When in Venice

Ben Eastham’s guide on which pavilions to visit during the Biennale

By Ben Eastham

Venice. Courtesy ArtReview / Fi Churchman Renate Bertlmann, Zärtliche Berührungen (Tender Touches), 1976/2009, digital print mounted on Dibond, 97 x 96 cm. Courtesy the artist, Richard Saltoun, London, and Galerie Steinek, Vienna Berlin press presentation of the project by Natascha Süder Happelmann (Natascha Sadr Haghighian) for the Venice Biennale, October 2018. Photo: Stefan Fischer Eva Rothschild, Ruins, 2016, jesmonite, resin, spray paint, steel, 360 x 205 x 130 cm. Photo: Robert Glowacki. © the artist. Courtesy the artist; Modern Art, London; The Modern Institute, Glasgow; Kauffman Repetto, Milan; 303 Gallery, New York; and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich Voluspa Jarpa, Subaltern Portraits Gallery: Women of Vienna 3, 2019, from the series Altered Views. Photo: Rodrigo Merino. Courtesy the artist Shu Lea Cheang, CASANOVA X, 2019, 4K video, 10 mins. From the film series for installation 3x3x6 at the Taiwan Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019. Courtesy the artist. Shirley Tse, Lift Me Up So I Can See Better, 2016, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Photo: Gene Ogami. Courtesy of Shirley Tse and Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Los Angeles  Song-Ming Ang, Our Songs (detail), 2019, watercolour on paper, 70 x 100 cm (each). Courtesy the artist Jantsankhorol Erdenebayar, Molecular Vibration, 2018, inkjet print, glass and sand, 20 x 16 cm. Photo: the artist Driant Zeneli, Maybe the cosmos is not so extraordinary, 2019, two-channel video installation © the artist and prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, Milan_Lucca

The diehard politicos among ArtReview’s readers might have noticed that the pillars of Western liberal democracy are beginning, let’s say, to creak a little. Those of you who aren’t too busy stockpiling canned goods and toilet paper to pontificate about the crisis of the nation state might also have identified links to wider discussions around truth, identity and representation. The upshot is a popular imaginary dominated by enclosures, fortifications and tariffs, and a public discourse characterised by the welcome profusion of marginal voices and the less welcome proliferation of what might generously be called ‘unconventional perspectives’ on the news.

One of the aims (at least in ArtReview’s HO) of the Venice Biennale is to illustrate how culture intersects with the historical moment, so while the curator of this edition’s International Art Exhibition, Ralph Rugoff, has stated that ‘art does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics’, his title nevertheless seems to hint at the more insidious ways in which representations can shape the world in which we live. The phrase May You Live in Interesting Times came into circulation in the English language as a prototypical piece of ‘fake news’, a supposedly Chinese curse that came to exemplify the gnomic wisdom of an exoticised East. Which, of course, says more about the Orientalists who invented the phrase than the culture they purported to describe and against which sections of the West has defined itself.

The implication seems to be that not only actions but also expressions, interpretations and (mis)translations have consequences. So among the (exclusively living) artists that Rugoff has selected, it’s no surprise to see a number – including Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Ed Atkins and Hito Steyerl – who explore the way in which words and images materialise in the world. That each of the relatively small list of 79 artists will present separate and contrasting displays at the Arsenale and Giardini also invites the viewer to consider how context shapes the reception of a work. Which is grist to the mill of Stan Douglas and Jimmie Durham, who have for decades interrogated mediated identities, while photographers Rula Halawani and Zanele Muholi document sections of their societies (in Palestine and South Africa, respectively) as a means by which to catalyse change in them. The prevailing anxiety around the relationship between the represented and real might even seem to play out in the quiddity of sculptures by artists including Handiwirman Saputra or Nabuqi: there is something reassuring, in these paranoid-conspiratorial times, in the impression that something is unarguably and irreducibly what it is.

The breakdown of established definitions – and the categories they help to delineate – is also reflected in the preponderance of unreliable narrators, alter egos and slippery pseudonyms in the various national pavilions. This is territory familiar to France’s Laure Prouvost, an artist based for so long in England that her interviews in either language – in both cases conducted in an idiosyncratic franglais – might almost be interchangeable. Revolving around farfetched storylines that conflate biography and history, reality and fiction, her work is at once whimsical and antiauthoritarian. Mistranslation serving here not as a means of asserting control but of eluding it.

Also calling attention to the power vested in names, the artist formerly known as Natascha Sadr Haghighian will represent Germany under the Germanified moniker of Natascha Süder Happelmann. While drawing attention to historic causes for changes of name among immigrant communities, the intention more broadly seems to be to redistribute the authority conferred by the fetish for single authorship and in doing so to establish the conditions for a more collective approach to the production of art. ArtReview can’t really imagine what this will look like, in part because it was distracted at the press conference by the fact that Happelmann’s spokesperson was sporting what appeared to be a large papier-mâché stone on her head. In recent years, no country more than Greece has had a – what’s the word… ‘complicated’ relationship with Germany on political, economic and cultural levels, so it’s interesting that Panos Charalambous, Eva Stefani and Zafos Xagoraris have also chosen a conspicuously Teutonic name for the fictional character around whom their group show will, if ArtReview understands correctly, be based. ‘Mr Stigl’ is described in the press release as a ‘fantastical hero of an unknown story whose poetics take us to the periphery of official history, but also of reality’. And where better to escape the real world than Venice.

If you really want to get confused about the place of the nation state in a globalised and intricately networked world, of course, you need to speak to Great Britain. So it seems appropriate that a sovereign state that is actually four separate countries, only half of which voted to leave the European Union, has opted for Cathy Wilkes, an Irish artist born in the United Kingdom who previously represented Scotland at the 2015 Venice Biennale, this being the same Scotland that may soon devolve from the United Kingdom, feasibly after Wilkes’s native Northern Ireland has been absorbed into the Republic of Ireland (which is itself showing, incidentally, the London-based Eva Rothschild, whose posters for the Remain campaign adorned ArtReview’s windows during the ill-fated 2016 referendum) and thus back into the European Union, presuming the United Kingdom ever leaves (at time of going to press, ArtReview has not the first idea what’s going on). Which lends itself to a maybe too-neat comparison with the tendency of Wilkes’s sculptures and installations to run across the boundaries separating works of art from their surrounding environments, encouraging the visitor to cross or disregard them. But ArtReview is trying to squeeze in as many pavilions as possible here, so you should maybe give it a break.

some of the Biennale’s more straightforward critiques of the nation state can seem misguided, a little like mistaking the infrastructure for the ideology, or bewilderingly overdue, as if it had only recently become apparent that colonialism happened

In defiance of the increasingly outmoded ideal of nationhood that the Venice Biennale was founded to advance and to which Great Britain is so bizarrely attached, Ghana has chosen to focus instead on the diaspora as carrier of culture and identity. Featuring Felicia Abban, John Akomfrah, El Anatsui, Lynette Boakye-Yiadom, Ibrahim Mahama and Selasi Awusi Sosu in a pavilion designed by the London-based architect David Adjaye, with the late Okwui Enwezor having served as a ‘strategic advisor’ on the project, it seems possible that the pavilion might go some way to fulfilling its stated promise to look beyond the current ‘“postcolonial” moment into one we have yet to envision’. If the implication of a diaspora is that a nation extends beyond its geographical borders, then Ghana Freedom (the pavilion’s exhibition is named after a song celebrating the country’s independence) suggests that identity is at once a more fluid and a more resilient concept than essentialists on both sides of the culture wars would allow. 

In the light of which, some of the Biennale’s more straightforward critiques of the nation state can seem misguided, a little like mistaking the infrastructure for the ideology, or bewilderingly overdue, as if it had only recently become apparent that colonialism happened. Finland’s insufferably titled Miracle Workers Collective told ArtReview that they were ‘surprised’ that ‘anyone still thinks the nation state is a viable experiment in the organisation of humanity’. To express said surprise, they have dedicated themselves to ‘rearticulating the idea of a contemporary art exhibition’ at Venice, presumably on the principle that no one thought to do that before. Among those who might be surprised that anyone is only now questioning the validity of the ideas on which the nation state was founded might be the inhabitants of Chile, which has enlisted Voluspa Jarpa to interrogate the brutal histories and enduring legacies of European imperialism in South America.

Those legacies are frighteningly apparent in the recent political upheaval in Brazil, where a new regime justifies discriminatory policies by appeal to ‘old-fashioned’ values. So Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca’s representation of identity as a performance, here expressed through a video installation exploring the dance phenomenon known as swingueira, feels like a political statement. ArtReview was, incidentally, about to call swingueira and its associated scene a ‘subculture’ until it did some Internet research and realised that many more Brazilians participate in swingueira each week than are likely even to have heard about the Venice Biennale. Popular culture also inspires South Africa’s pavilion, a group show with a title alluding to the song (Something Inside) So Strong by Labi Siffre, recorded in 1987 as a protest against apartheid. Featuring Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose and Mawande Ka Zenzile, it promises a ‘critical engagement with South Africa’s collective past, present and future’ through forms including performance and dance. The implication is that a democratic postcolonial nation state must address the horrors of the past if it is to serve its more positive function as protector of its citizens against violence and guarantor of their human rights. Which lesson is reiterated by Kosovo, for whose pavilion Alban Muja will show a video installation that tells the stories of three children who fled the war-torn country in 1999. He told ArtReview that the project is “about addressing the past in the now in order to tell a story in a human way without focusing on guilt”, and “the power of narrative in times of conflict and after”.

The past also haunts the work of Dane Mitchell, whose citywide soundwork will play ‘an automated broadcast of the vast lists of things which have disappeared or become extinct’. Transmitted by cell-phone towers positioned across Venice and disguised as trees, a work devoted to what has been lost feels especially freighted in the wake of the terrorist attacks against a mosque in Christchurch. Speaking to ArtReview, Mitchell acknowledged the unexpected burden conferred by the eruption of far-right extremism in a country celebrated for its tolerance, noting that while “there is a timeliness and a universality to the concerns my work addresses… I’m certainly from somewhere – I’m Pakeha from New Zealand Aotearoa”. That local and universal concerns need not be mutually exclusive is the principle upon which, it might be argued, the Biennale depends. 

The relationship between global shifts in political opinion and their local expressions was described recently by Liz Kim, who wrote in ArtReview Asia that ‘nowhere in the world has the #MeToo movement had a more tangible impact than in South Korea’. Which teed up curator Hyunjin Kim to announce that three female artists will challenge the hierarchies of gender and power exposed by revelations in public life under the title History Has Failed Us, but No Matter (taken from Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel Pachinko). In using performance, film and video to reimagine East Asia’s historical narratives ‘through the lens of gender diversity’, Hwayeon Nam, siren eun young jung and Jane Jin Kaisen are following the lead of a number of historically neglected female artists now gaining wider recognition. Among them is the combative Renate Bertlmann, who told ArtReview that she is looking forward to “conquering” Austria’s pavilion. 

Situated in the sixteenth-century Palazzo delle Prigioni (‘Prisons’), Taiwan’s Shu Lea Cheang’s 3x3x6 takes its name from the standard metric volume of cells and uses ten case-histories of incarceration ‘due to gender, sexual, and racial nonconformity’ – among them Casanova, Foucault and de Sade – to explore histories of confinement and control. A combination of video, installation and computer programming will create a ‘maze’ of branching narratives through which the visitor will have to navigate their own path, aiming, according to curator Paul B. Preciado, to ‘invent new ways of feeling and desiring’ and undermining normative assumptions about what is ‘natural’ and what is constructed.

The meaninglessness of any distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘manmade’ is also reflected in the fact that we now live in the Anthropocene. Reflecting on the series of climate change-driven catastrophes suffered by Japan in recent years, Motoyuki Shitamichi’s Cosmo-Eggs takes for a starting point the ‘tsunami stones’ he first encountered in Okinawa in 2015. These rocks are imagined as repositories of memory ‘like public squares or monuments’, according to the artist, who is working with composer Taro Yasuno, anthropologist Toshiaki Ishikura and architect Fuminori Nousaku to create an environment conducive to their contemplation. In his ecstatic prose poems Roger Caillois famously called stones ‘l’orée du songe’ (the shore of dreaming); Shitamichi’s are likely to prompt more sober reflections on the world in which we live. 

How we relate to and imagine our disintegrating physical landscape is also the subject of Mark Justiniani’s project for the Philippines Pavilion. Island Weather will explore the different ways that the island ‘can be perceived and imagined: by evoking its geophysical characteristics, reflecting on how humans regard it as a place of origin, refuge, respite, or a location that may refer to the nation itself’. Shaped by themes of travel, colonialism, acts of seeing and frameworks of truth, the pavilion will showcase the longstanding interest of the artist – who has worked with activist groups and artist initiatives including ABAY (Artista ng Bayan) and the collective Sanggawa – in how perception shapes our understanding of reality. The histories of maritime exploration, empire and trade also shape Naiza Khan’s project for the Pakistan Pavilion. In a new work titled Manora Field Notes, the artist will delve into the history of the island of Manora, located off the coast of Karachi.

Australia’s Angelica Mesiti promises to use harmony, disharmony and polyphony as metaphors for the coexistence of different voices in a civil society might be understood as an oblique form of protest

The role of culture in nation-building, meanwhile, finds a more direct expression in India’s first pavilion since 2011 (and only its second ever), which will be devoted to the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. At time of writing the artists are yet to be announced, yet the curatorial team from Kiran Nadar Museum of Art promise that Our Time for a Future Caring will use the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth as an opportunity to reflect upon teachings that are ‘difficult to ignore in an increasingly violent and intolerant world’. Hope and despair might be expected to commingle in İnci Eviner’s installation for Turkey’s pavilion, which is addressed to the suffering caused by the displacement of populations from their native land. Aspiring to ‘evoke the sense of a search for the missing, the erased and that which is elsewhere’, the artist will fill the space with architectural elements that guide visitors towards encounters with displaced people and objects.

Few countries in the developed world are as hostile in their policies towards undocumented migrants as Australia, and so Angelica Mesiti’s promises to use harmony, disharmony and polyphony as metaphors for the coexistence of different voices in a civil society might be understood as an oblique form of protest. The artist, who has previously used large-screen videoworks to reflect on nonverbal communication from whistling to dance, describes ASSEMBLY as a ‘poetic, nuanced’ call for greater tolerance of difference. The pavilion is one of several at the Biennale to use sound as a means of addressing politics (an approach by analogy that is likely to be shared, if her recent work is a guide, by sculptor Shirley Tse’s new site-specific installation for the Hong Kong Pavilion).

At the Singapore Pavilion, for example, Song-Ming Ang will use the history of musical pedagogy to reflect upon the entanglement of culture and national identity in a recently independent country, while E. Jantsankhorol is building a makeshift recording studio that will allow artists including Carsten Nicolai to record and install sounds inspired by throat singing – which originated in Mongolia – over the course of the Biennale. Despite which, the prize for this year’s most difficult-to-envision-for-critics-trying-to-write-a-blind-preview pavilion goes to Indonesia on the strength of a press release announcing that Handiwirman Saputra and Syagini Ratna Wulan are creating an immersive installation featuring ‘a functioning Ferris wheel that visitors can ride, a smoking room and 400 lockers’. At the end of days spent traipsing round a sinking city and avoiding eye contact with other members of the artworld, that sounds like a dream.

On the subject of which, not that ArtReview is struggling at this point to find segues, artist Driant Zeneli dedicates Albania’s pavilion to the dwindling percentage of the world’s population who ‘still believe in dreams’, presuming that he means the type of dreams that end in the fulfilment of professional and romantic aspirations and not those in which you are hiding from a parasitic alien in the loading bay of a rusting spacecraft and only end when your concerned partner shakes you awake. A video installation telling the story of ‘five teenagers who find a cosmic sphere inside a factory in northeast Albania’ could go either way, in fairness, and it doesn’t take a huge leap to imagine that the recent resurgence of interest in science fiction, in the artworld and in the wider culture, might be related to a heightened anxiety about our real-world futures. Danica Dakić, of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is another whose work will explore the relationship between past and future, utopia and dystopia. Which brings us, purely by coincidence, to the United States. The selection of Martin Puryear begs the question of whether a sculptor whose work has often made oblique or coded reference to histories of resistance will use the stage to comment more directly on the political situation in his homeland.

Yet for all that these are ‘interesting times’, the degree and explicitness of the work’s engagement remains the artist’s prerogative, and Rugoff’s stated desire to separate art from the realm of politics might be intended as a means of preserving rather than diminishing its power to effect change. By resisting the temptation to align it with a political position, he leaves open the possibility that art can change how we think about the world in ways that aren’t presently accounted for. Which, if you’re only in Venice for the Bellinis, the yacht parties and the social climbing, might sound hopelessly naive. But if that is the case, then you’re probably not interested in seeing anything you don’t already know about anyway. 

From the May 2019 issue of ArtReview