What are the “interesting times” Ralph Rugoff, curator of the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale (11.05.19 – 24.11.19) is talking about? Interesting as in challenging, difficult, unsettling, or as in full of potential for artistic creation? The answer lies somewhat in the middle.
The artists exhibiting in the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion, as well as in the National Pavilions in the Giardini and across the whole of Venice (and islands) seem to find three ways of dealing with this year’s theme. I liked to think of this threefold division, rather than the dualistic approach of Rugoff’s ‘Proposition A’ and ‘Proposition B’ (which felt a purely nominal one), as the fil rouge of the Biennale.
A first group of works give in to the temptation to flee into a world of fiction, using digital technologies, video-game aesthetics, AI and VR to create a universe of escapism – the same millennial world we imagine populated with unicorns and rainbows.
The trippy (and 94-minute long!) video Dream Journal by Jon Rafman, the soft-walled pop-coloured installation Rubber Pencil Devil by Alex Da Corte, the holograms of Antoine Catala and Cyprien Gaillard, and the massive interactive installation Interesting World by Fei Jun in the Chinese Pavilion are all part of this strand. Their response to the “interesting times” we live in is to use art to create a parallel world with an absurdist narrative.
Cyprien Gaillard, ‘L’Ange du foyer (Vierte Fassung) (2019)
The second approach is to lay bare the menacing and disturbing aspects of the times we live in. Within this group of works, it was actually encouraging to see so much art address the burning issues of our time, from racism (including Tavares Strachan’s account of the first black astronaut and the chilling videos by Arthur Jafa and Kahlil Joseph), to censorship (as in Shilpa Gupta’s arresting installation For, in your tongue, I cannot fit, made of metal spikes, sheets of paper and the recorded voices of imprisoned poets), and from the life of modern soldiers (interviewed by Neïl Beloufa and presented in a gym-like setting in the installation Global Agreement) to unexplained violence, which is prominent in Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s works (Dear is a white throne on top of which a tube periodically whips around the surrounding space, while Can’t Help Myself is a huge mechanical arm whose job is to shovel a thick, blood-coloured liquid all around itself), but also in Gupta’s motorised metal gate, which slams against its wall every minute.
Shilpa Gupta, ‘For in your tongue, I cannot fit’ (2017-2018) © Photo: Courtesy of Kochi Biennale Foundation
In such dangerous times, some artworks invite us to be vigilant, as the threat of violence, hatred, persecution and destruction is real. Syncronicity, a video by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (winner of this year’s Artes Mundi, the UK’s leading prize for international contemporary art) and Tsuyoshi Hisakado, features a woman sleeping in a bed in the forest in a chaotic and restless environment. It investigates the alternating states of consciousness and memory, and seems to ask us to stay alert.
Refugees also feature prominently this year, as a response to the ongoing migrant tragedies that the whole of Europe is witnessing. As well as some quirky works, such as the story of the first Syrian astronaut as told in Halil Altindere’s Space Refugee, one of the symbols of this year’s Biennale is Barca Nostra by Swiss artist Christoph Büchel – a real vessel where 700 passengers who had dreamed of a better life drowned on the night of 18th April 2015, just off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. The ship, with its visible damages, corrosive rust and imposing size, has the power to “speak to our conscience”, as curator Rugoff pointed out. While many, including Lorenzo Tondo writing for The Guardian, thought the display was “diminishing – if not exploiting – the suffering associated with the migrant crisis“, I found it was still a powerful real-life object to bring to people’s attention. If art doesn’t shake our consciences, make us experience and see what we wouldn’t be able to see and experience on our own, and open our eyes on what goes on beyond the square metre of our daily life, what will?
Christoph Büchel, ‘Barca Nostra’ (2019)
The chaos, roughness, and lack of meaning of our times is also embodied in the Padiglione Italia, though with rather grim and slightly underwhelming undertones. Conceived as a massive labyrinth, the Pavilion is titled Neither Nor (Né altra Né questa: La sfida al Labirinto). Curated by Milovan Farronato and featuring works by Enrico David (Ancona, 1966), Chiara Fumai (Rome, 1978 – Bari, 2017) and Liliana Moro (Milan, 1961), we are supposed to pick up as much knowledge as possible from the aleatory journey within the maze, and to be renewed as we get out. Only Liliana Moro’s Avvinghiati (1992), consisting of two mattresses tied together with a tango playing in the background, seemed to have something to say.
Liliana Moro, ‘Avvinghiati’ (1992)
The chosen approach of a third set of artists is to try to make sense of the “interesting” disorder of our times, by offering an (attempted) explanation and a tentative hope for meaning among the ubiquitous chaos.
Hito Steyerl’s large scale installation This is the Future describes a future where AI might not be the answer to everything, while Leonardo’s Submarine, timely coinciding with the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, in a journey on board of Leonardo’s 1515 submarine, in a kaleidoscopic blend of philosophy and history, beauty and progress.
Similarly, Ryoji Ikeda’s mesmerising video-installation data-verse 1, is a visualisation of big data taken from NASA and CERN, and features taxonomic shots of the moon and stroboscopic images of a burning sun. To stand there, exposed to the entropy of space infused with some sense of rational order was cathartic and beautifully filling.
Ryoji Ikeda, ‘data-verse 1’ (2019) © Photo: ryoji ikeda studio
Trying to put order to our world is also the “modern rebus” The Heart Atrophies by Antoine Catala, a composite piece where “The” draws on architecture, “Heart” relates to advertising, “A” is linked to science and “Trophies” conjures fashion. I felt that the best works of the Biennale were those that not simply display, but also try to navigate the chaos surrounding us.
The National Pavilions also have a huge disparity of outcomes, some proving a bit of a disappointment (USA, Germany, Greece, among others), but some turning out to be nice surprises. Both Brazil and Switzerland feature video and dance, in Swinguerra by Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca, and Moving Backwards by Pauline Boudry/Renate Lorenz respectively. If you allow yourself to sit down and spend some time in front of the works, taking the time to savour them slowly and enjoy their details as you would do during a dance show, both videos speak of freedom in a way only dance can do.
I also loved the texture and colours of Shoplifter by Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir in the Iceland Pavilion (on the island of Giudecca), and the reasoned depth of the Indian Pavilion, especially the women armours of Shakuntala Kulkarni’s Of Bodies, Armour and Cages, and the huge display of padukas (the sandals worn by Gandhi) in Navuu by GR Iranna. The Philippine Pavilion is equally mesmerising, with an immersive installation by Mark Justiniani where visitors could walk on infinite-looking spaces (I felt genuinely dizzy!). Indonesia’s Lost Verses by Syagini Ratna Wulan and Handiwirman Saputra features a maze (like Italy, but more positively), taking visitors through a journey of poetic prompts and numbers, inviting them to find their own answers.
Mark Justiniani, ‘Island Weather’ at the Philippine Pavilion (2019)
I couldn’t help but notice the sheer amount of chairs that were on display, throughout the entirety of the Biennale: from Jesse Darling’s March of the Valedictorians to Marina Loboda’s Lord of Abandoned Success (L’Argile Humide), and from Augustas Serapinas’ multiple Chairs for the Invigilator to Jean-Luc Moulène’s La Faucheuse, but also Liliana Moro’s summer chairs in Bella Ciao in the Padiglione Italia and the bouncy seats in Japanese Pavilion’s installation Cosmo-Eggs.
Might a chair, whether we sit on it comfortably, or decide to stand up and take action, be an overall metaphor of what we can do in our “interesting times”?
All pictures taken by the author, unless otherwise stated.