Ambiguity reigns in the exhibition by Venice Art Biennale curator Ralph Rugoff

These are difficult times, but we can still believe that resistance is possible. This is the challenge set by the curator Ralph Rugoff through the works of 79 artists presented both at the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini in Venice.

Padiglione Centrale

The world we live in is not a nice place, and it could get worse. This is the sensation that visitors are given at the 58th International Architectural Exhibition in Venice. It is a Biennial that presents a disjointed and unstable society, where existential needs are ignored and a lack of empathy creates unease; where everything is filtered digitally and public debate appears lacking, individuals no longer know what they want, and the idea of being able to protest risks being lost.

We are in the era of hypermodernity, of post-truth, artificial intelligence and the digital spreading of fake news and “alternative truths”; ambiguity reigns, and it is a form of ambiguity that is evident right from the title chosen by the curator of the exhibition Ralph Rugoff, “May You Live in Interesting Times”. The phrase has apparently been cited by respected speakers since the beginning of the twentieth century as an ancient Chinese anathema, but in reality, there is no confirmation of this, a situation which these days sounds very familiar.

As in the past, the central exhibition of the Biennial is set in the 300-metre long area of the Corderie dell’Arsenale and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. The number of artists invited -79 - is slightly lower than in the past, but the curator Ralph Rugoff has chosen to strengthen their presence by exhibiting their works in both areas.

The entry to the Arsenale is immediately a declaration. The first work seen is the large painting Double Elvis by George Condo, where Elvis is Elvis Presley and the reference is to the double silk-screen portraits that Andy Warhol dedicated to him. But the glamour of the past is gone, and the king of rock is presented as a representative of a drunken and brutish humanity. The grotesque, the trivial and the paradoxical are recurrent elements in the exhibition.

With a sudden change of tone, this introduction is followed by a series of moving photographic portraits taken by Soham Gupta in Calcutta at night, among the most vulnerable inhabitants of the city. Derelict corners of Rome are also presented as contemporary city ruins further on, in the photographs by Anthony Hernandez.

Then we have the video 48 War Movies by Christian Marclay. 48 films of war, layered one on top of the other in a concentric pattern, become illegible and generate a sense of distance; the cacophony created by the overlaying of the soundtracks contributes to the disorientation. Other moments in the exhibition see a series of sound elements creating background noise.

Ralph Rugoff
Portrait of Ralph Rugoff, curator of “May You Live in Interesting Times". 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia. Photo Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

A little further on appears the livid face of a man crying hysterically, which alternates with that of a new-born baby also drowning in tears, as if to demonstrate that the suffering of life accompanies us from the moment of birth. It is Ed Atkins, who seems to be saying that the future is dead, as is hope. The pleasure of growing up and becoming an individual has left room for despair. As the visitor moves forward, both in the Arsenale and the section in the Giardini, it is ever clearer that the concept of freedom is losing substance, or is being obscured by violence, while subjects become prisoners of discomfort, anxiety, aggression or depression.

It is a vicious circle from which it is difficult to escape, and the consequences can be seen in the ungovernable and absurd aggression of the street scenes by the Uruguayan painter Jill Mulleady, or in the vital and colourful landscapes inhabited by violent figures painted by Michael Armitage. Teresa Margolles, who has received a special mention, brings to the space poster panels from Ciudad Juàrez, on which are glued photocopies bearing the faces of missing women, a direct and disturbing expression of the effects of the drug violence and violence in general that the city is known for.

Henry Taylor dedicates a series of paintings to Afro-American life and its hardships. Many other works examine this theme, including the video and installations by Arthur Jafa, who received the Golden Lion for best participant to the International Exhibition, and the video BLKNWS by Kahlil Joseph, for example, which presents an uninterrupted flow of images from the lives of American blacks: sections of home videos, digital memes, Instagram, YouTube and excerpts from the news, all heavily re-edited; a ready-made which highlights an open matter, but also comments on the fact that anything can be news.

Padiglione Centrale
Padiglione Centrale, Giardini, Venice. Photo Francesco Galli. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Fake news, to all intents and purposes a virtual entity if not for the terrible consequences it produces, and the digital filter which generates incommunicability rather than communication, are undoubtedly among the main common threads in the exhibition, in which, in effect, computer-generated language clearly dominates with often extraordinarily effective results.

One example is the series of films by Jon Rafman, who creates exciting stories set in a post-apocalyptic universe, with a language rich in references to the past, from Bosch to surrealism. This movement back and forth in time and the crossing of cultures is a characteristic of contemporary art. One only needs to see the videos and extraordinary sculptures by Cameron Jamie, which evoke tribal culture while referring to a tradition related to Christmas celebrations which is still a part of life in an Austrian Alpine town.

The American Darren Bader has created a mock travel agency which organises alternative tours of Venice; the Chinese Nabuqu exhibits a poster with palms and tropical beaches advertising a holiday in paradise, but it is created totally with Photoshop. This ironic approach does nothing to mask the seriousness of the matter, and in fact the impression is that of living in a completely dystopian world.

But resistance is still possible. This is the challenge set by the curator. One only needs to dive into the environmental installation by Shilpa Gupta For, in your tongue, I cannot fit: 100 microphones which serve as speakers, set out in the shadows of a large hall, play pieces by as many poets who have been imprisoned for their opinions and standpoints since the 7th century. The texts, read in their original languages, create an enveloping soundscape, and the message that they express is that while reality is shapeless and humanity is infirm, humankind has never stopped believing and fighting.

Black and white large-scale prints of Zanele Muhoi, are spread everywhere; images of the photographer and visual activist who for some time now has been fighting a battle for black lesbian women in South Africa. Muholi seeks the attention of the spectator by presenting herself directly, in a powerful manner and with a challenging air. Her decision to break with imposed invisibility and silence is clear. It is still possible to stand up against the emergence of social, racial and sexual hatred and the apparent breakdown of all power. The pervasive presence of her photographs throughout the exhibition is a powerful and proponent message that Ralph Rugoff has sought to express.

Opening picture: “May You Live in Interesting Times". 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia. Photo Giulia Di Lenarda

“May you live in interesting times"
Ralph Rugoff
58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia
Opening dates:
11 May – 24 November 2019

Special Biennale

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