The Malta Independent 22 January 2022, Saturday

The milk of dreams

Tuesday, 7 December 2021, 09:51 Last update: about 3 months ago

Emma Borg

Earlier this June, Cecilia Alemani, artistic director of the 2022 Venice Biennale, announced the theme for next year’s 59th edition of the exhibition; Milk of dreams. Inspired by the name of Leonora Carrington’s (1917-2011) children’s book, Alemani has notably described the book as so: “Told in a dreamlike style that seemed to terrify young and old alike, Carrington’s stories describe a world set free, brimming with possibilities. But it is also the allegory of a century that imposed intolerable pressure on the individual, forcing Carrington into a life of exile: locked up in mental hospitals, an eternal object of fascination and desire, yet also a figure of startling power and mystery, always fleeing the structures of a fixed, coherent identity.”

The Venice Biennale arrives after two of the most turbulent years in recent history. Since March 2020 the entire planet has been on standby in an attempt to survive a deadly pandemic. Only recently have people begun to feel comfortable to re-emerge from their homes, socialise and even travel. As much as we try to recreate our lives as they were before the pandemic, for us to truly move forward and form a new world for ourselves we must acknowledge the recent trauma we have experienced. In his statement on next year’s exhibition, the president of the Biennale, Roberto Cicutto, addresses this matter “the starting point for the next Biennale Arte seems to be the reinvention of new and more sustainable relations between individuals and the universe we live in”. Alemani further reinforces this notion: “The time we are living in is a moment of crisis and deep trauma, but it’s in moments of crisis that we can hope for a positive transformation.” Therefore, by choosing Carrington as a source of inspiration for next year’s Biennale, Alemani is in fact challenging the participating artists and curators to fall down the metaphorical rabbit hole and create their own future wonderland. She further challenges the participants to create a reality which has a revaluated relationship with nature, technology and even our bodies, similarly to what Carrington did throughout her career.

Milk of dreams features what its author and illustrator, Carrington, called “a visual world which is different”. Carrington created a world where logic was not important and reason even less so. It is a universe which easily provokes the reader to feel like a child again.  It is a place where time and space are irrelevant and, furthermore, gender, racial and class hierarchies have never even existed. So much so, humans, animals and even objects are all treated with the same respect and, moreover, can even transfigure into one another to form a fantastic original creature-figure.

Prior to exploring Alemani’s interpretation of Carrington’s novel, it is fundamental to identify Leonora Carrington as an artist. Carrington was a multi-faceted and multi-talented individual. She was a painter, an author, a costume designer, a playwright, a sculptor and a performance artist. Yet despite all these mediums, she was ultimately a surrealist. She was a contemporary to several renowned surrealists in the literary and artistic world such as Man Ray, Max Ernst, Andre Breton and Remedios Varo. Much like any true surrealist, she believed that her work was a result of liberating her subconscious. According to her, there was no thought-out rationale in her artistic universe, nor should the audience try to perceive her world in that manner. On multiple occasions, she is quoted as asking her audience not to intellectualise her work for she wanted to present a story to her viewers without ever having to deal with the burden of explaining it. In Carrington’s world, “truth” is used as a toy; as something to play with and not to be taken all too seriously. This is a concept, which is evident in her book, Down Below, where she conveys her prowess in the ever-elusive genre of auto-fiction. Nonetheless, Carrington remains a master in storytelling, letting the final touch of her work be the viewer's own perception and emotional reception to it. She asks solely of the reader to trust and follow their intuitive feelings when they witness her works.

For these reasons, it is not surprising that the three themes for next year’s Venice Biennale are the following: the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses; the relationship between individuals and technologies and the connection between bodies and the earth. Carrington’s work and Milk of dreams foster an ideal springboard for artists and curators participating in next year’s Biennale. Even though Carrington herself never wanted her work to be overanalysed, as previously mentioned, in the past few decades it has become fertile ground for inspiration. Due to the imaginative and phantasmagorical reality she created, theorists from varying schools of thought have found her work to be a powerful source. She was a source of inspiration for Eco Feminists in the 1970s with her work And then we saw the Minotaur and likewise inspired Gender theorists with her work The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg). There was always something in Carrington’s work that enabled our curiosity to look beyond: beyond our shores, beyond our bodies and even beyond our imagination to create a Milk of dreams.

One might argue that Carrington was able to create her own Milk of dreams, in part due to being somewhat of an outsider. Even though she was born to a rich family she rejected the pomp and luxuries of high society and despite being a skilled artist she was never taken seriously due to being a member of the fairer sex. Finally, she became a total outsider, leaving the West to find freedom in Mexico. Carrington’s strength came from trusting her own peripheral perspective. Not an easy task to do, as existing on a periphery creates a complex dynamic where one is drawn to and aware of the centre while never being fully accepted within.

Existing on a periphery is a familiar theme throughout Maltese history. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Malta Pavilion, for next year’s Venice Biennale, Diplomazija astuta, will be exploring this notion. The Pavilion highlights Malta’s peculiar peripheral dynamic, of historically wanting to be validated by the continent and colonizers while currently attempting to redefine the island as a legitimate and authentic hub of its own. Diplomazija astuta will indeed be focusing on the important socio-cultural and diplomatic relationship that Malta has with its neighbour Italy, but it will also be reframing Malta’s relationship to the Mediterranean as a whole. By redirecting the narrative of Maltese identity to one within a Mediterranean lens, the curatorial and artistic team will shift the focus away from the classical hubs to a united peripheral area. An area that is not solely united by geography but also united through a deep cultural sense.  Diplomazija astuta promises to no longer let Malta simply be viewed as an outsider at the Venice Biennale but to instead liberate it to create its own version of a Mediterranean Milk of Dreams.

The curatorial project Diplomazija astuta will represent Malta at the 2022’s Biennale di Venezia international art exhibition. Diplomazija astuta is curated by Prof. Keith Sciberras and Jeffrey Uslip, with the participating artists, Arcangelo Sassolino, Prof. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci and Maestro Brian Schembri with Dr Nikki Petroni and Esther Flury as project managers. The Venice Biennale will be open to the public from 23 April to 27 November 2022.

The Malta Pavilion is commissioned by Arts Council Malta, under the auspices of the Ministry of National Heritage, The Arts and Local Government.

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