High Water

Suzanne Hudson on the last days of the 58th Venice Biennale

Laure Prouvost, “Deep see blue surrounding you,” 2019. Installation view, French pavilion, Venice. All photos: Suzanne Hudson.

THE RAINS WERE BIBLICAL, justifiably accusatory. In a remarkable occurrence, the lagoon overtook most of the city, flooding the chamber on the Grand Canal where Veneto’s right-wing regional council had, minutes before, just rejected measures to fund renewable energy sources and minimize plastic use, among other climate-change proposals. Images of waterbuses beached near a drowned Saint Mark’s Square made the rounds, with some vessels conspicuously bearing bubblegum-pink ads for the fifty-eighth edition of the Venice Biennale: “May You Live in Interesting Times.” The Peggy Guggenheim Collection closed, as did both Pinault Collection spaces (the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana). The Biennale vowed to reopen without delay, and they did, an incentivized act of pragmatism a week before the show’s finale. Some of the exhibition was already deinstalled, most poignantly in this context Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė’s Lithuanian pavilion, “Sun & Sea (Marina).” It had ended in October, when the sun literally set on the Golden Lion–winning indoor beach. Before closing, operatic sunbathers warned of the final reckoning—“like a pop song on the very last day on earth” was how the pavilion’s organizers put it—in a canny updating of the apocryphal story of Nero fiddling unconcerned while Rome burned.

For what endured in the Giardini, the horrible sublimity of immanence supplanted allegories of empires lost. In the French pavilion was Laure Prouvost’s “Deep See Blue Surrounding You”: seemingly random, albeit stylishly composed, trash piles—obsolete technology, natural effluvia, and, in one case, a wide-eyed octopus figurine—arrested in puddles, half-submerged; only now, they were rather more continuous with the briny of destruction outside. Soggy mattresses and appliances rendered unusable by the acqua alta lay in less considered configurations beside doorsteps. People ambled about in disposable ponchos and knee-high shoe covers, their dripping umbrellas contained by condom-like slips (all plastic, of course, for now). In the Nordic Countries pavilion, “Weather Report: Forecasting Future,” I watched a woman carefully navigate with trekking poles the slick paths of newly treacherous floor-bound sculptures.

Storm damage outside Dane Mitchell’s “Post Hoc” installation.

Nearby, the waterfront Arsenale Institute for Politics of Representation shuttered “Hey Psycho!,” a joint exhibition with Douglas Gordon and Florian Süssmayr, due to tripped power and water damage. Meanwhile, at the New Zealand pavilion, located at the Palazzina Canonica (the former headquarters of Istituto di Scienze Marine, an oceanographic research institution) facing Riva dei Sette Martiri, Dane Mitchell’s “Post Hoc” remained open, despite the intrusion of a massive, felled tree whose roots loosened from the saturated ground in the otherwise manicured courtyard. Roped off, the tree was an apt visual corollary to the work, for which Mitchell compiled an ever-growing list of millions of disappeared or lost entities—for example, fossil algae, destroyed temples, former feudal states, and the full paleontological record of Aotearoa—that he broadcasted daily during the exhibition’s run from speakers in fake cell-tower trees. In enumerating more than ten thousand items per day, the absence grew. It did so visibly within the Palazzina’s empty library, where paper rolled from a printer in sync with the transmissions of mass extinction, pooling and ultimately filling the space with so much irretrievable data.

In another kind of dispatch, the press office, citing Biennale president Paolo Baratta, confirmed that overall attendance hit “around 600,000, despite the difficulties experienced in the last weeks.” (The statistic was followed by some judicious name-dropping, adding specificity, perhaps, to the indication of scale: “It is worth noting that this year’s Exhibition has also been visited by many film or show-business personalities, such as Brad Pitt, Julie Andrews, Atom Egoyan, Tim Robbins, Lucrecia Martel, Rodrigo Prieto, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Emir Kusturica, Laurie Anderson, Chiara Ferragni, Fedez, and Susanna Nicchiarelli.”) At a concluding conference on November 24, Baratta and curator Ralph Rugoff talked about the implications of staging the Biennale now. First, Baratta held forth on the exhibition as a mechanism of political or psychological conditioning, a form that uses the “tools of the supermarket” to solicit feelings and emotions (he likewise invoked didactic wall labels as agents of persuasion). Rugoff disagreed with this, arguing against consumption and for nuanced conversation predicated upon art that is not (or not only, merely) “journalistic” in its avowed politics of criticality regarding “neoliberalism or global capitalism.” For him, art in a time of emergency “bears witness to bring out complex response.”

Paolo Baratta and Ralph Rugoff.

Yet Rugoff also expressed near-populist disdain for art critics, who in his estimation were less “open-minded” about his program and its lack of any cogent, singular proposition than were more general audiences. Rugoff’s case in point was Christoph Büchel’s ghastly Barca Nostra (Our Boat), 2018–19, the ship that left Tripoli and sank in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, killing more than eight hundred stowed migrants. The ship here was docked, rising and falling with the tides across from a café and beside the Armstrong Mitchell Crane. (The crane, we are told in giant text panels soliciting support for a two million euro restoration, is a “masterpiece of nineteenth-century engineering” that long hoisted the Italian Navy.) Rugoff commented that the Italian media did not much remark on Barca Nostra, whereas the international chorus asserted moral outrage. He also claimed that Büchel did not grant the punctured, looming death trap the status of an artwork. This is a nonsensical point, and Rugoff’s supposed proof—that the Swiss Icelandic artist chose not to produce a label for it, and instead to leave it in the site unmarked (title and date provided elsewhere, one surmises) and without context (but for the signs recalling the rampant nationalism of post-unification Italy in its vicinity)—did little to support it.

Waiting for Solange.

As the afternoon wore on and the rain fell, at times torrentially, word spread of a late addition to the program: Solange, who had just programmed the performances, films, and talks that made up “Bridge-s” at the Getty in Los Angeles, would offer “Nothing to Prove, Nothing to Say,” at the Teatro alle Tese at 5 PM, bringing the whole thing to a close. People stood outside queuing, drenched, some in the all-black dress code that the email announcement had requested, though this may well have been coincidental among a population for whom black remains sartorial default. One hundred and twenty guests were let inside, where they pressed for some time against a curtained wall that parted to reveal a darkened, high-ceilinged room grounded by a carpet edged with L-shaped benches, which served as the thrones for female performers tightly clad in brown one-shouldered costumes and talon-like manicures. The performers initially dispersed from a phalanx that recalled Vanessa Beecroft’s model vignettes to take their places, watching the event and serving as its functional boundary. While Solange traveled with her core group of musicians and dancers, who effected so much of the work, these sentinels had come from all over Italy, and had met only that day. They remained erect and, like the rest of us, apparently enraptured. Solange came into the enclosure, making what I can describe only as indescribable utterances, then sat and watched too. Movements, syncopated and otherwise, happened amid chanting and counting, and in a culmination that featured a refrain, “The house can fall at any time,” Solange retook the center. The show must go on, until it can’t.