Every odd year the art world flocks to the sinking isles of Venice to giddily navigate the maze of narrow roads and partake in the visual avant-garde that is the Biennale Arte.
The 58th Biennale di Venezia opened last weekend under the production leadership of Paolo Baratta, who celebrated his 20th year as president. The 79 artists and 91 international exhibitors united under the curation of Ralph Rugoff, former director London’s Hayward Gallery,, who chose the intriguing if ambiguous theme “May You Live in Interesting Times.”
The history of the phrase is that of misunderstanding and misrepresentation (reputed to be a Chinese curse, no such curse actually exists in China) which seems to be part of its appeal.
While the theme certainly pushes artists in the direction of political commentary, Rugoff asks us to “acknowledge at the outset that art does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics. Art cannot stem the rise of nationalist movements and authoritarian governments in different parts of the world, for instance, nor can it alleviate the tragic fate of displaced peoples across the globe.”
So, what can art do? It’s as aimless and necessary as children’s play – the reflection of the ‘real’ that tries to make sense of a world controlled by ‘adults’. In these times of uncertainty with the future of earth itself in question, we escape through the wardrobe (as the Pevensie children of C.S. Lewis’s classic) to explore the dark corners of our zeitgeist like curious youngsters…
May You Live In Interesting times
Curator: Ralph Rugoff
Tavares Strachan: Robert
Behind the wall of neon text of Rober Henry Laurence Jr. a glowing Skeleton is suspended in the darkness, pulsing with a blue and purple glow. Watch as the bones appear to come to life with the rushing light.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul in collaboration with Hisakado Tsuyosh: Synchronicity 2018
Personal and collective memory collide in this interactive installation. The shadowy room is easily overlooked, but not easily forgotten. A dream like sequence is projected against a slanting wall. A hole in the middle of the screen reveals there’s more to be seen behind the partition and curious viewers will be delighted with a glowing mass of brush, reminiscent of a burning bush.
Shalipa Gupta: For, in your tongue, I cannot fit
The audience walks through a grid of metal spikes, each stabbed with a paper detailing a person’s detainment. Hanging at head-level 100 speakers and microphones whisper in the ears of the participants, making for an atmosphere of paranoia and distrust.
Ryoji Ikeda: data-verse 1
Monumental minimalism embodied in high-definition projections that surround the audience in a vast landscape of auditory and visual information-fields, though in the dark it’s oddly calming.
Island Weather – Philippines
Artist: Mark Justiniani
Curator: Tessa Maria Guazo
Commissioner: The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), in partnership with the Office of Senator Loren Legarda
‘Islands’ glow in a dimly lit space beckoning, like lighthouses, to the viewers who are encouraged to walk on their transparent surfaces.
Though these platforms are low to the ground (roughly three feet tall) the socked patrons take nervous steps, their eyes struggling to make sense of the seemingly infinite depths. The artifice of the illusion is apparent (mirrors and lights) but the fantasy is no less delightful, begging the question – how much of perception is colored by a desire for something to be true?
Artist: Felicia Abban, John Akomfrah, El Anatsui, Lynette Yiadom Boakye Ibrahim Mahama, Selasi Awusi Sosu
Curator: Nana Oforiatta Ayim
Commissioner: Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture
In its debut year, Ghana takes the opportunity to demonstrate the country’s breadth of artistic identity. The pavilion design by UK-Ghanian architect David Adjaye features consists of series of interlocking rooms made from Ghanian soil – transported to Venice for the Biennale. Six artists of Ghanaian descent who approach their cultural experience (and in some cases diaspora) through photography, painting, film, and large-scale installation
Watch for former Golden Lion Winner, El Anatsui’s iconic metallic wall hangings woven from recycled printing plates, bottle tops, and copper wire. The unwieldy tapestries have no clear beginning or end, an allusion perhaps to the endless cycle of consumption and waste.
The Stronger We Become – South Africa
Artist: Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose, and Mawande Ka Zenzile
Commissioner: Titi Nxumalo, Console Generale
Curators: Nkule Mabaso, Nomusa Makhubu
South Africa’s 2019 pavilion explores resilience through the very violence which necessitates it. Three artists unabashedly approach the torture, sexual violence, and racism beneath the surface of its country’s politics, navigating post-apartheid healing through a poignant confrontation of the past.
Note the strong smell of manure even before entering this pavilion. Mawande Ka Zenzile pioneered the use of cow dung in his paintings. The odor is specific and evocative (especially for anyone with rural roots) as sound and lighting become par for the course at high-profile exhibitions… is the olfactory next frontier?
Deep See Blue Surrounding You/ Vois Ce Bleu Profond Te Fondre – France
Artist: Laure Prouvost
Curator: Martha Kirszenbaum
Commissioner: Institut Français
Enter the dark theater, sit on the soft floors, and let the ‘See Blue Surround You’. Whatever point one joins the cyclical video installation, is the right moment. Dance, theater, drawing, tapestry, ceramics, photography, glass blowing, and painting merge in a fantastical on-film saga. The narrative seems apparent in the moment but, like recounting a dream, is impossible to relay.
Themes of friendship, kinship, self-discovery, and environmental desecration swim together in this self-aware masterpiece with poetic narration that fluidly slides from French to English. “We are here!” exclaims the exuberantly against footage of the pavilion…”but so many are not.”
Mondo Cane – Belgium
Artists: Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys
Commissioner: Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles
Curator: Anne-Claire Schmitz
Recipient of ‘special mention’ from the Golden Lion Council, the Belgium Pavillion is reminiscent of folkloric museums of yesteryear complete with dioramas of public life. Twenty dolls (most of which are automated) mainly engage in quaint jobs such a cobbling or baking, but venture to the outskirts and more sinister scenes of imprisonment and insanity play out. The pale figures have ‘shell shocked’ quality that imbues their repetitive motions with a desperate urgency, a silent scream for help.
Mondo Cane is presented in tandem with a book of the same name which reports random happenings and facts (all true) in various languages. The effect is an off-kilter reality which, while factual, doesn’t seem to represent truth.
Swinguerra – Brazil
Artists: Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca
Curator: Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro
Commissioner: José Olympio da Veiga Pereira, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo
A portmanteau of the popular dance movement, swingueira, and the Portuguese word for war, guerra, the Brazilan pavilion dives into this powerful subculture where women and non-binary folks carve out a place of expression in times of political and social upheaval.
Characterized by it’s expressive and demanding movements – think samba, hip-hop, and stomp all rolled into one – Swinguerra the film (shown on two screens) and accompanying photographs record the intimate realities of practicing on deserted basketball courts, while also bringing to life the music video fantasies of dancers.
Around Town – Taiwan
Artist: Shu Lea Cheang
Curator: Paul B. Preciado
Palazzo delle Prigioni
May 11–November 24
A pioneer of net.art, artist Shu Lea Cheang presents an eerie series of videos dealing with imprisonment, both physical and through digital surveillance mechanisms. The title 3x3x6 refers to a standardized industrial environment where six cameras monitor all movements in a three by three cell.
Ruminate on the consequences of new technologies like facial recognition amidst the rise of authoritarian regimes through ten historical ‘case studies’ of persecution and imprisonment for reasons of sexual aberration or race are introduced through short surrealist film sequences that combine live action with digital animation. The characters are often dressed like a futuristic version of the sun king’s courtiers – big hair, ruffles, and powdered faces. Erotic and alienating, Shu Lea Cheang keeps the viewer at arm’s length through layers of fantasy, as if we too could be working for ‘them’.
‘Jannis Kounellis’ Major Retrospective
Artist: Jannis Kounellis
Curator: Germano Celant
Fondazione Prada Venice
May 11–November 24
The Prada Foundation celebrate late artist, Jannis Kounellis, in a major retrospective featuring over 60 works from 1959 to 2015. The exhibition can be seen as three distinct phases: urban landscapes, natural subjects, and medium subversion.
In the latter, Kounellis experimented with his pictorial medium turning paintings into sheet music that could be performed (and is by a live cellist), and using scented materials like coffee and grapa to engage more senses in the artwork.
Sun & Sea (Marina) – Lithuania
Curator: Lucia Pietroiusti
Artists: Lina Lapelyte, Vaiva Grainyte and Rugile Barzdziukaite
Commissioners: Rasa Antanavičiūtė and Jean-Baptiste Joly
An opera about global warming set on a beach at first take seems trite, but this performance may hit too close to home for most visitors. Look down from the balcony at the archetypical beach scene, brightly suited bodies slathered in sunscreen and sprawled on towels surrounded by bags, water bottles, magazines, and all the familiar vacation accouterment.
A buoyant scene on the surface until tales of environmental desecration told through the spoiled lense of my plane was delayed by a volcanic explosion. ‘Well traveled or over traveled?’ is a question most guests will have to reckon with after a trip to this beach in a time where even adventure has become a consumable good.