To start the 58th Venice Biennale, the curator Ralph Rugoff, conceals the entrance of the Central Pavilion with clouds of fog by Lara Favaretto (Thinking Head). The vapour makes not only disappear the building, but is also the expression for smoking brains of thinkers in an undisclosed location. Veiling, disappearance as well as making things visible are motives, which could be found in various artworks of the central show, in the national pavilions or even in the hidden locations of some exhibitions. Under the title “May you live in interesting times.” the curator united 79 international artists. Their works are presented in the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale. Moreover, there are 90 national participations in the traditional buildings of the Giardini, in the Arsenale and throughout the city. Noteworthy is, that for the first time the majority of the participating artists is female. Additionally there are 21 official collateral events and innumerable exhibitions, taking place between 11th May and 24th November 2019.
Clouds in and above the Giardini
Initially, we visited the Giardini. The pavilion of Venezuela at first remained closed, probably due to the enduring crises in the country, but should be opened later. The French and the German Pavilions are only accessible by the rear entrance. Furthermore, the official entrance of the French building is also covered by wafts of mist from time to time. On the other hand, the identity of Natascha Süder Happelmann (for Germany) was blurred by a pseudonym; at presentations, she wears a papier-mâché stone to disguise her face. Though the German exhibition “Ankersentrum”, a monumental installation of a retaining wall, was easily accessible, the French like the English presentations were besieged by a huge amount of waiting people. In consequence, we skipped them both to visit others.
Two videos in the Egyptian installation, which reminds the ambience of antique royal tombs, displayed narrowness in small chambers. An aircraft dominated the Polish Pavilion. “Flight” by Roman Stańczak didn’t content itself by showing the flying machine, but turned the technical equipment outwards, so that cables, wires and pipes became visible. Seeking shelter from the starting rain, we entered the Spanish Pavilion. The video “To pee in public or private spaces. 167 Greenpoint Ave. backyard, under the rain” revealed an even more humid plot. Appropriately is the water installation hidden behind the building, which might be refreshing in summer time. Nevertheless, at this moment it vanished almost in the falling rain. The artists presented are Itziar Okariz and Sergio Prego.
While the Swiss Pavilion unveils its video “Moving Backwards” by Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz by a glitter curtain, which is repeated in the film, the Belgian one hides its sculptures from outsiders behind prison bars. In the central exhibition, one is illuminated from above by Ryoji Ikeda’s installation “spectra III” and Brazil dances in its photos and video installation “Swinguerra” by Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca against the bad weather. Finland dives with one of its short films by The Miracle Workers Collective into dark water (The Killing of Čáhcerávga) and let us in another one immerse into a world of floating ice.
Discoveries in the city and outside
Quasi on a silver plate for visitors is the location of the New Zealand Pavilion. Close to the Giardini, situated in the Palazzina Canonica, Dane Mitchell focusses with “post hoc” on bygone things, ranging from dead words to extinct species, ghost towns and former nations. Hidden loudspeakers fill the garden with an electronic voice reciting the enormous list, while it is printed in the emptied library. Four more listening points are dispersed in the city.
Far away from the overcrowded main venues, on the calm island of San Servolo, is the Cuban Pavilion. Four artists, Alejandro Campins, Alex Hérnandez, Ariamna Contino and Eugenio Tibaldi have been chosen to represent the Caribbean state. Particularly interesting is the work of Alex Hernández, who experimented with bees and their honeycombs. He replaced the hexagonal wax hives with cells of abstract shapes to find out, if the bees could be induced to change their traditional constructions following the imposed ones.
Hidden in the narrow streets of Castello, is the national participation of Mongolia. It is interesting to discover this cross-disciplinary project, which features the sculptural installations of Jantsankhorol Erdenebayar accompanied by an interactive sound performance by traditional Mongolian throat singers and guest artist Carsten Nicolai. Immersed in red light, together with the unusual sounds, the sculptures develops a mystical aspect.
Regrettably, the Lithuanian Pavilion hid in the Venetian warren of lanes. “Sun & Sea (Marina)” a performance by Lina Lapelyte, Vaiva Grainyte and Rugile Barzdziukaite was honoured by the Golden Lion. We will certainly visit it on our next visit to Venice.
Arsenale: plunging and reappearing in different circumstances
The main exhibition in the Arsenale, the former Venetian shipyard, initiates with photos by Anthony Hernandez. They show structures like a tunnel, which pull the view of the spectator inside. Appropriately, the video “48 War Movies” by Christian Marclay follows with a similar visual impact though its sound functions as a big bang that opens the art exhibition. A little bit forward Tavares Strachan deals in “Hidden Histories” with issues of truth and visibility. Only the attentive visitor will discover the light image of the deceased astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.
Anicka Yi hides something moving in her incandescent biomorphic sculptures. Seemingly flying insects, they are not really to determine. Whereas Christoph Büchel points openly at the refugee drama in the Mediterranean. Titled “Barca Nostra” (Our Boat), he exposes the fishing boat, which sank in 2015 and took up to 1.100 migrants with it. The vessel was recovered from the sea ground by the Italian navy and now reappears in bright daylight, although it could be overseen in the ambiance of the ancient shipyard.
Ghana participates for the first time at the Venice Biennale. In the exhibition “Ghana Freedom” El Anatsui’s monumental installations are concealing their origin. Made of bottle caps and aluminium printing plates, they develop a new fascinating beauty. In a similar sense, but with a totally different outcome goes the pavilion of Saudi Arabia, titled “After Illusion”. Seemingly plunging into a fabulous underwater Landscape, one discovers in touching the familiar looking objects that they are not as natural as they seem. Actually, Zahrah Al Ghamdi made the dried urchins reminding pieces out of cooked leather, as a documentary film demonstrates.
In the Indian Pavilion, a nebulous curtain invites to go through and swallows the participating visitor, to spit him/her out on the other side. “Covering Letter” is a fog screen projection with a black-and-white video by Jitish Kallat. The projection depicts a letter written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler in July 1939, urging him to resist “reducing humanity to a savage state”. People walking through the letter are simultaneously inhabiting and dispersing the moving text. Finally in the Italian Pavilion, the visitor could get lost in “Neither Nor”. “The Challenge to the Labyrinth” is to discover the sometimes hidden artworks by Enrico David, Chiara Fumai and Liliana Moro. If you are lucky, you’ll also find the rest area, designed like an Italian beach café. While relaxing, you can listen to various interpretations of the Italian folk and partisan song “Bella Ciao”.
Text: Astrid Gallinat
Photos © Astrid Gallinat & Stephan Goseberg, if not mentioned otherwise