AS SOMEONE WHO has never attended the Venice Biennale before, I can’t say how this experience compares to previous Biennales–apparently there were fewer lavish dinner parties. But beyond that, and the mandatory N95 masks, the Biennale felt less like a ‘new normal’ and more like a return to a normal that was hugely missed.
When the pandemic first hit, the precarity of arts work became more obvious than ever. Creative New Zealand diverted funding programmes towards supporting artists to supplement lost income while Manatū Taonga announced a new Arts and Culture Covid Recovery Programme. As galleries and museums closed, institutions turned their attention to digital offerings. In articles and offline discussions, arts professionals pondered if the pandemic offered an opportunity to do things differently: to slow down programming, to look at sustaining local artistic communities rather than importing shows. The Venice Biennale has, surprisingly, not been the focus of many of those discussions. For sure, the relevance of the Venice Biennale has been challenged plenty pre-Covid. The prohibitive costs of participation throws into light the the ethics of financial support and the parallel function of the Biennale as an arts market. As the the Biennale’s artistic discourses increasingly centre on decolonisation, climate crisis, and the pitfalls of capitalism, the Biennale’s huge gathering in Europe, on a sinking archipelago no less, is arguably complicit in the very problems it critiques.
And yet, with the risk that the Biennale might not occur, or at least not attract the same numbers, its appeal became clearer. Beyond amassing the “best” art from across the globe, the Biennale also brings far-flung people en masse into close proximity. These international connections can be a lifeline. When artists struggle to find space or conversation in their own homes, kinship across borders can sustain and amplify their inquiries. Kihara, whose exhibition Paradise Camp centres Fa‘afafine (Sāmoan third-gender) critiques of "Paradise", has previously noted that it’s only through the Biennale’s enormous coverage that she might possibly be able to stage her exhibition in Sāmoa, where homosexuality is still illegal.
Realistically, the Venice Biennale is less of a single, global worldview than it is a series of standalone offerings all being staged simultaneously in the same place. Being there offers opportunity to identify and create narratives or through-lines amongst the chaos of people and exhibitions clamouring for attention. The US, Great Britain, French, Canada, Sámi, New Zealand, and many other pavilions, for example, echoed similar concerns regarding Indigenous negotiations of colonial national borders, the fictions of media, and the under-representation of migrant, female, and third-gender artists. Indigenous-and POC-led panels and symposia furthered the possibility of reframing international networks. While we work in conditions of isolation, often arising from antagonistic positions within our various institutions, in this brief moment, we could gather and regalvanise.
The spotlight on under-represented artists across pavilions and events resulted from the work of various actors already operating in and attached to the Biennale, rather than from the impacts of Covid itself. In asking what role the Biennale could play amidst Covid, Alemani notes that ‘the simplest, most sincere answer I could find is that the Biennale sums up all the things we have so sorely missed in the last two years: the freedom to meet people from all over the world, the possibility of travel, the joy of spending time together.' If the pandemic has proven anything about the Biennale, it's that we still have a stake in the narratives that emerge from conversation and comparison. Some of these debates are public, others happen over a few lazy spritzes at the local corner bar. Either way, that they can happen at all in this moment feels extraordinary. This Biennale might not have answered every critic's concerns, but it has proved that we still want to meet, we still want to see art, and we still want to be involved in the stories the Biennale reveals about ourselves.
Ioana Gordon-Smith is a Sāmoan/Pākehā arts writer and curator living in Aotearoa. Across her work is a commitment to Moana arts practices and their histories. She has held roles at Artspace Aotearoa, Objectspace, Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery and Pātaka Art + Museum. Ioana is the Assistant Curator of Yuki Kihara, Aotearoa New Zealand at the 59th Venice Biennale 2022 and co-curator of the international Indigenous triennial, Naadohbii: To Draw Water in Canada. Ioana is also the co-founder and co-editor of Marinade: Aotearoa Journal of Moana Art and a trustee for Enjoy Contemporary Art Space, Wellington. As well as writing for art journals, magazines and exhibition catalogues, Ioana has contributed to publications produced by Thames & Hudson, Routledge, ARP Books, and Te Papa Press.