An inside-out plane, a migrant ship, a cow on a track and a Lithuanian beach, these are just some of the textures that make up this year’s Venice Biennale, known colloquially as the Olympics of art.
This year’s main exhibition, titled May You Live in Interesting Times, is curated by Ralph Rugoff, who many will remember as the former curator of London’s Hayward Gallery.
As in years past, the main exhibition is situated across two main venues, the Arsenale and the Giardini, where Rugoff presents a total of 79 artists and collectives from all over the world, alongside 87 national participants and several dozen official collateral projects and exhibitions.
Entering the Giardini’s main exhibition, Ryoji Ikeda’s spectra III (2008/2019) provides light waves emitting dizzying frequencies, while Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Walled Unwalled (2018) comprises several interlinking narratives taken from legal cases heard or experienced through walls.
By far one of the most instagrammed works in the Giardini’s main pavilion is Sun Yuan and Peng You’s Can’t Help Myself (2016), a massive robotic squeegee that attempts to clean a never-ending pool of blood.
Over in the Arsenale’s main exhibition, Soham Gupta’s Untitled from the series “Angst” (2013-2017) depicts individuals of the lowest social caste in Calcutta, while in a room further down the sprawling naval complex Gupta’s moving sound installation references the power and social impact of voice through a series of microphones outfitted with the words of 100 poets killed or imprisoned since the 7th century.
In terms of performance, Delfina Foundation’s enigmatic and tireless director Aaron Cezar curated a masterful selection of works under The Meetings on Art project, which takes underrepresented voices and themes like queer identity and class at the forefront of an innovative event schedule that takes places during both the vernissage and finissage (November 22-24) of the biennale. Of particular note was Boychild’s moving work that poetically reflected on class and gender that was presented in the ‘in-between’ space of the biennale’s gardens and galleries, directly outside the Arsenale, on the opening day of the biennale.
The most controversial work in this year’s exhibition is undoubtedly Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra (2019), which consists of the remains of a dilapidated fishing boat that sank in April 2015 that led to the deaths of an estimated 800 migrants on board, all of whom were attempting to reach the shores of Europe. Büchel’s ‘work’ is presented as part of the Rugoff’s main international exhibition in the historic Arsenale venue, the very site where Venetian ships once vied for naval and mercantile supremacy.
The Golden Lion for best National Pavilion went to Lithuania this year, a crowd-favourite consisting of a beach where performers enact opera arrangements on a three-hour rotating basis. Titled Sun & Sea (Marina) the project assembles viewers on the second floor of a warehouse where they stare down at a group of performers who appear as vacationers assembled on a sandy beach. After a few minutes, they start to sing about different inconveniences that relate to climate change. The project—which first debuted at Vilnius’s National Gallery of Arts in 2017—is the work of theater director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, playwright Vaiva Grainytė, and composer Lina Lapelytė.
Arthur Jafa took home the Golden Lion award for the best artist in the international pavilion for his film The White Album, which consists of found footage of people being overly racist, albeit contextualised via a voiceover that challenges the construction of racial stereotypes in America.
Other national pavilions of note include Japan, which presents an exhibition titled Cosmo-Eggs, by Motoyuki Shitamichi＋Taro Yasuno＋Toshiaki Ishikura＋Fuminori Nousaku, consisting of a fascinating project that functions like a dialogue between an artist, composer, anthropologist and architect. The exhibition investigates ecology in which humans and non-humans exist side-by-side, a kind of poetic rumination on the unity between nature and humans.
The Ghanian Pavilion—the first of its kind in Venice—also made waves under the artistic advisory of the late Okwui Enwezor. Designed by architect David Adjaye, the Ghanian Pavilion located in the Arsenale presents six artists including Lynette Yiadom-Boakye who examine the legacies and trajectories of the country’s independence.
And while the biennale seems to consider a world in which perpetual crises have run amok, there is still room for art that inspires with playfulness, humor, craft and integrity, a world in which the faculties of art may help us to find pathways of reconciliation, dialogue and inter-cultural understanding.
Venice Biennial runs until November 24