Women’s Work: Getting it done at La Biennale

The numbers don’t tell my story. According to available statistics, women represent only a third of the artists whose work is on view at this year’s Venice Biennale, All the World’s Futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor. That’s up from a reported 26% two years ago, but way down from the 43% share they were said to represent in 2009.* So why do I have the sense that for the first time, women’s work is a presence to be reckoned with at this international art extravaganza?
Maybe because they are making a splash. Because among the highly uneven array of offerings, theirs are, not to pull any punches, the most interesting works in this year’s Biennale. The works I wouldn’t want to miss.
To mention just four.
Beginning at the outermost ring of the Biennale are the collateral exhibits that are scattered throughout the city and occasionally across its waterways. These include American artist Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls. Tucked into a small campo just outside the huge and humanity-teeming Piazza San Marco, is Venice’s tiniest (and disused) church, Chiesa di San Gallo. On three altars within, Cronin has piled garments representing three groups of the world’s young female victims. Indian women’s saris recall recent acts of horrific sexual violence against them; hijabs stand in for those kidnapped and otherwise abused by Boko Haram; and old aprons represent 30,000 women and girls once forced into servitude at the Catholic Magdalene Asylums, where a mass grave was recently uncovered in Ireland.
As relics go, those made of fabric are among the most vulnerable to time. They are intensely personal and, separated from their owners, simultaneously stripped of the personal. Heaped on the altars, the empty garments speak, obviously, of absence, death and loss. Limp rags, they invite speculation about the girls who should give them shape. Evoking lives and bodies treated anonymously, as though they were disposable, they are the scraps that remain of those lives, themselves in the process of disappearing. They are intimately sad.

Across town is the Biennale’s preeminent venue, Giardini, where national pavilions fan out from a large, central exhibition space that houses the curator’s own international selections. (Other national offerings and international shows are exhibited at the Biennale’s second main location, Arsenale.) Countries curate the shows in their own pavilions, and the artist representing Japan this year is Chiharu Shiota. Shiota has filled her pavilion with a couple of boats, a dense maze of red thread, and old keys. Thousands upon thousands of keys fill the boats, lie upon the gallery floor, and hang from the ceiling by the red thread. Titled The Key in the Hand, this work, too, evokes the missing – the hand is nowhere in sight, the people once ferried in those landlocked boats are long gone, and the keys have lost meaning and purpose along with the doors they’ll never again open. Yet, somehow, the exhibit doesn’t offer an experience of loss. The red webs creat an interior that throbs with life, as if to move within them is to move within a living body; to enter Shiota’s dream.

Breaching the porous barriers between landscapes and dreamscapes, between life and death, is at the heart of They Come to Us without a Word, performance and video artist Joan Jonas’s official entry for the United States.
The rooms of the pavilion contain fragmented, disjointed images and sounds. There are multiple video projections of children, bees, horses, fish, shadows, Jonas herself, all endlessly, repetitively busy. Moving, always moving. The screens share the gallery with drawings and artifacts from the videos, with a jazz score by composer Jason Moran, and with voices (one of them Jonas’s) telling tales from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia of interactions between our own world and others – for shorthand purposes, ghost stories. A man is hunted by a mysterious source of light. An uneasy spirit can’t forget a rope that was borrowed and never given back. Family members from both sides of life coexist, visiting together. A father investigates a rapping sound and reports that he has glimpsed a beautiful hand: “Sure enough, I saw that beautiful hand. It must be an angel for I never saw a hand like it.”
Jonas has said that the work is about the fragility of our world – she is speaking in environmental terms, and she made the point a bit more explicitly in live performances she did this July in Venice with Moran and others performers, including some of the children appearing in the videos. As in the U.S. pavilion, but even more so, the live performance layered images. Moving out toward the audience: a video projected on a backdrop, a performer’s shadow, the performer, a sheet of white paper the performer holds out to catch the video projection in sharper relief.
If the delicate balance of nature is her subject, Jonas evokes it in ways that surprise and resonate deeply. The piece evokes the fragility of the boundaries we erect between life and death, past and present, animal and human, the human-made world and the natural. The performance and the installation seem to want to reach toward ritual – an action that makes something happen. Through which, something changes. The gestures of an exquisite hand are indeed evident.

Another work raising environmental issues, and questioning the results of materialism as well, is The End of Carrying All, a video, sculpture, and collage painting installation by the Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu. At the core of the Biennale, in the building dedicated to the curator’s own vision, Mutu’s work too breaks down seemingly impermeable barriers, in this case between two bodies, a woman’s and a planet’s. She’s Got the Whole World in Her is a sculpture of a feather-sprouting black woman on her belly on the gallery floor, seemingly emerging from one world to confront another. In the painting, Forbidden Fruit Picker, the body of a female figure about to pluck the enticing fruit is comprised of a dizzying array of elements, from the animal to the mechanical.
And in her video,The End of Carrying All, Mutu portrays a woman carrying the weight of the world. As she walks across a natural landscape from morning to night, the bearable load in the basket on her head grows and mutates until it encompasses everything from bicycle parts to skyscrapers. The weight bows her, unbalances her gait and threatens to overwhelm her entirely. Yet she journeys on, literally to the edge of the earth, where in an apocalyptic eruption, the woman and all that she has carried become part of the cliff they’ve gone over.
The stunning work can be interpreted as speaking to the environmental catastrophe were are striding toward. Or it may inspire reflections of another kind. In 1968 American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/The world would split open. Mutu’s work suggests that something similar might result if a woman, an African woman, refused her burdens – gave them back to the world that placed them on her. What would happen then? Would the world explode?

The 2011 Biennale was the third ever to be curated by a woman, Bice Curiger. Curiger included over 40% women artists in her own show-within-a-show for that Biennale, but I’m unable to locate reliable statistics for 2011’s offerings overall.

The 56th Venice Biennale runs through 22 November 2015.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Christine Benvenuto's books, Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender, and Moving On, and Shiksa: The Gentile Woman in the Jewish World, are published by St. Martin's Press, and her short stories and essays have appeared in many publications. She is at work on a novel.

Christine Benvenuto is the author of Sex Changes and Shiksa, both available from St. Martin's Press.

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