Venice Biennale 2024: A Guide to the Giardini

Rise of the Sunken Sun, 2024 (installation view). Photo: Ugo Carmeni. Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

The Denmark, Spain, Bulgaria and Poland pavilions – reviewed

Kalaallit Nunaat artist Inuuteq Storch’s Denmark Pavilion is a revelation, and a totem for the Pavilion system at its best. Storch combines photography, photographic archives and installation to envelop you in an emotional and political history of the nation. Its execution is precise and unflashy, and yet wears its rigour lightly. ‘Necromancer’ in the first two rooms presents a series of small, black-and-white photographs on transparent acrylic sheets. In these coarse, high-contrast images, contemporary Kalaallit Nunaat (what settlers later called Greenland) is shown at human scale: the photographer follows a person underneath a wooden bridge, captured ducking icicles that hang through the slats, or is seen via their shadow falling long over the snow slashed with reeds; a truck sits centre-frame, while out-of-focus snowflakes – no, clumps – look like stars, or lint on the lens. These are less memories than postcards for a feeling or sensation. ‘Soon Summer Will Be Over’ documents in both softer monochrome and vivid colour the people, homes and activities of Qaanaaq (the northernmost town in the world) with such affection, humour and compositional dynamism. And in a darkened room of lightboxes, ‘Keepers Of The Ocean’ pairs intimate family portraits, taken freely without artifice or precision in their composition, with a selection from the archive of John Møller (1867–1935), the first Kalaaleq professional photographer, who, during the colonial era, photographed Danes, Europeans and Kalaallit people alike. The room is lit by the lives in these lightboxes, and a red light emanating from a mirrored semicircle, as if rising through the floor like the sun. Together, they demonstrate the power of the photographed image: not as a captured moment, but life – of a person and a nation – as a series of jigsaw pieces. Alexander Leissle

Migrant Art Gallery, 2024 (installation view). Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

The ambitious, dense and captivating Spain Pavilion presents hundreds of paintings and sketches, scientific and botanical illustrations, postcards and ceramic objects in an exhibition that addresses the various forms of violence underpinning the notion of a ‘universal’ museum while proposing an alternate institution in which silenced narratives, both human and nonhuman, are heard. The work of Peruvian-Spanish artist Sandra Gamarra Heshiki, identified as the first immigrant to be selected to represent Spain at the Biennale, Migrant Art Gallery opens with ‘Virgin Land’, a large gallery in which works found in Spanish cultural institutions, such as idealised landscape paintings of former colonies, are disassembled and interrogated through direct intercessions and overwriting with quotations from writers that highlight the cultural and ecological destruction inflicted on these lands. Four subsequent galleries, ‘Cabinet of Extinction’, Miscegenation Masks’, ‘Cabinet of Enlightened Racism’ and ‘Dying Life Altarpiece’, expand on these themes, addressing scientific expeditions, colonial practices of portraiture and representation, and outright plunder. Gamarra Heshiki’s presentation culminates in a majestic sixth space, the central volume of the pavilion. Titled ‘Migrant Garden’, here images of ten lifesize figures, both men and women, are printed on clear screens embedded in stonelike bases; these are accompanied by images of plants, and both sit atop woven mats. Textiles wrap some of these figures’ bases, and texts by thinkers such as Argentine-Brazilian anthropologist Rita Segato and activist and academic Silvia Federici are displayed as though just picked up or set back down. Gamarra Heshiki’s all-encompassing presentation for the Spanish Pavilion is a tour-de-force tackling decolonisation, restitution, migration, ecological destruction and sustainability. David Terrien

The Neighbours, 2024 (installation view). Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

You never see the former prisoners of Bulgaria’s Soviet-era labour camps in Krasimira Butseva, Lilia Topouzova and Julian Chehirian’s The Neighbours at the Bulgaria Pavilion. Instead their recorded testimony floats from the faithfully recreated furniture and fittings of the living rooms in which the interviews were conducted over the past 20 years. The former prisoners tell of finding themselves labelled enemies of the state, foreigners cast beyond the country’s psychic borders, of the persecution and the hardship. This could land as simple historical documentation of a particularly grim episode in Bulgarian country, but when the project was first shown in Sofia it was attacked by both the political left and right, neither sure how to weave the interviewees’ stories back into the national narrative. The pavilion is a lesson to today’s problems beyond Bulgaria: it is easy erase a group of people, bringing them back is harder. Oliver Basciano

Open Group — Yuriy Biley, Pavlo Kovach, Anton Varga, Powtarzajcie za mną (still), 2022. © Open Group

Repeat After Me II by the Ukrainian collective Open Group at the Poland Pavilion is an installation that consists of two videos, filmed in 2022 and 2024 respectively, in which Ukrainian people speak to camera, recounting memories or telling vignettes of life in wartime. In particular, what war sounds like. Part one has subjects staying in a camp for internally displaced persons in Lviv; part two’s subjects are in Europe, staying in temporary places for war refugees. Once they finish speaking, they begin to imitate the noises they hear, and the subtitles don’t go away. It’s like the most morbid game of karaoke, I thought. But it actually is: an array of microphones on stands line form a fence between us and the screen, staring out at us. So each time a subject finishes speaking, the final shot cuts to a few metres back, our narrators smaller but their locations clearer, and the sound goes. We, the audience, must make these sounds for them. Some participate boldly, many keep their silence; the discomfort of either is quite a thrilling challenge to the often passive nature of witnessing art about atrocity. From the artists, it’s an invitation to take part, not just to watch but to be physically present in the work, to use your mouth and vocal chords in the same ways as their subjects, you yourself imagining what war sounds like. It’s also a threat: if Russia were to succeed, and Ukraine razed, then nothing will sound like much at all – like the end of Open Group’s videos, the sound cuts but the words are still there. Alexander Leissle

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