“May You Live In Interesting Times” Central exhibition at Venice Biennale 2019

Lara Favaretto
Lara Favaretto. White mist intervention outside Central Pavillon at Giardini © Paco Neumann

The 58th edition of the Venice Biennale was opened to the public last Saturday the 11th of May. This year central exhibition titled May You Live in Interesting Times is curated by Ralph Rugoff and features 79 artists coming from 38 countries. The show takes place across two sites and it is divided into two sections: “Proposition A” at the Corderie dell’Arsenale, and “Proposition B”, in the Central Pavilion at the Giardini. The exhibition will be running through November, 24.

The curator, Ralph Rugoff, born American, is the director of the Hayward Gallery, London. The title he has chosen May You Live in Interesting Times is a reference to a supposed ancient Chinese curse which was popularised by the British statesman Sir Austen Chamberlain in the late 1930s in reference to the rise of fascism in Germany.

Rugoff has reduced the number of artists in the show —in the past iterations overwhelming— to almost half and although coming from a quarantine of countries almost a third of the artists work in the USA. Another important novelty is that for the first time, all the artists are featured in both sites, “A” and “B”, and each venue —according to the curatorial statement— highlights different aspects of an artist’s practice. However, the exhibition is weirdly unequal, the “A” Arsenale is elegantly installed and well pound, whilst the “B” Central Pavilion in the Giardini is packed and chaotic. I, as a visitor, experienced a hard time moving around and some impressive works are discredited or go unnoticed because of the mess in which they are located.

For the first time in history, fifty percent of artist featured are women, and equally unusual for this art event (often looking backward) all are alive. 

The show, apart from its confusing title “interesting times”, pretends to point out the crisis and difficult times we are living in. Rugoff clarified that the fact that the big present issues: climate change, migration-refugees, nationalism, racism, gender, disparity of wealth, violence, and the global impact of social media, dominate the work of many of the artists in the show, “art is more than a document of its times” and therefore, “there is no thematic umbrella” in the show. And yes, one easily can see that after touring the expo, as a visitor one feels amazed by bright, big, “obvious”, literal and uninteresting some of the works are…

The Artists

The Awarded

The international jury decided winners of this year edition on Saturday, May 11th. Much deserved Golden Lion for the Best Participant in the International Exhibition was given to Arthur Jafa (1960, USA).  Arthur Jafa’s film The White Album focuses on white supremacy and —alongside beautifully shot imagery of white people who are friends of Jafa’s— it features, among much else, footage of a young, racist YouTuber lamenting the loss of white people; the anti-racist speech of self-confessed former white nationalist Dixon White; a chilling sequence of a man repeatedly loading an automatic weapons; and CCTV footage of the white supremacist murderer Dylann Roof on his way to Charleston church shooting in which he killed nine people. Music is a huge factor in the film, and it includes an extended sequence of the videoThe Pure and the Damned, sung by Iggy Pop, plus other material. The piece is always engaging, Jafa implicates us at every turn, every clip and every word said by protagonists.

The Silver Lion for a Promising Young Participant went to Haris Epaminonda (1980, Cyprus). Two special mentions went to the following participants: Otobong Nkanga (1974, Nigeria) and Teresa Margolles (1963 Mexico) who shows two found-object sculptural installations conveying the horror of violence in her native Mexico: the section of a school wall taken from the city of Ciudad Juarez —against which men were executed—is in the Giardini; and, in the Arsenale, glass shelters from the streets of the same city capturing its shameful recent history of femicide, covered in flyers, many fading and peeling, that seek out missing young women. The glass shakes to the sound of trains recorded by Margolles.

Jimmie Durham (1940, USA) is the recipient of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.

The Glow of Millennials

During the opening days, there are a lot of behind-the-scenes commercial activities. Venice is packed with all kind of art ambassadors: art dealers, collectors, collection managers, museums directors, curators, art critics, and of course blue-chip gallerists; especially those who represent artists present in the Biennale. After analyzing the 79 artists and collectives in the main exhibition and the 200plus artists in the national pavilions, interesting enough, this year the main galleries dominating the art market: Pace, Hauser & Wirth, and Gagosian are nearly absent. On the contrary, new set galleries have the largest number of participants, like Mexico City’s Kurimanzutto or New Yorkian Andrew Kreps, both mostly featuring millennial artists. And millennials (born between 1975 and 1990) are 50% of the artist selected by Rugoff such as Neïl Beloufa, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Strachan, Tavares, Avery Singer, and many other we mention below.

There are Consolidated Artist Too

Not mentioned below in more detail but included in the show are Stan Douglas, Nicole Eisenman, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Shilpa Gupta, Anthony Hernandez, Cameron Jamie, Tomas Sarraceno, Ryoji Ikeda, or Rosemarie Trockel.

Curator spoke in several media before the Biennale about its main theme: the fake news, post-truth, or alternative facts as new narratives. An otherworldly virtual reality world of wonder, computer game violence, or futuristic sci-fi plants showed in multiple screens setups are the among best of the selection.

Filmic Installations Coup de Grâce at Arsenale

The Arsenale and its tasteful use of plywood partitions to break up the 300 metres-long Corderie surrenders to big and complex video art installations.

For me, one of the best pieces is Kahlil Joseph video collage, using found and original footage. BLKNWS is similar in both venues, a two-screen news channel of black—and mostly African American—life, from archive footage of Malcolm X and Miles Davis, through studio footage of the artist Henry Taylor and the collector A.C. Hudgins having an informal chat about the world today, to leading African American thinkers at public events, accompanied by a soundtrack featuring Frank Ocean and Sampha, among others.

Jon Rafman has been creating video-game-style epics for some time, here he presents a film which is a stream of dream-like absurdities, with a figure consisting of a child’s head on legs as its protagonist. In Giardini groups of faceless figures are repeatedly and brutally destroyed and abused.

Arsenale

Giardini

Ed Atkins shows a vast installation titled Old Food which involves multiple video screens showing CGI tearful children in motion and some other digital figures historically dressed like coming from a Medieval video game. They are all, inexplicably, weeping. There is also an absurd film, with strange sound effects with a sequence of sandwiches formed on white sliced bread and then masks, babies, lettuce, and tomato … I did not understand this piece. Nearby are racks of opera costumes and dense and complex texts engraved into wood, written by the website Contemporary Art Writing Daily saying for instance, that “Atkins’s protagonists are emotional crash test dummies…” Whilst in the Giardini Atkins’s self-portrait drawings as a tarantula —coming out of hands and feet— are enigmatically located in different places around the show.

Arsenale

Giardini

Christian Marclay presents a collage of 48 War Movies, his latest screen montage, in which each film of combat is nested one inside the other, in concentric rectangles, and they loop in an unintelligible cacophony.

Alex Da Corte captivating three-hour video installation Rubber Pencil Devil, which is an epic compilation of 57 short videos where he is dressed up like Mister Rogers or Eminem. He uses the music of Prince, the reality show “Big Brother,” Bart Simpson, the avant-garde German artist Martin Kippenberger, Allen Ginsberg and many other references to provide a critical take on contemporary realities in a exuberant, funny, sweet and absurd way, trying, at the heart of it, to make sense of America.

Screens & Digital Overshadow Painting & Sculpture at Giardini

Although Hito Steyerl‘s multiple screens installation This Is the Future at Arsenale is superb and one of the most appreciated, it is in my view more interesting her work at the Giardini shown on four curved screens that enclose viewers. The piece explores Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for a submarine for Venice. But she links it to the arms manufacturer that has taken the Renaissance master’s name and uses his genius for weaponry and war machines to promote its activities. In the installation, Leonardo’s writings in his notebooks become the ripples and spume of the Venetian lagoon and canals. Contemporary corruptions and inequalities always go hand in hand with the absurd and the sardonic, with playful storytelling and re-envisioned histories.

Arsenale

Giardini

Next rooms are where it happens to be a visual dissonance and collisions between works very different in form and content. One of them has an enigmatic sculptural assemblage of Nairy Baghramian at its centre, with the expressive figurations of George Condo and Henry Taylor, and the calligraphic abstractions of Julie Mehretu. Elsewhere, Njideka Akunyili Crosby dense paintings of figures in interiors are put together with Carol Bove steel sculptures, paintings by Avery Singer and the photographs of Anthony Hernandez.

Following the tour, we found the work of French artist Cyprien Gaillard who projects a dancing monstrous figure on to a fan taking on Max Ernst’s Fireside Angel, painted in 1937 as a critique of fascism. Gaillard character is essentially a hologram, so if you move to the side, it disappears. It is an apparition that glows in an otherwise semi-darkened room.

Other remarkable video works are the ones from Turner Prize 2019 nominee Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Ian Cheng, Stan Douglas, Silver Lion winner Haris-Epaminonda thirty-minute video Chimera with constructed constellations of images built out of fragmented memories, histories and imagined connections and already mentioned Jon Rafman.

Photography

Rugoff choice of photographers is strong, there are a lot of photographic portraits in the show. They stare back at you, posed, caught on the fly, styled, defiant, big format or in rows of vignettes. Mari Katayama frames her image in elaborate photographic tableaux that include prosthetic body parts and present her amputated legs. Her self-portraits exploring her disabilities is one of the Giardini’s strongest rooms. Katayama is paired with South Africa photographer Zanele Muholi, likewise, her self-portraits explore the nature of identity with a sculptural touch, decorating her hair with metal tweezers. Muholi is very present in both the Giardini and the Arsenale, where her gaze repeatedly confronts one in vast wallpapered images. Martine Gutierrez, a Latin trans woman, shows herself in Helmut Newton-like fashion fantasies.

Leaving aside self-portraits, Soham Gupta’s studies of the dispossessed people of Kolkata (India), are deeply affecting, whether in black and white in the Giardini or in colour in the Arsenale. Young artist Gupta, born in 1988, collaborates with those photographed in a way that they dictate how they appear to the viewer.

What is troubling about all of them is the cumulative effect that their black and Asian subjects are seen to be performing their otherness for the camera and for the white gaze.

Walls Everywhere

Walls are everywhere. Rula Halawani black-and-white photos from tall walls built by Israel around Palestinian areas; Teresa Margolles as mentioned before has transported long rows of cinderblocks from Juárez, Mexico, topped with barbed wire and speckled with bullets; voice actors in a video by Lawrence Abu Hamdan invoke interviews with survivors of Syria’s Saydnaya prison, discussing how sound travels through the building; and a motorized metal gate by Shilpa Gupta crash against the wall approximately every minute so plaster and paint falling to the ground.

Sculptures

Nicole Eisenman’s sculpted heads with folds and cavernous eye sockets. She is best known as a painter and several of her canvases are in the Central Pavilion, her busts in the Arsenale, being one of them a fountain, are really thrilling. Otobong Nkanga, who received a special mention award, showsVeins Aligned, which measures more than 21 metres long, stretching down the Arsenale.

Literal & Uninteresting works

Some of the work is literal —like Nabuqi’s rotating cow in Giardini and fake poster for a tourist destination in Arsenale— or gigantic and uninteresting —like Sun Yuan & Peng Yu omnipresent installations of “sculptures” in motion, and Gabriel Rico’s assemblages.

The 58th Venice Biennale runs until 24 November. The Giardini and Arsenale are open from 10 to 18h and on weekends the Arsenale is open late until 20h. 

Review: María Muñoz
Photos: Paco Neumann & María Muñoz. Rubén González Escudero & Venice Biennale where noted

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