Cecilia Alemani on Her Historic (and Surprising) Exhibition at the 2022 Venice Biennale

Do you think gender has anything to do with the return of Surrealism?

Maybe. If you think of someone like Toyen and Claude Cahun, they were amazing artists who experimented with genderlessness or the cancelation of boundaries between female and male. So it was already a strong preoccupation. But also in general, if you look at the work of somebody like Leonor Fini or Leonora Carrington, the way they picked identity, it’s very, very, very contemporary. That happened 100 years ago, and it’s still extremely contemporary. So maybe it’s still not resolved, and that’s why we’re still talking about it.

Did you think about including Rrose Selavy?

[Laughs.] I thought about it, but in the end, did not. I hope there will be lots of surprises.

When did you come across Carrington’s wonderfully evocative title “Milk of Dreams”?

Actually, very late. When the time came close to choosing the title, I started reading a lot of her books which I didn’t know, and it was an amazing surprise. As often happens, the most talented artists are also very talented writers, and she wrote wonderful short stories—also novels. Then quite late, I randomly bumped into this little book that she wrote for her kids, that gathers stories that are in theory for kids but actually they’re scary and they imagine a world where people transform and kids become animals or machines. So it’s childish but also creepy and ironic. It captured many of the preoccupations of the exhibition in such a poetic, evocative, and also visual way because it’s illustrated by her very strong and beautiful drawings. I thought that could be the way of communicating and summarizing many of the concerns of the exhibition. Also, I like titles that are stolen from writers. They’re a bit more poetic than previous titles of Biennales, which are always so universal. So it just clicked.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Did you read The Milk of Dreams to your six-year-old son Gigi?

Yes, and he was totally freaked out. He was like, “Why, mama, are you reading me such a scary book?”

What other titles of books have you stolen for your shows?

Oh, so many. “The Comfort of Strangers” from Ian McEwan’s book was a show I did at PS1. And “The Magical World” was my Italian Pavilion. It was also from a book. And “The Musical Brain” from a César Aira novel. Literature has an important role in the exhibition. The show doesn’t only feature visual artworks, but also some writers like Julian Barnes or Mina Loy or Gisèle Prassinos, so I also wanted to pay homage to that tradition—especially in the historical capsules, because visual artists and writers and poets were so intertwined, so much part of the artistic life of these movements, I think much more than now. I feel like there’s a bit of disconnect between visual art and literature now, but maybe it’s me not knowing enough.

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