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June 29, 2022

Field Notes: Leo Cocar on Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill in “The Milk of Dreams,” 59th Venice Biennale

Art & Education

Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Counterblaste (detail), 2021. Pantyhose, tobacco, beer can tabs, plastic flowers, dried flowers, earring beaded by Cheryl L’Hirondelle Hill, thread, charms, running shoes, rabbit-fur earrings, and nail polish. Photo: Leo Cocar.

Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Spells (installation view), 2018–21. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Cooper Cole, Toronto.

Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Counterblaste (installation view), 2021. Pantyhose, tobacco, beer can tabs, plastic flowers, dried flowers, earring beaded by Cheryl L’Hirondelle Hill, thread, charms, running shoes, rabbit-fur earrings, and nail polish. Photo: Leo Cocar.

Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Counterblaste (detail), 2021. Pantyhose, tobacco, beer can tabs, plastic flowers, dried flowers, earring beaded by Cheryl L’Hirondelle Hill, thread, charms, running shoes, rabbit-fur earrings, and nail polish. Photo: Leo Cocar.

Field Notes: Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill in “The Milk of Dreams,” 59th Venice Biennale
by Leo Cocar

Ducking into the Central Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale, the scent of the city’s slightly fetid saltwater and the Giardini’s sunbaked paving stone gives way to a heady mix of sweat and duty-free fragrances. Passing through the high-vaulted entrance of “The Milk of Dreams” and into the side galleries, a new smell lingers in the air—tobacco. It is faint but undeniably present, flitting in and out of perceptibility; its notes are bitter, medicinal, and earthy. This aroma is not the byproduct of a tourist packing too much rolling tobacco but from a sculpture by Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill. Titled Counterblaste (2021), the work takes the form of a person-sized human–rabbit hybrid figure constructed out of pantyhose stuffed with tobacco and posed in the manner of a reclining Buddha before entering nirvana. The figure’s serenity, however, is interrupted by eight swollen breasts jutting out of its chest and the charms stuck into the rounded, bio-organic contours of its body. A pair of purple Mizuno running shoes suggest the human–rabbit’s “athleisure” lifestyle—commoditized bodily performance masked as relaxation. Hung behind the rabbit chimera are four wall-mounted works from Hill’s Spell series (2018–ongoing), small, abstract works on paper painted with tobacco-infused oil and studded with street ephemera.

Within the grander scheme of “The Milk of Dreams,” Hill’s works is both apt and refreshing. One of the exhibition’s major conceptual underpinnings is an interest in a larger historical trajectory of art production that seeks to undo dualistic world views. As the curatorial statement suggests, the tripartite crises of ecological disaster, technological pressure, and social breakdown have blurred ontological divides. Human and non-human life, machine and flesh, the body and the world are categories much more intertwined than was previously conceived. These conceptual binaries have not only come undone in the face of socio-technological change, but historical consciousness of these categorical “undoings” has been undeniably prescient in understanding how deeply embedded into the web of life we really are.

Frankly, it is exciting to see these discourses being presented to the Biennale’s wide and varied public (at least, that is, by art-world standards). One the show’s major successes is showcasing the ways in which many ideas that have a certain currency in today’s art discourses—the decentering of humans as Earth’s privileged species, for instance—are not recent debates but millennia-old concepts in the so-called “non-West.” Still, certain works, complex and powerful on their own, risk slipping into dangerous discursive territories in this curatorial framework by equivocating Earth with a notion of womanhood defined by reproductive organs, geographical belonging as defined by ethnicity, and easy myths of ecological purity. What of gender as a process of transformation? What of the Earth as fanged and agential?

Read more of Leo Cocar's Field Notes review on Art & Education.

Field Notes is a new series of reviews from the next generation of art writers. Featuring texts on the 59th Venice Biennale and Documenta 15 contributed by students and recent graduates, Field Notes makes original connections between the work and the world and takes a closer look at what other observers might have missed.

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