By BOB CLYATT, May 2019
For the contemporary art person who’s been to lots of marquee exhibitions and fairs but never made it to the Venice Biennale, (me, until last week) it may be different than you’d expect. Here is an overall picture of how the Biennale works, with some of the high and not-so-high notes from this year’s edition, up through November 2019.
First some background: the Biennale is a bit like the UN of contemporary art, with about 80 countries hosting projects either in their own national pavilions or in palazzos and flex spaces around the city. The “Security Council” class of countries generally have the choice pavilions in the leafy Giardini park, which has been hosting the Biennale for over a hundred years. The Arsenale, a ten minute walk away, is a massive old brick complex which is well-suited to large art installations along with ancillary spaces for more national pavilions and side projects. The countries each curate and produce their own national exhibits. Separately, the prestigious Biennale curator seeks out artists worldwide to create and send work to the curated exhibition which is split between two big spaces at the Arsenale and Giardini. If it sounds complicated, it’s Venice, with everything shoe-horned into space between canals in buildings that might be centuries old, so it’s definitely harder than the big tent at Frieze.
Big Themes? “May You Live in Interesting Times” is the organizing title, but this year’s Biennale might well have been nicknamed “De-Colonizing Venice.” Across pavilions and especially the curated exhibition native peoples, people with cultural roots in former colonies, people of the African diaspora, non-gender-binary people, and in general anyone who has suffered at the hands of patriarchy are well-represented as artists or subjects of artistic works. The focus on people is noteworthy - rare is the formal work substantially focused on visual or process concerns- nearly everything ties back to a political or human dimension, and if not it is likely about the environment.
How about quality? First off, the big Arsenale-Giardini exhibition this year, curated by Biennale Art Director Ralph Rugoff, delivered everything one could expect in a top-of-class contemporary art extravaganza. This exhibition fires on all cylinders: works rich in ideas, visual excitement and creativity of execution are carefully selected and thoughtfully presented. The wall text was informative, offering viewers entry into works which might otherwise have remained obscured. Impossible to pick highlights so I won’t even try: look online for installation views of works by artists from George Condo to Nicole Eisenman, Arthur Jafa, Alexandra Bircken, Michael Armitage, Otobong Nkanda, Yin Kiuzhen, Henry Taylor, Jean-Luc Moulene, Carol Bove, Neil Beloufa, Ryoji Ikeda and many more.
On the national pavilions side, however, things were more uneven. Some were extraordinary, showcasing world class artists delivering career-defining work, probing challenging cultural issues, conveying a sense of their country’s internal conversation to foreign audiences, all while creating visual delight. (OK, yes I’m talking about Martin Puryear’s exhibition Liberty/Libertà in the US Pavilion...) Others not so much-- with installations that felt oddly thrown together, gasping for air or on a par with what one might find in a modest mid-tier gallery in New York or London.
The amount of video also is surprising: a visitor might reasonably imagine countries would be substantially expressing themselves in installations of physical art objects and paintings but that is often not the case. Of course some video installations are expected but it was surprisingly the sole medium for many countries, with perhaps a few related props or ephemera on view. The Swiss essentially filmed a contemporary dance performance, Koreans had multiple screens going (including perhaps the most daring video anywhere, an immersive three-wall experience of a quadriplegic K-Pop fan writhing to intoxicating music.) Brazil (powerful rural dance groups in a sort of fierce dance rivalry/battle) , France, Denmark, Japan, Australia, Canada... Video was a very effective backbone for many countries (though the whiff of a corporate PR film lingered in the air in some places) but why has it become almost the default offering?
It’s possible many pavilions are simply too small to accommodate the kinds of contemporary art people are expecting to see today in institutional settings. Budgets may be another factor: although some pavilions are funded by a ministry of culture, for better or worse, others make do with private donations so screening a video may simply be the best possible affordable option. And video is probably more accessible to general visitors throughout the six-month run of the Biennale who might struggle to absorb a more challenging contemporary art installation.
There were certainly great pavilions, though. Lithuania wowed with its day-at-the-beach opera in the delightful ruins of the Marina Militare complex. Ghana stood out in its first-ever pavilion with the help of some high powered artists and friends (such as El Anatsui, David Adjaye and the late Okwui Enwezor) while Netherlands paired two very different artists from Suriname (Iris Kensmil and Remy Jungerman) in pitch-perfect tension.
“Deep Concept” art showed up enough to set me musing too over the relative costs of a challenging sculpture installation versus an edgy conceptual work: think poetry framed on a wall or a lonely computer printer slowly documenting the presence of absence in an empty room. (Spain, New Zealand) Art needs plenty of money and the day may be coming when significant corporate backing has to flow into the Biennale. For now it’s still a trickle.
These are mere quibbles though. We are all in our happy place here, wandering in the garden, basking in perfect Venetian beauty with all these artists, curators, writers, art lovers. And hosted by the Italians, who show us like no other how to support cultural wealth and spend a day or a lifetime in its joyful embrace. And did I mention, Martin Puryear’s work at the American pavilion is awesome? WM
Bob Clyatt is a sculptor and writer living on Hen Island, New York.view all articles from this author