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Venice Biennale part 1: Overview

As I write this, it’s reported Huawei is to be blocked by Google from using its apps on the company’s phones. Like some predictable terror-movie plot line, the beef is apparently over the issue of possible espionage. Google is complying with an order from the US president, so this may not actually be an internal directive, but it is not the first – if certainly the biggest – firm to distance itself from the Chinese telecoms giant. In December last year, the UK’s BT stopped using Huawei-made equipment in its 4G mobile networks, while several governments have vetoed use of such in the pending roll-out of 5G. Hardly the most concerning of developments, perhaps, given all that’s going on in the world, but it is an interesting one. Lest we forget political tensions are being played out on all available platforms.

The title of the 58th Venice Biennale, ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’, is not the old Chinese proverb it appears to be, but a fictional saying best-known for being referred to in some key political speeches as something of a curse. “Interesting” is a useful word in this context given that it potentially covers everything from plague and pestilence to the best moments of human endeavour. It also implies a toss-of-the-dice absence of choice; that there will always be those destined to simply survive interesting times, and those with enough freedom and security to arbitrate on how interesting those times were. One would hope the precarious present isn’t dominated by complacent thinking, though clearly there are big issues we are not taking seriously enough.

And all are tackled here in a variety of forms: from climate change and drug resistance, to robotic process automation and AI; ownership of the datasphere and its impact on civil liberties; or the wilful ignorance of conflicts beyond our doorstep. As The Smiths once sang: “How Soon is Now?” How close do we actually have to be to the worst of times before we get past our heavily styled, ludicrously knee-jerk social-media outrage and actually get engaged? Proximity is key but, as consumers of the bits-and-pieces economy, distance – between fact and fiction; reality and the contextual frameworks through which we experience it – is becoming increasingly hard to gauge.

As TV director Russell T. Davies said when interviewed by the Independent about his excellent and mildly terrifying new BBC drama ‘Years and Years’, which imagines life in Britain 15 years into the future: “Real life is far madder than anything I could imagine. I could have sat there typing for a million years and I would never have come up with Donald Trump standing in a gold room with a thousand hamburgers. Life is far more insane than anything you can invent.”

And at the opening of the ‘art Olympics’ the threat of real life breaking through heavy curtains, seeping between the beautiful cracks in ageing architecture and knocking over velvet ropes is ever-present. As you would expect from a truly international presentation of contemporary art, the issues of the day range in scale, cultural specificity and complexity, with the potential to be drowned in the machinations of the spectacle, but also the agency to bob up again elsewhere between the Giardini, Arsenale and the many collateral project sites. A moment like this surfaces when walking past the empty Venezuelan pavilion but, word is (in the preview week), the team is actually on its way, just a little late to the party.

It’s strange, too, to be considering many serious personal and political positions in such an unapologetically elite playground, and in such numbers. Something that needs to be pushed aside to negotiate the work, but is hard to ignore, especially after a couple of days of traipsing and observing the less obvious details of the status quo. The footfall seems heavier this year, possibly as a result of the new buy-in option for preview tickets, possibly just because it’s been a while since 2015, my last VB. It’s not exactly the ideal way to experience art, with all the queuing and moments of feeling as though you are in a perpetual state of tripping over someone else’s sense of spatial entitlement and privilege. And being on the deck of a ship even when on terra firma. The minor moans of an invited ingrate.

Because, of course, I’m in attendance, loving every minute of being back in stunning Venice with friends and unavoidably wearing my own white, female, Brexit-weary privilege (likely in need of checking). And there’s an awful lot of good art to see that will deliver the viewer into extraordinary, joyfully/critically LOL and necessarily uncomfortable territories: in some of the pavilions and absolutely in Ralph Rugoff’s inclusively eclectic assembly of known and many vital artists working in all media* under the Western-art radar. It’s a fantasy football-league sample of the international art smorgasbord, expansive enough to help level the playing field between enthusiast and expert, and pique the research interests of both for time to come. Hopefully that’s also why we return – to be moved, challenged, educated – not just to insta the fact of being present (in our best clobber), pitch our skills to the power players in town and party on free booze like it’s the last night on Earth.

* Though am personally thrilled at the decent amount of great painting in the mix.


Giardini, Venice, May 9, 2019

Nabuqi, China: Do real things happen in moments of rationality?, 2018 (Central Pavilion, Giardini)

Sun Yuan and Pengu Yu, China: Can’t Help Myself, 2016 (Central Pavilion, Giardini)

May You Live in Interesting Times Giardini poster (detail)

Shilpa Gupta, India: Untitled, 2009 (Central Pavilion, Giardini)

Still from ep. 1. Years and Years, BBC ©

Jon Rafman, Canada: Disasters Under the Sea (still), 2019 (Central Pavilion, Giardini)

Theresa Margolles, Mexico: Muro Ciudad Judrez, 2010 (Central Pavilion, Giardini)

Larissa Sansour, Palestine: In Vitro, 2019 (Danish Pavilion, Giardini)

Ulrike Müller, Austria: Container, 2018-19 (Arsenale) © Ulrike Müller/Storgram

Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys: Mondo Cane, 2019 (Belgian Pavilion, Giardini)

Julie Mehretu, Ethiopia: Under the Lowest (N.S.), 2018 (Central Pavilion, Giardini)

Christopher Kulendran Thomas, Sri Lanka, in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann: Being Human, 2019, Time, Forward!, V-A-C Foundation, Venice © Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti

Carol Bove, Switzerland: Ariel, 2017 (Arsenale)

Alex Da Corte, USA: Rubber Pencil Devil, 2018 (Arsenale)

Hito Steyerl, Germany: Leonardo’s submarine, 2019 (Central Pavilion, Giardini)

Atek Atoui, Lebanon: The GROUND, 2018 (Arsenale)

Ibrahim Mahama: A Straight Line Through the Carcass of History, 2019 (Ghanaian Pavilion, Arsenale)


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