Towards the rear of the central pavilion of this year’s Venice Biennale, a large mechanized metal gate swings forcefully back and forth on its hinge, crashing at stately intervals into a false wall and occasionally dislodging flecks of plaster. Designed by Shilpa Gupta, an Indian artist, it’s a dark, alluring piece, built around an absurdity—to what end, this swinging gate?—and a tension between the sweeping grace of the arc and its abrupt, percussive conclusion.
But it’s also an effective emblem, in several ways, of the 2019 Biennale as a whole. Curated by Ralph Rugoff, this year’s edition of the venerable exhibition of contemporary art is game, lively, emphatically global—and often built around oblique, sinister allusions. Indeed, the very title of the show (May You Live in Interesting Times) is derived from an apocryphal Chinese curse: This is art served with a healthy dose of skepticism about the state of the world. True, some of the national pavilions offer a more redemptive vision. Ultimately, though, this is a show composed in an ominous key, and one that often takes violence as a starting point.
The Central Pavilion of the Giardini with Lara Favaretto, “Thinking Head,” 2017-19
The central room of the Central Pavilion of the Giardini
That’s especially visible in the large room at the core of the pavilion, where works by four artists combine to form a jarring and dystopic statement. On two walls, we see printed mash-ups of screaming figures, drawn from comic books and manga, by Christian Marclay; a third wall features a grim series of fragmented, hinged collages of Black bodies by Frida Orupabo. Meanwhile, in a giant transparent pen, a hyperactive robotic arm programmed by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu fruitlessly tries to contain a viscous, oozing red fluid—pausing, at points, to twerk or to seemingly nod at the crowd gathered around it. The body, in these works, is thus deformed, fragmented, and parodied. In a final piece by Teresa Margolles, however, it’s the very absence of bodies that affects, as we’re faced with a cinder block wall, imported from Ciudad Juárez and pocked with bullet holes that are the traces of a drug-related assassination. This is not, then, a merely allusive piece of art; rather, we are confronted with the mute, horrifying residue of an actual murder.
The rest of the work the central pavilion is not quite as intense, perhaps—but much of it is also characterized by a melancholy, foreboding tone. Yu Ji’s affecting cement sculptures of human bodies, modeled from memory and mounted on the gallery walls, feel lumpy, inert, and incapable of motion. Alex Da Corte offers an absorbing table-top model of a twinkling, twilit suburban tract, from whose homes rise a thick thicket of fast-food signs. And in The White Album, a troubling 50-minute video montage by Arthur Jafa, a white man pontificates about fear of Black male bodies in a manner that wobbles unsteadily between empathy and racial stereotyping, and a young white woman turns the camera in an unconvincing attempt to declare herself free of racism (“I’ve had best friends who were Hispanic or… Black or whatever”). Despite a proudly diverse roster of artists, then, and an effort to foreground a variety of media (there’s even a room dedicated to work in ceramics), the atmosphere is consistently bleak.
Yin Xiuzhen, Trojan, 2016-7
Interestingly, Rugoff chose to show other work by the same artists in the massive Arsenale, meaning that the two focal points of the Biennale are effectively variations on each other. From my point of view, the Arsenale is the stronger of the two—although its tone is no less dark. If anything, it’s even grimmer. As soon as we enter, we’re greeted with the rumbling cacophony of Marclay’s 48 War Movies, in which slivers of films are shown simultaneously, in a massive, never-ending pattern of violence. Deeper in the hall, Stan Douglas imagines, in a series of precisely composed photographs, a New York City unraveled by a sudden power outage. And Yin Xiuzhen’s Trojan, a huge sculpture composed of recycled clothes, evokes an airplane passenger bracing for an imminent impact. Yin is “warning us,” reads the accompanying catalogue entry, “to brace for gloomy times ahead”—and in that sense, in this Biennale, she’s hardly alone.
But the show is not merely oppressive. Other patterns also emerge. One is a marked interest in embodied experience and phenomenological viewership. Yin’s Trojan, for instance, is hollow, and we can enter the work; the effect inside is interestingly complex, at once sheltering, womblike, tightly claustrophobic, and richly associative (the title recalls, for instance, the Greeks huddled in the Trojan horse). Lawrence Abu Hamdan, in turn, places us between two rows of screens that display found recordings of a 2011 breach of the Golan Heights border: We implicitly occupy, as we move through the piece, a fraught and contested zone. Then, too, there’s the terrifying Dear, by Sun and Peng, in which a black rubber house mounted to a white marble throne is periodically filled with compressed air, and thrashes about violently like a desperate snake or a sinister whip. The monumental placidity of the throne (which recalls the Lincoln Memorial) thus yields to an animalistic chaos, and you may well find yourself wondering, instinctively, if you are standing at a safe distance.
Avery Singer, Self-portrait (summer 2018) and Calder (Saturday night), 2017
If these artists thus pressure the viewer’s body, several others interrogate and reimagine their own bodies. Zanele Muholi’s photographic self-portraits impress, on both technical and conceptual levels: using creatively repurposed props, Muholi parodies and deconstructs colonial representations of the Black body, while also working in a monumental idiom and firmly embodying what bell hooks famously called the oppositional gaze. Martine Gutierrez, meanwhile, photographs herself in erotic, enigmatic combinations with mannequins. The distinction between flesh and plastic is a faint one in these images, and the result is both surreal and archly mannerist: Stock sexual behaviors are enacted in a pneumatic and artificial mode that pressures conventional notions of gender.
Strikingly, painters also shine in the Arsenale. Njideka Akunyili Crosby exhibits a series of intimate, largely monochromatic portraits that coyly allude to a range of precedents but also form a neat counterpoint to the jazzy, busy cross-cultural tableaux for which she is best known (and which she recently showed in Baltimore). Henry Taylor’s moving meditations on the Black experience in America, painted in a colorful, lyrical mode, also hit the mark, and Julie Mehretu strikes out in new directions with large paintings featuring calligraphic, airbrushed lines on a grey ground. Effectively experiments in mark-making, they faintly recall Turner, Whistler, and Monet—and yet also suggest the artist’s excitement in exploring new techniques. But for my money, the most intriguing paintings were those by Avery Singer, whose digital compositions (done using SketchUp) are then airbrushed onto canvas using acrylics. In one delightfully complex work, we see the artist drawing on the damp, steamy surface of her shower: a playful evocation of indexical, gestural drawing that is belied by the intricate process that actually produced it.
Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca, still from the series Swinguerra, 2019
And what of the national pavilions? As usual, they’re all over the place, both literally and figuratively. (It can take weeks to locate and visit each of the dozens of pavilions, some of which are permanent structures in the Giardini and others of which temporarily occupy a range of sites across the city.) A few stand out, for various reasons. Both the Brazilian and the Swiss pavilions offer, in a striking coincidence, roughly 20-minute videos that focus on choreography. But the similarities end there, as the Swiss piece uses a variety of coded and symbolic steps and footage screened backwards to sketch possible sites of resistance to common ideas about progress, while the Brazilian pavilion screens two slightly different videos of a wildly charismatic and diverse troupe performing several vernacular dances. It’s a neat counterpoint, in its heated intensity and gleeful disregard for gendered binaries, to the heady intellectualism and abstract postmodernism of the Swiss work.
Nearby, Martin Puryear’s installation in the American pavilion is a reliably tasteful exercise in balancing clean geometries, exquisite craftsmanship, and focused conceptualism; his skill with wood is remarkable, but never overshadows a subtle but insistent emphasis upon the hypocrisies of racism and the dangers of demagoguery. But the most common political theme in the pavilions, predictably, is climate change. From the Philippines to France, and from Kiribati to Canada, artists are trying to draw attention to the complex environmental and social changes that are already being effected by melting glaciers and rising water levels. Or, in some jarring cases, they seem to have given up on the possibility of any reasoned, timely reaction, and to have turned instead to science fiction as the only sensible idiom. Larissa Sansour’s Danish pavilion, for instance, features an imaginative two-channel video that constitutes a frank meditation on memory and the confusing future that might make up a postdiluvian world.
Performance shot of Sun & Sea (Marina)
But the judges, in my view, got it right when they awarded the Golden Lion for best national pavilion to Lithuania for Sun & Sea (Marina), a darkly affecting hour-long opera sung by swimsuit-clad performers as they recline on a tract of artificial beach. Much like the viewers who crowd onto a balcony and peer down on them, the opera’s characters are global tourists who yearn for unalloyed pleasures but who have been confronted with the awkward realities of a warming world—and only faintly recognize their role in creating it. Sure, one character sings plaintively about bananas, shipped around the globe in order to offer a moment’s satisfaction—but a second celebrates the pleasure of drinking a piña colada while underwater, near a coral reef. And a third, remarking on the rich flux of jellyfish and bottle caps in the sea, concludes (at once naively and ironically), “O the sea never had so much color!”
We recognize as we watch, of course, that such a claim is flimsy and willfully myopic. And yet we also know that a three-hour line snakes around the edge of the building in which we stand, and that across the city yet another cruise ship has disgorged its contents of thousands, many of whom will briefly delight in the colors and surfaces of Venice and then depart without reckoning with the waste they’ve jettisoned, or the thousands of pounds of fuel that their ship will consume as it sails from the lagoon. In that sense, the simple absence of any actual sea water in the Lithuanian pavilion is perhaps its most affecting aspect. The singers sense that the physical world about them is changing—but the rising tide is nevertheless momentarily kept at arm’s length. The piece ends, in fact, with a woman simply deciding to apply more sunscreen: an earnest but futile gesture in the face of a global catastrophe.
Advertisement for the Biennale, outside the Arsenale
All of which leads to a final, nagging question: Is attending the Biennale really any different? In an Artforum interview, Rugoff claimed that he hopes that his show will spark both pleasure and critical analysis. That’s a modest (and rather anodyne) goal, but this Biennale does succeed, at least occasionally, on both fronts. It’s neither the most remarkable nor the most provocative of Biennales, but its enthusiastic inclusivity, open embrace of a range of media, and sheer scale all mean that there should be something that engages virtually any viewer. Whether that’s enough in a broader sense, though, is a different question. As ice cliffs continue to collapse and fields of permafrost melt away, we watch Gupta’s gate crash again into the wall—and sense that it is somehow entirely apt and yet nowhere near enough.
Top Image: Pavilion of Lithuania, “Sun & Sea (Marina)”, Photo By Neon Realism from Biennale Arte Guides