Art Matters. Artists matter. The world has become art’s domain. Culture unites us as art informs us of threats to our environment, governmental institutions and existence. Nearly all of the exhibits at the Venice Biennale 2019: “May You Live in Interesting Times” showed nations joining to save our earth, respecting nature, amending damaging practices and coming together to save those of lesser means or threatened lives. Even more than Venice Biennale 2017’s curator Christine Macel’s removal of border markings at entrances to rooms, curator Ralph Rugoff boldly showed work by the same artist at both the Arsenale and Giardini, providing different neighbors, siting exhibitions depending on the fitness of the particular space for the exhibit. This Biennale declared the world an interdependent space. Addressing political lies, coverups of current and long-hidden governmental documents and denial of global warming affecting climate change, the Biennale pronounced art the precinct of truth-telling.
Venice, the Biennale’s home, was a crossroad of trade along the Silk Road since the 13th century. China, trying to revive the trade route with its Belt Road initiative (joined by Italy, the third eurozone economy and first Western nation to join), shows global images including light and water in its show named “Everything We Create is Not Ourselves.” Its pavilion, curated by He Xiangyu, resident artist at Beijing’s Academy of Fine Arts, is arranged like a Chinese garden where artists’ spaces open to each other. Geng Xue’s audio/video installation, “The Name of Gold,” with pink carpet resembling a mouth, speaks German translated from Chinese referring to artist He’s experience in Berlin. In Geng’s stop-motion film, clay sculpted hands hold clay bars. In Chen Qi’s wormhole-ridden ancient Chinese books, we see diverse age, time and place. The disconnection of cultural intersections and resulting understanding when people open spaces, minds and mouths to communicate is illustrated.
Vasily Klyukin’s “In Dante Veritas,” a project of the Russian State Museum, includes four sculptures entitled “Overpopulation, Misinformation, Pollution and ExtermiTation,” the title alluding to Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century poem, “The Divine Comedy.”
Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga’s multi-media exhibit explores “the politics of land, body and time.” Afro-American artist Arthur Jafa’s “The White Album” at Giardini brought home the Golden Lion for Best Individual Participant, filmed news show clips and YouTube videos regarding race and culture. At Arsenale, Nkanga’s sculptures of tires and chains recalled gallows (for political prisoners?).
Theatre director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, playwright Vaiva Grainytė and composer Lina Lapelytė’s “Sun and Sea (Marina)” won the Golden Lion, the Biennale’s top award for their project at the Lithuanian pavilion, “Sung.” For one hour every Saturday, beachgoers sprawled on a sandy beach, rise to sing an opera in English, translated from the Lithuanian script followed at National Gallery of Arts, Vilnius, 2017, of minor annoyances, travel interruption by a volcanic eruption (recalling Iceland’s April 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull), hot weather in winter and a bleached Great Barrier Reef calling attention to beachgoer’s enjoyment of atypical warm weather for recreational pleasure, despite impending environmental consequences.
Each night, Laure Prouvost continues digging an underground tunnel connecting the British and French pavilions. Whether addressing Brexit, Britain and France’s boundary channel or the artist’s British home, the underground tunnel’s octopus-like tentacles reach out to another nation. France’s pavilion is entered through a hidden side door amidst falling mist. Murano glass creatures and concrete structures resembling sunken artifacts inhabit this claustrophobic, foggy, squishy-floored world of fish and octopi, recalling the inside of a whale’s belly. The film shown, “Deep See Blue Surrounding You/Vois Ce Bleu Profond Te Fondre,” narrated alternately in French, English and nonsensical words belonging to neither language, forms a new language for a new world with no borders, as is the sea world it portrays.
Japan’s pavilion posed massive boulders, catapulted from the sea floor onto the beach after the last tsunami, foregrounding photographs of beaches they landed on, emphasizing nature’s unleashed power. Condemning false facts, “Volume 0,” the Indigenous Peoples Exhibit sponsored by Zuecca projects, corrected images of 16th-century explorers, impelled by opportunities for trade and wealth to set off from Venice and other sites in the western world to pillage the Americas with a video projected on globular spheres. It began, “Schoolchildren are taught that the explorers were heroes, but they were pirates.”
At Russia’s pavilion, a giclée based on a non-existent Rembrandt allegedly at the Hermitage Museum calls attention to the proliferation of false facts. Another giclée portrays Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” whose wasteful and extravagant ways squandered his fortune, perhaps referring to wealth and the earth’s bounty. In a video, Jesus Christ looks at a barren landscape as an accompanying video shows burning urban buildings. Downstairs, the “Puppet Ballet” shows chained, full-sized puppet prisoners with the final chord and pull announcing their strangulation death. The United States pavilion, featuring a massive curvilinear wooden-gridded wall fronting the exhibit of sculptures celebrating Afro-American heroes and heroines was the only exhibit I saw that succeeded in obscuring truth.
The most important exhibit condemning false facts was “Altered Views” at the Chilean Pavilion, where “The Hegemonic Museum” used documents, photographs and video to correct falsehoods researched by colonial, patriarchal, racist, misogynistic white men. Official governmental and academic documents destroyed the myths of mid-19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s hysterical woman, the notion of savages, exotic peoples and the other. The exhibit bared actions of the CIA and Italian military intelligence’s Gladio — a right-wing extremist group’s role in post-World War II massacres — exonerating the Red Brigades and the CIA’s “Dirty War” strategy used to depose banana republic governments. To call this exhibit shocking is an understatement. To the Biennale’s credit, artists were encouraged to shine light on the truth.
The Biennale is again concerned with the plight of refugees, and Venice’s situation at the crossroads of trade and travel in past and present times makes this concern even more relevant. Lorenzo Quinn, who at the 2017 Venice Biennale erected a giant hand in the grand canal posed to hold up the building it pushed against, installed another artwork this year. This time, six sets of 50-foot-high entwined hands rise over the Arsenale near the “Barca Nostra (Our Boat),” an exhibit of a ship that sank off Italy’s coast causing 700 refugee deaths by Christoph Büchel on the Arsenale pier. This sculpture best depicts the theme I saw throughout the Biennale: one hand holding the hand of another in mutual help and understanding to forego tragedies like the one that drowned 700, or that threaten to inundate us all.
(La Biennale di Venezia — The 58th International Art Exhibition: “May You Live in Interesting Times” takes place from May 11 through November 24, 2019 at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice, Italy. For more information, visit labiennale.org/en/art/2019.)