2019 contemporary art Biennale in Venice: a well-curated show without the spark

Dominique Magada
Sep 13, 2019 · 6 min read
Lorenzo Quinn, Building Bridges, (he famously created the giant hand holding a crumbling palace on the grand Canal at the 2017 Biennale)

This year’s contemporary art Biennale in Venice had an ambitious proposition: examine current artistic production in the wider context of our troubled world and look at how art can challenge our pre-conceptions and open up to new ways of thinking.

The title May we live in interesting times, supposedly an ancient Chinese curse, makes reference to a late 1930s speech by UK Prime Minister Chamberlain, in which he described the chaotic state of the world on the eve of WWII. In that same speech, the then PM expressed it in these terms: “there is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us, we move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.”

By choosing such title, the Biennale curator, Ralph Rugoff, who is also the director of the Hayward Gallery in London, deliberately connected the 58th Biennale to world politics and current affairs. As he rightly pointed out, we can easily draw a parallel with our contemporary world as we move from crisis to crisis. However, what is read as a curse- may we live in interesting times- could also be read as a blessing, depending if ultimately one is an optimist or a pessimist. Isn’t it a privilege to live through times when history is unfolding in front of our eyes, and our world gradually dissolving to make way for a new state of affairs? It may be unsettling but isn’t it the best cure against boredom and repetitiveness and a trigger for heightened human emotions? The question here is not to analyse the saying but rather look at the promise it holds in terms of contemporary art display. Is current artistic production as selected in this year’s Biennale sufficiently challenging to open viewers to new systems of thought?

In my view, the show was perfectly curated with an even selection of artists from all over the world and a careful consideration for gender balance. In other words, it was rather politically correct. The main issues of today were tackled throughout the display, including climate change and the degradation of the environment, artificial intelligence and robotics, gender violence, migration, as well as the growing importance of the digital sphere. Nothing we didn’t know already. It felt like a Collective with individual works merging into a general impression, and the group taking precedence over the individual artist. Being a human person with my own sensitivity and taste, I preferred some artists and pieces over others (the list is too long to name them all, I will include some at the end of this article), however I never got the spark that a single work of art can sometimes ignite, that exhilarating feeling of our brain opening to a new vision. I did get it at previous Biennale, most notably in 2011 when I first saw the Clock by Christian Marclay and in 2013, when reading Carl Jung’s notebooks and seeing the artists inspired by him.

After visiting the Central pavilion in the Giardini on my second day at the Biennale (I always start with the Arsenale on the first day), I came out in a depressed mood, with a feeling of being flattened to the ground rather than uplifted by what I saw. Contrary to his predecessors, the curator had chosen to exhibit the same artists in the Arsenale and the Giardini. Even if showing a different style of work in each venue, the energy emanating from these artists was the same and maybe that contributed to me feeling that way. Not that all work of art should necessarily be uplifting, but if a show aims at expressing our world and be a mirror of life, then both the depressing and the uplifting, the negative and the positive should be represented, as in the old yin and yang philosophy. By focusing so much on the overall coherence of the show, it lacked a richness in the representation of our world. In a number of cases, particularly in video art, we were closer to a documentary than an art piece.

Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Maybe the Biennale as an institution is showing its limits here, being somewhat stuck into its own bubble of a world. I already got that impression at the previous one in 2017 themed Viva Arte Viva, which focused mainly on the art system itself. I don’t remember the individual pieces but I recall being annoyed at some of them. Even if it deals with contemporary art, the Biennale is part of the “old” world order, the very order it is trying to challenge. Born in 1895, one year before the Olympic games and at the height of the World Expo phenomenon, it is a result of the internationalisation spirit that started at the end of the 19th century (helped by faster transport and new forms of communication), and which continued throughout the 20th century. During that time, the Biennale was instrumental at promoting avant-garde artists and new artistic currents. As a consequence of its success, national pavilions were added to complement the international show, starting around 1910 with Belgium, Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France and Russia. Today, the structure is still the same with one international exhibition curated by an established figure from the contemporary art scene, and a plethora of individual shows organised by national countries to promote their own artists in their pavilion. However, the event has widely spread beyond its original venue in the Giardini into the nearby shipping Arsenale as well as into disused spaces scattered around the city. It is so vast that one would need a few days to view it all (and an absolute minimum of two to visit just the Arsenale and the Giardini).

Considering its historical link to politics and cultural policies, the Biennale’s model of functioning could also be questioned for the sake of the advancement of the arts. Can the Biennale keep its role of highlighting major turns in the history of art without falling into the trap of increased popularity and media visibility? Can it keep its independence in a world of dwindling public funding and rising power of global corporations in the arts? Judging by the 2019 Biennale, it is still a show of a high quality and a good place for anyone wanting to have a summary picture of contemporary art worldwide, however, like anyone else in our current “interesting times”, it is also at a risk of being shaken.

To conclude with Ralph Rugoff’s own words which emphasised the fashionable rhetoric of the importance of the viewer in art: “ Biennale Arte 2019 aspires to the ideal that what is most important about an exhibition is not what it puts on display, but how audiences can use their experience of the exhibition afterwards, to confront everyday realities from expanded viewpoints and with new energies”. Personally, I didn’t come out of it with an expanded viewpoint and new energies, but I still enjoyed many of the pieces I saw, which brings me to say that the quality of the work on display is also important.

Some of the artists and works I liked (as I discovered them through the rooms):

Anthony Hernandez, Pictures for Rome

Christine and Margaret Wertheim, Crochet corals

Shipta Gupta, For in your tongue, I cannot fit

Julie Merhetu

Lynette Yadom-Boakye at Ghana Pavilion

Subaltern portraits at Chili Pavilion

Yin Xiuzhen, Bookshelf no7

Henry Taylor, I became

Shakuntala Kulkarni

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Martine Gutierrez

Swinguerra at Brazil pavilion (the most uplifting!)

Mari Katayama (the Frida Kahlo of Japan)…….



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