Be intrigued by these Digital Artists who explore the metamorphosis of the body and unbridled fantasy at the most female Venice Biennale yet.

Sarah L. Roberts | Ed. Peter Traynor | 12 June 2022

The 59th annual Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams borrows its title from a children’s text by Leonora Carrington, whose novella explores a “magical world” released by human imagination. This year’s event embraces the surreal and uses it as a prism for exploring the potential of feminine energy and considers new facets of human experience beyond the trappings of the body. Curated by Cecilia Vicuña, this year’s Biennale has been dubbed “a revelation”  by ArtReview, with over 180 of the 200+ artists showing this year identifying as female. This is an unconventional reversal from the typical male-dominance of contemporary art, with more female representation than ever before at the international event. 

As a reaction to Carrington’s own mental health difficulties, the artist used her surreal imagination to generate a world of fluid identity. Everything is viewed through the lens of imagination and possibility. The body is not trapped by gendered boundaries or oppression; instead, it becomes a vessel for infinite metamorphoses. This year’s event centres on three distinct explorations: the changing human body in the 21st century, how we are transforming in the technological age, and our continuing relationship and responsibility to the earth. Does technology provide utopian escapism or an opportunity to reconnect to the corporeal? he following digital artists, who use the fantastic potential of technology, provide new grounds for exploring contemporary issues.

This year’s Biennale opened on April 23 and will run until November 27, 2022.

Lu Yang, DOKU (2022), Digital Animation. © Lu Yang.Asia. Courtesy of the artist.

Lu Yang (Milk of Dreams, Giardini Arsenale

Exhibitor Lu Yang are a Shanghai-based digital artist whose work spans New Media techniques, including animation, motion capture, and arcade-style game installation. Embracing the ability of digital landscapes to constantly be in flux, the multi-media artist draws on the belief within Buddhism that all things “arise, abide, change and disappear.” In her work, neither artist nor viewer should be bound by permanent physical states or enduring labels, resisting markers such as gender, race, or nationality. 

Titled Digital Descending, and forms part of the series DOKU: 6 Realms of Reincarnation (2020-Present) in which the artist’s self-styled, genderless, avatar DOKU appears. The digital recreation is generated from hyper-realistic 3-d scans of Yang’s own face, reproducing over 200 facial expressions with uncanny accuracy. At the Biennale, visitors can watch Yang’s animation as the artist accompanies DOKU on an animated journey through disparate universes filled with mythical gods, demons and cyborgs, encompassing inspirations from Japanese manga, gaming culture and eastern religions. The six trips include heaven, hell, and fantasy worlds, accompanied by sardonic takes on real-world events.

This is Yang’s second time exhibiting at the Biennale after her work Moving Gods (2015) was displayed for the China Pavilion in 2015. In an interview with Proud Magazine, Yang admit their work is not for the faint of heart, commenting, “so many things in my works may seem cruel, abnormal and violent,”. Yet, the absurd world they unflinchingly generate deliberately pushes the possibility of fantasy and technology to the edges leading the viewer to self-reflect on human nature, including confronting anger, obsession and ultimately, death.

ZINAIDA, Without Women, Single-channel Video Installation. © ZINAIDA. Courtesy of the Artist.

ZINAIDA (This is Ukraine: Defending our Freedom, Spiazzi Castello)

Despite the troubling conflicts in Ukraine, artists from the country have been demonstrating their resilience and resistance with the event, This is Ukraine: Defending Our Freedom. An installation by contemporary artist, ZINAIDA, forms part of the collateral programming at the Biennale this year, symbolising Ukrainian heritage and identity. Without Women (2022) takes viewers across the glacial Carpathian Mountains in a piece that reframes the tradition of sheep-breeding. An influential contemporary artist in the Ukraine, ZINAIDA bases her digital works on extensive ethnographic research, national mythologies, indigenous practices, and archaic religion. Using techniques such as filmmaking, 

The work consists of a three-channel video and was intended to be accompanied by a large-scale photographic installation which unfortunately remains in the Ukraine for now. Zinaida follows a young man leaving his familial “dwelling” and living in isolation for six months. The triplicate portrayal of the work is reminiscent of a triptych, hanging the image in threes like an altarpiece and creating a reverence around the singular journey into the remote location. 

The artist connects to gendered relations in her work, referencing the power imbalances of contemporary culture, directly referenced by the title Without Women, which alludes to the lack of feminine representation in the art landscape. Aiming toward “masculine presence and feminine energy”, the semi-nude body of her male subject laboriously works to churn butter and cheese, plunging into the liquid while the videos literally leak milk with grotesque abundance, flowing from the “skin” of the screen. Her video presentation portrays a young, muscular man, immersed in milk and picking up cheese from a cauldron, referencing traditions of paganism and ritualCombining olfactory sensation with the visual, ZINAIDA explores the intimacy of the physical installation, juxtaposed against the loneliness of mountain life. The absence of actual women is highlighted to the viewer through the absurd.

Melanie Bonajo, When the Body Says Yes, 2022. Single-channel Video Installation. Commissioned by Mondriaan Fund. © Melanie Bonajo. (photo by @Dutch.Pavilion. Venice). Courtesy of the artist.

Melanie Bonajo (The Netherlands National Pavilion, Chiesetta della Misericordia of Art Events)

The Dutch artist describes themself as a “sexological bodyworker, cuddle workshop facilitator, and somatic sex coach and educator,” engaging in a multi-disciplinary practice. Their work documents the ever-shifting meanings of community, queer identities, and body politics as we increasingly mediate our contact with others via screens and avatars. Bonajo’s (who goes by “Mel”) works span performance, installation, and film. Since 2015, they have been working on the Night Soil trilogy, a collection of documentary films that explore progressive sexual dynamics in communities marginalised by law or social exclusion. They have exhibited their performance and film works internationally, including the Tate Modern, MoMA Ps1 and Manifesta 12.

Visitors to the Dutch Pavilion are invited into the immersive video installation, When the Body Says Yes (2022), a response to our increasing sense of alienation and loss of tactility and connection reinforced by recent global events and the rise of techno-capitalism. The work features a thirty-minute video loop of nude and partially nude subjects of all genders and races, exploring the topic of consent, while touching, playing with bondage, and exploring sensual connections with one another. Looped images show the bare bodies covered in oil, slipping over one another in a serpentine fashion. Through audio voice-over the video subjects, all of whom identify as gender-fluid or queer, explore the topic of consent and pleasure. International viewpoints are iterated discussing intimacy in a global context, beyond entrenched western divides of male and female.

The pavilion is draped with fabrics and an abundance of textured, squishy cushions, creating a playful atmosphere. Mel highlights the importance of building a nurturing, safe environment, so we can reconnect to our bodies as a self-indicator of consent. We can hear our own ‘yes’ or ‘no’’ through the somatic. In a release, the artist comments “You are swept along in adventures that stimulate all the senses: feeling is a form of intelligence, thinking through touch.” 

Mónica Heller, The Importance of the Origin will be Imported by the Origin of the Substance (2022), Digital Animation. © Mónica Heller, Courtesy of the Artist.

Mónica Heller (Argentina National Pavilion, Arsenale)

Alejo Ponce De Leon curated the Argentine pavilion at the biennale, reportedly selected from more than 30 projects from an open call by the Ministry of Culture. The multi-channel video installation is created with 2d and 3d animation

In her work, Heller conjures anthropomorphic characters that live in a curious world governed by the laws of fable and mythology. A self-taught animator, she uses the medium’s capacity to conjure up her own universe, governed by the imaginative and unbound from temporal constraints. “It can predict and simulate future events, catastrophes, it contracts and stretches time”. This is perfectly summarised by the paradoxical, bewildering title of her pavilion The Importance of the Origin will be Imported by the Origin of the Substance (2022).

In an interview with the Argentine publication Clarin, Heller described her long-standing fascination with Digital Art techniques. Her curiosity stemmed from the 1990s when pioneers such as Nam Juin Paik and Shigeko Kubota revealed the potential of moving image and audio work. Using fantastical and humorous images across 15 video channels, she creates a dialogue with contemporary issues and human nature one character drinks coffee as it pours from orifices of his body and he drinks it again, another builds his own head from light. The religious allusions and critiques of capitalism are embedded in the looped shorts in which characters continuously deconstruct and reconstruct themselves. 

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