May You Live in Interesting Times | 58th Venice Biennale Review by Kat Koch

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The 58th Venice Biennale, also known as the Art World Olympics, opened at the beginning of May in one of Italys most heavily tourist-populated cities. Non-Venetians here take one of two forms; those who come to slurp a 20 coffee on San Marco Square or pay 80-100 for a gondola ride and those that come every two years to witness the most significant display of international art in the most unique location possible. Since 1895, the Venice Biennale has been hosted every other year. In addition to the grand national pavilions in the Giardini, in 1980 the Arsenale (the old Venetian shipyard) was added as an exhibition venue for its generosity of space. In 2019, 89 different nations are participating in the Venice biennale, 4 nations for the very first time: Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia, and Pakistan. In its 58th instalment, Ralph Rugoff (currently the director of Hayward Gallery in London) has curated the main exhibition, featuring only 79 artists, all of them currently alive today (a first for the biennale). May You Live in Interesting Times, his chosen title for the biennale; a call to arms inciting visitors to engage with the many presentations across the Arsenale, Giardini, as well as the collateral events dotted around Venice. Since the last art biennale in 2017, the world has greatly changed. There has been an acknowledgement of the necessity to work collectively for a reversal of climate change, an acknowledgment of the existence and validity of non-binary gender identities, and an acknowledgement of our dependence upon technology, the danger presented by the rhizomatic dominance of the internet, feeding us fake news while swallowing our identity.

With Sun & Sea (Marina) the Lithuanian collective Neo Realism, comprised of Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė [filmmaker], Vaiva Grainytė [poetess and writer] and Lina Lapelytė [composer and performer], collaborated to construct a grandiose performance consisting of a beach within the pavilion, where sunbathers break into song, exulting in an operatic critique of leisure activities contributing to the climate crisis we find ourselves in today. The audience watch the performance from the rafters of the pavilion, looking down on the unaware sunbathers like omniscient deities powerlessly tutting their heads knowingly in light of the inevitable self-destruction unravelling below. The Lithuanian pavilion was awarded the Golden Lion for the best pavilion at the biennale warning of our mindless consumption of the planet we reside on.

Following on from Lithuania, Weather Report: Forecasting Future, is a multi-faceted installation of sculptural interventions of organic forms within the Nordic Pavilion (Finland - Norway - Sweden) at the Giardini. This presentation by Ane Graff, Ingela Ihrman, and Finnish artist duo nabbteeri, asks viewers to reconsider their relationship to the natural world, which is under current threat by climate change. The Nordic pavilion itself seems to be a symbolic example of happy co-habitation of humans and the ecological with three trees growing in its centre and sprouting through the roof. What will the future look like? Will it become so hot that humans are no longer able to sunbathe on the beach and plants can’t survive outside, so that both need to seek shelter indoors? Is a happy symbiosis between humans and nature a realistic possibility?


Melissa McGills Red Regatta, a flotilla of sailboats with strikingly red hand-painted sails spectacularly filled Venices waterways during the opening week of the biennale. A visual event intended to highlight the threat of climate change and tourism’s impact on Venice. Against the opaque turquoise water the crimson sails flickered in the distance, ruby-like and ominous, a warning of the consequences if humans refuse to act.

Arthur Jafa won the Golden Lion for the White Album, a poignant essay-film approximately 40 minutes in length, consisting of clips from various sources; CCTV, mobile phones, documentaries, music videos, and viral clips. This footage largely available on the internet, juxtaposes examples of vitriolic racism by youtubers with portrayals of people close to Jafa, illuminating, how difficult it is to put whiteness under a lens.Khalil Josephs BLKNWS, a two channel video installation, is a fake news channel featuring an on-going stream of footage aimed at black and African Americans. Both Jafas and Josephs work are part of Rugoffs curated exhibition in the Giardini and Arsenale, and strikingly testify, to the internets unique ability to precisely and potently - more so than any other medium - reflect the world we live in.

The internets omnipresence in todays world and humans engagement with it is examined across the city, near the Academia bridge at the Azerbaijani pavilion. With Virtual Reality four artists (Kanan & Ulviyya Aliyev, Zarnishan Yusif, Zeigam Azizov, and Orkhan Mammadov) draw on the phenomenon of fake news, its unavoidable presence and the threat it presents to democracy and a free-thinking existence. Various news headlines from the past two years, real and fake, appear on a film screen in Zeigam Azizovs Headlines. <BBC News 17.03.2017 Germany to use voice recognition to identify migrant origins>, is one of the headlines appearing on the screen. The viewer sees the old headlines and can easily fish out the real news-stories from the fake. It calls into question the disposability and reliability of information existing on the internet, whose dissemination exists without regulation. Orkhan Mammadovs Circular Repetition is an AI machine, which creates completely original ornamental patterns by processing the 15,000 images from archives in museums and libraries. This is perhaps an indication of the obsolescence of artisans in a world where AI exists.. Muraqqa (traditionally an album of miniature paintings) looks like a digital wall tapestry where Mammadov has compiled miniature paintings from various points of Azerbaijani history into a wonderfully playful animation. Technology transforms the traditional muraqqa scenes into Instagram-worthy snapshots in which Azerbaijanis dance under disco balls and frolic with unicorn-shaped pool floats.

Three artists investigating the individuals placement in the world today, or more broadly an existential idea of identity, are; Laure Provoust representing France, Natascha Süder Hampelmann for the German pavilion, and Charlotte Prodger for Scotland. At the Venice Biennale your ability to present works relies on either being selected for the group show by that years curator, or by being asked to represent your country. The latter naturally begs the question of national identity.

French Pavillion

Upon learning of Laure Provousts nomination as representative of the French pavilion, I knew everyone was in store for something magical.  Deep Blue Sea Surrounding / Vois Ce Bleu Profonde Te Fondre is unlike any other pavilion at the Biennale, it calls upon the viewer to suspend disbelief. Its a boulversement from the get go. To enter the pavilion the viewer needs to walk past the official entrance of past years, through the bushes, where they find a doorway leading into what resembles an excavation site. Provoust has been digging here, she is trying to dig a tunnel between the French and the British pavilion before Brexit happens. Past the excavation site the viewer walks up wooden stairs stepping out in a bright room, but the floor appears to be covered in an opaque turquoise liquid, mimicking the water of the lagoon Venice lies in. Washed up in the shallow pool are trapped sea creatures, shoes, cigarettes; they look wet and shimmery, but they arent wet, they are made of artisan Murano glass. As with the Brexit tunnel, Provoust is playing with your perceptions, inciting you to ask yourself, where do I come from? where am I going?. As often with Provoust she is setting the scene for the main event, the film at the heart of the pavilion. It is loosely a road trip from Paris to Venice, where fiction mixes closes with reality to create a beautiful surreal fantasy. Props and relics of the film are displayed in the final room that would not be amiss in a Michel Gondry project. And then poof, you step back into reality and it all seemed like a beautiful dream.

In a super sleek space within the Arsenale docks youll find Charlotte Prodgers SaF05 a single-channel video combining footage from the Scottish Highlands to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. A faceless narrator guides the viewer over the course of 40 mins. The visual language of the film is in constant flux, changing from film industry cameras, drone footage, to shots from a camera phone. The viewer finds themselves somewhat unsure of where they are, therefore the consistency of the voice of the narrator, Prodgers own, is reassuring. She reveals anecdotes of  her adolescence through to the present. Intimate personal information is punctuated by logged data of SaF05, a maned lioness in the Okavango Delta in Botsana. Prodger juxtaposes her own personal experience with that of a lion, incidentally the symbol of Venice, further contextualising what is seen and heard, moving from the micro to the macro. In her film, the analysis of SaF05 mirrors Prodgers own examination of herself in order to classify her own identity.

In the German Pavilions presentation Natascha Süder Happelmann takes, as a starting off point, her own identity as an artist and all the different cultural, political and socio-economic expectations that come with this role. Is there a more poignant place for this discussion than during the biennale, representing your country at the art world olympics is surely the highest honour? Süder Happelmann, or rather I should say Natascha Sadr Haghighian? With the help of an analyst Sadr Haghighian found the alias Süder Happelmann, which arose out of various misspellings of her own name over the past 30 years. With this germanicised version of her name she assumes the  appropriate identityof an artist representing Germany at the biennale, while commenting on the current German sentiment towards immigrants. Furthermore, her work is an institutional critique of the status of celebrity artists, whose work is often the result of a huge but silent team. For the German pavilion she is collaborating with musicians of different backgrounds (Jessica Ekomane, Maurice Loucas, DJs Marlon Silva alias DJ Marfox, Jako Maron, Tisha Mukarji and Elnaz Seyedi), to create ever-changing sound pieces streamed in the pavilion.

The Venice Biennale 2019 has managed not to shy away from uncomfortable topics or fall into the self-aggrandising frivolity the art world is often accused of, but instead brought to the forefront universal concerns. Our relationship with technology, finding our own identity in a massive globalised world, and futility thereof, if we are unable to wrench ourselves out of the current climate crisis we find ourselves in.

by Kat Koch

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