‘May You Live In Interesting Times,’ is the theme and title for the 2019 Art Exhibit of the Venice Biennial. Undoubtably the hot topics of our era are expressed through diversified creative mediums, from sustainability and climate change, to growing disparity of wealth and gender inequality, from virtual reality and social media, to politics and resurgence of nationalist agendas. As the President of La Biennale di Venezia, Paolo Baratta said, “This title evokes the idea of challenging or even ‘menacing’ times, but it could also be an invitation to always see and consider the course of human events in their complexity.”
The beauty of this 58th edition is that the artwork on display, besides being aesthetically spectacular, challenges viewers to look beyond conformism and avoid oversimplifying attitudes. In times of great change, where certain political stances threat of bringing back civilization to a less democratic and multicultural world, it is vital to turn our eyes on art, that denounces the failures of humanity and tries to persuade it to embrace a brotherhood of man.
As curator Ralph Rugoff explained: “The proverb ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ was first mentioned in a March 1936 article in The Yorkshire Post, reporting on a speech made to the Birmingham Unionist Association by the British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain, who addressed the serious threat to Europe’s collective security posed by the move earlier that month of German troops into the Rhineland. To underscore the drama of the situation, he invoked an ancient Chinese curse. But it turns out that there never was such a curse in China and was presumably fabricated by a British diplomat. This kind of uncertain artifact suggests potential lines of exploration that seem worth pursuing at present, especially at a moment when the digital dissemination of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ is corroding public discourse and the trust on which it depends. For an exhibition that in part at least, considers how art functions in an era of lies, it struck me as an apt title. At the same time, it is my hope that art can give us tools to reimagine the possibilities of these ‘interesting times’ in which we live today, and so transform this phrase from a curse into a challenge that we an enthusiastically embrace.”
The exhibition opened to the public on May 11 and will run until November 24, set in the habitual venues of Arsenale and Giardini. Ralph Rugoff underlined the desire to enhance a split format betwixt these two exhibiting spaces, to epitomize the title of this edition. He said: “‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ is intended to evoke the parallel information landscapes that define our increasingly polarized public discourse. This phenomenon is exemplified by the term ‘alternative facts,’ first used by Counsellor to the US President Kellyanne Conway in defense of the Trump’s administration’s bogus claims about the size of the audience for President Trump’s inauguration. More and more public communication is divided into smaller and smaller bandwidths, with special interest groups largely talking only to themselves and reinforcing heir boxed-in perspectives. In this ‘post-truth’ era does art’s capacity to question established ideas and attitudes appear in a different light?”
Ralph Rugoff has termed the Arsenale section of his Venice Biennale exhibition “Proposition A,” while in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion is “Proposition B,” and it includes the same artists, who in most cases are showing different kinds of work. This is the first time the Biennale has an exhibition that allows artists to express themselves at a double level. I personally favored some of Proposition A’s creations, but truly enjoyed finding those same artists expressing themselves in a different manner with Proposition B.
Here is the artwork that fully embraces problematic histories and social situations, that you should not miss.
Shilpa Gupta from India
Shila Gupta’s sound installation ‘For, in your tongue, I cannot fit,’ addresses the violence of censorship through a symphony of recorded voices which speak or sing the verses of 100 imprisoned for their work or political positions, from the 7th century to the present day. The title is inspired by the work of the 14th century Azerbaijani poet imavddin Nasimi. In the dimly lit room, a grid of 100 microphones suspended from the ceiling are reverse-wired to function as speakers. The recitations in multiple languages (including Arabic, Azeri, English, Hindi and Russian) create a soundscape that might, in turn, include and exclude the listener, depending on which languages they understand. Each microphone has its corresponding verse printed on paper, waiting to be read by one and then echoed by a chorus of disembodied verses.
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu from China
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installations often involve the staging of visceral, intimidating spectacles. ‘Dear,’ presents a white silicon chair behind a Plexiglas barrier, loosely based on the imperial Roman chair featured as a component of the statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. In Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installation, the chair is kept company by a rubber hose that violently whips around the surrounding space in response blast-off highly pressurized air. In between these periodic eruptions of violence, the chair sits inert again, almost invitingly serene, until the assault recommences.
Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria
Otobong Nkanga has described landscape as body, which nourishes and provides, but which is plundered, scarred and poisoned. In ‘Veins Aligned,’ the vein in question is almost 26 meters long, formed of fleshy toned glass and marble, that recalls both a long hand-drawn line and a river, with the clouds coursing through the marble suggesting chemical pollution. Beyond the colonial and post-colonial exploitation of natural resources, Nkanga also finds in mining a metaphor for exploration into the great, cyclical sweep of time.
Cameron Jamie from USA
The folk tradition of the Perchten — an Alpine winter character associated with the Krampus — is the inspiration for the installation ‘Smiling Disease.’ These grotesquely grinning carved wooden masks reference the collections of tribal artifacts that were popular among surrealist artists in the early 20th century, thought to reflect contemporary ideas about the subconscious and the universal significance of dreams. This installation is similarly both frightening, humorous, and macabre.
Michael Armitage from Kenya
Michael Armitage’s series of paintings are the outcome of when he joined a group of photojournalists documenting the political rallies that led up to the Kenya general election. During these events, the artist witnessed staged campaigns of political agitation that incorporated carnivalesque elements and a circus-like atmosphere. In his artwork, he conjures the strange chaos and urgency of these events. Drawing from original footage and documentary images, magnifying issues of inequality and political uncertainty.
Liu Wei from China
Liu Wei’s recent large scale installation ‘Microworld’ evokes the formality and splendor of modernist stage sets, filled with geometric shapes. The artist has fashioned an assortment of outsized curved forms and spheres out of highly-polished aluminum plates — intended to invoke magnified and glossy versions of molecules, elements, protons and other microscopic particles. Liu Wei’s fictionalized portrait of the microscopic sphere, dwarfs the spectator, whose sense of awe-inspired distance is emphasized by the fact that we cannot enter the space, only view it through a giant window, as if looking at an exhibition in an oversized museum vitrine.
Alexandra Bircken from Germany
Alexandra Bircken’s practice is built around the human form. Her installation ‘Eskalation’ presents a dystopian view of what the end of humanity might look like. Forty figures, made from calico dipped in black latex, are suspended from ladders that extend to the ceiling. The work revolves around a sheer verticality, as the figures ascend to the top, arriving at obstacles and falling. This invokes an upward struggle between polarities: heaven and hell, success and failure, hope and despair.
Tarek Atoui from Lebanon
Bridging music and contemporary art, Tarek Atoui’s practice expands notions of listening through participatory and collaborative sound performances. He conceives and coordinates complex environments to cultivate sound, and through installations, performances and collaborations, breaks down expectations both for performer and audience. Combining visual, tactile and aural modes of perceiving sound, ‘The Ground’ is the result of Atoui’s travels in China’s Pearl River Delta, when he recorded his observations of contemporary and traditional agricultural, architectural and musical practices from the region. He later asked craftsmen and instrument-makers to respond to his notes and drawings. The resulting instruments were set up by Atoui to play separately and autonomously at exhibitions, where various artists and musicians are invited to respond to the forms and sounds of the works.
Lorenzo Quinn from Italy Hands
‘Building Bridges’ is contemporary Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn’s most ambitious project to date. Six pairs of monumental hands bridge the basin of the Arsenale as both symbol of our commonality and an expression of human aspiration. The project depicts six of humanity’s universal values — ‘Friendship,’ ‘Faith,’ ‘Help,’ ‘Love,’ ‘Hope,’ and ‘Wisdom’ — each symbolized by human hands coming together to overcome differences and build a better world. Famous as city of connection through its canals and crossings, as historic base of international trade, and ongoing hub of artistic exchange — Venice, a World Heritage Site with visitors from all over the globe, is an ideal place to spread a message of unity connecting societies, nations, communities and individuals through building bridges, not walls.
Vasily Klyukin from Russia
At Arsenale Nord, you will find ‘In Dante Veritas’ an exhibition by Russian sculptor Vasily Klyukin who makes a parallelism between the Italian poet’s Inferno and the distortions of our time, through diversified mediums that are harrowing and aesthetically beguiling at the same time.
CHILE Pavilion — with a special attention to The Hegemony Museum
The project by Voluspa Jarpa for the Chilean pavilion, is a conservation space that presents different case-studies of Eurocentric and colonial worldview from the 17th to the 20th Century. Her Museum presents this hegemony in six case studies of the European male, white, heterosexual, patriarchal, monarchial, culturally and economically “superior” and present in the very concepts with which the colonies were coined and conceived. European ways of doing, looking and analyzing are submitted to the public for study, in order to understand how the hegemonic psyche developed a whole series of complex mechanisms of oppression that emerged in concepts like race and miscegenation, subaltern male subjects, cannibalism, imperialism, gender conceptions, civilization and barbarism, and the conflictive relations between monarchy and republic.
The elliptically-shaped interlocking design of the pavilion by Sir David Adjaye, creates trajectories both across time and place, through the mesmerizing exhibit ‘Ghana Freedom’ curated by Accra-based Nana Oforiatta Ayim. The inspiration came from the wordsGhana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, proclaimed in 1957: “At long last, the battle has ended! And thus Ghana, your beloved country if free forever!” Nkrumah described this freedom as a reshaping of the country’s destiny, as an awakening, and as the birth of a ‘new African in the world.’ He linked Ghana’s independence with the rest of Africa’s, stating that is was meaningless without the liberation of the whole continent. As the first sub-saharan country to gain its independence from colonial rule, Ghana became a touchstone for many others from the continent and its diasporas. And yet, the country’s boundaries like so many others had been drawn by colonial hands, and its new freedom was predicated on the denigration of the cultural and spiritual foundations of the groups that now made up Ghana. The ensuing years saw a struggle to reshape, as Nkrumah had foreseen, not just political, but also cultural, social, and economic realities. For the first foray to the Biennale di Venezia, this country brought together artists whose individual works speak to each other in pluralities of medium and narrative and scope, as well as across generations through archives of everyday objects in large-scale installations by El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama; through representation and portraiture, both in the studio work of Ghana’s first known female photographer Felicia Abban and imagined by painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye; and through the relativities of loss and restitution in a 3-channel film by JohnAkomfrah and in a film sculpture by Seals Awusi Sosu.
In the ambient shades of sandstone and brick of building material and of the land, viewers encounter clusters of padukas (wooden slippers), cane armor and headgear, earthen pots and shards, painted posters/frieze, words dematerializing in a curtain of mist and wooden cabinets with objects and photographs, all transacting artistic responses to the exhibition’s theme ‘Our Time for a Future Caring,’ conceptualized under the broader thematic of 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi. Emphasizing the austerity of materials and the diversity of forms envisioned in simplicity and silence, the exhibition takes the viewer through eight artistic projects, conceptually mediating and translating the Pavilion as a sarai, a place of rest, inviting one to pause and ponder with each instance, separate yet linked, intersecting at various levels. The India Pavilion — curated by Roobina Karode — symbolically is a fragment of the pavilion put together at Haripura in Gujarat, envisioned by Gandhi and realized by Nandalal Bose. His Haripura Posters (1937), easily perceived as the first public art project in India aimed at cultural and artistic awareness through a direct engagement. MF Husain’s seminal painting depicting Zamin/Zameen celebrated the village republic, upholding its indigenous crafts. Taking further cue from Atul Dodiya and Ashim Purkayastha, a conceptual artist, the Pavilion creates intimate affinities as well as conflict, between fragment and the whole, individual and the multitude. The works of Shakuntala Kulkarni, Rummana Hussain, GR Iranna and Jitisch Kallat push on to interrogate one’s way of being and capacity to act in the world. The curatorial intention is implicated in the belief that Gandhi’s presence is far from being fixed in time and space and has its relevance in the everyday paradoxical charge of contemporary India. His propositions of passive resistance, peaceful protests, minimal consumption and ecological concerns continue to resonate.
A group of seven international artists with strong creative ties to the Italian art scene were elected to represent the city itself in the Venice Pavilion: Mirko Borsche, Lorenzo Dante Ferro, Sidival Fila, Ferzan Ozpetek, Plastique Fantastique, Fabio Viale, Giorgos Koumentakis. Curated by Giovanna Zabotti in collaboration with directors Alessandro Gallo and Stelios Kois, the Pavillion this year has ever more a choral nature, through works that are fruit of individual experience, that represent a collective vision. The name of the exhibit ‘Corpo Reale’ (Real Body) has the aim to utilize Bodies in Alliance to represent how equality among individuals is not only spoken or written but is performed precisely when bodies appear together in space. The concept of the exhibition is inspired by the urban fabric of the city, exploring its history and mythology, the plethora of narratives that weave into it, they perceive it as a multitude of inter-connected spaces and ecosystems that share a non-linear continuity.
The exhibition’s title ‘Lc. 15: 11-32,’ references both the bible chapters of The Parable of the Prodigal Son within the Gospel of Luke and Rembrandt’s painting of this subject, which has become a central masterpiece at The Hermitage Museum. Since 1848 ten Atlantes have welcomed visitors to the New Hermitage, exact replicas of which can be seen in the first room. The granite figures themselves have over time become a shrine in their own right, with pilgrims from all over the world coming to worshipers at their feet. Rembrandt’’s The Return of the Prodigal Son is the main theme of the installation by the celebrated film director Alexander Sokurov. It simultaneously represents one of the halls of the Hermitage and an artist’s studio with video installations showcasing the turmoil of war that lies beyond its walls. The inner staircase send us down the world of the Flemish School brought to life by artist Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai, which is dedicated to the intricate mechanisms in the Winter Palace such as the famous Peacock Clock. His signature plywood sculptures of cut out human figures move on mechanical constructions to create a theatrical mise-en-scène, blurring the boundary between reality and imagination.
‘Discordo Ergo Sum’ (I dissent, therefore I am) is the title of Austrian artist Renate Bertlmann’s site specific installation for the Austrian pavilion. In this rephrasing of the philosophical principle Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am), the artist attempts to cancel out the supremacy of reason and to describe herself within her insurgent worldview. With a further modification of this principle, the phrase Amo Ergo Sum (I love, therefore I am), Renate Bertlmann ironically signs the pavilion’s architecture. An installation of knife-roses in the courtyard, allows us to sensuously experience the dichotomy of our existence. Between this foundational movement in the exterior space and the pavilion courtyard, the exhibition space gives way to a cartographic view of Renate Bertlmann’s artistic practice, with a selection of her aesthetic and conceptual aspects exemplifies her multilayered oeuvre since the 1970s. The presentation of wall charts, sketches, photos, filmstrips, and drawing in a box inserted to fit into the pavilion creates contemplative zone where visitors immerse themselves in her artistic self-understanding.
Field Hospital X (FHX) is a new project by artist Aya Ben Ron. It is a mobile, international institution, an organization that is committed to researching that way art can react and act in the face of social ills. Learning from the structure and practice of hospitals, health maintenance organization and healing resorts, FHX provides a space in which silenced voices can be heard and social injustices can be seen. When visitors enter Field Hospital X they take a queue number. While waiting at the Reception Area, they watch the FHX TV Program and read the FHX Booklet to receive information about the hospital’s ideology, its Care-Ares and Care-Kits. Once their number is called, they go to the reception desk, choose a Rick-Wristband and continue to the Care-Areas. Visitors first go to Safe-Units, where they can learn through sound instructions how to produce a Self-Contained Shout. They are then guided to Care-Chairs, that are designated to affect the visitors’ physiological and emotional conditions, to generate attentive listening. Each Care-Chair consists of a personal screen and headphones for personal viewing of FHX Care-Kits. The video is preceded by an introduction and followed by two Second-Opinions by FHX experts. The pavilion tackles Anti-Transgender Violence: one of the main problems experienced by people who are going through gender transition is embedded in the social insistence on the gender binary.