May You Live in Interesting Times

First impressions of the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale

By Ben Eastham

Fictions change the way that people see the world and, by extension, how they act upon it. That Ralph Rugoff has chosen to make this point by selecting for the title of his exhibition a supposedly Chinese curse dreamt up to reinforce a Western caricature of the East as fundamentally ‘other’ suggests that the human capacity for telling stories is not always well-directed. With that context, the phrase May You Live in Interesting Times reads like a warning: don’t trust everything you read and see; don’t let anyone tell you what to think (much less a curator); beware the presumption that art should be an instrument of the greater good (without interrogating what underpins that version of the good).

That resistance of simple narratives is driven home by the selection of George Condo’s vast and violent Double Elvis (2019) to welcome visitors to the Arsenale, which hosts what Rugoff has called ‘Proposition A’ of his twinned exhibition. The inherent aggression of this spattered black-on-silver portrait of two gigantic bottle-clutching bums is exaggerated by the unpainted MDF walls on which it hangs, lending the artworld’s most prestigious showcase the impression of having been knocked together out of packing crates. In a sign of the jarring combinations that are a feature of the exhibition, this brutish work is joined in the opening room by the altogether more empathic work of Zanele Muholi and Soham Gupta, whose photographic portraits of individuals ostracised by society speak to a different understanding of the purpose served by art.

As with other of the curatorial decisions made here and in 'Proposition B' at the Giardini (which presents different work by the same set of artists), it’s a risk that doesn’t always pay off. Nuance is too often drowned out by a carnivalesque atmosphere, especially in those works that seem to play with violence and horror for the benefit of rubbernecking passersby (most notably in Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s schlocky contributions to both venues, including a giant robotic arm that frantically mops up a spreading pool of viscous red liquid, to the delight of Instagrammers seeking out a spectacle in front of which to snap themselves). To introduce so many different ideas and follow so few up will frustrate those who prefer an exhibition to develop a treatise rather than celebrate cacophony, and the jarring shifts of register and uncomfortable juxtapositions are too often disadvantageous to individual works (the paintings of Henry Taylor in the Arsenale, for instance, are unfairly diminished by the exhibition design and their proximity to notably inferior works in the same medium). But that Rugoff has created an environment which is rarely conducive to the disinterested aesthetic contemplation of a work of art strikes me as kind of the point: the constant interruptions to the visitor’s trains of thought are surely intended to be disruptive of any single interpretation of what the exhibition – and by extension what the art of today – should mean.

The most secure interpretation is that art should resist totalising systems of any kind. So it’s notable that the vaunted autonomy of high modernist forms seems everywhere to have been corrupted, from Lee Bul’s latticed metal transmission tower to Carol Bove’s twisting and crumpling of the implacable forms and immaculate materials of American minimalism. The title of the former (Aubade V, 2019) shares a sense of disillusion with Philip Larkin’s poem of the same name, with its celebrated characterisation of organised religion as ‘That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die’. Which couplet might also serve as a critique of art which pretends to universalism, transcendence or monolithic truth.

The impression of the hermetic seal separating art from the world having been broken, and the contents spoiled, is nowhere more striking than in the staging of Ed Atkins’ installation Old Food (2017) in the Arsenale, which takes a perverse kind of delight in art’s freedom from the responsibility of redemptive meaning. This disenchantment about the status of the artist in a world that can no longer support utopias also shines through Nicole Eisenman’s Achilles Heel (2014), a standout of the Giardini section. Proffering a downbeat vision of art that will chime with anyone suspicious of the innate grandiosity of the biennale format, a painting reminiscent of Philip Guston’s late work depicts a man sitting at a dimly lit bar poking at a malleable lump of wax or clay. It’s a vision of what it means to make art far removed from the glamorous vapidity and righteous proselytising that mark the two ends of the artworld’s wide spectrum of beliefs and attitudes.

The reluctance to try and tie up its many loose ends is at once a strength and weakness of the exhibition, and means that there is little point in trying to do the same in this brief recapitulation of first impressions. There is a lot of bad work in the exhibition amidst the very good (in which latter camp are Hito Steyerl’s paean to imaginative speculation This is the Future, Alex da Corte’s delightfully absurdist video installation and the powerful counternarrative video collages of Arthur Jafa and Kahlil Joseph, all of which warrant more substantial readings). Under pressure of deadline, and at risk of seeming to take a moral from a show that resists them, perhaps the exhibition might serve as a reminder that resisting the seductions of simple narratives means learning to live with incoherence.