Foreigners Everywhere: A Triumphant, Anthemic Venice Biennale for the Stateless Queers in All of Us

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In one of Louis Fratino’s many oil paintings on view at the Central Pavilion of the Giardini, we’re treated to a POV perspective of a lover passionately kissing the artist’s foot. Wander a bit and one encounters Kim Yun Shin’s late 1970s-mid-1980s series comprising logs with wedges of wood surgically excised.

Tucked away in a corner black box, a video by Manauara Clandestina superimposes footage of the moon landing with inverted implosions of modernist housing blocks falling upward and Instagram selfies. A few galleries over, meticulously-detailed but disarmingly flat, colorful drawings by Abel Rodríguez catalog Amazonian botanical specimens.

Connecting the dots between this constellation of disparate objects, images, and ideas is a sometimes baffling, occasionally thrilling or frustrating, and exceptionally rewarding art-viewing exercise—if not one that’s a bit overwhelming, and necessarily uneven.

Louis Fratino
Abel Rodríguez
Manauara Clandestina
The global biennial mandate to 'center the margins' begins to fold the works’ map of relations into one of those origami fortune-tellers, leading to a seemingly infinite combination of answers—sometimes maddeningly mismatched to the questions the viewer might be asking.
Michael Anthony Farley

This, the 60th Venice Biennale, is its most expansive, diverse, and ambitious to date. A staggering 331 artists or collectives from/working in 80 countries represent an obviously incomplete survey of migration, alienation, and what it means to belong—or not—to any one place in an increasingly transient world. And here especially, the global biennial mandate to “center the margins” begins to fold the works’ map of relations into one of those origami fortune-tellers, leading to a seemingly infinite combination of answers—sometimes maddeningly mismatched to the questions the viewer might be asking.

When the theme for this year’s Venice Biennale, Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere, was first announced I found myself chuckling, because I couldn’t help but read it in an Italian accent while picturing a grumpy old man making the sort of hand gesture usually reserved for Mediterranean road rage. It sounds like the kind of thing a Venetian (or really, inhabitant of any hopelessly charming city suffering the effects of over-tourism) might mutter while gesticulating towards a disembarking cruise ship or block of once-locally-inhabited flats converted to Airbnbs or pieds-à-terre. Here comes the jet-set art world, with our multiple passports in hand, to lecture the archipelago’s holdout inhabitants about displacement!

But the more I read and considered the proposition—from the brilliant Adriano Pedrosa, artistic director of the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), the Biennale’s first-ever curator from Latin America—its multiple meanings unfolded. Now more than ever, with unprecedented numbers of stateless refugees, several simultaneous ethnic cleansing campaigns, and bloody territorial/resource disputes the world over, those of us who’ve reaped the benefits of cosmopolitanism need to urge the rest of the world to reassess antiquated notions of unjust borders and the very concept of nationalism. And pressingly, the art world must acknowledge that its privileged globalism is inexorably tied to the injustices left in the wake of colonialism and its ongoing project of exploitation and extraction—inviting those who suffer its consequences to the table to present their stories with agency and self determination. 

Bouchra Khalili, "The Mapping Journey Project," 2008-2011, installation view

The title “Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere” is borrowed from an artwork by the readymade “artist” Claire Fontaine (the found alias of the Italian/British collaborators Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill, who invented the persona in Paris twenty years ago, inspired by both Duchamp and a stationary brand, and describe themselves as her “assistants”).

The phrase was itself appropriated from the signature on an open letter to migrants the artists found posted in Turin in the early 2000s, and was translated into various languages and materials. As neon signs, many of which are displayed in Venice, they function as a sort of ambiguous “subtitle” superimposed onto whatever space in which they hang, or perhaps a reverse visa stamp of approval—yes, this place has been visited by a speaker of _____ language

Sculptures by Kim Yun Shin with paintings by Aref el Rayess

Pedrosa had already curated one exhibition titled Foreigners Everywhere in São Paulo back in 2008, featuring Claire Fontaine’s neon translated into archaic Tupi (one of the mostly-extinct indigenous languages of pre-colonial Brazil). In that context, it might read as a lament of the establishment of settler colonial borders and policies that transformed much of the continent into an uneasy melting pot of cultures bound (often tenuously) together by an imposed imperial language. But here, in another of the most truly global contexts, in dozens of languages, it starts to feel like an optimistic rallying cry. What the hell have we been doing, staging events that previously reinforced nationalist ideas of a world with colonial borders and country-based identities? “Foreigners Everywhere” unite! 

Knowing a bit of Pedrosa’s backstory with the work/title also, somewhat ironically, provides another key to unlocking a few of the Biennale’s charming quirks—Pedrosa clearly isn’t afraid to bring his personal history, connections, interests, or unfinished business to an event with very big, global themes. And that’s great. If, as *some of the works in Foreigners Everywhere suggest, we should consider each other as interconnected Republics of One, or members of communities of choice or circumstance rather than by passport-assigned-at-birth, negating the idea of individual authorship in the name of universality would be a counter-productive exercise.

*Note: many of the works at the Biennale actually do present a more “stay in your lane,” identitarian view of race/class/gender/nationality. The tension between these impulses is part of what makes this such a compelling show. 

"Italians Everywhere" installation view, photo by Cecilia Vilela

It’s refreshing to see curation that unabashedly doesn’t shy away from artistic liberties. Pedrosa mashes-up artists, materials, sightlines, and content like a skilled collagist. At first glance, quite a few galleries look like they themselves could be a conceptual installation authored as an artist rather than a group show organized by a curator.

In one of my favorite halls of the Corderie at the Arsenale, Nucleo Storico: Italians Everywhere, for example, dozens of mostly 2D artworks are suspended on glass panes embedded in freestanding concrete plinths designed by the late, great brutalist architect Lina Bo Bardi (herself an immigrant from Italy to Brazil) in 1969 for the MASP, Pedrosa’s curatorial “home turf.” The pieces span regions and time frames, and occasionally group into unexpected moments of dialogue. They were all created by artists of the Italian diaspora who ended up working in countries other than Italy for various reasons, some fleeing fascism or economic hardships, and other spreading those ills by participating in colonial projects. Their arrangement almost suggests a chess board of characters—liberated from the walls, free to roam and associate or collide, an appropriate visual metaphor for the political and migratory themes behind their selection.

It’s a subtly poignant reminder that Italy has been an origin point of emigration far longer than a destination for mass immigration—and that those Italians abroad were often welcomed into and allowed to meaningfully contribute to their adopted contexts far better than Italy’s present-day right wing would receive new arrivals here. 

Nucleo Storico: Abstractions, installation view

In the Central Pavilion of the Giardini, a forest of brightly-painted bamboo (c.1960s-1970s) by the late Brazilian sculptor Ione Saldanha similarly anchors a constellation of gorgeous 2D works—here, aesthetically rather than structurally.

In Nucleo Storico: Abstractions the works are all bright and colorful and largely from the second half of the 20th century. They’re also all painted by artists of the “Global South.” This time, though, I find myself questioning Pedrosa’s well-intentioned logic when arranging such a visually seductive hang.

The wall text
Detail of Ione Saldanha, "Bambus," (c. 1960s-1970s), The Bogotá-born, New York-based Fanny Sanín, "Oil no. 7," (1969), and Palestine-born, New York-based Samia Halaby, "Black is Beautiful," 1969

By deliberately omitting abstraction by artists of the “Global North” from this not-quite-planet-spanning gallery, it seems like a few of the conceptual links between these art objects are missing… which in this context feels a little icky and patronizing.

The field of 20th century abstraction has famously been one of give-and-take inspiration between “the West and the rest” (think Frank Stella’s research journeys in Iran, and the countless artists across the globe, South included, inspired by the resulting work… or even earlier, the multitudes of artists from the Indian subcontinent who fled to European art schools and sought solace in “individualistic” Western postwar abstraction as an escape from the traumas of the Partition of India, many of whom in turn inspired generations of both Western and Indian painters). Here, for a largely European public, it feels slightly disingenuous to present works by non-European artists as having formed in a vacuum, discursively isolated from the canon with which that audience might be most familiar and with which the artists were deliberately in dialogue.

Some of the individual artist bios acknowledge a painter’s Parisian education or that they live and work in New York in dialogue with global peers, but I’m not sure how many casual art viewers are going to do that much reading for 30+ artists, beyond the main exhibition text with a vaguely anthropological (with the negative connotation) gaze.

I’m always wary of curation that first identifies an artist as “the other” and then runs the risk of framing the work of “the other” as purely decorative, reduced to a kaleidoscope of bright colors and exotic pattern. It’s such a visually beautiful hang, I think Abstractions runs the risk of doing just that. It’s the rare example where the sum is greater than its parts in some ways, at the expense of the individual components.  

A screenshot from the author's Instagram
A screenshot from the author’s Instagram

Indeed, I think the relationship between some of the didactic/wall text and works on view at the Giardini misses the mark a bit. That might be unfair and down to how anticlimactic some of the Central Pavillion’s content can feel in general, owing to its proximity to some of the most powerful national exhibitions—many of which almost upstage the main show in both commitment to its own thesis and execution (more about that in a separate article).

I definitely recommend viewing Foreigners Everywhere first, to both set the tone and have some endurance left over for its dryer bits, rather than hitting the most crowd-pleasing national pavilions beforehand, as I had. It’s a great show, but if you’re already feeling a bit burnt-out, the rare snags are all the more wince-inducing.

Take, for example, the above text accompanying some lovely (if not inscrutable) canvases by Evelyn Taocheng Wang, the Chengdu-born, Rotterdam-based painter. I am a native English speaker who spends an absurd amount of my waking life writing, reading, and thinking about artspeak… and even I struggle to comprehend this one. Again, for a casual art viewer, this is the kind of intervention that makes a work more impenetrable! 

Sculptures by Kim Yun Shin with paintings by Kay WalkingStick

There are a few other cases in which I think the didactic texts are either confounding or (perhaps worse) a bit too heavy-handed. But enter one of the many galleries where Pedrosa’s curatorial alchemy strikes gold, and all is forgiven.

Highlights at the Giardini include a collection of landscape paintings arranged around the aforementioned Kim Yun Shin sculptures—each seemingly mathematically composed by carving natural materials and titled “Add Two Add One, Divide Two Divide One. Add and Divide”—as the centerpiece of a gallery devoted to landscape paintings by artists with radically different biographies, united by a relationship to their physical environments.

Kim Yun Shin was born in Korea in 1935 during the brutal Japanese occupation, and her economic practice can be in part attributed to the material scarcity she confronted in her developmental years. After emigrating to Argentina, she became a pioneer of the Buenos Aires art scene—one of many artists in the show who lend credence to my personal belief that a bit of cultural displacement can both spark creativity and help one define their own voice. 

Aref el Rayess
Leopold Strobl

Serving as a backdrop to Yun Shin’s work are Kay WalkingStick’s sublimist-influenced landscape paintings of natural tourist attractions in the American West, themselves interrupted with patterns imprinting the memory of indigenous peoples displaced from those territories—a nod to the artist’s upbringing in a family of blended Cherokee/European ancestry, born during the interwar decades in which so much of the US lived under apartheid.

Across the room, dusky, haunting, almost sci-fi paintings by the late Lebanese artist Aref el Rayess have a strange sense of timelessness/temporal displacement—documenting the Arab world’s landscapes through the periods of colonialism, independence, and conflict he witnessed throughout the course of his life, and perhaps a future.

And then there are the tiny, intimately-scaled mountainscapes by Leopold Strobl, an Austrian artist who very much has not been displaced by imperialism or its lasting impacts. In fact, Strobl still lives in the same rural area where he was born, and received no formal art education. Instead, the world comes to him through mass media. Strobl uses newspaper clippings and paper, intuitively building up textured surfaces of color to create surreal landscapes, marred or perhaps penetrated by mysterious black blobs and spectral traces of the imagery beneath. 

Woven textile by Liz Collins with mixed-media work on paper by Aloïse Corbaz

In another gallery, fragile works on paper by another alpine “outsider artist,” Aloïse Corbaz (1886-1964), are paired with the victorious, monumental mountainscape tapestries of the contemporary American artist/designer Liz Collins. Aloïse spent most of her life institutionalized in her native Switzerland after falling in love with the Kaiser Wilhelm II and developing an obsession with the royal, later diagnosed as a symptom of her schizophrenia. Collins on the other hand is a contemporary feminist academic, artist, and designer whose tapestries on view here depict a swirling, glittering queer utopia somewhere over the rainbow.

The two artists couldn’t be more different, yet somehow, the meticulously-crafted tapestries totally vibe with the bizarre yet seemingly archetypal figures in Aloïse’s tense-but-fluid drawings and watercolors. Maybe there’s a storybook valley somewhere out there with a place for all of us misfits to find our prince, Kaiser, queen? 

Louis Fratino
Louis Fratino (L) with Filippo de Pisis
Filippo de Pisis
Louis Fratino, “I Keep My Treasure in My Ass,” 2019

Speaking of making big, gay space, New Yorker Louis Fratino’s myriad intimate-but-huge oil paintings of queer domesticity take up nearly an entire gallery, offering a dreamy, neo-cubist-inspired glance into the fantastical details of both the sex life (“I Keep My Treasure in My Ass,” 2019) and quotidian (“Eggs, Dishes, Coreopsis,” 2020) of the artist. They’re paired with clusters of much smaller, but thematically similar paintings by the Italian dandy aristocrat Filippo de Pisis (1896-1956), who lived and worked in Rome, Milan, Paris, and Venice—painting still lifes and male prostitutes with equal hedonistic passion. 

I’m so thrilled to see fellow MICA alumnus Fratino at the Biennale! Though I have to admit my second-to-first instinct upon seeing Liz Collins and his work in this context was “Huh? We’re all relatively successful white gays from US blue states with vibrant social lives! What the hell do we have to do with refugees and alienated shut-ins and mental patients?” But maybe that’s the point?

“Otherness” is inherently not a tidy box. We’re not all in the same boat. But this week at least, we find ourselves in the same sinking city talking about what it means to scratch out a space for one’s chosen tribe in a world that’s already been carved up by yesteryear’s empires. 

This train of thought also leads me to wonder why there isn’t more queer representation from artists living and working in truly adverse contexts like Brunei or Nigeria, or the wealthy Gulf states whose deep-pocketed private collections likely loaned so much of the polite abstraction on display one gallery over. (Damn, typing that just now a question occurred to me: what is it about countries having a lot of petroleum that makes them such fucking dicks to gay people?) 

Still from Kang Seung-Lee’s 2023 video “Lazarus”

Some of the strongest queer art on view in Foreigners Everywhere is easy to miss, tucked away in a series of low-slung crumbly outbuildings in the Giardino delle Virgini (just beside the eastern entrance to the Arsenale grounds). The Seoul-born, Los Angeles-based Kang Seung-Lee’s 2023 video “Lazarus” is a tribute to Singaporean-born, globally prolific choreographer Goh Choo San and the Brazilian conceptual artist José Leonilson, both of whom died of AIDS at the height of the epidemic.

By combining elements of both artists’ work with details of his own (recreating, for example, one of Leonilson’s soft sculptures in fabrics typical of Korean funerary rites and incorporating it into the dance as a point of tension) Seung-Lee has created a tear-jerking piece about intimacy and loss, sampling various points of reference to create something universally legible as heartbreaking. Both the choreography and cinematography are gorgeous—erotic without being sexy—and I almost didn’t want to leave when the roughly 8 minute piece ended. 

Manauara Clandestina, "Migranta," installation view

Another alcove hosts one of the biennale’s several intimate, confessional, but usually optimistic collage-like videos from the trans Brazilian artist Manauara Clandestina about (de)constructing identity and building community in new contexts. “Migranta“ (2020-2023) partially follows the artist during a residency in Barcelona, through screen captures of her phone, surveillance and found footage, and content shot at various resolutions, imbuing the medium with rich texture.

Appropriate to the format, she explains her passion for upcycling garments, creating flamboyant couture drag looks from found dayglow workwear—a strategy to connect with both the city’s vogue scene and construction/maintenance workers. Many among both of those groups are immigrants, or, as the poetically-translated English subtitles suggest, persons “who might bear the traces of migration” (most of the dialog and voiceover in the video seamlessly drifts from Clandestina’s native Portuguese to Castellano and sprinkles of Catalan).

In one especially endearing scene, she and her dayglo “tribe” encounter a group of similarly high-vis-clad workers in a subway station. It’s impossible to watch this and not grin ear-to-ear. The two groups start laughing and modeling for each other, and eventually Clandestina swaps her modified work jacket for that of a man who speaks Spanish with a Central American accent. As they embrace and part ways she asks him where he’s from. “Some land,” he replies.

Agnes Questionmark, "Cyber-Teratology Operation," 2024
Ana Maria Maoiolino "Ao finito," from the series "Terra Modelada," 1994/2024

Other highlights in this oft-overlooked corner of the Arsenale include Agnes Questionmark’s multimedia cyberpunk surgical bay, Sandra Poulson’s found cardboard and multi-channel video tribute to chaotic, vernacular streetscapes of Luanda, Angola, and the Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino’s installation comprising a video monitor with scrolling text and a whopping 10 tons of luscious red clay arranged in different forms.

The video, which appears to be a one-way conversation between the artist and her grandfather, laments the near-constant state of conflict in which the world finds itself. At first, it’s difficult to see the relationship with the clay, an iteration of her thirty-year-ongoing series Terra Modelada. But staring at the unfired clay, I have a nearly irresistible urge to touch, squeeze, and prod it. It’s utterly seductive—begging for a literal “land grab” like the geopolitical sort mentioned in the video. It is earth made commodity of desire, extracted and shipped to one of the world’s first globalized ports. And yet it speaks to potential, a longing to change and become something new in its new context. 

Anna Maria Maiolino (detail)
Anna Maria Maiolino (detail)
Sandra Poulson, "Onde o Asfalto Termina, e a Terra Batida Comença," 2024
Lauren Halsey

I find myself wondering why these seemingly unrelated, powerful works are grouped together and apart from the rest of the exhibition. Then it dawns on me—these are the only exhibition spaces I’ve visited not utterly mobbed by throngs of other visitors. As viewers, my companion and I have the rare biennale privileges of time, personal space, and intimacy to really connect with works that demand those resources. 

It’s one of the many curatorial decisions I appreciate the longer I stroll around the Arsenale. It occurs to me Pedrosa and his team take an almost cinematic approach to pacing, storyboarding, and establishing dramatic sightlines. Walk from the intimate, slow-burn installations with time-based components and encounter monumental, sweeping site-specific interventions set against impossibly photogenic backgrounds.

A polylingual flock of Claire Fontaine’s “Foreigners Everywhere” flaps in the breeze, blazing signatures on a postcard cityscape. Turn the corner and Lauren Halsey’s Egyptian-inspired afrofuturistic columns almost seem like they could’ve been there forever. On closer inspection they give the impression of set dressing for a speculative fiction flick I desperately want to watch—one that collapses timelines, geography, and the Mediterranean’s relatively recent function as “moat” separating Europe from the world beyond. They’re future/past ruins reminding us that the sea was historically a permeable site of exchange between the ancient civilizations that bordered it.

The jump cuts in scale, tone, and focus are perhaps most thrilling within the Arsenale’s hangar-like Corderie. In one claustrophobic chamber, Marco Scotini’s “The Disobedience Archive,” leads viewers through a dark spiral lined with personally-scaled videos of global protest movements.

Suddenly, we emerge into a cavernous bright space dominated by massive textiles and references to the built environment. It’s a climactic rush after the tension of the gallery preceding it.

But more importantly, the urgency, collective anger, and occasional optimism of “The Disobedience Archive” sets the conceptual stage for how we interact with the objects in the room that follows it. There are disembodied architectural details relating to real or perceived security concerns, collectively-authored patchwork embroideries whose survival is a testament to resilience, and more moments of synergy across materials, cultures, and practices than I could list without ruining some of the joy of making those connections yourself.

"Disobedience Archive," installation view
"Disobedience Archive," installation view
Dana Awartani (Palestinian, born in Jeddah, based in New York), "Come, Let Me Heal Your Wonds, Let Me Mend Your Broken Bones," darning on medicinally-dyed silk, 2024 with Kiluanji Kia Henda (Luanda, Angola) "A Espiral do Medo" ("Spiral of Fear"), 2022
Daniel Otero Torres (Colombian), "Aguacero," inspired by vernacular strategies to collect drinkable rainwater employed by the people who live along the Atrato River, polluted by illicit mining
Pacita Abad, "You Have to Blend in Before You Can Stand Out," and "Filipinas in Hong Kong," both 1995
Bordadoras de Isla Negra, a collectively-authored piecemeal embroidery commissioned for a local government building. It disappeared (like so much patrimony of Chile's democratic socialist period) during the CIA-backed brutal military dictatorship of Pinochet, but was rediscovered in 2019
Bordadoras de Isla Negra (detail)
Pacita Abad (detail)

I decide to revisit the Giardini and spend some more time with the work of Nil Yalter, who was awarded one of the Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement. The self-taught feminist artist was born in Cairo, Egypt to Turkish parents in 1938, staged her first exhibition in Mumbai in 1957, and since 1965 has lived and worked in Paris. Her 1973 yurt-like sculpture “Topak Ev” speaks to a nomadic life—and with cautious optimism, I choose to see it as a symbol of how mobility (whatever its motivation) can foster adaptation and a sense of “home” or belonging tied more to creation than origin. 

I was first exposed to Yalter’s work at the 2022 Berlin Biennale, through her 1983 series “Exile is a Hard Job,” which heartbreakingly documents the labor and hoops migrants must jump through to survive in a new country. At the time, my partner and I were going through our own (much less painful, voluntary) Kafkaesque immigration headaches.

The bizarre, arbitrary differences between our processes based on the countries which issued our passports (his is Mexican, mine is Irish) drove home the injustices of the nationality system we’re all assigned without consent, as if we were still serfs tied to whatever medieval fiefdom into which we happened to be born. Yalter’s work stood out in Berlin as a relatable point of entry to a biennial that, as a whole, I very much did not enjoy

Nil Yalter, "Topak Ev” (1973) and "Exile is Hard Work," (1983/2024)

I mention this because the 60th Venice Biennale takes on a lot of the same themes the 12th Berlin Biennale did—displacement, environmental injustice, racism, colonialism, resource extraction, sexual violence, to name a few. And yet Adriano Pedrosa has managed to curate a show that leaves me hopeful. Here, he’s avoided the easy clichés of victim fetishization, or overwhelming negativity for the sake of gravitas, or trying to wring guilt from “privileged” viewers. There are moments of joy, of optimism, of empathy—largely owing to the fact that artists from marginalized, underrepresented, or oppressed groups are treated as individuals (or collectives) with agency, each with a perspective to contribute to a global discourse regardless of their hemisphere of origin. 

The world has been shrinking since groups of refugees (likely) founded Venice more than a millennium-and-a-half ago, seeking a safe harbor from tribal violence. The ancient port is one of the birthplaces of global commerce, which brought with it lovely objects and unforgivable scars. But this summer, it offers a blueprint of what healing might look like—a messy, pluralistic, respectful discussion that allows truth(s) and beauty (beyond the Western standard) to once again be not-so-strani bedfellows after all.

Omar Mismar
Omar Mismar
Kiluanji Kia Henda
River Claure
Yinka Shonibare, "Refugee Astronaut VIII," 2024
Dean Sameshima, "Anonymous Homosexual," 2020
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