The 58th international art exhibition, entitled May You Live In Interesting Times, directed by Ralph Rugoff, took place from 11th May to 24th November 2019. The title is a phrase of English invention that has long been mistakenly cited as an ancient Chinese curse that invokes periods of uncertainty, crisis and turmoil; “interesting times”, exactly as the ones we live in today.
The exhibition is, as always, staged in the two main historical sites, the Giardini di Castello and the Arsenale, but also involves prestigious venues throughout Venice, where the representatives of many nations are hosted and where exhibitions and collateral events are set up. All the world’s futures forms a large and unified exhibition path that is articulated from the Central Pavilion of the Gardens to the Arsenale, including the participations of 79 countries and regions.
The title of this Exhibition expression “interesting times” evokes the idea of challenging or even “menacing” times, but it could also simply be an invitation to always see and consider the course of human events in their complexity, an invitation, thus, that appears to be particularly important in times when, too often, oversimplification seems to prevail, generated by conformism or fear.
May You Live in Interesting Times, include artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the “post-war order.” But let us 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.
The 58th International Art Exhibition highlight a general approach to making art and a view of art’s social function as embracing both pleasure and critical thinking. The Exhibition focus on the work of artists who challenge existing habits of thought and open up our readings of objects and images, gestures and situations.
Art of this kind grows out of a practice of entertaining multiple perspectives: of holding in mind seemingly contradictory and incompatible notions, and juggling diverse ways of making sense of the world. Artists who think in this manner offer alternatives to the meaning of so-called facts by suggesting other ways of connecting and contextualising them. Animated by boundless curiosity and puncturing wit, their work encourages us to look askance at all unquestioned categories, concepts and subjectivities.
An exhibition of art is worth our attention, first and foremost, if it intends to present us with art and artists as a decisive challenge to all oversimplifying attitudes. In an indirect fashion, perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times.’ It invites us to consider multiple alternatives and unfamiliar vantage points, and to discern the ways in which “order” has become the simultaneous presence of diverse orders.
The Exhibition in Arsenale
The Exhibition develops from the Central Pavilion (Giardini) to the Arsenale and includes 79 participants from all over the world. Initiated in 1980, the Aperto began as a fringe event for younger artists and artists of a national origin not represented by the permanent national pavilions. This is usually staged in the Arsenale and has become part of the formal biennale programme.
From 1999, the international exhibition were held both at the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale. Also in 1999, a $1 million renovation transformed the Arsenale area into a cluster of renovated shipyards, sheds and warehouses, more than doubling the Arsenale’s exhibition space of previous years.
In his ghostly portraits, Soham Gupta shines a light on the nightlife of Kolkata, revealing how some of the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants live. In his series Angst, we follow these nocturnal figures as they move through the worlds they inhabit, becoming vivid characters in the photographer’s imagination. Gupta thinks of his portraits as resulting from a collaborative process, drawn from intimate interactions in which he and his subjects confide in one another. The photographer bears an instinctive affinity with those existing on the margins of society; he walks among them, identifying with their pains and struggles.
After spending time with each subject, Gupta makes biographical accounts of their stories. Gupta’s photographs imbue the powerless with an expressive agency. More than a documentation of a city and its people, the photographs are an expression of a psychological state rooted in something more essential. A sense of vulnerability and loneliness is punctuated with moments of joy and spontaneity. While the cries and pains of agony may be silenced by the photographic image, Gupta’s photographs vividly express the various shades of humanity that can only be seen during the night.
The photographic work of Anthony Hernandez is hard and unsentimental. For the past three decades a prevalent question has troubled the photographer: how to picture the contemporary ruins of the city and the harsh impact of urban life on its less advantaged citizens? Hernandez has approached this question by focusing on what the photographer Lewis Baltz has called “the landscapes of the defeated” – homeless camps, unemployment offices, auto-wrecking yards, bus shelters, and other neglected spaces found at the outskirts of the city. Neither romantic nor nostalgic, Hernandez’s work has detailed the sites and spaces where capitalism’s promise of happiness has soured.
Christian Marclay’s works are made from objects, images, and sounds that already exist, which he appropriates and manipulates. His explorations into the relationship between sound and image led him to apply sampling techniques to Hollywood movies. He created montages of clips to form new narratives and multiple-screen projections. “I’ve always used found objects, images and sounds, and collaged them together, and tried to create something new and different with what was available. To be totally original and start from scratch always seemed futile. I was more interested in taking something that existed and was part of my surroundings, to cut it up, twist it, turn it into something different; appropriating it and making it mine through manipulations and juxtapositions”.
Known for the work Faces and Phases (2006-ongoing), an evolving archive of portraits of South African black lesbians, Zanele Muholi is a photographer who works fiercely against muting and invisibility. Preferring to be referred to as a “visual activist” rather than an artist, Muholi is co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, as well as Inkanyiso, a platform for queer and visual activism.
The importance of self-representation is central to Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness (2012-ongoing), a series of unapologetic self-portraits that the artist intends to build into 365 images of a year in the life of a black lesbian in South Africa. The series includes works where the artist is defiantly or directly meeting the viewer’s gaze, on view in the Arsenale, and smaller silver gelatin prints where Muholi is avoiding and frustrating it, on view in the Central Pavilion.
Ed Atkins makes all kinds of convolutions of self-portraiture. He writes uncomfortably intimate, elliptical prophesies, draws horrible caricatures, and makes realistic computer generated videos that often feature male figures in the throes of unaccountable psychical crises. In the Arsenale, the installation Old Food (2017-2019) is wadded with historicity, melancholy, and stupidity. Here, Atkins has expanded his emo terrain, tempering affecting autobiographical figuration with broader issues and citations.
The drawings that constitute Bloom (numbered one to ten and showed in the Central Pavilion) feature tarantulas disembarking tentative hands or otherwise perching on a posed foot, each with the shrunken head of Ed Atkins where the spiders’ abdomen should be. Wreathed in arachnid hairs, Atkins’s face breaks the fourth wall and gawps at us, wearing an ambivalent, questionably conscious expression.
One theme that recurs through Tavares Strachan’s collages (along with rastafarianism, sports, and polar exploration) is that of space travel; astronauts and fiery space rockets feature in several works. Following a grant from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art + Technology Lab in 2014, Strachan was offered the opportunity to work with SpaceX, the private aerospace technology company. He began research into Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African-American astronaut, who died in a training accident in 1967, and who has remained largely invisible in standard histories of American space travel. The outcome of this project is exhibited in the Arsenale.
The artwork presented in the Central Pavilion is connected to the concept of print encyclopaedia: today, in the age of the Internet and Wikipedia, it is doubly redundant. Its most famous manifestation, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, first published in 1768, nevertheless clings to a certain old-world authority. Growing up in the Bahamas – formerly a British colony – Tavares Strachan came to understand the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a tool of imperial conquest, one that appropriates (and condenses) knowledge as a means of signalling cultural domination. Strachan became interested in everything the encyclopaedia left out.
As a collector of discarded cultural objects, a self-proclaimed ontologist, a trained architect and researcher of human experience with an affinity for animals, Gabriel Rico could be said to have “hungry eyes”. His questioning, exploring, and collecting leads to a post-Surrealist / Arte povera approach that mines a range of materials, from taxidermy and natural objects to neon shapes and other remnants of manmade items. This results in thought-provoking sculptures that address the relationship between environment, architecture, and the future ruins of civilisation.
In all of Rico’s work, the beauty of the story is located in the details. The components reflect the challenges facing a specific location –Mexico– and simultaneously resonate with our shared global concerns. Rico considers the fragility of space, both formally and philosophically, presenting the precarious moment that is now.
Shilpa Gupta works around the physical and ideological existence of boundaries, revealing their simultaneously arbitrary and repressive functions. Her practice draws on the interstitial zones between nation states, ethno-religious divides and structures of surveillance – between definitions of legal and illegal, belonging and isolation. Everyday situations are distilled into succinct conceptual gestures; as text, action, object and installation, through which Gupta addresses the imperceptible powers that dictate our lives as citizens or stateless individuals.
Jesse Darling’s sculptures are wounded, skittish, and unsteady, but they are also brimming with life. Made from low-cost everyday materials, these unassuming assemblages evoke bodies with an unusual poignancy; they are also determinedly non-monumental. Unable to use most of their right arm due to a neurological disease, Darling was struck by the inherited ideologies and ableist machismo that had initially informed their understanding of sculpture: ideas of ‘hard work’ and ‘the gesture’. They explain: “Now I’m trying to think and work towards a non-macho sculpture practice by gathering and assembling small objects in narrative formulations, and learning to draw with my left hand”.
Teresa Margolles trains a feminist lens onto the brutalities of narcoviolence that pervade her home country of Mexico. Having studied forensic medicine and co-founded the death-metal inspired artist’s collective SEMEFO, Margolles has throughout her practice thematised governmental negligence, the social and economic cost of the criminalisation of drugs, and the specific textures, smells and physical remains, the materiality of death.
Describing his painting practice as “voracious”, Henry Taylor populates his work with an enormous diversity of subjects, from the destitute to the dazzlingly successful. Whether through intimate portraits of family and friends, or politically-inflected group scenes that splice together different geographies and histories, Taylor’s aim is to honestly portray the reality of Black experience and the often iniquitous workings of American life. But despite his sharp eye for injustice and the frequent incorporation of art-historical references, Taylor’s pictures aren’t heavy; their bold forms and block colours are immediate, hooking the viewer in.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
The paintings of Njideka Akunyili Crosby reflect her experience as a member of the contemporary Nigerian diaspora, depicting a specific cultural and national identity that is unfamiliar to many, though instantly recognisable to those who have followed a similar path. Having emigrated to study in the United States as a teenager, Akunyili Crosby moves confidently (although perhaps not without internalised friction) between diverse aesthetic, intellectual, economic and political contexts, and it is the collision and misalignment of these contexts that gives her paintings their tension and poignancy.
The artist paints portraits and domestic interiors that usually feature herself and her family. These scenes are at once flat and limitlessly deep, with windows and doorways opening onto other spaces, while the spaces described in these pictures are indeterminate; certain details – such as a cast iron radiator, for instance – indicate a cold climate (such as New York, where the artist lived for a time), while others, such as a paraffin lamp set on a table, are drawn from Akunyili Crosby’s memories of Nigeria.
Kemang Wa Lehulere
Kemang Wa Lehulere’s richly layered work encourages visitors to gather around it in shared contemplation. This notion of the collective is key to the artist’s broader practice: he became an artist in his late twenties, after many years’ experience as an activist in Cape Town. He established Gugulective in 2006, an artistic platform for performance and social intervention. Both the installations exhibited in the Arsenale and in the Central Pavilion are made from salvaged wood and metal from school desks and chairs. Each element in these works comes together in a web of associations, references, and stories because for Wa Lehulere, personal biography and collective history are inextricable.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s works are steeped in the social life, divergent culture, and tumultuous politics of his native Thailand, whilst the transient arenas of sleeping, dreaming, and memory recur as spaces for exploration, liberation and quiet subversion. These subjects weave their way into the complex interplay of light, sound, and screen of Synchronicity (2018), made with Japanese artist Tsuyoshi Hisakado (1981, Japan) and showcased in the Arsenale, in whose environment Weerasethakul’s threshold spaces are given physical form.
A number of works relate to the artist’s encounters with the traumatic past of Nabua, a town in North Eastern Thailand, where rebel farmers were brutally suppressed and killed by the Thai military in the 1960s. Two works in the Central Pavilion signal a significant shift for Weerasethakul, who has for the first time been working outside Thailand, in Colombia, for his current project Memoria. Colombia’s topography and its scars from decades of civil war hold a visceral affinity for Weerasethakul; the traumas of collective memory part of the fabric of everyday life, much as they are in Nabua.
Since the early 1990s, Yin Xiuzhen has been working with recycled materials to create ambitious sculptures loaded with social references. Reflecting the excessive development, consumption, and globalisation that largely defined post-1989 China, in her works she joins soft textiles with an array of items – often of drastically contrasting textures and connotations – such as suitcases, concrete fragments, debris, metals, and industrial objects.
Suki Seokyeong Kang
Incorporating painting, sculpture, video, and what the artist has described as ‘activation’, Suki Seokyeong Kang’s multivariate practice centres on the place and role of the individual today. Kang draws on aspects of Korean cultural heritage as well as her own personal history to reimagine ideological structures and envision politicised arenas in which empowered stakeholders can articulate and exercise their agency in the space-time of the present.
Over the last ten years, Handiwirman Saputra has created a series of enigmatic sculptures and paintings entitled No Roots, No Shoots, triggered by random objects he has found in everyday life. The impetus for some of these works was a stretch of river near his home, where exposed roots of bamboo groves and trees were entangled with household rubbish. Saputra was intrigued not just by the things he discovered there but by the associations between them: “Perhaps they could also be said to build conversation, dialogue about the experience of that thing – what it had been used for from its origins up to the point that I found it”.
Growing up as the daughter of left-wing activists during South Korea’s military dictatorship, Lee Bul experienced the effects of a repressive regime in a country undergoing rapid economic and cultural transformation. Her earliest works, dating from the late 1980s, were street performances for which she made and wore monstrous ‘soft sculpture’ costumes festooned with protrusions and dangling viscera.
These were followed by her Cyborg sculptures in which female bodies morphed into machines, forming incomplete hybrids lacking heads and limbs. They in turn led her to explore ideas of futuristic cityscapes inspired by the dreams, ideals and utopias conceived in Japanese manga and anime, bioengineering and the visionary architecture of Bruno Taut (1880-1938).
Sun Yuan & Peng Yu
The artist couple Sun Yuan and Peng Yu started their collaboration in 2000. In 2009, they created the installation Sun Yuan Peng Yu, a self-portrait describing the relationship and dynamic of their artistic alliance. A recurring smoke circle was persistently dispersed by a broom powered by a mechanical arm that kept on sweeping in the air; the smoke would persistently reappear, only to be dissolved when the broom hit again.
For Sun and Peng, the moment of encounter between the two components, and the dissolving of one by the other, symbolised a moment of joint artistic creation in their way of working. Nearly all of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installations are bent on soliciting wonders and tension from spectators. The act of looking, sometimes peeking, on the part of audience members is a constitutive element of their recent works, which often involve the staging of intimidating spectacles.
Cameron Jamie has produced work in diverse media from photographs and videos to drawings, ceramics, sculpture, and photocopied zines. The work that brought him the widest attention in the early years of his career, however, was Kranky Klaus (2002-2003), a video documenting the Alpine Christmas tradition of Krampuslauf. In a rural Austrian village, men dressed as horned beasts maraud through the streets at night, supposedly in search of children and young women who are said to have been naughty. The Krampus beasts then physically assault their victims in what is a culturally sanctioned ritual of choreographed – though apparently real – violence.
The continuous transformation of objects and imagery through their trajectories of transmission and encounter is at the core of Maria Loboda’s practice. Loboda’s works provoke mistrust in the supposedly evident, but also invite us to make friends with the uncertainties they – and the things we are surrounded by – possess. Loboda is interested in the way images are affected by the contexts in which they circulate, shaped by the history of gazes upon them.
Rula Halawani’s ghostly images capture the aftermath of the periodic violence that transformed her country into a war zone. Drawing on both her background as a photojournalist and her recollections of life under Israeli occupation, Halawani searches a now unfamiliar landscape for the fading traces of historic Palestine. Through the medium of photography, the spatial implications of occupation are reflected not only through the representation of political structures in the built environment, but more distinctly in the emptiness of negative spaces and shadowy illusions.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan
Describing himself as a “private ear”, Lawrence Abu Hamdan focuses on the politics of listening, the legal and religious impact of sound, the human voice and silence. His practice arose from a background in DIY music, but it currently spans film, audio-visual installations and live audio essays – a term he prefers to “lecture-performance”, as it better describes the intertwining of voice and content, and of the discourse and the conditions in which it is pronounced. He deals with the human voice as a politicised material, easily graspable by governments or data companies.
Earlier canvases by Julie Mehretu referred to maps, architectural diagrams, and urban-planning grids; the artist used an array of vectors and notations that gestured towards global mobilities – as well as global inequities. They are dizzyingly complex and masterful in their use of scale and negative space; they convey a feeling of velocity. In her latest paintings, she embraces a different type of disorientation, producing works in which airbrushed strokes and screen-printed elements are added and erased, invoking a sense of dissipation and loss. Though the details of the underpaintings, this source imagery still has the capacity to register on an emotional level, setting the tone for the completed painting.
Travelling further afield, Gill saw new suburban “colonies existing in a wasteland of debris, imitation English castles with the makeshift homes of migrant labourers surrounding them”. Her architectural Deadpan encompasses developers’ hoardings peddling unattainable dreams; educational displays about building and construction; fake palms planted among real trees; a goddess presiding above an aircon unit; a new building, covered with torn sheeting, in the process of being demolished on Mahatma Gandhi Road; bundles of rubbish rotting beside the Grand Trunk Road; and featureless high-rises, everywhere.
Referencing the (often violent) movement and exchange of minerals, energy, goods, and people, Otobong Nkanga’s work is a reminder that objects and actions do not exist in isolation: there is always a connection, always an impact. “None of us exist in a static state”, the artist has said. “Identities are constantly evolving. African identities are multiple. When I look at, for example, Nigerian, Senegalese, Kenyan, French, or Indian cultures, you cannot talk about a specific identity without talking about the colonial impacts and the impact of this exchange – of trade and goods and culture”.
Located somewhere between a fantastical reality and the political chaos of modern life, Michael Armitage’s paintings weave together multiple narrative threads. As a keen observer of complex social dynamics, he subverts conventional codes of representation through the language of narrative painting. Magnifying issues of inequality and political uncertainty, the picturesque beauty of his vivid tableaux belies a sinister reality in which the collision of sumptuous detail and vibrant colour provides an insight into the social mores and political ideologies that govern everyday life in Nairobi.
Haris Epaminonda works with found materials such as sculptures, pottery, books, or photographs, which she often combines to carefully construct her characteristic installations. These objects are entangled in a web of historical and personal meanings that are unknown to the public and, probably, to her too. It is not that she ignores these stories: they are implicit, they exert their power intrinsically, while softly bending into something different as they settle into her installations. She chooses them for their qualia, their irreducible experiential qualities, which make them shine forth and become visible.
Liu Wei’s early works often dealt with urban architecture, city landscapes, and everyday objects, and represented various aspects of the physical world by employing a recurring geometric schema in paintings and installations. Throughout the last two decades, he has worked with a dazzling assortment of materials – from ox-hide dog-chews to books, from household electronic devices to Chinese porcelain and discarded building materials. His recent large-scale installations evoke the formality and splendour of Modernist stage sets, filled with geometric shapes and forms.
Alexandra Bircken’s practice is built around the human form. Her works incorporate an unusual range of materials, from manufactured items such as silicon, nylon tights, weapons, and machinery, to organic materials including wool, leather, branches, and dried fruit. Stripped of their former purpose, these are assembled into extraordinary and uncomfortable arrangements, each work alive with opposing tensions.
In the Arsenale the artists exhibits the visceral, apocalyptic and dynamic installation ESKALATION (2016), a dystopian view of what the end of humanity might look like. In the Central Pavilion, Bircken presents six works that interweave themes of gender, power and vulnerability, animal and machine. These are works that recall our vulnerability, our physicality, and the hubristic tools we create to protect ourselves from the outside and from each other.
Alex Da Corte
Alex Da Corte’s immersive works testify to an act of magnetic world-making. He choreographs a dance of objects that signify and imply, without being those things. He tells stories through codes and symbols, in which a whirlwind of appropriated, assembled, staged, and crafted Americana is infused simultaneously with high- and low-brow cultural references and dollar-store finds.
In the Arsenale, the neon-lit Rubber Pencil Devil, miniaturises the viewers as they sit on benches and watch over-sized and over-saturated adult versions of familiar TV programmes in which a range of characters perform a hypnotically slow choreography. In the Central Pavilion, viewers become giants watching people live their quiet lives inside the homes of The Decorated Shed (2019), an exact replica of a miniature suburban American village – from the popular television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – presented on a Federal-style mahogany table, with the addition of corporate restaurant chain signage.
In Khyentse Norbu’s work as an artist and filmmaker, philosophical questions of context play a central role. There is a suggestion that understanding and interpretation are always open to change, and that there is scope for a broader view. Known within the Buddhist world as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Norbu is a Tibetan and Bhutanese lama, respected for his teaching and writing.
For Ad Minoliti, metaphysical painting is the symbol of the modernist utopia and of everything that she found reproachable in it: the repressiveness of its ideality, the conservatism of its rigid structures, and even its implicit binary logic, in reference to Jacques Derrida’s idea that Western thinking is founded upon dualistic oppositions such as male-female, rational-emotional, or nature-culture. Her artistic endeavour has been to create an alternative space of representation to counter this modernist stance. She found a dialectical alter-homologue of the space of metaphysical painting in the imaginary world of the dollhouse.
A 17th-century invention, the dollhouse was initially created as a pedagogic tool to instruct girls on their roles as home-makers, house-managers, children-bearers, and husband-supporters – and boys on the acceptance of this labour division and philosophy. Minoliti appropriates the aesthetic of the dollhouse and its props, compounds it with modernist imagery that echoes Kandinsky, Picasso, or Matisse, and then takes it apart, twists it, shifts it, and reconfigures it afresh.
In Modernist movements, Jon Rafman has observed, utopian visions of the future were prevalent. The late-capitalist postmodern vision, however, has become a dystopian one. To explore this shift in notions of futurity, Rafman’s work employs the moving image and computer-generated graphics, eschewing the rosy optimism sometimes associated with new technologies.
Ian Cheng uses techniques from computer programming to create living environments defined by their abilities to mutate and evolve. He was developing ‘live simulations’, living virtual ecosystems that begin with basic programmed properties but are left to self- evolve without authorial control or end. It is a format to deliberately exercise the feelings of confusion, anxiety, and cognitive dissonance that accompany the experience of unrelenting change.
Cheng’s most recent creature, BOB (Bag of Beliefs) (2018-2019), presented in the Central Pavilion, is a form of AI (artificial intelligence) whose personality, values, and body – which recalls a serpent or coral – are continually growing. BOB’s behavioural patterns and life script are fuelled by interactions with humans, who are able to influence BOB’s actions via an iOS app. Life After BOB: First Tract (2019), presented in the Arsenale, operates as a sort of “preview” to a narrative universe centred around BOB.
For three decades Arthur Jafa has developed a dynamic practice across mediums such as film, sculpture and performance. Throughout his career, he has been invested in specifically black modes of expressivity, and the challenge of how to render the world (visually, conceptually, culturally, idiomatically) from the vantage of black being – in all of its joy, horror, beauty, pain, virtuosity, alienation, power and magic. Jafa gathers together network-based images, historical photographs, vernacular portraits, music videos, memes, and viral news footage to highlight the absurdity and necessity of images in the apprehension of race.
Lara Favaretto’s multifaceted art practice encompasses sculpture, installation, and performative action, and is often expressed through black humour and irreverence. An example can be found in her series Momentary Monuments (2009-ongoing), which are not meant to glorify any historical event, nor to foster sentiments of national identification.
Favaretto’s monuments are less ideological and more tragicomical, they simply rot, collapse and dissolve in different ways. This makes the tremendous effort to construct them a monument in itself, but to the futility of human endeavour. The implicit joke in Favaretto’s work is that even objects made of the most stable materials, meant to congeal values and ideologies forever, eventually disappear.
Obsessive compulsions and violent desires; submission to sexual and political dominance; the fragility of human existence; identity as construction and fiction: these are some of the themes that undergird the nihilistic and tragicomic scenarios explored in Andra Ursuţa’s sculptures and installations. Hingeing on paradox and irony, the artist’s work draws on political events, clichés and allegories, as well as personal memories, in an attempt to expose and disrupt the power dynamics that perpetuate the precarious boundaries between violation and banality, indifference and empathy, abjection and humour.
Neïl Beloufa – whose practice spans film, sculpture, and installations – has spent the better part of the last decade thinking about what is at stake when one apprehends reality and its representation. His practice refuses to adopt any position of authority; it is both sharp in observation and unobtrusive in what it conveys. The artist removes himself constantly from his propositions as if to say to the viewer, ‘This is your problem now – you deal with it’.
For example, in order to watch the videos of Global Agreement (2018-2019), on view at the Arsenale, the viewer has to sit on structures reminiscent of gym equipment, that are uncomfortable and restrict their movements; simultaneously, the configuration of the space means that each viewer can observe everyone else observing others: you may be watching the video, but someone is always watching you.
Composer and artist Ryoji Ikeda’s practice approaches monumental minimalism, often interweaving sparse acoustic compositions with visuals that take the form of vast fields of digitally rendered information. These integrate to form the artist’s own expansive language, which relies on an algorithmic way of working where mathematics is utilised as a means to capture and reflect the natural world around us.
Danh Vo’s eclectic circle of collaborators for the Biennale Arte 2019 includes his boyfriend, his nephew, his father, and his former professor. In Vo’s installations, history meets the artist’s own biography through charged symbolic objects such as cultural icons or damaged religious imagery, and the literal and metaphorical involvement of his family members and friends.
Bridging music and contemporary art, Tarek Atoui’s practice expands notions of listening through participatory and collaborative sound performances. Influenced by the legacy of open forms presented by artists in the 1960s, which enlarged the understanding of music and brought it closer to the realm of visual art, Atoui conceives and coordinates complex environments to cultivate sound. Through his installations, performances and collaborations, he breaks down expected notions of performance, both for the performer and audience, suggesting multimodal ways of experience: visual, aural and somatic.
Also incorporating elements of writing and performance, Jimmie Durham’s practice most often takes the form of sculptures in which diverse everyday items and natural materials are assembled into vivid forms. The process of production, what Durham terms “illegal combinations with rejected objects”, can be seen as an embodiment of the subversive attitude that suffuses his works.
In the Arsenale each sculpture, fashioned from combinations of furniture parts, slick industrial materials or used clothes, approximates the scale of the titular animal –yet the resulting forms are not portraits of the beings, but rather poetic entanglements that challenge the traditional Enlightenment notion of the separation between humans and nature. In the Central Pavilion Durham showcases Black Serpentine, a large eponymous slab of rock surrounded by a stainless steel frame –a half-tonne mass defiant in its implacable fortitude.
Destabilising demarcations between the organic and the synthetic, science and fiction, human and non-human, Anicka Yi’s protean creations are undergirded by what the artist describes as the “biopolitics of the senses”. Yi’s new body of work centres on recent enquiries into “biologizing the machine” as she focuses in on the sensorium of the machine and contemplates how new channels of communication can be established between artificial intelligence (AI) entities and organic life forms.
One of the most striking aspects of Zhanna Kadyrova’s art, which includes photography, video, sculpture, performance, and installation, is her experimentation with forms, materials, and meaning. She often uses cheap tiling for mosaic, combined with heavyweight construction materials such as concrete and cement.
For Market (2017-ongoing, exhibited in the Arsenale), a food stall equipped with everything a street trader needs, she makes sausages and salamis from concrete and natural stone, and fashions fruit and vegetables – bananas, watermelons, pomegranates, aubergines – in chunky mosaic. The version of Second Hand (2014-ongoing) on view in the Central Pavilion repurposes ceramic tiles from a hotel in Venice to construct items of clothing and linen.
Slavs and Tatars
Founded in 2006, Slavs and Tatars began as a book club and evolved into an artist collective whose multifaceted practice has nevertheless remained very close to language, both in literal and figurative ways. Their work, ranging from sculptures and installations to lecture-performances and publications, is an unconventional research approach to the cultural richness and complexity of the geographical area enclosed between two symbolic and physical barriers: the former Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China. This vast land is where East and West collide, merging into and redefining one another.
On 18 April 2015, the Mediterranean’s deadliest shipwreck in living memory occurred in the Sicilian Channel, 96 km off the Libyan coast and 193 km south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. The boat, bought by Libyan traffickers, was filled with migrants, most of whom were locked up in the hold and machine room when it collided with a Portuguese freighter that was trying to come to its rescue.
Barca Nostra, a collective monument and memorial to contemporary migration, is not only dedicated to the victims and the people involved in its recovery, but also represents the collective policies and politics that create these kinds of disasters. In May 2018 a migrant initiative in Palermo started a petition proposing a procession with the shipwreck as a Trojan horse wandering across national borders through Europe, fighting for the human right to free mobility.
Ludovica Carbotta’s multifaceted art practice encompasses sculpture, drawing, performance, architecture, and writing. She is interested in the physical exploration of urban space, constructing what she calls “fictional site specificity”; she invents imaginary places or imbues real places with fictional contexts, recovering the role of imagination as a way of constructing knowledge.
Over the past years, she has been working on a large-scale project, divided into several chapters, entitled Monowe, the name of an imaginary city inhabited by a single person. Through the point of view and experiences of Monowe’s only inhabitant and his/her possible acceptance of the city’s conditions, Carbotta explores seclusion as a state through which to abandon social norms, rules, and logics that have been taken for granted in society.
Tomás Saraceno’s research is nourished by myriad worlds. His Arachnophilia Society, Aerocene Foundation, community projects, and interactive installations explore sustainable ways of inhabiting the environment by bridging disciplines (art, architecture, natural sciences, astrophysics, philosophy, anthropology, engineering) and sensitivities.
In all these projects, Saraceno engages with forms of life that exist all around us and, in an era of ecological upheaval, encourages us to attune our perspectives to other species and systems – whether at the micro or macro level, from spider colonies to gravitational waves – and engage with hybrid and alternative ways of inhabiting our shared planet.
Making entropy of both the human-made and the natural his central concern, Cyprien Gaillard performs a pointed critique of the idea of progress through his videos, sculptures, photography, collages and public art. A nomadic observer, Gaillard treks through urban environments as well as natural landscapes, looking for signs of deep time embedded in his surroundings. He brings fragments of the outside world inside, forming anachronistic juxtapositions, combining images of destruction and reconstruction, renewal and degradation.
Gaillard’s practice is a visual archaeology of decay, whether it is the erosion of physical forms or of social and historical meaning. Often collapsing time in his work, Gaillard fights the romanticism of ruins, suggesting a disinterested gaze through which the remnants of events and places can be understood through a unified framework of cyclical time.
Halil Altındere scrutinises the politics of the everyday in his videos, photographs, installations and paintings. A keen observer of sociopolitical mechanisms and their encroachment on the individual, he often uses the very means by which authority is asserted and difference is circumscribed by the institutions of the nation-state. Identity cards, postage stamps, banknotes, newspaper front pages, militaristic slogans and photos of political leaders are appropriated to subvert social or political manipulation and normalisation.
Coming from a Kurdish background, and having grown up during the peak of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, Altındere touches on the neglect and mistreatment of minorities in numerous works. In recent years, Altındere has engaged with the global refugee crisis in multiple works, including Space Refugee (2016), a series inspired by the artist’s meeting with Muhammed Ahmed Faris, Syria’s first and only cosmonaut, who travelled to space with a Soviet team in 1987.
Venice Biennale 2019
The 58th Venice Biennale was an international contemporary art exhibition held between May and November 2019. The Venice Biennale takes place biennially in Venice, Italy. Artistic director Ralph Rugoff curated its central exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times, and 90 countries contributed national pavilions.
The Venice Biennale is an international art biennial exhibition held in Venice, Italy. Often described as “the Olympics of the art world”, participation in the Biennale is a prestigious event for contemporary artists. The festival has become a constellation of shows: a central exhibition curated by that year’s artistic director, national pavilions hosted by individual nations, and independent exhibitions throughout Venice. The Biennale parent organization also hosts regular festivals in other arts: architecture, dance, film, music, and theater.
Outside of the central, international exhibition, individual nations produce their own shows, known as pavilions, as their national representation. Nations that own their pavilion buildings, such as the 30 housed on the Giardini, are responsible for their own upkeep and construction costs as well. Nations without dedicated buildings create pavilions in the Venice Arsenale and palazzos throughout the city.
La Biennale di Venezia was founded in 1895. Paolo Baratta has been its President since 2008, and before that from 1998 to 2001. La Biennale, who stands at the forefront of research and promotion of new contemporary art trends, organizes exhibitions, festivals and researches in all its specific sectors: Arts (1895), Architecture (1980), Cinema (1932), Dance (1999), Music (1930), and Theatre (1934). Its activities are documented at the Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts (ASAC) that recently has been completely renovated.
In all sectors there have been more research and production opportunities addressed to the younger generation of artists, directly in contact with renowned teachers; this has become more systematic and continuous through the international project Biennale College, now running in the Dance, Theatre, Music, and Cinema sections.