Ralph Rugoff’s 2019 Biennale exhibition, ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ is powerful, refreshing and most of all, comprehensible. Known for creatively tackling exhibitions featuring diverse artists and complex themes, the Hayward Gallery Director sought to show artists whose works were “multivalent” and “richly ambiguous.” Work that “could deal with paradox and contradiction” and that “could be interpreted in different ways by viewers.”(1) To do so, he has divided the two venues, the Giardini and the Arsenale, into two separate exhibitions each featuring the same 72 artists each showing two distinct bodies of work.
This format was a welcome reprieve from an exhibition that is often unfathomably large with venues that are mazelike at the best of times. Encountering the same artists across both the venues truly allows the audience a greater opportunity to engage with the work on a deeper level. This creates an experience much more profound than any once-off confrontation amidst the rabble – which can so often be the case. Encountering and re-ncountering the artists’ practices in different presentations under a consolidating umbrella allows the audience to get to know each artist, their work, their motifs and their position within the greater global context.
Another attribute of Rugoff’s Biennale is his motivated and focused use of “living artists”. There has been an overarching propensity within the art world of revisionist curating around the recognition and reconciliation of deceased artists. This was largely embraced in Christine Macel’s 2017 exhibition, but Rugoff has worked with living artists alone. His curatorial rationale being that the Biennale is “something that can address this moment, rather than having to address who deserves to be addressed in the history books.” This resolve has paid off. By working with “artists who were making work that in one way or another responded to the times we live in”, he has succeeded in creating an exhibition that feels vivacious, sincere and pertinent. It is invigorating to experience all these artists of our time in dialogue with themselves and each other in such an in-depth way. Rugoff has demonstrated his integrity as a curator by, as the fastidious critic Jerry Saltz states, placing “his trust in the art of the present in ways that too many curators have avoided of late.” Saltz put it sublimely by saying:
“Working in the interstices between the present and the future, Rugoff is showing what art might be if seen as an active part of society; something aspiring to ideals, putting out positive or urgent messages.”
(2) Rugoff’s exhibition truly presented an outstanding assemblage of work, across medium, concept, race and geographical location. Artists of all levels, nationalities and tiers of recognition occupied equal exhibition space. The artists were selected for the adventurousness with which they embrace and experiment with highly varied approaches to art-making and their ability to reimagine the possibilities of our contemporary crises. In this way, Rugoff has succeeded in staying true to the ambitions he set out for this years Biennale. In doing so, in successfully presenting work that is multivalent, ambiguous and of our time, it was predestined that questions of environment, ecology and climate change would emerge. We’ve taken a look at where we saw these questions being asked across the Giardini and Arsenale.
(1) Rugoff, Ralph, Ralph Rugoff on why the 2019 Venice Biennale has a ‘split personality’, The Art Newspaper (29/04/19)
(2) Saltz, Jerry, Ralph Rugoff is creating a Venice Biennale for right now, The Art Newspaper (29/04/19)
In a show-stopping room filled with a monumental work by Nairy Baghramian, George Condo, Julie Mehretu and Henry Taylor, Jimmie Durham’s eponymous slab of stainless steel framed rock, Black Serpentine (2019), presents a composed air of fortitude. A closer look exposes a dichotomy as the artist’s anthropomorphising comments reveal the sordid reality of its existence. Just as the artists who share this room are known for their aptitude in layering interpretations, Durham’s majestic slab of rock alludes to western developments’ oppression of underdeveloped countries and exploitation of natural resources. The work asks viewers to take a second look, not to rely on first opinions or surface value to draw conclusions and hopeful solutions to our global resource abuses. This theme of double meanings continues throughout the Biennale exhibition.
Within this shared searching for alternative perspectives and reimagined possibilities are works that take new lines of exploration by transporting the viewer to alternative worlds. Dominique Gonzalez-Forester uses speculative fiction as a tool for imagining different futures, pasts and presents. At a time when a looming climate crisis threatens life on earth, her attention has turned to Mars. Triggered by the human conquest of mars conceptualized in the novel The Martian Chronicles (1950), Gonzalez-Forester has created a lifelike martian landscape. Cosmorama (2018) is a realistic diorama of painted background and sculptural rocks. A Trompe-l’oeil that invites viewers to imagine themselves living within this desolate vista, a substitute for the earth they currently inhabit.
Tomás Saraceno’s entire practice and research is nourished by myriad worlds. His Arachnophilia Society, Aerocene Foundation, community projects, and interactive installations explore sustainable ways of inhabiting the environment by bridging disciplines (art, architecture, natural sciences, astrophysics, philosophy, anthropology, engineering) and sensitivities. The Spider/Web Pavilion 7 (2019) is a stand-alone palatial building. Separate from the main exhibition, viewers access a necromantic world of oracles, divination and arachnomancy. Within the dark interior, orientation is lost, senses are bewildered and the crepuscular glow of spider web silk guides the way. In an era of ecological upheaval, Saracento encourages us to attune our perspectives to other species and systems and to engage with hybrid and alternative ways of inhabiting our shared planet.
Towards the end of the Giardini pavilion in a shadowy room, large acrylic panels are suspended from the ceiling. Visually striking, they house a locally sourced and grown Winogradsky culture (3). They form a staging of Anicka Yi’s enquiries into Biologizing the Machine. The work transforms over time, responding to its surroundings through embedded AI systems that, activated by unique bacteria, impact growth in the ecosystems. Yi’s second large installation hangs at the conclusion of the Arsenale. This time it is biomorphic sculptures created with algae and resemblant of a luminous chrysalis. Both works, suspended between life and decay, remind us that all species are intrinsically linked and no one is exempt from today’s urgent ecological and technological questions.
(3) An ecosystem of bacterial biofilm and microalgae colonies named after the Russian microbiologist Sergei Winogradsky.
Entering the Arsenale, a sobering sentiment is immediately established through a seemingly endless stretch of Soham Gupta’s tenebrous photographs. First encountered in a blackened corner of the Giardini, where the ghostly portraits become the ushers for the Arsenale exhibition. Gupta’s series Angst engages Kolkata’s most vulnerable inhabitants. Gupta’s photographs vividly express the various shades of humanity created by the city. On the opposing wall, Anthony Hernandez’s photographs of disastrous municipal defamation create a stark contrast through hard unsentimental depictions of failed urban renewal. His images contain no people, but discarded city wastelands. The content is different from Gupta, but the missive of the cruel, abrasive and unmaintainable impact of urban life on the earth and humans is the same.
Sculpture took precedent in filling the Arsenale’s cavernous interiors. From the intricate and ephemeral to robotics and stone, 3D work permeated the industrial space. Lee Bul’s Aubade V (2019) is a modernist tower based on universal and utopian design. The beacon is its entity and beams LED bulletins referencing the Earth’s axial tilt. These communications seem to imply that the planet will survive despite the catastrophic climate upheaval that is now only just beginning. There is something sardonic and jolting about this counsel on climate being preached by a robotic machine. Starkly contrasting in figuration, material and intensity, yet in tête-à-tête with Bul’s utopian robotics, is Otobong Nkanga’s twenty-five metre long Veins Aligned (2018). Formed of fleshy toned glass and marble, the mellifluous work is a metaphorical representation of the artist’s description of landscape as a body. Like a body, it makes space for the seed to grow within in, which nourishes and provides, but which is plundered, scarred and poisoned. This allegory becomes almost literal with clouds of milky white, rust orange and black courses through the marble river, suggesting chemical pollution.
The intricate, enigmatic installations created by Christine and Margaret Wertheim are initially introduced within a dark chamber of the Giardini. However, it is in the Arsenale that these sculptures reach exultation. Entering Crochet Coral Reef is stepping into a marine biologists aquarium. With mathematical equations and formulas scrawled across a blackboard and fascinating phosphorescent coral samples glowing from within glass tanks. Except, this coral is made from components such as yarn, beads, felt, wire, dollies and old videotapes. These crochet woollen reefs contributed to by over 10,000 participants, denote untold hours of making, stitch by stitch, pointing towards the centuries of slow accretion that create living reefs, home to so many diverse animals and plants. The three-dimensional models are an elegant alliance of science and art. This body of work makes a series of conceptual leaps: with its starting point in mathematics, it reaches out to the ecosystems of living reefs, connects to urgent questions of global warming and oceanic plastic waste, while demonstrating the potential of evolutionary collaborative processes that cross borders and languages.
The work in this Biennale asks the viewer to reimagine the possibilities for thinking about contemporary crises such as climate change and ecology. The work does not offer conclusions on these coeval matters of concern. Instead, it challenges existing habits of thought, ambivalently opening up our readings of widely varied objects and pictures, scenarios and situations. It asks us to pay attention to, and be proactive within, these interesting times in which we live.
By Pamela Lee for Informality