Madness, Art, Dreams and Aperol Spritz converge in Venice for the 59. Biennale…

I have just returned from Venice, my soul filled to the brim with images, beauty, thoughts and inspiration. I was invited to speak at a one-day symposium on ‘the magic of madness’ that coincided with the opening of the 59th Venice Biennale titled ‘The Milk of Dreams.’ For a person deeply interested in all those words – magic, madness, dreams… even milk when it’s in a cappuccino or gelato – this was my idea of heaven. 

The jetty from which boatloads of tourists used to arrive from Venice to gape at the patients of the former ‘lunatic asylum’ on the island of San Servolo

The MADNICITY Pavilion, where the symposium took place, is situated on the site of a former insane asylum on the island of San Servolo. Three panels of leading voices in psychiatry, psychology, philosophy, critical theory and the arts discussed topics ranging from ‘the place of madness in society’ to the expansion of traditional concepts of ‘normality’ and ‘mental disorder’ to a more inclusive embrace of ‘mental diversity’. There was also some very academic philosophical stuff debated by an all-male panel of professors, but I wasn’t entirely able to follow that. I personally chose to stay on more familiar ground and talked about the madness of institutions, specifically prisons. (You can listen to the whole day of presentations here or just my talk starting at 3:52.50)

At one point, the Chair of our panel – Johnny Acton – asked us what we find most mad about society. For me, it is the fact that the ‘feminine’ in life – and before I get hauled up for being sexist or in some way discriminatory, can I make it clear that I am not talking about biological ‘men’ and ‘women’, nor even ‘male’ and ‘female’ genders. I am talking about archetypes, the feminine principle that is in each and every one of us to a greater or lesser degree. Coarsely, and therefore inevitably inaccurately put, we are talking the feminine/masculine dualisms of moon/sun, inner/outer, art/science, feelings/concepts… you get the picture hopefully. Ok, so where was I? Let me start that sentence again. In fact, let’s have a new paragraph too. 

To me, what’s most mad in society is that the ‘feminine’ is still ignored, dismissed, ridiculed or considered invalid in the face of the more tangible ‘masculine’. The left-brain, rigid logic of science with its need for proof, as I have frequently both observed and said, too often totters behind the more right-brain, unpredictable logic of intuition, dreaming, playing – all the stuff that can lead to creative genius or apparent ‘madness’. Women who lived by these rules used to be burned at the stake, locked up, or simply forced into subservience to men and masters. The island of San Servolo and the amazing installations under the title ‘LUNATICS’ bear witness to the some of the horrific past approaches both to madness and women. The thinking behind most of our systems – education, prison, medicine – are dominated by this ‘masculine’ thinking. And yet, common sense, vision, wisdom and truth are frequently born from the supposedly unprovable, inaccurate, fantastical, unreal phenomena of dreams, gut feelings, instinct. The world has paid a heavy price for playing down their innate value.

‘LUNATIC’ – one of ten collaborative installations by Dominik Lejman and Bianca O’Brien on San Servolo

But something is finally shifting. The world is becoming more fluid, less polarised. Boundaries are blurring. Humans are becoming less certain of themselves and bowing to the greater forces of nature and the big unknowns. This was all reflected both in the panel conversations and the art, the latter not least because Cecilia Alemani, unbelievably the first Italian woman to curate the Venice Biennale, ensured that 80% of artists featured were women or gender non-conforming. And the theme itself – The Milk of Dreams – appealed to symbolism, surrealism, fantasy and spirituality rather than the conceptualism of past years. Many of the big male names were there – Kiefer, Baselitz, Kapoor – but on the periphery, looking rather bombastic, egotistical… ‘out’.

Let’s see if I can make this clearer through a selection of pictures I took, unaware at the time that this was what I was seeing. Some are from the official Biennale pavilions of the Giardini and the Arsenale, others at collateral events and exhibitions around town.

Laetitia KY, Hair sculptures, Pavillon de la C^ote d’Ivoire. Interview here.
Malgorzata Mirga-Tas: Re-enchanting the world, Poland Pavilion
Can’t remember… one of the pavilions in the Giardini
Claire Tabouret: I am spacious singing flesh, Palazzo Cavanis
Francis Alÿs: The Nature of the Game, Belgium Pavilion, Giardini
Beyond: Emerging Artists, Palazzo Franchetti
Sonya Boyce: Feeling her way, Great Britain pavilion, Giardini – winner of the Golden Lion Prize for Best National Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2022
A foyer we stumbled into in a building on Campo Santo Stefano…
Anish Kapoor, Shooting into the corner (2008), Galleria dell’Accademia
From the Arsenale…
Just a beautiful staircase at Palazzo Cini

I could go on and on. But I’d be interested what themes you see in this microcosmic collection.

Altogether, it was an inspiring trip. Wonderful people, paintings, palazzos, piazzas, pizzas and of course the delicious Aperol Spritz to round up the day… simply the best in my book. Talking of which…

My book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, is still on course to be published in mid-July. Do SIGN UP TO MY NEWSLETTER for information about a book launch near you where you will be able to buy a signed copy or for any other news.