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58th Venice Biennale Will Take On ‘Alternative Facts’ and Fake News

At a press conference held at the Palazzo Giustinian in Venice earlier today, Paolo Baratta, president of the Venice Biennale, and Ralph Rugoff, curator of the 2019 edition, announced the theme of the upcoming exhibition. Titled “May You Live in Interesting Times,” the biennial will respond to an age-old problem: fake news.

Explaining his vision, Rugoff said, “At a moment when the digital dissemination of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ is corroding political discourse and the trust on which it depends, it is worth pausing whenever possible to reassess our terms of reference.” He added, “The fifty-eighth international art exhibition will not have a theme per se, but will highlight a general approach to making art and a view of art’s social function as embracing both pleasure and critical thinking.”

While many people may believe that fake news is on the rise, it is actually a problem society has dealt with for hundreds of years. However, today it is shared with greater ease through social media and other digital platforms and may reach a wider audience. The title of the exhibition actually refers directly to fake news from the 1930s. Rugoff lifted the title from a speech in which British MP Austen Chamberlain wrongly referred to an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times,” Chamberlain said. “There is no doubt the curse has fallen on us. We move from crisis to another.”

Despite being untrue—there was no Chinese curse like the one Chamberlain thought he was citing—his words have been reiterated by Western politicians for more than one hundred years. According to Rugoff, they are now “an ersatz cultural relic, another Occidental ‘Orientalism,’ and yet for all its fictional status it has had real rhetorical effects in significant public exchanges.”

For Rugoff, it’s important for the art world to acknowledge that it “does not exercise its force in the domain of politics” and will not stem the rise of nationalist movements and authoritarian governments. But art can challenge people to open up their minds and their readings of objects, images, and situations. In a statement, he stressed that this exhibition will shift its focus from objects to the questions they raise about cultural borders and boundaries.

Rugoff said, “the exhibition will aim to underscore the idea that the meaning of artworks are not embedded principally in objects but in conversations—first between artist and artwork, and then between artwork and audience, and later between different publics . . . what is most important about an exhibition is not what it puts on display, but how audiences can use their experience of the exhibition afterwards, to confront everyday realities from expanded viewpoints and with new energies.”