PRINT September 2019


Henry Taylor, I became . . . , 2016, acrylic on canvas, 71 7⁄8 × 71 3⁄4". Central Pavilion.

ONE WOULD BE FORGIVEN for thinking the large-scale biennial has run its course. Since the onslaught of globalization, these exhibitions proliferated under the prevailing belief that supranational and geographically dispersed structures might overcome cultural, racial, and ethnic hierarchies, as well as Eurocentric bias. But we have entered what might be called a postglobal phase in history and culture, and the very premise of allocating power according to the twin mandates of geographic diffusion and international inclusion has come to mask the way that power now operates, accrues, and is reified. In the case of the global exhibition—and the Venice Biennale in particular, whose organizing principle inescapably revolves around the nation-state—we can no longer ignore persistent issues of privilege and access (e.g., what does it mean to require the beholder to cross the globe, not to mention via carbon-spewing forms of travel?), and with a rotating roster of biennial artworks transported from site to site, and institutions (from the Louvre to New York University) “decentering” through their global expansion, influence itself is now deterritorialized. Moreover, far from a progressive vision of cultural hybridity, the past decades instead have witnessed a resurgent form of illiberal, political factionalization.

Alex Da Corte, The Decorated Shed, 2019, mixed media. Installation view, Central Pavilion. Photo: Francesco Galli.

Against this larger set of conditions, I approached this year’s Venice Biennale with a degree of trepidation, if not skepticism. Ralph Rugoff, the artistic director charged with organizing the main show featured at the Giardini’s Central Pavilion and the Arsenale, is a seasoned and highly respected curator and critic, known for his long-standing institutional affiliations, including, since 2006, his directorship of London’s Hayward Gallery. I contemplated whether this year’s installment would rise to the level of some of the most memorable and challenging Biennales (Francesco Bonami’s 2003 iteration and Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 version, both of which acutely responded to their times, come to mind) or if it would suffer the fate of constraint and exhaustion that befalls many a talented curator of such now-ubiquitous shows. I was relieved to see Rugoff had pulled off no small feat: His show, titled “May You Live in Interesting Times,” is a powerful and timely exhibition whose conceptual map reveals itself slowly, thoughtfully, and provocatively in relation to the selected works of art, rather than assert itself didactically outside their bounds. (The excellence of the succinct and jargon-free wall texts deserves special notice.) Navigating the biennial, the beholder receives something rare: a curatorial generosity that takes into consideration the basic (yet often forgotten) principle that an exhibition is a materially, spatially, and temporally experienced form, one that places a set of demands on the viewer. Few shows of this size in recent memory have allowed for this intensity of durational and sustained looking: The filmic and other time-based works, sculptural and sonic installations, and paintings and photographs unfolding in series are all given their proper due.

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

In part this is a result of Rugoff’s curatorial gambit. Rather than a singular exhibition curated across the two venues with an unwieldy number of artists, “May You Live in Interesting Times” instead comprises two exhibitions, or “propositions”: “Proposition A” in the Arsenale, and “Proposition B” in the Giardini. Each of these presentations features the same roster of artists, who present different examples of their work (the exception being Kahlil Joseph). While this seems to echo precedents of multisite exhibitions (e.g., Enwezor’s Documenta 11, in which numerous platforms took place in multiple locales across the globe over their show’s duration, or Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s multicity and historically expansive Documenta 13, or Adam Szymczyk’s Documenta 14, held simultaneously in Kassel and Athens), the split of Rugoff’s Biennale is distinct. First, the two sites are only a short walk from each other, so the viewer is provided the relative ease of visiting both, and thus given the time to do so; second, the number of artists is limited to a manageable seventy-nine; and last, because each of these artists contributes two contrasting examples of work, the viewer has an opportunity to learn, to gain a more nuanced sense of an individual practice. For example, Alex Da Corte’s imaginative sculptural interpretation of the long-running public television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is installed in the Central Pavilion, offering a doll’s-house view of a suburban street scene with illuminated signs advertising popular American brands. Moving to the Arsenale, the beholder is presented with the artist’s video installation Rubber Pencil Devil, 2018–19, which further illuminates Da Corte’s take on popular culture. Rather than confronting architecture, however, the viewer is greeted by a rotating cast of characters (from cartoons to puppets) who act out witty scenes against Technicolor backdrops and musical accompaniment, the stage setting a reference to the late German artist Martin Kippenberger’s 1994 work The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’, which makes one rethink the presumed levity of Da Corte’s whimsical sculpture.

Arthur Jafa, The White  Album, 2019, digital video, color, sound, 29 minutes 55 seconds. Central Pavilion.

This split format and the heterogeneity of forms and content are in and of themselves a political statement for our “interesting” times: The show testifies to contemporary art’s capacity to provide sustenance and for its continued relevance when many (myself included) have wearily pondered its fate, given all that currently militates against it—from the hypertrophied market to the distractions of digitization, which is remaking the political public sphere into pockets of outrage rather than a forum for dissent and deliberation. Equally important, the exhibition argues powerfully for the virtues of thought that operates abstractly and unfolds slowly, countering the quickness of contemporary life. Essential to the show’s success is the physical installation itself: Whereas the architecture of the Central Pavilion is largely inflexible, the Arsenale––featuring a tediously long, unbroken corridor––affords experimentation, which Rugoff embraced with his innovative team of exhibition designers. By interrupting the linear expanse with individual plywood walls and boxes, sized to the works installed, the space allows viewers to occupy and navigate the Arsenale without the boredom of the never-ending walk. While detractors have criticized the “art fair” appearance of these structures, what they offer are moments of closure and thus attention that such commercial fairs (not to mention many a large-scale exhibition) typically preclude. As one proceeds, themes and meta-themes unfold gingerly and with purpose: Futurism, nationalism, the Anthropocene, the tenuous state of evidence, political factionalism, local histories, racial and ethnic resistance, and so on.

The exhibition argues powerfully for the virtues of thought that operates abstractly and unfolds slowly.

Tavares Strachan, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., 2018, neon, tube supports, transformers. Installation view, Arsenale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù.

Standouts are plentiful: Joseph’s BLKNWS, 2019, is an endless media feed of commentary, clips, and found footage, generating a social portrait of America in which the racial hierarchies of “news” are dramatically subverted, as the subjects, perspectives, and issues presented expose the bias of mainstream, cable, and digital broadcasts. Arthur Jafa’s contribution on the state of contemporary America, The White Album, 2019, offers a condemning portrait: An amalgam of video clips coalesce into a narrative in which white supremacy is the common thread. The selections are droll and often unnerving. They include footage of Dylann Roof casually entering and exiting the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which he massacred nine people in 2015; a former neo-Nazi narrating, in a deep Southern drawl, the white-supremacist foundations of the United States; and a white teenage girl, in what appears to be a YouTube video, asserting she is “not” a racist and bemoaning how “unfair” it is that white people need to self-censor. When one couples these with Henry Taylor’s and Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s large-scale figurative paintings, and Tavares Strachan’s multipart installation, another thread emerges: namely, the dominant role black American and Afro-Caribbean diaspora artists are playing in addressing the “silencing” of the past, to borrow from Michel-Rolph Trouillot, while simultaneously offering new codes, narratives, and sites of exploration for artists to pursue. Strachan’s contribution Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., 2018, is a case in point: Recalling Bruce Nauman’s 1968 My Name as Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon, the piece features a block of neon script that recounts details from the life of the first (and largely forgotten) African American astronaut to be selected for space travel, who died in a training accident before that dream was fulfilled. Accompanied by a series of sculptures dedicated to Lawrence—including the orbiting satellite ENOCH—the piece undermines the assumption of linguistic neutrality intrinsic to the work of Strachan’s Conceptual art forebears, while simultaneously undercutting the mythology of space travel as the universal frontier. The history of space travel emerges as also one of race.

Today, the doctrine of presentism (at the behest of technological change and invention) serves to deflect criticism—one is always putatively “behind” and thus commentary is moot. In the technological imagination, the present is thus defined in terms of the always emergent future, an idyllic yet unreachable place. In contrast, works in the exhibition perform a dance between the future as a place of possibility and one of destruction, ecological and otherwise. Inhabiting the former is Halil Altındere’s cheekily serious Space Refugee, 2016–19. The video and related installation—based in part on the story of Muhammed Ahmed Faris, the only Syrian to have traveled to outer space––proposes the cosmos as a welcoming sanctuary for refugees. A far more somber take is the harrowing presence of Barca Nostra (Our Boat), 2018–19, displayed outside the Arsenale. A highly controversial project initiated by artist Christoph Büchel, it comprises the actual ship that sank in the Sicilian Channel, trapping the vast majority of the migrants and refugees from North Africa who were on board—escaping violence and hardship—in an aqueous tomb. Reactions run the gamut from impassioned condemnation for the spectacularization of suffering by people of color (and on the part of a white artist) to defense of the project as a highly visible memorial and symbol of a tragedy that continues to unfold, especially amid the current political climate in Italy, where neofascist deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini and his party La Lega (formerly Lega Nord) gained power through a vehement anti-immigrant platform.

Works in the exhibition perform a dance between the future as a place of possibility and one of destruction.

Halil Altındere, Space Refugee, 2016–19, mixed media. Installation view, Central Pavilion. Photo: Francesco Galli.

Returning to the theme, Hito Steyerl’s installation This is the future, 2019, features raised walkways that mimic one’s perambulation about Venice during acqua alta along with a video that challenges the predictive capacities of AI through a story of a woman trying to save a garden by hiding it in the future. As the Steyerl example underscores, tech-fetishism, which is part of the credo of futurity, is largely and thankfully absent from works in the exhibition. Given the social erosion that digital idealism has paradoxically unleashed, the show’s wariness with respect to such ideology is particularly apt. Those artists presenting work that specifically engages new technologies, as both medium and content—Ed Atkins’s “Old Food,” 2017–19, featuring CGI figures, and Jon Rafman’s disturbing Dream Journal 2016–2019, 2019, for example—nonetheless do so from a dystopian perspective that reveals the limitations of the media they deploy and explore. Consider too the machinic contributions of the artist duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu: Can’t Help Myself, 2016, is a plastic tube encasing an enormous robot mop programmed to push massive globs of red paint, while Dear, 2015, features a white throne from which protrudes a rubber hose that intermittently whips around the space, battering its pedestal and Plexi enclosure and yielding deafening sounds that disrupt the relative calm. The robots are at once technically sophisticated and crudely mechanistic, performing useless tasks that offer a sensory assault on the spectator.

Christian Marclay, 48 War Movies, 2019, digital video, color, sound, indefinite duration. Arsenale.

Christian Marclay’s 48 War Movies, 2019, dazzlingly converges blistering sound, politics, and violence through four dozen clips of Hollywood war films superimposed on one another, mimicking the nested windowing of a computer desktop. Generating a deafening cacophony, the work leaves visible only fragments of the edges of individual clips, underscoring the repetitive and ultimately pointless function of the genre as social criticism. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s multiscreen installation This whole time there were no land mines, 2017, appropriates cell phone videos taken during 2011 in the Golan Heights’ “shouting valley,” where the impenetrable border is breached acoustically, as separated families take advantage of the topography to yell out to each other (and where Palestinian protesters physically crossed the valley from the Syrian side in the same year). Also of note are Shilpa Gupta’s For, in Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit, 2017–18—a soundscape of recited poems whose authors, from the seventh century onward, were imprisoned for their political beliefs—and Tarek Atoui’s fascinating installation The GROUND, 2017–19, composed of rudimentary instruments created by craftspeople the Lebanese artist met while traveling in China’s Pearl River Delta.

Jon Rafman, Dream Journal 2016–2019, 2019, digital video, color, sound, 94 minutes. Arsenale.

This last example, a product of cultural hybridity, brings me back to the exhibition’s title. Rugoff explains that the phrase “May You Live in Interesting Times” is thought to be an ancient Chinese curse. But the legend of this curse is manufactured history, stemming from the colonial past—“another ‘Orientalism’ fashioned in the Occident,” to cite the curator. By appropriating and reassessing the phrase’s intended meaning––these are indeed “interesting” times––Rugoff highlights very current problems (e.g., “alternative facts,” the weaponization of the term fake news) without limiting and thus rendering quickly obsolete his exhibition’s subtext. As he pointedly remarks, “For an exhibition that, in part at least, considers how art functions in an era of lies, it struck me as an apt title.” Echoing many of the artists in the show, Rugoff marries contemporary reality to the rewriting of the historical material itself, thereby exposing recollection as a constant process of re-creation in the present. In so doing, the exhibition both enacts and examines the collision of fact and fiction, lore and myth—reverberations from which all too frequently end in some form of racial, ethnic, gender, or class oppression. It also contains seeds of resistance: something akin to scholar Saidiya Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation. It is a fable, but one that has material impact and persistence. One that forces us to take our time to read, listen, and (re)think. 

Janet Kraynak teaches in the department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, New York.