Hunger, poverty, violence, lives saturated with stories whose course can no longer be altered, identity issues on top of all that, gender fluidity, faith, ephemeral social concerns appearing and disappearing in an instant. “May you live in interesting times” is the title of the international art exhibition curated by Ralph Rugoff at this year’s La Biennale di Venezia. The invited artists embrace critical thinking on the most pressing subjects dominating the global conversation, from political squabbles to fantastical visions of the future.
The 58th exhibition was downsized substantially by Rugoff, who also maintained a proportional representation of male and female artists – each of seventy-nine participants unveils two separate works displayed in the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion. As a result, the audience can not only discern a broader context of someone’s art practice, but also observe the corresponding and occasionally even symbiotic relations between various pieces included in the exhibit. This edition of Venice Biennale exemplifies a meticulously planned and executed blockbuster art show with a strong underlying concept.
The Venice Biennale certainly knows how to reap benefits from flourish and controversy. Artists making bold statements tap into an endless pool of possibilities offered by state-of-the-art technology, scientific discoveries and… capital injection. The staggering ready-made installations based on pre-existing or modified machines provide a critical commentary on the world devoured by consumerism as well as our pursuit of fake values, which overshadows a mindful existence.
For instance, the notorious piece by Christopher Büchel (Switzerland) consists of the shipwreck retrieved from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Over a thousand illegal migrants making their way to Europe died in the incident. This powerful and stirring object is reminiscent of a Trojan horse fighting for the human right to free mobility.
A similar approach was adopted by Yin Xiuzhen, an artist from China. Her massive objects entitled “Nowhere to Land” and “Trojan” combine steel with recycled fabric. The giant textile puppet sitting in a brace position and elevated plane wheels wrapped in cloth reflect the excessive technological advancement and globalization precipitating the age of consumerism and the impending doom (which brings to mind Stańczak’s “Flight” exhibited in the Polish Pavilion, an actual private aircraft turned inside-out and entangled in protruding switches and wires, the plane seats hovering over the floor).
Alexandra Bircken is another artist opting for deconstructivism. A sports bike is slashed in half, while torn-apart protective gear splayed across the wall reminds us of a ripped teddy bear or tapestry. These mechanical objects meant to ensure our safety are in fact lethal cages that transfix the Biennale’s audience due to their intrinsic potency enclosed in the barely altered form. The Biennale artists initiate an open dialogue with the viewers by abandoning and upending the former order. A shift in the lines of thinking gives rise to alternate realities at odds with the cult of politics and media. This other world is filled with apprehension about the future and slightly comical overtones.
Speaking about “the machines of doom”, a phenomenal piece “Can’t help myself” was also created by the artist couple Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. An enormous revolving robot arm furnished with a giant squeegee is sweeping the blood-like fluid oozing away. The machine is pre-programmed so that the arm automatically shovels the liquid back to the center when it threatens to spill beyond its reach. The machine keeps splashing the liquid all over itself in a series of continuous frantic movements. This mechanical spectacle plays out behind a glass pane reminding one of the zoo and triggering a palpable tension. What is more, the work of Teresa Margolle is positioned on the opposite side of the same space. It is a piece of concrete wall from the school in Ciudad Juárez (Mexico) in front of which people were shot and killed.
Nonetheless, the Biennale was by no means dominated by ostentatious displays of the wonders of modern technology. More traditional style of work carved out a niche for itself during the show that, as it turns out, placed a special emphasis on the figurative painting. We are all familiar with the circumstances of life in Europe, no exposition needed. On the other hand, the European spectators might find themselves captivated by the depictions of everyday life in different cultures. The world of “ordinary folks” from the largest cities in Africa is portrayed beautifully in the paintings of Njideka Akunyili Crosby (Nigeria). Located somewhere between a fantastical reality and the political chaos of modern life (according to the artist himself), Michael Armitage’s paintings brandish a pop-like flair. No doubt, these two African artists deserve your attention.
Nicole Eisenman from France explores a similar territory in her depictions of scenes from a bedroom, a pub and the street. Her large-scale pieces on canvas seem like the contemporary versions of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales – mundane reality is embedded in the morose, most definitely Western, tradition of realist painting. Nostalgia mixed with distaste.
It is the medium of photography that satisfies our demand for depictions of an authentic life. In his slightly terrifying portraits of Kolkata’s indigenous citizens, Soham Gupta – an Indian photographer – pulls his characters from the darkness due to the illuminating power of flash photography. These characters are often people from the margins of society – alienated, physically deformed, hideous and yet completely real. Gupta’s portraits capture intimate moments, record emotions in their eyes, give account of the nocturnal existence way below the European standard of living. Those powerful images of despondence are still etched in your memory long after you leave the pavilion and return to the comfort of your sterile home.
A brilliant series of works by Zenele Muholi portrays black women with an unyielding gaze – lesbians living in the South African countries, with whom the artist had also established a close relation. The photographs spotlight the problems with race, gender and sexuality raised in modern Africa. In addition, the collages of black women are presented on the exhibit by Frida Orupabo from Norway.
Women’s issues are at the center of Mari Katayama’s photography. Born with a rare congenial disorder, the Japanese artist chose to have her limbs amputated. In the series of self-portraits, she uses her own body as the medium, assumes feminine positions and surrounds herself with prostheses and custom fabrics of her own making. The resonance of those images derives from their sensuality and sumptuous details that turn one’s attention away from physical deformation.
A series of large-scale photographs by Martine Gutierrez (USA) demonstrates a contrasting sensibility and approach to the exploration of a female body. Her “fashion magazine spread,” displayed in a precise sequence in the Arsenale, features a woman by the pool resembling Kim Kardashian who poses for photographs accompanied by the mannequins.
The medium of film clashes with the Venice Biennale formula. You would need lots of time and patience to watch dozens of works with a duration of over sixty minutes. However, this year’s films fall on every side of the cinematic spectrum imaginable – from documentaries and features, to fake news, genre and motion capture. Moreover, we can experience a brand-new approach to cinema considering a variety of new forms of screening and image manipulation.
The work of Ed Atkins should definitely be on your radar – the UK artist uses motion capture to create CGI avatars he then places in highly emotional contexts. As a result, viewers’ own attention is deflected by a flawless image rendering of a weeping elderly gentleman or baby’s tears streaming down its face. Something incomprehensible manages to stir up a gamut of feelings within the spectators, while the narrative threads eluding their grasp turn out to be incredibly riveting stories.
An immersive three-screen film installation was created by Korakrit Arunanondchai (Thailand) and Alex Gvojic (USA). This story filled with ghosts and supernatural elements was inspired by real-life evens, the actual news broadcast about the boys trapped in a cave in Thailand, who were then rescued. Tradition combined with innovation generates an unprecedented mode of storytelling and a gripping narrative.
I was pleasantly surprised by the set of compelling works meant to be perceived by the senses, initially often confusing an experience of art with some supernatural phenomenon. Upon entering the Arsenale or the Central Pavilion in Giardini, not only do we step into the world of art, but also find glorious dimmed shelter from the sweltering Italian heat. We tend to forget about the relentlessly bright sun while sauntering along the marked lanes. Ryoji Ikeda uses this moment of surprise to guide viewers into the short hallway bathed in the intense dazzling light. Opening your eyes inside borders on the impossible, they grow increasingly tired with each of only a couple of steps required to emerge on the other side. Seriously, beware of this creative exercise in minimalism.
The last work I wish to discuss is the first one you see as you approach the main entrance of the Central Pavilion in Giardini. Personally, I didn’t notice it until the very end of a day. Near closing time everyone was ushered toward the gates. Suddenly, massive clouds of white smoke hovering over the building and the mist drifting in the aisle obscured the view. The entrance to the pavilion vanished as if we had witnessed the beginning of a dramatic spectacle. The building might have as well burst into flames. Fortunately, we were spared from danger. It was Lara Favaretto, an Italian artist who used a fog machine to emit dense vapor from the rooftop. A blanket of fog laying over the ground right in front of the entrance imbued the surroundings with a sense mystery and trepidation.
58th Venice Biennale bears testimony to the undeniable fact that we all live in the congruent timeframes and yet no congruence exists between our geographic locations, between some kind of alternate dimensions governed by sets of completely different values. On the other hand, perhaps for the first time in the history of mankind we stand united for the sake of common good – against the climate change and its repercussions. When politicians are stumped for words, the artists must speak up with no regard for calculated agenda. Those invited to participate in this year’s exhibit address our deepest fears, tackle the world’s greatest problems, ask questions about the current condition of humanity. I shudder to think what we might see here in two years’ time.
written by Daga Ochendowska