VENICE, ITALY, MAY 8, 2019 — Venice has bested its last biennale. This morning, at the press opening, Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London since 2006, spoke along with Paolo Baratta, president of the Biennale de Venezia and the director of Swatch, about the biennale. Even more than the theme of the 2017 biennale, which announced “Arte Viva” and made sure there were no barriers to crossing borders, Rugoff’s message was right on, and important. Responding to politics around the world, he said, “In art, there is no simple truth — there is a complexity of voices — a double format and a plurality of voices.” But then, he went on even further, saying that, “each artist’s voice must also be a plurality.”
This plurality was demonstrated in Rugoff’s decision to locate some artists’ work in both venues of the Biennale: the Arsenale and the Giardini. I asked him what dictated which works went to each site, to which he replied, it was a practical decision, based on the height of walls and size of space in each location, and sometimes on the surrounding work. But it was incredibly important to him that we realize there was no overriding theme, but that “several motifs occur that are important to our present-day world: barriers, walls, decisions, masks, hidden identifications, doppelgangers, science and technology.” He wanted us to be aware of the efforts of government and politicians to create fake news, and barriers to learning the truth.
Readers of Artscope might remember that I spoke about the layering that I have seen throughout the past year, and how those layers reflect the cover-ups of truth and the cover-ups of invented false truths. Rugoff is saying the same — that artists must reveal the truth but do it in a way that people are made aware that they have been fooled, and then convince them that the artists’ truth is the one they must trust.
The name of this year’s biennale, “May We Live in Interesting Times,” was assumed to be an ancient Chinese proverb that read to be an encouragement to live in interesting times. But Rugoff said that it was first used by a British parliamentarian in 1936 as a curse.
“May We Live in Interesting Times” meant the times were dangerous as Hitler’s threat took over Europe. It is to be preferred that we live in stable times because stable times are often boring. But in fact, it was not even the British parliamentarian, Joseph Chamberlain, who said in 1898, “I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and let me say, also new objects for anxiety” who initiated the phrase, but Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British ambassador to China from 1936–7, who mentions in his autobiography, published in 1949, that a friend told him of the Chinese curse, “May We Live in Interesting Times.” So, the focus of Rugoff’s premise is based on fake facts and a wrong recall of information, in fact, “making up history,” probably intentional on his part.
One of my two favorite exhibits, so far, was also a favorite of Rugoff’s. As Mahatma Gandhi’s letter to Adolf Hitler was projected onto steam and consequently, rug-like rolled onto the floor, the letter’s warning was certainly relevant to situations in our present-day world. Similarly, in the Chinese Pavilion at the Arsenale, “Trojan,” a huge sculpture of a woman seated in a giant airline seat, made of discarded clothes, bent over in a pose that we know to be the one that prepares a passenger for a plane crash, was at the front of a vehicle (which could be a plane, or perhaps, a Trojan horse?) that opened in the back to admit passengers. Interpretable as recalling a terrorist threat to a plane, or the Trojan threat to the Greeks, it focused attention on threats to a population from one machine, be it of present or ancient times. Technology, it seems, is always a threat to individuals in society.
My other favorite today was Shilpa Gupta’s sound installation, “For in your tongue, I cannot fit,” sound projecting individual readings of the verses of 100 poets whose work or political position led them to imprisonment. The corresponding verse is printed on paper and stuck onto a rod that ends blade-like at the top. The title reflects the words of the 14th century Azerbaijani poet, Imadaddin Nasimi, whose fate matched those whose verses are included in the work. Some particularly important verses for me included Ken Saro-Wiwa’s “Dance your anger and your joys. Dance the military guns to silence. Dance their dumb laws to the dump. And there is an Ogoni Star in the Sky,” and the verse by Adonis, “Now bitter language has now become, and how narrow the door of the alphabet.” It should be noted that the verses were written and spoken in different languages, understood by those who read or understood that language because they grew up with it, or who made an effort to understand another’s language.
That was the overall point of exhibits I saw and heard today at the Venice Biennale 2019: We must make an effort to understand each other’s culture, and to ascertain the truth.
(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 in Venice, Italy. For more information, visit https://www.labiennale.org/en/art/2019.)