Venice, that city of dreams and the inspiration for artists and writers from Turner to Italo Calvino, sees its 58th art biennale.
As thousands flock to the event the gorgeous palazzi sink ever further into the lagoon, damaged by the huge commercial cruise ships that daily disgorge yet more tourists into the fragile infrastructure. A fitting image of our propensity for self-destruction in these dystopian times.
Arriving in the Giardini I found clouds of vapour enveloping the main pavilion, courtesy of the Italian artist Lara Favaretto. It’s an appropriate metaphor for this year’s event, in which narratives seem to dissolve in a white mist of nebulous noise. Curated by Ralph Rugoff of London’s Hayward Gallery, May You Live in Interesting Times sees degradation and dissonance played out around every corner. Ice caps melt, oceans are polluted, bombs are thrown and the emotions expressed frequently turn out to be those from ersatz non-humans. And if it all that gets too much there’s always dance or a touch of shamanism to take your mind off things. As the world collapses we can bop along in the Swiss Pavilion with five performers whose backwards motions generate ‘new, alternative forms of resistance and action’ or we can read the runes with a Korean female medium. If there’s nothing left to believe in we can always grasp at straws.
The long queues for Laure Provost’s installation in the French pavilion show that there’s an appetite for doom-laden imagery. Entering through an underground dug-out of piled earth, we’re invited to climb the metal staircase onto a sea-green resin floor littered with detritus and interspersed with sea-creatures made from local Murano glass. This turns out to be the prelude to a perplexing but vibrant video that starts in the banlieues of Paris and ends in Venice. A postmodern Odyssey in which migrants look longingly out to sea and sing. Dancers and acrobats do their stuff and a slithering squid climbs the steps to the pavilion.
Next door, in the British pavilion, Turner prize nominee Cathy Wilkes’ offering looks superficially similar. There’s more debris. A wooden frame covered with stretched muslin is strewn with dried flowers. A twist of silver paper, a two pence coin, an empty toilet roll and a grubby hairband – the sort of stuff found at the back of the kitchen drawer – sit around the edge. Wilkes’ work isn’t about the impending political or global disaster but evokes the Proustian echoes of her suburban childhood. Standing around the gallery, like a watchful chorus, are a collection of small, bald-headed ET figures, each with a stuck-on pregnant belly. Elsewhere disembodied arms poke from a white washing-up bowl. A reminder, no doubt, of women’s work and the Sisyphean task of endless domesticity. Yet for all the apparent feminism and poeticism of Wilkes’ installation, it never quite gets to grips with the space.
Move next door to Canada and you’ll come across a fascinating but lengthy video – videos dominate this year’s biennale and there’s simply not enough time to sit and watch them all, this is not, after all, a film festival – set in a wasteland of ice. Isuma means to contemplate in the Innuit language and is the name of the first Innuit art collective that comes together to breath new life into stories and traditions that hover on the edge of extinction. In Finland there’s yet more ice. MWC’s collective film The Killing of Čáhcerávga poses questions, among lonely snowy plains, about itinerancy, movement and borders. When you’ve had enough of the frozen north you can always wander to sunnier climes, to Brazil, where a two-channel video, Swinguerra (swing and war – oh do keep up!), pulses with the energy of a transgender, non-binary dance group clad in lycra and mini-shorts. Started as a grassroots movement, there are some excellent dancers here, but it’s more of a documentary feature than an artwork.
Over in the Korean pavilion, we’re asked to consider who writes history and decides what should be remembered through the work of three women artists – Siren Eun Young Jung, Hwayeon Ban and Jane Jin Kaisen. Jung, the winner of the Korea Art Prize 2018, shows film footage of Lee Dueng-woo who performed mainly male parts in a 1950s all-women theatre troupe, while Kaisen explores ancient female shamanistic rituals handed down through the generations. In the Danish pavilion, you’ll find one of the most affecting works (for my money) in the Giardini by the Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour. Heirloom is a stark rumination on memory, history and identity. Her two-channel, science-fiction black and white film, In Vitro, is staged in Bethlehem decades after an eco-disaster, where the dying founder of a subterranean orchard speaks with her young successor who was born underground and has never seen the city. Beautifully weaving myth and reality, Sansour explores themes of inherited trauma, exile and collective memory.
In contrast to all this time based-work, the American pavilion is a haven of calm. African-American sculptor Martin Puryear has created elegant forms that play with notions of American identity. Outside the pavilion, Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute) consists of two parts. A perforated pale-wood mesh screen, like something from a cathedral, stands in front of a vast black serpentine tube inspired by the detail of a Greek column, suggesting the play between dark and light. American history and liberty are explored in A Column for Sally Hemmings with its references to the horrors of slavery. Meticulously crafted in pine and steel, Puryear’s work carries the sense of the artist’s hand that’s largely absent elsewhere.
This year the number of artists in the biennale has shrunk. Those taking part each have two works, one in the Giardini and another in the Arsenale. Over in the cavernous Arsenale (Venice’s former naval yard), the dystopian vision continues. Ed Atkins installation – rows of theatrical costumes hung alongside CGI videos with a caste of emoting waxy-faced characters – is uncanny and disturbing. Though quite how this links with his gouache works of hands, feet and tarantulas in the Giardini is not immediately obvious. Elsewhere, Christian Marclay of The Clock fame has produced an uncomfortable work 48 War Movies (2019) in which war films that both assault and weary, sit one inside another in a tingling nest of rectangles.
Move on to the work of the Japanese artist Mari Katayama who, born with a rare congenital disorder has had her legs amputated at the age of nine, and there’s a degree of uncomfortable ambiguity. In I Have Child’s Feet, she poses in seductive lacy underwear in a boudoir crammed with home-made cushions and fabrics, along with her small outgrown prosthetic legs (suggesting the Japanese tradition of foot binding). This might either be read as a peon to overcoming physical adversity or as a sexualised fetishization of the amputee in the manner of J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Take your pick.
Much of the work in this biennale feels glazed with a coating of political posturing but, in the Arsenale, one work (for me at least) stood out; For, In your tongue I cannot fit by Mumbai artist Shilpa Gupta’s. In a darkened space, a thicket of 100 microphones hangs above a 100 metal spikes, each of which pierces a white page of printed poetry written by a jailed poet. A single microphone plays these verses, echoed by the other 99, to create a haunting recital of loss and repression based on a poem by the 14th-century Azerbaijani poet, Nesimi. It’s an affecting, spare and quietly powerful work.
But the talk of the biennale has been the Lithuanian pavilion, which won the Golden Lion for an international presentation. On the day I went, it was pouring with rain and there was a two hour wait to get in. People were getting very angry as others tried to jump the queue in the downpour. We even managed to get the pavilion shut down for several hours when accosted by a man with an Eastern European accent who kept cursing us ‘Europeans’ and appeared to have some sort of device in his pocket. So was the wait worth it when we finally did get in? Well, the opera Sun & Sea (Marina) with its cast of 20 presented by Rugilė Barzdžuikaitė, Viava Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, set on an artificial beach, is certainly engaging. From a high balcony of an old Venetia warehouse, viewers look down on performers of all ages and sizes who loll around on the sand, eat pasta salad from Tupperware boxes, scroll through their phones and sing about climate change as seagulls screech and ice cream vans sound in the distance. The suggestion is that the end of the world may not come to end with a bang but a whimper while we’re lazing around and looking the other way. It’s an arresting piece that melds opera, theatre and installation but reading through the libretto it seemed rather weak, albeit a translation.
Perhaps the piece that best sums up the ambiguities of this year’s proceedings is not even an artwork but the rusted and torn hull of a fishing boat stationed outside the Arsenale. This was the boat that sank in the Mediterranean in April 2015 on its way from Tripoli with its migrant crew of 800. All but 27 of those on board died. The artist Christoph Büchel has installed it, without labels or comment, as a project named Barca Nostra’ (Our boat). Viewing it is an extremely uncomfortable experience. It’s hard not to imagine the panic, the cries of despair and terror of those on board as the boat went down. Placed outside one of the Arsenale cafes where people sip Aperol spritz and espresso, it illustrates not only the prevailing concerns of the art world but something of the detached insouciance and ersatz engagement posing as concern that seems to dominate this year’s biennale.
Words by Sue Hubbard.
Sue Hubbard is a poet, novelist and art critic. Her latest novel Rainsongs is published by Duckworth.
This 2019 biennale could well be the last when Great Britain (as we are still called in the biennale catalogue) is a part of Europe.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry
Want to win £500 and be published in the UK’s oldest literary journal? Enter our Poetry Prize.