PRINT September 2019


Christoph Büchel, Barca Nostra (Our Boat), 2018–19, wreck of a ship that sank in the Mediterranean on April 18, 2015. Installation view, Arsenale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù.

THE MOST POSITIVE WAY to describe the Fifty-Eighth Venice Biennale is to say that a relatively large percentage of the work on view is good enough to survive a lousy curatorial premise. But just for fun, let’s start at rock bottom: that much-discussed title, “May You Live in Interesting Times.” I can understand the Biennale’s artistic director—this round, Ralph Rugoff—wanting to puncture the ludicrously inflated rhetoric of previous editions’ titles, but his use of this fake Chinese curse oozes such privileged detachment that you wish the entire exhibition had simply been left untitled. It would also have been a more accurate descriptor of the show.

George Condo, Double Elvis, 2019, acrylic, gesso, metallic paint, and pigment stick on linen. Installation view, Arsenale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù.

Jostling with Rugoff’s title for “worst in show” is Christoph Büchel’s almighty misfire: exhibiting the shipwrecked boat from Lampedusa on which hundreds of migrants lost their lives in 2015. It isn’t inconceivable to turn an index of tragedy into a potent memorial (see Teresa Margolles, below). But parking the vessel, Instagram ready, outside the Arsenale’s café and toilets only channels indignation in the wrong direction: toward the artist, rather than toward governmental handling of the global immigration crisis.

Soham Gupta, Untitled, 2016, ink-jet print, 29 1⁄2 × 19 3⁄4". From the series “Angst,” 2013–17. Arsenale.

Almost as bad is the first room of the Arsenale—the space that traditionally lays out the exhibition’s agenda. It begins with a glib painting by that master of Picasso knockoffs for clueless plutocrats, George Condo. And not just any old Condo, but one in which he exploits his history as a former assistant to Andy Warhol. Double Elvis, 2019, shows two black-and-white bums holding bottles, morphing into bulbous phallic protuberances, in the artist’s signature rapido style. This flourish of white-male-American privilege makes for a tasteless opening move. Worse, Double Elvis is positioned as the gateway to Soham Gupta’s charged series of nocturnal photographs of the Kolkata underclass, in which figures pose sheepishly for his flash against stark black matte backgrounds (“Angst,” 2013–17). On the other side of the room are Anthony Hernandez’s formal documentary photographs of unfinished buildings in Rome and in the middle is a Christian-Marclay-by-numbers video installation showing films about war layered on top of one another in concentric rectangles (48 War Movies, 2019). Puffed-up painting meets catastrophic poverty meets economic downturn meets Hollywood cacophony—interesting, right?

Works by Anthony Hernandez, 1999–2012, C-prints. Installation view, Arsenale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù.

Rugoff’s bland and platitudinous curatorial statement, presented in the wall text preceding this space, doesn’t help. Its two basic messages are: Political art tends to be kinda bad, and good art makes you see things in new ways. This abdication of curating as any kind of creative and/or intellectual project is reinforced by the exhibition design of the Arsenale, which keeps the works physically separate from one another (thus avoiding the juxtapositions of the first room). Don’t be fooled by the homey plywood walls—this is the opposite of relational curating. Rugoff mixed and matched more freely in the show’s other venue, the Central Pavilion, where the results tend to be cluttered, inscrutable, or superficial (e.g., Carol Bove’s polychrome abstract sculptures and Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s figurative paintings, placed in proximity because of their mutual use of vivid orange?). The only room that fosters any kind of holistic mood is the Sala Chini—a chapel-like space in which Danh Vo has installed massive mirrored paintings by his former teacher Peter Bonde that are placed next to fragmentary body casts by Yu Ji and a holographic video by Cyprien Gaillard. The whole room is apparently an oblique meditation on the rise of the far right in Europe; you need to pore over the labels to arrive at this, but at least there’s an attempt to build something here, however elusive.

*View of “May You Live in Interesting Times,” 2019, Central Pavilion, Venice. From left: Njideka Akunyili Crosby, And We Begin to Let Go, 2013; Carol Bove, Nike I, 2018; Carol Bove, New Moon, 2018; Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Home Say It Loud, 2017. Photo: Maris Mezulis.

That covers the bottom of the pile. Let’s proceed to the territory of the not god-awful but not particularly gripping, either (which is, to be fair, an apt description of most biennials). The vast majority of the art on view falls into this category. Rugoff’s decision to ask artists to contribute two distinct groups of works—one in each venue—while hardly revolutionary, keeps the show manageable and interesting. At its best, a familiar style in one location is complemented by a riskier direction in the other. The exhibition has a solidly global purview, and 50 percent of the artists are women. Artists of color and queer, trans, indigenous, and disabled artists are better represented than in some previous editions. But this should be a default rather than an accomplishment we have to comment on. Is it too much to ask for a curator to generate a position out of all these ticked boxes?

Don’t be fooled by the Arsenale’s homey plywood walls—this is the opposite of relational curating. Rugoff mixed and matched more freely in the Central Pavilion.

Danh Vo, Suum cuique  (To Each His Own), 2019, mixed media. Installation view, Sala Chini, Central Pavilion. Walls: Peter Bonde works. Center: Cyprien Gaillard, L’ange du foyer (Vierte Fassung) (The Fireside Angel), 2019. Photo: Nick Ash.

Redeeming some (but not all) of these curatorial shortcomings are a handful of substantial artistic statements. Among the highlights are major new projects by the postdigital, posthuman dystopians, above all Ed Atkins and Jon Rafman. (Ian Cheng and Hito Steyerl, the other ubiquitous favorites of this school, are present but less memorable.) Atkins has finally ditched his existentially tortured monologuing skinhead avatar in favor of short digital animations, collectively titled “Old Food,” 2017–19. A couple of the videos invoke nineteenth-century German folklore and Romanticism: A boy in a lavender doublet and peach pantaloons sobs as he plays the piano and runs panting around a bucolic log cabin. In a vision of apocalyptic demise, a mass of people rush screaming over a featureless white surface before hurtling into a chasm; credits continually scroll over this sequence, like a movie that’s perpetually ending. Understandably, the biggest crowd-pleaser is more comedic and hypnotic: Sandwiches (constructed from consumer detritus, garishly hued condiments, babies, suspiciously stiff lettuce, and more) spring apart cleanly before squelching down again in a consummate disavowal of physical reality. “Old Food” is staged around enormous racks of opera costumes loaned from a local northern Italian theater, and alongside scuffed panels featuring texts by the anonymous bloggers of Contemporary Art Writing Daily. The frisson between material and digital, simulation and disintegration, theatrical and virtual fantasy, is indelibly potent. Equally weird and wonderful is Rafman’s epic noir Dream Journal 2016–2019, 2019: a relentless flow of vignettes in which genetically modified bodies dance, chase, fornicate, and much more in a clunky digital urbanscape—like an exhilarating, sexually liberated Hieronymus Bosch.

A handful of sculptures also pack a punch, especially the work of Nairy Baghramian, Nicole Eisenman, Teresa Margolles, and Tarek Atoui. Installed in the upper gallery of the Central Pavilion, Baghramian’s ensemble of waxy abstract forms in muted shades holds its own amid an overcrowded, chaotically eclectic array of neighbors (Condo, Henry Taylor, Jimmie Durham, Julie Mehretu). Eisenman’s display of abstracted heads in the Arsenale, meanwhile, is rougher and readier but equally strong in volumetric force. Made of wood pulp, concrete, and bronze, slapped with paint and installed on provisional plinths, these figures update the portrait-bust tradition with aplomb. Titled after their professions (Econ Prof, 2019, The General, 2018, and so on), these macho pates crane, preen, and list—yet their cartoon physiognomy is antiheroic and deflationary, in contrast to Condo’s pomposity. Margolles and Atoui, meanwhile, powerfully hybridize sound and sculpture. The former rightly won a “special mention” for her installation of three dusty windows from Ciudad Juárez bearing the remains of MISSING posters for teenage girls (La búsqueda [The Search], 2014). Margolles has inserted a low-frequency signal—a recording of the trains that bisect the Mexican city—into the dimly lit space. This rumble rattles the panes and spreads a nervous unease. Büchel, take note: This is how you channel public affect to politicize and memorialize with solemnity. Atoui presents a ceramics display–cum–sound laboratory (The GROUND, 2017–19). Elegant frilled earthenware and flattened slabs of terra-cotta are set to work on turntables, tenderly caressed with microphones, and scraped with needles. Ancient and contemporary technologies coexist in a low-key, tapping, whirring ambience; it becomes a game to locate the sculptural source of each sound.

Some of the strongest works in the show, particularly those by black artists, exemplify a new tendency toward montage—not so much Crosby’s gorgeous paintings, which synthesize collage into a unified picture surface, as the disjunctive video editing of Kahlil Joseph and Arthur Jafa. The latter two artists freely appropriate news footage, vintage clips, and snippets from social media. Joseph’s BLKNWS, 2019, is hypnotic and exhilarating in its omnivorous exuberance, covering everything from climate change to Canadian police de-escalation training to archival footage of poet June Jordan reciting “Song of the Law Abiding Citizen,” interrupted with slogans like INTELLECTUAL ENERGY and DECONSTRUCTING EUROPEAN PHILOSOPHIES. Updated throughout the show to include recent news items, the two-channel work allows the sound of one screen to infect and inflect the second. This is disruptive montage in the best avant-garde tradition. I couldn’t tear myself away.

Kahlil Joseph, BLKNWS, 2019, two-channel digital video, color, sound, indefinite duration. Arsenale/Central Pavilion.

Exuding a darker, more melancholic mood, Jafa’s The White Album, 2019, is the highlight of the Central Pavilion (and winner of the Golden Lion). It’s the long-awaited follow-up to Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, 2016, his ultradense seven-minute mash-up of the contemporary African American experience, which a few years ago electrified the art world like a defibrillator. As the title suggests, the new video is a meditation on white supremacy; at thirty minutes, it’s also significantly slower than Love Is the Message, and the clips are far longer, compelling us to think about narrative as both an index of privilege and a tool of domination: Who has the right to hold forth on their opinions ad nauseam? Clips of social-media pontificators and gun enthusiasts are sustained (often to painful duration), while sound and image get desynchronized, sometimes to raw and galling effect. Toward the end of the loop, Jafa intercuts this footage with portraits of his white friends and colleagues (gallerist Gavin Brown and members of his staff, et al.); his camera scrutinizes their faces, falteringly trying to square affection with the reality of murderous white violence.

These are not the only strong works in this Biennale—also worth mentioning here are those of Durham, Korakrit Arunanondchai, and Zanele Muholi. But the ones described above are particularly striking. These artists’ independently minded, formally resolved, thoughtful practices channel curiosity, indignation, and sadness into poignant yet unsentimental image-worlds. They don’t mirror the aloofness of interesting times, but reflect on and rail against the fucked-up planet we inhabit. Such work shouldn’t be cloaked in coyly ironic euphemisms that attempt to neutralize their potency.

Claire Bishop is a professor in the Ph.D. program in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York, and a contributing editor of Artforum.