions that a video on the mining disasters in India will change anything, but it is an important element of reflection. This process provides inputs and insights that can prompt us and show us a completely new and different perspective from which to act… “4.
In the 1970s, Colombia experienced a decade of documentary activities of social denunciation, and some works from that context were referred to as “pornomisery”5, a term that highlights the ambiguity of a critical production activity that is essentially opportunistic with respect to the poverty it deals with. In this Bienniale, I seem to perceive an attitude towards the misery of the patriarchal anthropocenic anthropocentric capitalist Western modernity in some ways similar. The fleeting reference to a “perspective from which to act” seems too evanescent to really be able to act as an immobile engine of an operation as complex and rich in intelligence as this Venice Biennale.
In both the Giardini and the Arsenale, one always remains within a space dedicated and limited to the movement of disturbing in its typical forms of disturbing, perturbing and (virtually) masturbating. Let’s be clear: since today we are mainly dealing with impulses afferent to the meaning basins of the post-human and the queer, let them be welcome! As I said at the beginning of this text, these are fundamental instances, but we would like to see them accompanied by “reports from the front”, so to speak, where the practices of social transformation have been taking place for years, where communities experiment and develop tools for social change with direct and concrete impacts on people’s lives.
In conclusion, Leonora Carrington opens up a Pandora’s box of stories and images heavily inspired by surrealism (how can we not think of the work of Hieronymus Bosch as well as the Dada milieu on which the capsules draw), an emancipator that is certainly much needed, but having imagination in power is not enough, as we have learned, just as the power of imagination is not enough: we also need a good dose of practices, methods, prototypes and their actual results. And these are already here, in our cities, in the West and the Global South. They are perhaps less fascinating at first glance, apparently (but only apparently) less intellectually stimulating, but there is a real, urgent, burning need for them.
The work on the symbolic and the imaginary that this Bienniale is doing lacks its pragmatic correlate in terms of actions, responses and solutions that already exist, even in the Lagoon. Social imagery and socially engaged practices can generate the voltaic arc whose energy we need. And, in my personal opinion, one without the others is not enough, nor vice versa. We need a rennet for dreams, and that is practices. One without the others is not enough.