REVIEW: The 58th Venice Biennale

By Serene Fu

May You Live in Interesting Times, curated by Ralph Rugoff, the American director of London's Hayward Gallery, is the title of the 58th Venice Biennale. Capitalising on a false Chinese proverb to represent 'menacing times' and 'fake news', this year's exhibition resonates the world over as it attempts to capture the cultural zeitgeist.

The open-ended title enables the 79 artists participating in the main group show to cover an array of issues contingent to our time. It reflects on tensions surrounding race, immigration, populism, authoritarianism, the environment, and other contemporary anxieties. The biennale, which 
runs from 11 May - 24 November 2019, also explores the complexity of history while challenging oversimplification. 

Rugoff showcases two different works by each artist ー one in the Arsenale and the other in the Central Pavilion (Giardini). The curated exhibition also sees an upsurge in female artists (over 50% are women), producing the most visually intricate and meaningful pieces ー from paintings to photography and 3D printed sculptures to conceptual art using ready-mades.

Here are my highlights and observations from the main exhibition in the Arsenale and Giardini.


George Condo, Double Elvis, 2019

Acrylic, gesso, metallic paint and pigment stick on linen

The show begins in the Arsenale with American contemporary artist George Condo's Double Elvis. Unlike Warhol's Double Elvis, which features an overlapping figure of the singer pointing a gun, Condo's piece presents two cartoonish men clinking bottles, celebrating friendship.

Slavs and Tatars, Dillio Plaza, 2019. Mixed media

The work appears to be in dialogue with Polish-Iranian duo Slavs and Tatars' green fountain, Dillio Plaza, which, at the opposite end of the hall, spouts a liquid reclaiming the Turkish origins of fermentation first used by nomadic tribes to preserve drinks. It is an ironic work with a strong undertone of resistance to the western world which has historically considered nomadic tribes as 'barbarians' and 'foreigners'.

Nevertheless, many visitors may interpret all this as having a merry old drink at both the start and end of the hall, a positive note to put aside differences for the sake of dialogue.

George Condo, Facebook, 2017-2018
Acrylic, oil and pigment stick on linen, in 3 parts (Giardini)

In the Giardini itself, Condo once again muses about friendship and relationships. Facebook (2018) consists of distrustful looking faces packed in a Guernica-like composition, emblematic of the pervasive impact of social media.

Painting shines through

Narrative paintings with engaging details eclipse abstract pieces.

Paintings by Jill Mulleady, 2018

Paintings by Jill Mulleady, 2019 (Giardini)

Swiss-Uruguayan artist Jill Mulleady is a highlight. In the Arsenale, inspired by Edvard Munch's The Frieze of Life, she unveils a line-up of canvases with eerie scenes of street crime and chaos. The Fight was Fixed depicts a creepy red-eyed dog mauling a police figure, infusing the piece's yellow tones with a sense of apprehension and suspense. Over in the Giardini, Mulleady's purple-tinged works are also distinguishable and draw viewers closer.

Nicole Eisenman, Weeks on the Train, 2015 (Giardini)

Abstract sculpture heads by Nicole Eisenman

Applying a brighter palette, American artist Nicole Eisenman's figurative works are colourful and dreamy even though her subjects are also absorbed in their own little worlds, surrounded by gadgets or plugged to a headset. Further along, in the Arsenale, Eisenman presents odd head sculptures.

Haris Epaminonda, VOL. XXVII. 2019, Mixed media installation

Silver Lion Award winner, Cypriot artist Haris Epaminonda, presents work based on ready-mades. Primarily a conceptual artist, she puts together found objects and images to construct a collage of fragmented memories and histories, and it is precisely her choice of materials that makes a difference. Comprising ancient figurines, ethnic vases, columns, furniture and paper boards arranged in groupings on the floor, her work's unusual aesthetic enables viewers to reimagine the context in their own individual ways.

Presence of the body

Many female artists continue to use their bodies to investigate issues of gender, personal identity and history.

Lara Favaretto, 5 parts, 2019 
Blocking. Buffering. Dragging. Overburning. Sniffing. Concrete

Lara Favaretto, Thinking Head, 2017- 2019 Fog at the façade of the Central Pavilion (Giardini)

Italian artist Lara Favaretto dips her body into wet cement blocks to leave traces of her own bodily movements. In constructing her monumental slabs, she reveals the futility of human endeavours. In contrast to her concrete pieces in the Arsenale, she produces clouds of steam rising from the roof in the Central Pavilion. The patterns of steam shift constantly to convey the mutability of the future. 

Martine Gutierrez, image from the Body En Thrall series from Indigenous Woman magazine, 2018

C-print mounted on Sintra

Martine Gutierrez, image from the Body En Thrall series from Indigenous Woman magazine, 2018

C-print mounted on Sintra

The self-portrait photography of American artist Martine Gutierrez, a transgender Latinx, deserves particular attention. Taken from a self-invented art magazine titled Indigenous Woman, she depicts high-fashion images of herself surrounded by male mannequins alongside fake ads and brands. Her works deliver a humourous critique of pop culture and gender binaries.

Mari Katayama, Shells, 2016; Dolls and Boxes

Onlookers gazing a self-portrait photograph by Mari Katayama (Giardini)

Similarly inspired by renowned American artist Cindy Sherman, is Japanese artist Mari Katayama. Her works encapsulate the beauty of her amputated image camouflaged in a world of make-believe, with materials such as textiles, seashells, prosthetics, and soft sculptures that resemble her body.

Alexandra Birchen, ESKALATION, 2016 
Latex, nylon tights, ladders, cotton fabric, thread, coat hangers, polyester wadding

Alexandra Birchen, 1199, 2019 (Giardini)

On a different note, German artist Alexandra Birchen appears to suggest the extinction of human bodies as a way of self-redemption. At the Arsenale, ESKALATION features 40 latex figures climbing and hanging on ladders as though they aspire to reach for heaven. Over in the Giardini, a motorcycle is sharply cut in half, revealing its 'innards'. Both works indicate an incorporeal transformation process that is free from bodily pain and suffering.

Integrating artificial intelligence (AI)

Ed Atkins, Old Food, 2017-2019, Video installation

Ed Atkins, Old Food, 2017-2019, Video installation

Birchen's concept coincides with many experimental arts deploying artificial intelligence. In Old Food, British digital artist Ed Atkins spurs us to question the possibility of a post-human future in which human existence becomes incorporeal and food is superfluous. The uncanny images of a sandwich made of skulls and skeletons, as well as his avatars, generated by artificial intelligence in the 'form' of a crying baby and a weeping man on HD digital screens, are provocative and reflect anxieties about being overtaken by smarter-than-human AI.

Ian Cheng, BOB (Bag of Beliefs), 2018-2019
Artificial life form, infinite duration

More and more art is integrating with AI and the latest technologies in live simulation, virtual reality and mobile game programming. The number of digital artists or concepts featured in this edition of the biennale is unprecedented. American artist Ian Cheng's BOB (Bag of Beliefs) captures the ongoing live performance by an artificial life form whose behaviour is impacted collectively by participants joining the game via a mobile app. The audience can observe the organic movement of the creature on a LED wall.

A voice against violence

From issues of borders and migration to human rights and racial discrimination, many artists are willing to play a role in the sphere of politics, at the same time challenging the claim that political art lacks subtlety.

Shilpa Gupta, For, in your tongue, I cannot fit, 2017-2018 

Sound Installation with 100 speakers, microphones, printed text and metal stands

Indian artist Shilpa Gupta's sound installation For, in your tongue, I cannot fit, is a critique on political censorship. In a dimly-lit room, a grid of microphones plays recordings of words by 100 dissident poets from the 7th century to the present. Punctured by a pointed stick, each sheet has a verse in the language of the individual's home country printed on it ー Arabic, Azeri, English, Hindi, Russian and Chinese ー to convey the voice of the tortured poet.

Christian Marclay, 48 War Movies, 2019

Single-channel video installation, colour, stereo sound, continuous loop

Christian Marclay, acclaimed for his 24-hour durational film The Clock, dazzles with powerful visuals and audio in his 48 War Movies. The films overlap each other so that only the outer edges are visible. The incessant flickering screens and screeching sound pointedly mirror ongoing wars.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Synchronicity, 2018 Video installation. Single-channel video, sound, lightbulb, projector shutter, microphone, aluminium

Likewise, Synchronicity by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is more about experiencing than watching. The installation vividly renders a horrifying nightmare of death and reincarnation. Projected onto a slanted wall with a mysterious hole, the video unveils a woman lying in bed, slowly catching fire. Weerasethakul's collaboration with Japanese artist Tsuyoshi Hisakado accentuates the hallucinatory atmosphere, making the piece absolutely brilliant.

Hito Steyerl, Leonardo's submarine, 2019 (Giardini)

German-Japanese artist Hito Steyerl's immersive three-screen video installation is also a must-see. The 9.5 minute-long screening of Leonardo's submarine imagines a fictional journey under the Venetian waters to explore da Vinci's secret code. In the end, a mysterious woman with an enigmatic smile appears, suggesting da Vinci's foresight to deliberately hide his invention in order to save it from military use. 

Yin Xiuzhen, Trojan, 2016-2017

Steel frame, used clothes

It is also impossible to miss some gigantic sculptures as one walks through the 300 metre-long Corderie of the Arsenale. One of the most prominent pieces is a passenger curled in an emergency landing position by Beijing artist Yin Xiuzhen.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Can't Help Myself, 2016 

Kuka industrial robot, stainless steel and rubber, cellulose ether in coloured water, lighting grid with Cognex visual-recognition sensors, acrylic wall with aluminium frame. (Giardini)

The kinetic installations of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, an artist duo from China, who subtly critique abuse of power and the menace of totalitarianism, are also gripping. The sound of this industrial robotic arm, mopping red blood-like liquid in a vitrine, is gentle yet angry. The duo's other work is housed in the Giardini ー a hose protrudes from the centre of a white marble chair, erratically whipping every side of the vitrine. Occasionally, the sudden whipping of the machine will cause the audience to shriek with excitement.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Dear, 2015. Air pump, air tank, hose, chair 

The black experience

A strong cohort of artists reflects on the black experience.

Arthur Jafa, Big Wheel I, 2018. Big Wheel II, 2018
Chains, rim, hubcap and tyre

African American artist Arthur Jafa's chain-wrapped black tires, Big Wheel I, Big Wheel II and Big Wheel III are metaphors about the lives of black Americans, their subjugation and rebellion. The monumental sculptures also symbolise the automobile industry, which had once provided a livelihood for many black Americans. One of the tyres, seven-foot-tall, hovers from the gantry and alludes to the hangings of blacks in America's shameful past.

Combining found internet footage and his own footage, Jafa's The White Album exposes racism, white privilege and white supremacy in America while also tenderly depicting people close to Jafa. The Golden Lion award winner is acclaimed for his artful juxtaposition of video segments and his unbiased stance.

Arthur Jafa, The White Album, 2019
Single-channel video projection, colour, sound

Henry Taylor, Another Wrong, 2013 (Giardini)

Other highlights include Henry Taylor whose paintings address the suffering and evil experienced by the black people. Kahlil Joseph's BLK NWS project brings up-to-date the multiple aspects of black American life with live-stream video.

Kahlil Joseph, BLK NWS, 2018-ongoing
Two-channel video installation, colour, sound

Zanele Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, 2012-ongoing

The giant black-and-white portraits by South African artist-activist Zanele Muholi, appear in multiple locations. Dressing up in different outfits to play with different personas, her works explore black lesbian and gay identity.

Otobong Nkanga, Veins Aligned, 2018
Marble Lasa Veneto Fior di Melo, Murano glass and paint. Total length 25.9 m

Many works by black artists also explore wider issues. Nigerian artist Obotong Nkanga, awarded a special mention at the biennale, suggests the danger of chemical pollution with her 26-meter long Vein Aligned installation. Alluding to the exploitation of natural resources, the fleshy toned glass and marble piece meanders the exhibition hall of the Arsenale.

Final thoughts

Although critics of this year's Venice Biennale have mentioned that it is too general and that some works are lack-lustre, supporters see it as an inclusive, cutting-edge and stimulating biennale laden with virtual reality or live simulation gaming works and immersive videos. I personally find Rugoff's biggest success comes in the form of lesser-known artists,  including Haris Epaminonda and Alexandra Birchen, who outshine many of the art world's biggest names.