It is May and 2019, in Spring every odd year since its first iteration 1895 —with a few interruptions during World Wars I and II—, the Venice Biennale of Art arrives at the Italian island-city. Founded by the Venetian City Council, the world’s most important contemporary art exhibition has been done ever since. This year celebrates its 58th iteration which opened to the public past Saturday, May 11th and runs until November 24th, 2019.
“The Olympics of the art world” captures some of the international spirits of the art scene and rather than being just a single big show organized by one lucky artistic director, it is a kind of freewheeling event composed of numerous elements. The Biennale consists of three parts: a central exhibition entitled May You Live In Interesting Times organized by the artistic director, the national pavilions organized by the countries, each offering a show of one or more artists, and last but not least independently organized exhibitions tagged by the Biennale as official Collateral Events.
In addition to national pavilions & collateral events, plus central exhibition, numerous museum, independent shows, and off-site projects, likewise open their doors during the Biennale.
Ninety nations countries present pavilions during the Biennale, an all-time record as the previous high mark was set in 2017, with eighty-six official pavilions.
Nations will stage their own curated exhibitions at the Giardini, a garden that includes 29 permanent pavilions. In 1980 the Biennale expanded to the Arsenale, a former naval shipyard, which now hosts 23 pavilions. The remaining 28 nations are located across the city, from San Marco to Giudecca. National Pavilions include this year Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia, and Pakistan, who will participate for the first time. At the last moment Argelia, Angola and Kazakhstan dropped out and Venezuela will open mid-May, not on time, due to current political issues.
This second article es dedicated to highlighting some of the national participations and their exhibition thematics.
Winner: Lithuania. Sun & Sea (Marina)
On Climate Change
The international jury decided winners of this year edition on Saturday, May 11th. Lithuania won the Golden Lion for best pavilion where a naval warehouse with the help of 35 tons of Lithuanian sand, has been transformed into a fake beach for Sun & Sea (Marina).
We look down from a balustrade on the holiday-makers below, kids building sandcastles, dogs relaxing with owners, tourists sunning themselves on towels, oiling up and eating ices. The work of theatre director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, playwright Vaiva Grainytė, and composer Lina Lapelytė is an opera that last almost one hour.
This hypnotic and seductive performance is beautifully sung by the tourists as we watch from upstairs. They are focused on their vacations, but reality keeps intruding.
“This year the sea is as green as a forest,” the chorus intones near the conclusion, with a touch of noble sorrow. “Eutrophication! / Botanical gardens are flourishing in the sea / The water blooms / Our bodies are covered with a slippery green fleece / Our swimsuits are filling up with algae.”
This astonishing performance about climate change is a lament to the eclipse of the world, as the sky and sea are being irreversibly damaged and nature dies in front of our eyes.
Giardini host individual the building pavilions of Belgium, Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France, Netherlands, Russia, Spain, US, Denmark, Austria, Israel, Switzerland, Japan, Finland, Canada, Uruguay, the Nordic Countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland), Australia and Korea.
Special Mention: Belgium. Mondo Cane
On National Identity
A special mention has been awarded to Belgium as National Participation.
The artist Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys have filled the pavilion with animatronic figures, folkloric weavers, a baker rolling pastry, a pianist, a beggar quivering with the cold, and other assorted personages going through their dismal mechanical motions. Some are locked behind bars, as though the pavilion, and perhaps the country itself, were a 19th-century asylum. Despite the childlike exterior of these automatons, underpinning them are the existential crises hitting western Europe today.
On Dance and Music as Weapons
In the Brazilian Pavilion, the artist duo —a husband-and-wife team— Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca present a new film, Swinguerra centered on dance subcultures popular in Recife (North coast of Brazil). The pavilion set up shows two big screens confronted maybe to simulate the dance battles held between adversaries. There are three groups rehearsing different dance styles brega, batidão do maloca, and swingueira (thus the piece’s title, with the modification to include guerra=war). The dance originates in the favelas on the outskirts of the city and almost all dancers are people of colour, a heritage of its slavery past, only abolished in 1888. The North, where the biggest plantations where located has big disproportion in money and power among its inhabitants.
The dancers dance off against one another in groups, like some crazily sexed-up version of West Side Story. The choreography is hyper-stylized and dancers wear sport crop tops, booty shorts, and body stockings, many of them are gender non-binary and they are fully aware of their visual allure and physical power. It feels like an affirmation of the self-expression of communities that are sensationalized and stereotyped while remaining politically invisible and silenced. This statement seems more important than ever due to Brazil’s current far-right-wing Jair Bolsonaro presidency.
Switzerland. Moving Backwards
In the Swiss pavilion another duo, Pauline Boudry & Renate Lorenz, take on dance as well, on a film where they, themselves, dance with a number of regular collaborators where they execute different types of gestures and movements going backward. They go fast, they go slow, moving in and out of frame. The moves are studied, balletic and buffoonish. Club aesthetics dominates the pavilion: between us and the screen is a dancefloor. Lights come up and down, and a glittering curtain in front of the screen slides around. “We will move backward,” the artists say, “because strange encounters might be a pleasant starting point for something unforeseen to happen.”
On Liquid Identities and Ecosystems
France. Deep See Blue Surrounding You
Beneath her phantasmagoric takeover of the French pavilion, Laure Prouvost is “supposedly” digging a tunnel to the nearby British Pavilion, probably just to remediate the BREXIT thing and connect the UK with France (Europe again)… The action itself problematizes the nationalist values implicit in an international event like the Biennale, which is ultimately a competition with an award for the winning country. In the pavilion, Prouvost, the former Turner prize winner, has sculpted eels and an octopus, broken mobile phones and smashed eggshells, a pigeon has a cigarette in its mouth and other dreck litter over a green glass floor of the French pavilion.
The main work is a new film which visitors can watch from inside the belly of an octopus —a metaphor for the fluidity of contemporary identity. The film takes the form of an initiatory journey, filmed over the course of a road trip through France and finally arriving in Venice. The piece has dialogues in French and English with some Italian, Arabic or Dutch passages performed by a dozen of characters of different ages and backgrounds, with specific performance skills: magic, dance, music, etc. The preview week, the French pavilion was the most desired, having waiting lines of more than an hour to access.
The Japanese Pavilion seeks to create a space to ponder coexistence during the brink of extinction. The exhibition revolves around how Japanese people can create an ecosystem which allows humans and nonhumans to successfully coexist and it takes its lead from ‘tsunami stones’, natural rocks that hold the memories of natural disasters. Artist Motoyuki Shitamichi has been documenting the stones, which also hold religious, mythological and folklore connotations, for more than four years. For the pavilion, he has worked with composer Taro Yasuno, anthropologist Toshiaki Ishikura, and architect Fuminori Nousaku to build a public square where the stones are assimilated as monuments, a unified space filled with film, music, and speech in an attempt to create a collective experience.
On Biopolitical Concerns and Gender Issues
Once, in a pastiche of male territorial pissings, the Bilbao-based artist Itziar Okariz went through New York lifting her dress and urinating in public and private spaces: in subway stations, on the Brooklyn Bridge, on cars, and in fountains. With this work, showing patriarchal asymmetries of power, Okariz position herself as a dissent feminist artist-activist in the art world. This year, Spain’s Pavilion pairs Okariz’s work with Sergio Prego, known for his sculptures which follow a specific tradition of Basque abstract sculpture. The duo approaches biopolitical concerns, drawing attention to gender expectations with regard to media in contemporary art through Okariz video works and performances surrounded by Prego sculptures, some of the best, the fountains are located in the back garden.
On Colonialism and Displacement
Zacharias Kunuk has been involved in projects give visibility to the Inuit culture and its language Inuktitut by creating a film production company, called Isuma, which gives the name to Canada pavilion. Kunuk, joins his partner and fellow filmmaker Norman Cohn and the rest of the Isuma team, based in Igloolik, to present a new film in the pavilion, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk.
In line with Isuma’s many documentaries of Inuit history and life –examinations of indigenous traditions and belief, conflicts with settler colonialism and struggles for survival on the tundra– the film examine the long century (from 1876 to 1996) in which the Canadian government forcibly displaced indigenous people from remote communities to formally registered towns to attend English-language Federal Day Schools.
The Arsenale hosts the Pavilions of Albania, Argentina, Chile, China, Croatia, United Arab Emirates, Philippines, Georgia, Ghana, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Macedonia, Malta, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, South Africa, Tunisia, and Turkey.
Turkey. We, Elsewhere
On Emigrants and Refugees
Turkish artist Inci Eviner has created a multimedia exhibition which also includes architecture. One walk up and down a series of ramps, into small chambers, and around corners to encounter videos projected onto the walls, wall and floor drawings, and performers moving like contortionists through a series of sculptures made from cut chairs and beds. According to the artist, the work is based on Hannah Arendt text We Refugees from 1943. Eviner tries to explore the disappearing of gestural language when bodies emigrated to a country with a different language. The emigrant is always looking for the part that left in the country of origin, hence the half chairs and beds. She has work with actors and dancers to develop a symbolic language of gestures to express feelings as the expressions of the Comedia dell’Arte masks.
Ghana. Ghana Freedom
Participating for the first time at the Biennale Ghana pavilion is one of the most celebrated in this edition. It has been curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim who had the renowned deceased critic and curator Okwui Enwezor as a strategic advisor. The exhibition’s title is borrowed from the 1957 song, composed by E.T Mensah on the eve of independence from Britain. Each elliptically-shaped space is dedicated to one of the six artists spanning three generations of Ghanaian creativity. Felicia Abban, considered to be Ghana’s first professional female photographer, and the painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye offer approaches to representation with their works of portraiture. These are complemented with large-scale works from El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama, a 3-channel video work from John Akomfrah and a film sculpture by Selasi Awusi Sosu.
India. Our Time for a Future Caring
For its second-time presence at the Venice Biennale –and after an eight-year hiatus– the India Pavilion revisit the philosophy of M. K. Gandhi, on the 150th year of his birth, focusing on his writings on non-violence and considering his philosophical ideas and their place in today’s complex world, in which violence and intolerance are still prevalent. The group show of seven artists includes Nandalal Bose tempera on paper panels, commissioned by Gandhi in 1938 with scenes of village life; Jitish Kallat installation Covering Letter which takes Gandhi’s 1939 letter to Hitler. In revisiting these historical documents, Kallat calls attention to the possibilities of peace and tolerance in a world plagued by violence, control, and surveillance. Atul Dodiya cabinets move beyond curiosities into the pages of history and memory by keeping in them references as home, street, shrine, bazaar, and museum. Shakuntala Kulkarni photo performance where she uses costumes-cages made of cane which are also exhibited here. Ashim Purkayastha, GR Iranna, and Rummana Hussain complete the list.
Pavilions Around Venice: From Arsenale Docks to Giudecca
Countries who joined the Biennale in more recent years, and who do not have spaces in the Giardini or the Arsenale, set up their exhibitions in Palazzos across Venice as well as on various islands around the Venetian Lagoon. 21 collateral events take place across the city throughout the duration of the Biennale.
From Multi-Sensorial Experience to Horror of War
Iceland. Chromo Sapiens
In Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir (aka Shoplifter) has created a multisensory large-scale installation using her personally developed textile techniques using synthetic hair. A chromatic explosion, the installation is a labyrinthine journey through cavernous chambers, an abstraction of nature whose surface entirely covers the inside of the space in a colourful tangle of synthetic hair. Entering the piece as a Homo Sapiens, you are invited to explore your interior landscape through the stimulation of the senses and leave it as a Chromo Sapiens.
“I have this theory that colour penetrates your retina, goes into your brain, and turns on the natural ecstasy,” said Hrafnhildur. “It has the power to affect the way you feel—not just visually, but your relationship to size, and the scale of the world. You can feel like you’re a tiny organism in somebody’s fur.”
Iraq presents a solo exhibition by Iraqi Kurdish artist Serwan Baran which explores the relationship between him as a soldier and his country. To date, Baran has experienced over forty years of war in Iraq. During his time as a soldier and a war artist, Baran was forced to record the ‘glory’ of the Iraqi army and painted the conflict’s casualties for government propaganda purposes. The choice of Fatherland as a title, in contrast with Motherland, is also a commentary on the masculine and paternalistic dimension of the political culture of Iraq, as well as of the region, dominated by men. Included in the exhibition there is a monumental acrylic painting, as well as a new sculpture and collages. Serwan Baran’s large-scale works are forceful denunciations of the horrors of war.
From Disappearances and Extinctions to Identity as Space
New Zeland. Post hoc
The Latin phrase post hoc means ‘after this’. The artist Dane Mitchell’s presents ideas of truth and agency, questioning how we consider the past in the present and its meaning for the future. Linked to temporalities, disappearances are at the heart of the project: a vast inventory of ‘extinctions’ and ‘past events’ are transmitted from the New Zealand Pavilion, located just next to Arsenale, by an automated voice which is electronically broadcast continuously from an echo-free chamber via commercially produced tree cell towers located across Venice. The radio network broadcasts lists of entities that no longer exist, while the “scale of loss” is visible in the empty site of the pavilion, where, in sync with the broadcasts, the lists are continuously printed —and will be during the six months of duration of the biennale— in a roll of paper falling on the ground.
Malaysia. Holding Up a Mirror
Malaysia pavilion reflects around identity, as due to their location, the country has been in contact with different cultures, multiple histories, that extends across diverse geographies recounting stories of diaspora, migration, and integration. Its first participation at the Venice Biennale takes as its starting point the concept of identity as space. Four artists are displayed in the exhibition: Anurendra Jegadeva, H.H. Lim, Ivan Lam, and Zulkifli Yusoff which are, in fact, Malaysian but each has a different origin and ethnicity. Utilizing paint, video, installation, and sound, they work through their own concepts of self when compared to a larger body and they quite literally represent four individual takes on identity in the context of a singular country. Lim is my favourite, his video screens installation hanging as they were canvases on a side wall takes on elements of every day, repackaged and framed, giving them a different meaning and new life. As curator says, the artists take on identity as a heterogeneous and constant flux concept, coming from many personal narratives that shape a public fabric of consciousness which is both, diverse and unified.
Catalonia. To Lose Your Head (Idols)
Les Statues Meurent Aussi (The statues also die)
To Lose Your Head (idols) by Marcel Borràs with Albert García-Alzórriz and the collaboration of David Bestué, Lua Coderch, Lola Lasurt, Daniela Ortiz, Perejaume, and Francesc Torres, documents the complex life of statues… the statues want to die. The stone, material that is cut, molded or cast, constrained into an imposed form, wants to return to its mineral reign. Statues are artificial bodies. Like strange beings that ignite passions, desires, and fears, statues dominate us. They expose what we do not always want to see. The exhibition shows documentation and media coverage of different public statues around Catalonia since their initial reason to exist to the ulterior dismantling. Those statues, that have been removed already from the public space, have been transported to the city-island and they are exhibited together with their traveling packaging “cages.”
Scotland + Venice presents Charlotte Prodger
On Queer Bodies in Low-populated Areas
Turner Prize-winning Charlotte Prodger new single-channel video SaF05 presented in the Scottish pavilion takes us to Botswana, Utah, the Highlands, and Glasgow, in search of both a maned lioness —from which it takes its name, SaF05 is the code used by scientific researchers to identify this enigmatic lioness from the Okavango Delta in Botswana— and her own past, marking her territory with anecdotes and diary entries, traveling into the past as well as losing us in the landscape. This new work continues the artist’s research into how lives are lived in sparsely-populated areas, and what happens to socially contingent signifiers of queer bodies within these spaces. The film is exhibited alongside sculptural interventions.
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 Gonzalez Escudero and Venice Biennale where noted.