Writing about the Biennale as a whole is a feat worth applauding! Now in its 58th cycle and featuring far over fifty countries and hundreds of artists/works in all mediums in what is a huge, complex art Olympics that is, for all its delights also quite exhausting! The central pavilion’s theme, ‘May you live in interesting times’ is a fittingly ambiguous, yet pleasingly all-encompassing, title for what is essentially the world barometer for art, what’s hot and what’s not. Who, which themes and ideas will be appearing in exhibitions near you! Save your applause, however, because instead of trying to cover it all, I have focused instead on the things that were most memorable or had resonance with me. In a vein-attempt to make some sense of it all (in no particular order) is my personal ‘unconventional’ top twenty-one of the ‘must see’ experiences this Biennale.
Ceramic sculptures used to create unusual sound-based installations. Intriguing to watch how these pieces moved as it was to listen.
Image sourced from: https://www.labiennale.org/en/art/2019/partecipants/tarek-atouiOne of the more controversial exhibits in this year’s Biennale, but also one of the most poignant. Barca Nostra is a shipwreck from a disaster in the Sicilian channel in which between 700-1,100 people seeking refuge from Libya were have believed to have perished. The ship appears ghostly but almost ‘at home’ in its maritime setting of the Arsenale (where many boats are docked) where it could be easily dismissed by those unaware of its history. It is debatable on whether displaying this boat, associated with such tragedy is tasteful or appropriate but I think its greater legacy in being a reminder and political tool ‘for change’ to those whose lives were senselessly lost is something which should not be ignored. In bringing this to the Biennale the reality of what happened becomes more significant in current memory than reading about it in a piece of journalism.
Unable to use their right arm due to a neurological disease, Darling creates assemblages from ‘small, low-cost, everyday materials’. In ‘March of the Valedictorians’ red school chairs on impossibly long spindly legs teeter precariously whilst supporting one-another as a whole group. Humorous and playful.Russian Constructivism meets Pop Art in Kadyrova’s ‘Market’ in which fruits, cheeses and meats are ‘for sale’ re-created from tiles and concrete. The idea of ‘art as commodity’ is questioned as each item in this market is sold under the currency of weight. My parents are and have both worked in the fruit-trade all my life and so this piece has a personal association that appealed to me.
‘Robert’ is a neon sculpture representing the skeleton of first African-American astronaut, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr who died in a training accident in 1967. This piece is part of a body of work Strachan has made around the story of Lawrence’s death in working in conjunction with SpaceX. The work raises awareness of Lawrence’s achievements as the first African astronaut as well as the racism encountered around the incident of his death and why, figures such as Lawrence should not have remained invisible in history for this long. Given the 50 years milestone since the moon landings, this collection of work gains added timeliness that leaves a lasting impression.I have been a fan of Marclay’s work since I first saw the film, ‘The Clock’ in Plymouth’s ‘British Art Show 7’ 2011, in which 24 hours worth of film clips create a real-time clock. If you love movies and like collage then you will appreciate how entertaining it is trying to work out where each clip has come from or guess what the next one will be. For the Biennale Marclay presents, ’48 War Movies’ which are screened (with sound) simultaneously as each film is layered on top of the other to create 48 borders. The sound is perhaps more disorientating than the image, as the cacophony of noise is unsettling and chaotic as war itself.
Image sourced from: https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/pics-from-the-biennial-part-1-1540588
John Akomfrah [Ghana]
In a three-channel film titled, ‘Four Nocturnes’, British director, Akomfrah uses natural history and archived footage edited alongside shots of characters contemplating, motionlessly. Unmistakably recognisable in its editing and beauty of photography present the concept that humanities destruction of the natural world is ultimately also a destruction of ourselves.
Image sourced from: https://www.lissongallery.com/news/john-akomfrah-presents-four-nocturnes-video-installation-at-venice-biennaleHundreds of blank notebooks ‘sculpted’ by the artist’s hands line a slope in the Grand Duchy of Luxemborg pavilion. Each one unique as its page’s have been manipulated and made supple by the sea water in the Mediterranean. ‘Written by Water’ is an exploration of ‘human learning and remembering as a continuous process of writing, erasing and overwriting. As with other works in the Biennale (referred to here) I am personally drawn to work which appears to be simple, but has been created from someone noticing something and then exploring it on a grand scale (in this case, almost obsessively). I like the idea that a book soaked in the sea could become a piece of sculpture as much as there is something mesmerizingly meditative about watching these books being created in the accompanying film to this installation.
Zahrah Al Ghamdi [Saudi Arabia]
50,000 handmade leather ‘pods, line lit fabric walls in Al Ghamdi’s immersive and interactive installation ‘After Illusion’. Viewers are invited to touch and explore the work with their hands to seek out interactive sounds triggered by placing a hand inside a correct pod. Leather being used as the primary material relates to craft within Saudi Arabia and title from an Arabic poem about ‘the struggle to remember home after being away for 20 years’. The other worldliness of this installation does go some-way to achieving just that.
One of the several artists exhibiting in the Indian pavilion for this Biennale, Irana’s piece titled, ‘Naavu (We together)’ consists of worn and altered padukas (wooden footwear) which line the walls. Each one uniquely altered or adorned with objects (possibly from their previous owners) and symbols that are significant of various spiritual connotations within Indian history or culture. I have always liked objects, ephemera that tell a story of its owner and I like the possible connotations and narratives that seeing these shoes conjure.
The piece, ‘Island weather’ by Justiniani is a work that must be experienced to be best understood. Viewers can step on top of a series of clear-topped, island-shaped platforms containing objects housed by mirrors. The effect is one of looking down to what appears to be infinity. Half a ladder, a stack of papers are in fact the reality but when placed in these mirrored containers appear, to the viewer standing above, to continue downwards forever into a black endless nothingness below. It is genuinely quite disconcerting but impressive at the same time.Image sourced from: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/review/venice-biennale-2019-the-must-see-pavilions-in-the-arsenale
GardiniArachnomancy is performed in Saraceno’s ‘Web pavilion 7’ inspired by the Mabila Nggam divination practiced in Western and Central Africa in which spider’s actions and webs are interpreted. The pavilion features spider webs, tarot cards and divination readings. Aiming to use interactive installations and ‘sustainable ways of inhabiting the environment’ to turn audiences awareness to other species and systems. Again the joy for this work, for me personally, is an idea I have already expressed, that this work is great because spider’s webs are fascinating, the artist isn’t trying to compete with that idea, merely notice and present it to a wider audience through the context of art.
Image sourced from: https://universes.art/en/venice-biennale/2019/fast-tour-2/tomas-saraceno
For anyone who routinely feels compelled to wipe all the condensation off of steamed-up bathroom mirrors, the plight of Yuan and Yu’s robotic arm that ends with a shovel as it attempts to scrape back an endlessly encroaching red liquid to within a circular area will be highly relatable. Mesmerising in its almost human/animal-like size the giant arm might be one of the most videoed works in this year’s Biennale but it is also one of the most compellingly watchable.
Denmark pavilion’s dystopian sci-fi film offering titled, ‘Heirloom’ ruminates on life, memory and identity after ecological disaster. Shot in black and white its otherworldliness and themes such as nostalgia, explored reminded me of Tarkovsky’s, ‘Stalker’.
Image sourced from: https://www.idoart.dk/kalender/larissa-sansour-heirloom-danish-pavilion-la-biennale-di-venezia-2019
An architect, an artist and a composer are the creative disciplines behind the Japanese pavilion installation that tells the story of ‘Cosmo-Eggs’. Essentially the work consists of photos of boulders, sound and an inflatable egg-yolk yellow central seating area connected by a series of sound cables, like umbilical cords. I struggled to see the point of all of this until I had read the allegory on the wall (see below) which helped contextualise the work and was a refreshing insight as an alternative creation-myth for the Japanese islands. For me personally it reaffirmed that the Biennale doesn’t have to always be a looking-forward or comment on current life but can be an exploration of traditions and storytelling, re-imagined for new audiences.
“A long time ago, sun and moon descended to earth and laid a single egg. A snake came and swallowed the egg, and so sun and moon visited earth once more to leave behind three eggs that they hid: one inside earth, one inside stone, and one inside bamboo. The eggs soon hatched, and born were the ancestors of three islands. Once grown up, they each built a small boat and travelled to different islands: one in the East, one in the West, and one in the North. The tribes of these islands visited each other by boat, and despite occasional fights, they overcame pestilence and poor harvests to live in peace for a long time. Each island passed down its own language, its own music, its own traditions, its own festivals. They each possessed the power to speak with the animals: the earth tribe spoke with the worms and the insects, the stone tribe with the snakes, and the bamboo tribe with the birds.”
Image sourced from: http://myartguides.com/national-participations/japan-2019/
An inside-out luxury aircraft is the central piece to this year’s Polish pavilion. In reversing the aircraft the artist is attempting to criticise the ‘rich elite’ and inequalities of capitalism. Somewhat ironically, if this piece, as ‘art’ (and sold as art) then feeds back into the rich elite it is trying to challenge. All of that aside it is a fascinating piece to explore visually and out of curiosity.
A mysterious but compelling queue of people beckons closer inspection of the Venice pavilion, revealing an embodied experience experienced by no more than 8 people at a time. Stepping from the heat of the Gardini into what is a life-size, inflatable tube with water underneath is a remarkably welcome and cooling experience (not to mention slightly hap-hazard) as it is basically like walking on the world’s longest and biggest waterbed (or imagining of intestinal tract)! It is an unashamed spectacle in which the viewer becomes participant in its existence as a piece of art.Historically speaking, the Israeli pavilion has always been one of my favourites out of the four Biennale’s I have attended. This year’s offering may not be up there with my favourites but it definitely made me think. ‘Field Hospital’ is an interactive art ‘institution’ established by the artist, Aya Ben Ron, with the aims to ‘provide a space in which silenced voices can be heard and social injustices can be seen’. Looking and acting like a ‘real’ hospital the pavilion is transformed into a waiting room where viewers wait to be called to experience ‘care-kits’ upstairs which include special video/seating chairs showing recorded testimonies of social injustices and Safe-Unit areas in which participants can scream in sound proof booths.
If you see one offsite exhibition during this year’s Biennale, Dysfunctional should be it. Featuring 21 artists from the Carpenter’s Workshop Gallery who have made work in response to the architecture of the Ca’d’Oro and its collection of Renaissance art. It is refreshing in its lack of pretentiousness as it seems to celebrate really well-made, visual but still thought-provoking pieces as a much welcomed break from the depth of intensity needed in digesting many of the other Biennale shows. Shown here: Maarten Bass 'Real Time XL' (2019) a recorded twelve hour performance involving painting, removing and repainting hands on a clock-face. And the Vernoeven Twins 'Moments of Happiness' (2019) glass giant bubbles.
Self-portraits of the artist and 70 gloss painted-used tyres make the components of Mexican artist, Morales’ exhibition at the Ca Ressonico Gallery. This assembled collage of stuff which includes dinosaurs (why not) aims to, “challenge our perceptions of texture, touch, beauty, solace and violence”. I struggled to engage with how all of these elements came together, personally, but from a purely aesthetic and debatably shallow perspective enjoyed seeing so many coloured tyres as an installation.
Eila Yenlysarja –Various locations
The Biennale’s best kept secret (one you won’t find in any of the guidebooks)! Yenlysarja’s weathered, textured surfaces and palimpsests materialise themselves around the city in various locations. A celebration of beauty and purity in surface and form. I could look at these all day long!
The Biennale can be seen across locations in Venice until November 24th
Previous Posts about the Venice Biennale can be read here:
2017 - http://spannerintheworkz.blogspot.com/2017/07/viva-venezia.html
2015 - http://spannerintheworkz.blogspot.com/2015/06/i-always-believed-in-futures.html
2013 - http://spannerintheworkz.blogspot.com/2013/11/venice-biennale-2013.html
Images (except where specified) and text copyright of Natalie Parsley ©