I am an abstract kind of guy. Raised in the culture of modernism in the Netherlands, the red-hot (or cool-white) center of such reductive practices, I also came to love the more expressive American version when I went to the country of my birth for college. Leave me alone in a gallery and I will tend towards the most minimal works; let me surf an architecture site, and I will do the same. Those are my biases, perhaps a side effect of my upbringing and background. Still, I have tried to learn to love figuration and ornament, understanding their value in communication and relation to the human body and surroundings. That did not prepare me, however, for the onslaught of bodies and body parts, some human, some animal, some cybernetic, and some somewhere in-between all of those, which make up the vast majority of the art on display at the 2022 Venice Biennale.
If this biannual compendium of art from around the world—this year entitled The Milk of Dreams, which more than any single event establishes what is going on in that ecosystem—is any guide, than the most distinguishing characteristic of our reality is the extension or distortion of the human bodies. This distortion rears its head in paintings (Louise Bonnet, Christina Quarles), monumental sculpture (Simone Leigh, Mrinalini Mukherjee), hybrids of humans and robots (Geumhyung Jeong), blobs (Teresa Solar), and the dissolution of all those into natural patterns and growths (Marguerite Humeau, Precious Okoyomon), or some imagery that evokes the cross-cultural, cross-species awareness that now is the central ideology in most art schools and markets.
The displays of distended organs and limbs stretching across the 200,000-plus square feet of official exhibition space in Venice is impressive, and continues in many of the national pavilions and collateral events. That includes the U.S. Pavilion, taken over by Simone Leigh (who also won the Golden Lion, the Biennale’s highest award, for this and her display in the official exhibition) who turned it into an African hut on the outside and a site for bronze totems on the inside. The vast collection of art is overwhelming, at times beautiful, at many times very repetitive, and certainly colorful and animated.
All this left me wondering: As art usually is ahead of architecture and design in exploring new territories and sensibilities, where do we see the harbingers of such a movement in our field? Actually, the first answer is that we’re are already there, as this Biennale itself commemorates a movement that started several decades ago. Figuration returned in architecture with a vengeance a few years ago, in various guises: the revival of Postmodernism, evident in the work of designers such as Nathaniel Furman; object-oriented ontology, with its collection of “broken tools” “kitbashed” together to create towers of toys, appliances, and other stuff; and the kind of “bad” or purposeful banal collection of work that has been collected in the latest (and sadly last) issue of the periodical Praxis.
The work on display in Venice, however, is reaching for something else. First of all, it is moving towards a connection with a diverse audience, eschewing both an elitism that is by definition exclusionary and the art techniques that have gone with “high” art for more than a century—an elitism of which I will have to admit I have a hard time escaping. It is for this reason the Biennale has received better reviews than any I can remember in my quarter-century of following the event and, according to my conversations with Biennale staff, has the highest satisfaction rating among visitors they have seen in recent years.
Second, the sprawling exhibition is performing the task of mining the traditions of art-making to do something that architecture and design is not yet fully addressing: the dissolution of the borders between the figure and its surroundings, long-predicted by science, and now increasingly a fact in our digital age; the concomitant change of our conception of identity, further fueled by an awareness of our hybrid and global nature; and the foregrounding of the interweaving of both technology and organic matter and the various species and life forms that inhabit our earth. It is by now a trope that individuals are social fictions and human beings are not necessarily above or better than beasts or flowers, but a part of the tapestry of life. Scholar Donna Haraway, who first posited such positions, acts as the oft-referenced guide to this exhibition.
I have no doubt that these developments are central to our lives and thus should be to the manner in which we approach design, but I still wonder whether the attempts to directly depict them, or to express what these profound interconnections might be in a surfeit of flailing paint, distended body parts, and bronze casting, can get at any kind of essence of the issue at hand. Do all these representations, in other words, not only picture, but also evoke and make real a biome of human/machine/other species as a web of interconnection in which we have to define both what makes each of our identities and find our wider connections in both a social and a philosophical sense?
For this observer, at least, none of the hundreds of pieces of art on display at the Venice Biennale did this, nor am I yet familiar with any architecture or design that even approaches getting at these issues beyond making images of them. Again, I will admit my biases, and will allow to admiring the clarity and focus of this event. I just did not see it—the point of the exhibition, the beauty of the work, its craft, or its effect—clearly enough.
That brings me back to my love of abstraction. By that I mean not just images or objects (or buildings, for that matter) that have been wiped as thoroughly as the maker was able to of reference, but also the willful distortion of figures to the point where the connection to the actual body is lost. The latter is a technique artists have tried to achieve through dense minimalism, which is to say a layering of images and references to the point that another image arises.
It is on display in Venice right now in the work of Anselm Kiefer (though his paintings allow figures and certainly stories to emerge) and Anish Kapoor and can be found in expressive work like that of Cecily Brown or Julie Mehretu, or construction fragments by Krista Clark, or in pattern- and craft-based work such as that of El Anatsui.
It is this sort of intensity without easy pathways that lets you say: “Oh, it is a picture of woman turning into a cyborg turning into a field of flowers. How delightful or interesting.” Hollywood can do that for us every day. It is, instead, a way of difficult making that is also a manner of revealing, but through hints and intimation, that take as much work from us as viewers as the artist has put into them.
I would love to see a Biennale of dense minimalism and, for that matter, would very much look forward to architects figuring out how to bury their figures in that task.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.