The 58th Venice Biennale is an edition of competing realities. For curator Ralph Rugoff, it is still artists who can best juggle and challenge the multiple, diverse ways of making sense of the world. Yet, this year’s main May You Live In Interesting Times exhibition, running May 11 to November 24, feels like it would take more than this to cut across the parallel and separate worlds it speaks to. Suggesting two sides of the same ‘argument’ in its two shows—‘Proposition A’, in former military base the Arsenale, and “Proposition B”, in the central pavilion of the Giardini—it is partly an attempt at holding on to some objectivity in the face of all that complexity. Works by the same set of artists appear in each proposition, and the brittle day-light whiteness of the central pavilion is contrasted with the darker and more provisional plywood exhibition structure of the Arsenale.
Whether or not May You Live In Interesting Times offers any useful reflection is a different question: As Rugoff claims, art isn’t a space of politics but better seen as a ‘playful guide’. The International Art Exhibition seeks overall to offer some sort of correlation, going so far as to invoke a lacklustre paraphrase attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and Lenin, “that everything connects with everything else”. The prevailing sense is that it is that competition between the two aforementioned claims that is the most urgent issue at stake. The conservative curatorial approach would arguably have been challenged by a less familiar face at the helm, nonetheless, it has also been noted as one the most gender-balanced editions of the biennale to date. (Well done, for managing at least one baseline of representation). At times, however, it feels like it is the very European biennale model of survey and ordering itself, which is most frustrated by the multiplicity of a fragmented world. The most urgent and compelling works, though, are those that face up to those fractures, telling of the ongoing force of nationalism, exclusion and race.
It is a widespread disappointment that May You Live In Interesting Times lacks clear curatorial direction, and it starts with the title. To rehearse a now familiar point, the name riffs on a phrase apocryphally attributed to a Chinese curse, as told by Austen Chamberlain, the son of the former-colonial political architect and prime minister Joseph Chamberlain. Not only quickly forgettable as an intended proposal, it is somewhat lost on the efforts of many of the artists aiming for something more incisive than its vaguely Orientalist baggage implies. It’s true there are some very good works of art, some weak ones, and many indifferent ones. However, this lightweight approach to those ‘interesting times’ is meant for much of the same from many of the same names.
There is a strong presence of the usual ‘bodies versus technology versus agency’ worries. In the Giardini central pavilion, Ed Atkins probes new levels of angst with ‘BLOOM’—12 drawings of the artist’s face on the body of tarantulas waiting to be crushed in the palm of a hand. And in the Arsenale, there are videos of weeping CGI children, monks and rails of what could have been roleplay costumes. This sets the tone for what many of the art works here put forward as the contemporary technological condition: less ‘interesting’, more circuitous frustration and ennui. Ian Cheng’s ‘BOB (Bag of Beliefs)’ is an example. The questions this work poses to automating computation and its anthropomorphization are normally much more compelling but, as with much else in the May You Live In Interesting Times exhibition, as it quietly unfolds as a model of life and interaction, these ideas aren’t really interrogated. They’re more just left to exist alongside everything else. Likewise, the indifferent, machinic power in Sun Yaun & Peng Yu’s modified industrial robot arm flails and wipes a pool of fake blood towards itself in the Giardini, while a high-pressure hose intermittently whips itself around a marble chairin the style of theLincoln Memorial in the Arsenale. It gets the Instagrams but they’re also just a bit boring—the glass and steel cages shielding viewers from the machines somehow make their non-human actions both more mystified and less visceral.
Altogether more confrontational is Christian Marclay’s ‘48 War Movies’, which is literally 48 war films playing consecutively on top of one another. In the same vein, Jon Rafman’s CGI video ‘Disasters Under the Sea’—with its abstract body forms swept aside like water—is utterly horrifying. But again, with little coherent sense of how the obscured power of computation interlocks with anything (such as the conceptual landscapes of the alt-right), the dread of the disposability of life and fictive loss of agency in online avatars is, ultimately, just for show.
The conditional nature of visuality and visibility is also a common theme. This also feels like it encapsulates the capricious and shimmering mood of the times better than the curatorial vision of the artist as playful or uniquely placed mediator. In an obligatory update to her new-media-hugging practice, Hito Steyerl uses machine learning and artificial video processing in ‘This is the Future’ (Arsenale) and in ‘Leonardo’s Submarine’ (Giardini). They alternately rip apart and morph video of blooming flowers and feature the MOSE flood barrier being built around Venice—layering this hallucinatory effect with rhetorical assertions about the ever-present violence of ‘tech’. These are weird and absorbing but as this material becomes more and more the texture of daily life, the sophistication of some of Steyerl’s earlier film-making is lacking. More interesting are the fantastical paintings of Jill Mulleady. Her dustily psychedelic scenes of domestic, rural and liminal life feel weirdly reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s depictions of 1920s and ‘30s urban United States but with a twist of magic realism and updated for an era of overlapping interfaces, bodies, emotions and locations. Punks and teens cohabit with uncertain figures and landscapes glimmer with fragments of Munch. Unexpectedly, it is these paintings—alongside the similarly multidimensional and dancing surfaces of Michael Armitage’s ‘(Untitled)’ depicting political rallies in Kenya in 2017—that first offer a moment of pause and complexity.
In the Giardini, Laurence Abu Hamdan’s video work ‘Walled Unwalled’ points at the mutability of separation and porosity in the boundaries that define the contemporary world’s increasingly distinct realities. The work is projected onto a partially transparent structure and, in a long and beguiling sequence, Hamdan speaks to a microphone through the soundproof glass of a recording studio alongside another in which a drummer plays a sporadic, unknown rhythm. The artist describes a case in which the limits of legality and public-private divisions are put to the test by new technologies of vision. Using thermal imaging cameras, a police department was able to see through the walls of a teenager they suspect to be growing weed. They did it without a warrant and in court encountered a problem: is the heat generated in his home public or private property? If we can reduce the whole world to waves and molecules, surely, as Hamdan claims, “our walls mean nothing.” Here, then, are the more salient issues making any attempt at configuring a fragmented world more difficult: while the limits of visibility are subject to the purview of the police ‘at home’, walls continue to proliferate on borders around the world, and are undone by exceptionalism abroad—this could’ve been a much wider theme.
Frida Orupabo’s incredible dis- and re-articulated images of black female bodies reassembled with butterfly clips are arranged in contorted and strained arrangements. The deliberate violence of this visuality vibrates against the many photographic portraits in the exhibition, including those by Soham Gupta or Gauri Gil. Contained by the framing of the photographic gaze, Orupabo’s images feel as though they are being asked to perform an otherness and validate the limits of Western self-awareness. It is a shame then that the artist’s work feels so awkwardly placed behind Teresa Margolles‘ ‘Muro Ciudad Juárez’ (awarded a special mention). A bullet-marked concrete block wall that is capped with rolls of razor wire, it’s taken from a public school in reference to the daily cartel violence of Mexican cities like Ciudad Juárez and the ongoing territoriality of conflict, more generally. These are both interesting works but—in being placed within the stark and sparse collection in the Giardini while having to share the room with Yaun and Yu’s flailing robot—they feel like tokens towards the broader politics that can’t be resolved into such a simplistic dialogue between the two.
Making the point that given the opportunity and space to do so, a route through these issues could be found, several works confront the distribution of power according to identity, nationalism and race as the consequential narrative of all this polarisation. Kahlil Joseph’s two-channel video and installation, ‘BLKNWS’ is a reminder of what art does when it takes the political and cultural climate head on, especially with rolling news and its culturally-specific truths. An ongoing, collaborative journalistic and conceptual project, the work puts Black culture in dialogue with other cultural formations to “deconstruct European philosophy,” and responds to Black feminist literary critic (who appears in the video) Hortense Spillers’ question: “What can we say about culture post everything?” Anthea Hamilton’s ‘Mammoth Moth Sofa A’, stuck behind the benches set out for Joseph’s videos, is too easy to overlook. At least, in this more generous space, Hamilton’s giant and squishy moth-shaped sofa and the arresting cadence of Joseph’s video against wallpaper of White and Black nuns, are able to be with each other in terms beyond the expressly critical.
All the more powerful for having been given its own room is Arthur Jafa’s riveting film ‘The White Album’. An unswerving look into the world of white supremacy and MAGA, it combines online and self-generated content made by white users as they muse on what they (self-serving and incorrect) see as their own unfair experience of race in America. A creeping, ‘I’m not racist but…’ sentiment unfurls a parade of white fragility, exceptionalism and refusal to give up their privilege. These droning contradictions cut to a shocking self-shot, online video of a white man as he pulls am automatic rifle hidden in his trousers, along with 10 full magazines. The cold reality of the scene is awful. As if to anticipate that in watching the film the mostly European audience might consider itself apart from this action, the film cuts to a lone white woman working on a laptop in an art fair. What does art do in the face of all this? We might wonder. That the work had been recognized for the Golden Lion prize did little to abbreviate its answer: as more white faces look out like they’re looking at art trapped by ennui and hopelessness, the film cuts to the Clockwork Orange theme. It might ignore the connections between white supremacy and liberal exceptionalism but art does too well on the consequences.
Outside of the main exhibition in the national pavilions, the paralleling of worlds and realities, between a sort of bored hopelessness and cultural torsions, is more pronounced. Winning the Golden Lion for the best national pavilion, is the softly lulling opera of ‘Sun & Sea (Marina)’ Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė for Lithuania. Reclining singers on a fake beach gently intone about climate crisis, while the audience watches from above. To say it lacks urgency feels unfair but it is difficult to shake the sense of a European mourning of lost comforts. A similar tone, if of a different key, pervades the weird folklore of the animatronic characters of the Belgian pavilion (Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys’ ‘Mondo Cane’) and the inescapable, but doomy gentility of Cathy Wilkes’, gauze plinths, watercolour landscapes and ghostly lollipop-headed figures in the British pavilion. Though pushing undertones of social and domestic transgression, both pavilions seem content to amplify, rather than broach the parochialism of their content.
If the parallel worlds of these times allow some to engage in a ponderous almost denial-level solipsism, stranger still is the wildly apocalyptic Russian pavilion. Feeling like it had been curated by the RT news agency, and not the State Hermitage Museum, it riffs on the Gospel of Luke, the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ and a painting based on it by Rembrandt in a melodramatic riot of, paranoia, conspiracy and historicism. Two giant, statuesque feet guard a space that includes videos of soldiers tied to burning rope and urban landscapes riven by insurgent warfare and rivers of blood. This is relatively tame compared to the seething red ‘artist’s studio’ below, where articulated figures from the Flemish School rise up and down poles in a mawkish dance. If it is supposed to suggest an artist surrounded by the “turmoil and war of the modern world” it feels a bit pantomime.
Beyond the Giardini, in a former jail by San Marco’s square, Shu Lea-Chang’s more sober — though by no means dull—exploration of the construction of realities under states of surveillance, 3x3x6, is an unexpected relief from the overt national self-absorption of the main presentations. Titled after the standard three-by-three-metre architecture of industrial imprisonment, along with the exhibition’s six cameras, it includes ten videos of historical figures who had been incarcerated because of sexual or gender dissent. A central ‘panopticon’ tower of cameras, scanners and projectors, mix images from the film with those captured of visitors who, by entering the show, forfeit themselves to processing. Though this kind of technology-focused work can exclude those not interested in its mechanics, 3x3x6 manages to draw a complex line between histories of gender, sexual, racial and class exclusion and a contemporary ubiquity of image-based surveillance and prediction securitisation of public space. It holds everything in relation, undoing both the exceptionalism that had marked its protagonists as other, and breaking through the tendency of surveillance capitalism towards what Wendy Chun calls homophily (a love of the same). As Jack Halberstam puts it in a symposium accompanying 3x3x6, Chang’s work begins to ‘unbuild’ the deniability of technological violence, as always affecting someone else; as being ‘over there.’ This isn’t an ‘everything connected to everything else’ statement as a curatorial strategy to find an overarching meaning, but a call to action.
Despite the indecision of its May You Live In Interesting Times title, it would be unfair to claim that the biennale doesn’t offer a window onto a wider perspective of these fragmentary times. Various and parallel realities, crises, affinities and alliances crackle against Western views of a world unified under its principles, and punctuate its otherwise polite overview. It also, perhaps inadvertently, suggests a more telling encounter with the multiple and co-existing experiences of the same world, which although overlapping, increasingly take place as separate actualities. In many ways, the awards reflect both sides of the story here: Jafa’s ‘The White Album’film, with its clear vision of a world built on white supremacy, fragility and denial won the artist’s prize. That Lithuania’s beautiful staging of climate inertia winning the national pavilion prize could sit alongside Jafa’s suggests that incisive reflection is increasingly entirely necessary when ‘interesting’ could so easily be reverted to that art-world epithet, ‘I’m interested in xyz…’.
In some ways, this could have been the alternative truth biennial, with the curator’s text asking its visitors to question the ‘so-called facts’. There is, however, a limit. Christoph Büchel’s harrowing ‘Barca Nostra,’ which is in fact a migrant boat in which an estimated 1000 people were killed as it sunk in the Mediterranean. Raised and transported at great expense to the biennale, it stands as a misplaced coffin in a space that wants it to perform as a metaphor for where ‘we’ are at politically. It’s hard to see how this can be an art object, less still an aesthetic one positioned by a café towards the end of the Arsenale providing espresso for biennale-weary visitors. A piece of evidence in the European Union’s border war against outsiders—especially in Salvini’s Italy—maybe, but it seems particularly wrong that it has been treated as so arbitrary a symbol of the ‘context’ for fractured and fragmentary times.
If in the end the two propositions of the May You Live In Interesting Times exhibition feel a bit glib, presentations of what might be new, but which seem unable to resolve the problems that they want to, perhaps reveal philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s prognosis of interregnum: that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. But interrupting this are also a number of artists unbuilding the structures of supremacy and exclusion that fix these morbid symptoms as the new normal. It maintains a separation between worlds as vast as that between the international mobility of the superyacht class, and the lives of 1000 adults and children left to perish in the waters lapping at our feet.**