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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

the 2024 Venice Biennale’s Historical Sections

If you take a look at a given artist list for a recurring exhibition over the past hundred years, you’ll most certainly find yourself recognizing quite a few names (several if it was a consequential show), while also wondering to yourself who are some of these artists you’ve never heard of and what about their work drew the curators to them, only for them to become a footnote in art history.

In many ways, resurrecting artists like those is the central concern of one half of the 2024 Venice Biennale. Titled “Nucleo Storico,” this portion is split into three parts: “Portraits,” “Abstractions,” and “Italians Everywhere.” They are each given their own space and inserted into the main exhibition as a pause or an intervention into the steady flow of contemporary art.

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View of a room with blackboard paint and thousands of names scrawled on it. In front is a structure of stacks of white documents floating above a reflecting pool.

For anyone who has been following the tenure of the Biennale’s curator Adriano Pedrosa at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, where he is artistic director, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pedrosa would fill part of his exhibition with artists, particularly from the Global South or who migrated from Italy to the Global South, who have yet to be canonized in the Global North. That’s the premise of the exhibition initiative he’s most famous for, “Histórias,” which over the years has focused on various histories (Afro-Atlantic Brazilian, Indigenous, women, queer) and aimed to trouble and disrupt them as he aims to expand them. Those contributions have certainly been groundbreaking and in many ways done what they’ve set out to do.

Part of his curatorial thesis is to use the Portuguese word histórias (and its translations in other Romance languages) as a jumping off point. Unlike in English, história can mean, depending on the context, the official history of something or the story of something else—fact and fiction wrapped into one. It was a way for Pedrosa to think of exhibition making as “more open, plural, speculative, and perhaps in a way more marginal,” as he told ARTnews in 2019.

A main purpose of doing this historical-focused section is to bring the selected artists to wider attention, especially as the overwhelming majority of them have never show at the Biennale previously. The “Nucleo Storico” accounts for around half the artist list, though each artist here is represented by only one work. The sheer scale of each of these rooms is formidable, and I often found myself spending more time here than expected. It wasn’t so much because I was taking it all in, however, but because I was stopping to read the paragraph-long labels for many of the artists.

Starting with the least successful of these sections, “Italians Everywhere” felt the most out of place, a way to shoehorn Italian artists into a show focused on the Global South. There’s a sound logic to Pedrosa wanting to include this, other than just wanting to preempt any criticisms from the Italian press about the lack of Italian artists. First, Brazil has the largest Italian diaspora in the world and several Italians there have made significant contributions to the Brazilian art. Second, it’s a way to slyly turn contemporary anti-migrant sentiments, especially dominant in Italy, on its head by pointing out that there really are foreigners everywhere, even in the Global South. Even still, I don’t know how additive it was to the exhibition, especially when placed in context of the Arsenale, where some of the exhibition’s larger-scale works are on view.

For this display, Pedrosa has brought Italian-born architect Lina Bo Bardi’s iconic installation design from MASP for the museum’s permanent collection, which he revived at the museum after taking over. The works are affixed to glass easels that rest on concrete blocks; they float in the center of the room and the wall labels are on their back. It’s a way to abolish the hierarchy of museums by putting everything on the same level. But, it’s much more successful at MASP. Works dating back to the 17th century are paired with ones made just a few years ago. And the display is imposing at the institution, coming off as a maze that requires you to really dig deep and allow yourself to get lost. At the Arsenale it’s a bit too open.

There were some highlights to this section like Libero Badíi’s Autroretrato Siniestro (1978), a blocky anthropomorphic sculpture make from scrap wood and metal; a scorched piece of paper in the shape of Italy by Anna Maria Maiolino; Domenico Gnoli’s 1967 painting Sous la Chaussure of the close up of the heel of a black shoe, caught mid-step; and a Cubist-inflected painting of a ship against a twilight sky by Horacio Torres, the son of Joaquín Torres-Garcia.

But certain colonial tropes reappear in “Italians Everywhere” and even “Portraits.” Take Nenne Sanguineti Poggi’s Tekkà (1948), a portrait of the namesake Beni-Amer woman who is shown topless with seated at a table with her head resting in her hand. Similar works by non-Indigenous, Latin American–born artists of Indigenous people—Juana Elena Diz’s Lavandera (n.d.), Julia Codesido’s Vendedora ayacuchana (1927), or Miguel Alandia Pantoja’s Imilia (1960), for example—equally present an othering gaze, even if their work aims to celebrate Indigenous peoples and were part of a larger artistic and political movement. Their presentation needs to be properly contextualized; placing them in a massive salon-style hang isn’t the best way to explain what’s going on here.

These works also pale in comparison to pieces in the contemporary part of the show by Afro-Mexican artist Aydée Rodriguez Lopez, Indigenous Australian artist Marlene Gilson, and Haitian brothers Sénèque Obin and Philomé Obin, which show tableaux of each artist’s community on their own terms. Similarly, artists in the “Portraits” section are at their best when shown via self-portraits by the likes of Georgette Chen, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Olga Costa, María Izquierdo, Ahmed Morsi, Gerard Sekoto, and Yêdamaria. Here they are assured, showing us how they see themselves and why it’s essential the world see them that way, too.

The “Abstraction” section is equally a lot to take in at once. That, however, is its beauty. Time and place collapse here. Form and aesthetics reign supreme. It’s a feast for the eyes. The Casablanca Art School—represented in the Biennale by Mohammed Chabâa, Mohamed Hamidi, Mohammed Kacimi, and Mohamed Melehi—is an important touchpoint here, whose importance to abstraction writ large has been steadily rising over the past years, culminating in a major survey at Tate St. Ives last year. Pedrosa isn’t so much introducing them to the art world, but helping to cement their rightful place.

Other highlights include the sensational abstractions of Latinx artists like Freddy Rodríguez, who died just last year after six decades in New York; Kazuya Sakai, born in Buenos Aires in 1927 and died in Dallas in 2001; and Fanny Sanín, now in her late 80s and has lived in New York since the ’70s. These three are woefully underrepresented in museums and desperately need major retrospectives of their singular careers.

One of the few fiber artists represented here is Eduardo Terrazas, whose vibrant, color-blocked shapes pulse upon close inspection. New to me is Indonesian artist Fadjar Sidik, whose soft edges bring sfumato into the 20th century and into abstraction, as is Brazilian Ione Saldanha, whose installation of hanging painted wooden poles hold court in the center of the room. So are Rafa Al-Nasiri and Margarita Azurdia. I mostly certainly will fall into a few rabbit holes when I get back, researching them.

The selection at times is a bit uneven; I’m befuddled by the works Pedrosa chose by Carmen Herrera and Olga de Amaral. The muted palettes of both these works lack the presence of their best pieces. Here they get lost in the mix.

Flipping through the catalogue, I noticed something about the historical-section works, printed on its own page with the wall text now serving as the artist’s biographical entries. They have room to breathe. The nuance of their distinctive practices comes into focus. All of this history—fact and fiction, plural yet marginal—begins to make sense. 

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