By Maica Gugolati
I have never missed a Venice Art Biennale in my life. At my first Venice Art Biennale I was one year old. My mother, a visual artist and sculpture professor, always brought her family to this event. Growing up in Verona located 120 km from Venice, made it relatively easier for us to visit. Going to the biennial as a family was always an intense, tiring, expensive but unmissable experience, an intellectual duty. It was unaffordable for the family to stay overnight so we were always rushing to see as much as possible in one day. We would take the 7 am train, reach around 9 am, walk under the scorching Italian summer sun that can reach 40 C°, overconsume art, walk again. Physically exhausted, mentally overwhelmed, I would finally drag my tiny sandals to catch the then last train at 10pm and sleep all the way home.
Visiting the Venice Biennale is a pact, or I would say, a ritual agreed between my mother and myself. In the 1st photo, I am at Giardini, aged 5, sitting on a bench decoding the Biennale map with an Antillean Madras dress hand-made by my mother. In the second photo I am at Giardini again, aged 30, sitting on a bench, this time, “performing” the decoding of the Biennale map in the same Giardini Park, as directed by my mother. This was the last Biennale I attended with her in-person. This same year she suddenly left this world to join many others, as Appiah would say. Staging this photo was perhaps an attempt to revisit the past for her, but for me it is an uncanny representation of how the Venice Biennale allows me to visit the past present & future simultaneously. The Biennale has become a personal “time and space capsule” that functions as a portal of many worlds and eras. It connects; memories, trans-temporal companies and disparate questions about creative practice.
45 Venice Biennale, 1993 (29 years ago):
I was wearing a yellow dress, camouflaging myself in the yellow parts of Yayoi Kusama’s Mirror Room (Pumpkin). I was possibly playing hide & seek with my parents.
51 Venice Biennale, 2005 (17 years ago):
The smell of teabags from Tania Bruguera’s installation Poetic Justice created a Proustian reversed effect on me. At the time I did not know that I will become a doctor in anthropology of art, a specialist in the Caribbean region.
59 Venice Biennale, 2022 (almost 1 month ago):
Unlike other Venice biennale, this one wasn’t only an event showcasing worldwide national art pavilions. This time, the biennale as well as the city was affected by the complexities and the struggles of contemporary times. Venice was a liquid mirror reflecting the economic paradoxes the country and the city are now bathed in. With one year in delay, the Venice Biennale opened its medieval roads to international art savvies. The city was still recovering from extremely sever lockdowns and restrictions due to the pandemic. It just went back to mass tourism without the help of rich Russian investors who previously maintained many of the elitist spaces of the city. While the city was showing its shinny and shadowy parts simultaneously; I wondered about the questions of visibility and invisibility within the art world.
While walking the streets I asked myself; “Who can afford to come to the Venice Biennale?” (This question was also shared by some artists and friends from other continents of the world). Flying to Venice before the general opening to be able to attend live events was a costly venture. I was able to stay overnight just by a miracle (on an improvised sofa). Otherwise, I would have had to choose between a 100€ bed per night in a hostel with 6 other people, or a 400 € per night Airbnb because the only affordable option; Mestre, the 1st city on land was already full. My final option was to travel back and forth every day between Venice and Verona (my family home), a 3-hour train.
Being there for pre-opening allowed me to interact with specialists of the domain: journalists, critics, artists, as well as investors. This is a time when touristy restaurants are fully packed. At other times of the year these same restaurants are not crowded at all since they are a no-go zone for native Italians and Venetians because of the abusable prices. These circumstances don’t allow much interaction between the locals and the Biennale visitors. One morning I noticed an old man walking his dog while passing by a group of Biennale artists snacking at an outdoor café near Giardini, and I wondered; “is the old man curious about these people?” I don’t think so; “are they curious about him?” I don’t think so.
I came back for the general opening on the following Sunday and Venice’s streets calle and calette had a changed identity. I was seeing what I always saw when I visited with my parents, “ordinary people” (the general public). Sometimes these people couldn’t make sense of what they were experiencing but they still lined up to enter pavilions. These can be pavilions of countries whose existence might not be general knowledge. Seeing these people sometimes smiling other times looking confused reminded me of the Alberto Sordi’s film “Le Vacanze Intelligenti” (The Intelligent Vacations). A 1978 comedy that uncovers the discrepancies between the social environments and cultural institutions.
At this point I wondered; “who are the people these artworks are addressing? Who might be affected by these artworks, why and how?” I think we will have to wait patiently and observe the effects it will have in connection with the other international art events in Europe along this year.
Diving in Biennale’s “waters”, this event is showing what the artist Christopher Cozier defines as a “post-Okwui moment” where works by wom*n, non-binary, black and of imagination that can re-envision lives, transform bodies, and critically show plural cosmologies. In my view, this event goes beyond the sur-real base of the theme. Through visibility, it deals with invisibility, in an oxymoron of experiences. It crosses art worlds, histories and herstories that have been made invisible historically.
For me the event offered three central axes: criticism of dominant systems, sensorial communication, and “bridging” modus operandi.
The Venetian medieval roads, historically created to resist the invaders, present with this Biennale engaging artworks that question secularly established realities and knowledge. This Biennale is showing us that plural identities have always existed, but they are subjugated to systematic mode of oppression. Most of the pavilions tried to face the complexities of decoloniality, not just as a discourse, but as a practice, art-ivism for supra-national representation.
I felt overwhelmed by the biennale, not just because of its scale but because it required a hole engagement with each of the artworks. It demands a background knowledge of the very specific social issues they address. I sometimes felt enraged, motivated, inspired, but also hopeless for the world. The works required enormous intellectual and empathetic involvement that clearly two days of the regular ticket combo, does not allow. In this scenario, the size of the event functions as almost counterproductive to reach an emotional relation with the artworks. I felt the necessity of more time, more space for myself to digest the works. As in an artistic banquet with the bulimic wish to have always more, the audience is obliged to learn how to balance sympathy and empathy.
In the next article, I will share my experience of selective pavilions with you. The Diaspora Pavilion, that showed performances and installations for the three days before the general opening. This pavilion is in syntony with the diasporic multisite realities and is critical of the economic capital brought by the Biennale enterprise. I will also talk about the Scotland, British and USA Pavilions who chose Caribbean descent black wom*n artists to represent their nations.
 Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, London: Pinguin, 2015.
 Leon Moosavi , 2018, “The decolonial bandwagon and the dangers of intellectual decolonization”, International Review of Sociology, Volume 30, 2020 – Issue 2: Themed Section/ Section Thématique: Global Violence and Social Change.