58.The Venice Biennale 


Andres Alvarez


A scorching sun, tourists flocking at splendid cafés on both sides of the Rialto, gondolas guided by youngsters who are very different from those of an idyllic postcard or a Jean Paul Gautier ad. More tourists at piers and the sound of the water hitting against the walls, pushed by the passing of boats: Venice in May.


Last month, as every year, the Venice Art Biennale was inaugurated. Though the sense and efficiency of this kind of events has been considered inefficient for many years now, it is still the most important event of the art calendar.

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The feeling that art or art proposals can connect with a different vision of reality is an idealization loaded with frenzy and good faith. In times described by some as “post-truth”, where playing down the truth of facts and phenomena is a valid mechanism to protect ourselves from nonsense, extreme positions seem to become more and more common, in an effort to maintain certainties that are just that: the theatricality of reality. And in times when power is also expressed from that ferocious theatricality, not now as a hidden group but as a mischievous gang of schoolchildren, the curator of this edition has intended to link works of art with the logo "May you live interesting times"; though without taking the risk of  closing themes.

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The phrase that marks this edition has its own story and comes from a kind of Chinese spell. It was used by Kennedy in his speech in South Africa in 1996. Ralph Rugoff, the Bienalle’s curator, makes the phrase his to appeal to the uncertainty of the moment we are living and the complex and destabilizing situation created by the interaction of our realities and our own hopes and dreams. 


But the curator’s proposal is halfway between the attempts to illustrate disruptive times and the almost uncommitted selection where everything is possible. However, in that pendulum between criticism and trivialism, we may find remarkable works of art. 

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After a well-deserved Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement to Jimmie Durham and his participation with  Black Serpentine, we could also mention the overwhelming participation of Hito Steyerl and his staging of an ecological catastrophe. 


Besides leaving aside a closed theme proposal, Rugoff presents some works that show us our present in a very straightforward way. An example of this is the Muro by Teresa Margolles and the Barco agujereado by Christop Büchel. Although these works may be considered simple stagings of current dramas, we may say they are clear and necessary guidelines in a central exhibition that sometimes makes us think: so this is the abyss of questions and echoes that appeal to our senses left by contemporary art?

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Of course, there are other works that somehow tackle issues such as gender violence, the debate over the limit of cultural and ethnic borders, the drama that touches the use of drugs and the impact of a highly technological future for individuals. One of the Works that addresses this issue Can’t Help Myself (2016) is a disturbing but delightful combination of technology and poetry, future and present. The robotic arm of Sun Yuan and Peng Yug tried to clean the floor with a red liquid similar to blood or wine and was as fantastic as the installation in Arsenale by Dear (2015), also by these two Chinese creators, where the typical sculpture of Lincoln Memorial is reduced to a presidential chair connected to an exhaust pipe. 

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Among the halls that stand out is the one from Lithuania that was awarded the Golden Lion, recreated by the collective Neon Realism (Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė) where beach swimmers made use of the bell-canto to debate about climate change. We should also mention the imprint of the artists exhibiting in the United States Hall and the sobriety and a certain secrecy of some of their works, or the consistent interconnection between video-projection, installation and sound installation at the Denmark Hall.  Brazil has also received a large number of visitors thanks to the project that combined photograph and video. A combination of fictionalization and whitewashing of reality, the lives of young people in less affluent neighborhoods.

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The Ghana Hall attracted many visitors and critics with their first participation in the Project. Here, curators tried to make a story of the Independence of the country after its Independence. Other countries that participated for the first time were Pakistan, Malaysia and Madagascar. 


From Latin America we may mention Perú and its exhibition of Antropophogous Indians, A Butterfly Garden in the (Urban) Jungle with the participation of Christian Bendayán, Otto Michael (1859 – 1934), Manuel Rodríguez Lira (1874 – 1933), Segundo Candiño Rodríguez and an anonymous popular artificer. 


Besides the exhibitions of Giradini, Arsenale, the central Hall and the national halls, there were many colateral exhibitions that opened up the visual scene. This is the case of Futura Roma, The Spark is You, Parasol unit in Venice, Salon Suisse, Slow Precessional and Installation by Todd Wililamson, Baselitz-Academy and AFRICOBRA: Nation Time. 


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In the middle of all these Works of art that share the common theme of anything goes, let’s quote another group of artists, maybe less visible but anyway necessary to define the state of the event´s culture: NJIDEKA AKUNYILI CROSBY (1983 ) from Nigeria, ALEXANDRA BIRCKEN (1967) from Germany, CAROL BOVE (1971) from Switzerland, RYOJI IKEDA (1966) from Japan, MARI KATAYAMA (1987) from Japan, ZANELE MUHOLI (1972) from South Africa, KHYENTSE NORBU (1961) from  Bhutan, CHRISTINE AND MARGARET WERTHEIM (1958) from Australia, "ArtlabYerevan" Artistic Group (Armenia), MARCO MANZO from Guatemala), among others.

The Venice Biennale is one of the oldest visual art events of its kind (1895) and at the same time one of the most prestigious. This one, its 120th. Edition, will close on November 24..



Writing and Photography by Andrés Alvarez©2019