Every two years, the already-bustling paths lining the Venetian canals are filled with the colors of art, artists and art lovers converging on what’s often described as the “Olympics of the art world”. This year’s Vernissage (opening week) for La Biennale di Venezia – the 58th International Art Exhibition – saw thousands toting their trademark canvas goodie bags filled with heavy art catalogues as they wandered across the two main sites at the Giardini and Arsenale. The exhibition, titled May We Live in Interesting Times, opened on May 11 and will run till November 24. It offers what is, at times, an overwhelming mass of visual material from artists representing 89 different countries.
Visitors to the Italian city of Venice will see – scattered throughout its streets, gardens and squares – art that speaks to deeper themes surrounding migration, national identity, climate change and other issues of global importance. As curator Ralph Rugoff says, in his introduction to the Biennale that art may not change the world but it could serve as a “guide for how to live and think in interesting times.”
FRONTRUNNER takes a look at some of the works that offered more than just a pleasing aesthetic, but also a catalyst for critical thought.
THE GOLDEN LION WINNER
SUN & SEA (MARINA) – LITHUANIA
“The crinkling of plastic bags whirling in the air, their silent floating, jellyfish-like, below the waterline. The rumble of a volcano, or of an airplane, or a speedboat. Then a chorus of songs: everyday songs, songs of worry and of boredom, songs of almost nothing. And below them: the slow creaking of an exhausted Earth, a gasp.” – Sun and Sea (Marina)
It’s a birds-eye vision of a golden beach strewn with humanity that has taken the Golden Lion prize for the Best National Participation at this year’s Biennale Arte. The unique performance takes the shape of a beach opera at the Lithuanian Pavilion, located inside a warehouse at the Italian Navy’s Marina Militare. Created by artists Lina Lapelyte, Vaiva Grainyté and Rugilé Barzdžiukaitė, Sun & Sea sees a cast of paid singers and volunteers lounging on towels in the dazzling sun as they sing in an operatic chorus.
Listen closely and the lyrics make it clear this piece is not a tribute to the summer sun, but a statement on society, the environment, and the politics of our time. It’s this innovative use of space, song and human ability that the Biennale judges lauded for having an “experimental spirit” that creatively engaged with Venice and its inhabitants. Time your visit well. To date, the artists have only managed to raise enough funds to stage a once-weekly performance of the opera.
THE ART IN NATURE
POST HOC – NEW ZEALAND
(Disclaimer: I’m a Kiwi journalist who was sponsored by Creative New Zealand to attend the Venice Biennale and report on artist Dane Mitchell’s installation. My opinion remains my own. Public sponsorship requirements aside, this sculptural installation titled Post Hoc is one that connects in both conceptual and physical space.)
Spread across five different sites in Venice, Mitchell’s work is connected via a single echo-free chamber transmitting a recording of the millions of lost, invisible and redundant entities he has uncovered. Extinct reptiles, mammals and invertebrates. Lost islands, dried-up lakes and collapsed ocean habitats. Former national parks and world heritage sites.
Across the space of six months these items from 260 categories of vanished things will also be printed on scrolls of paper that even as I write will be slowly filling the cavernous space of the old library at the Palazzina Canonica on the banks of Venice’s Riva dei Sette Martiri – the home base for Mitchell’s work. The resulting pile of paper scrolls – found minutes away from the main pavilion at the Giardini – will be the only visual representation of these lost items Mitchell spent some two years compiling.
While the Kiwi artist said making a political statement was never his intent, it’s difficult to escape the stark reminder of all that’s gone before and that which will one day be no more. Post hoc [latin for after this] certainly raises questions about the state of existence, the temporary nature of being and the mark humanity has left, and will continue to leave on this earth.
ART THAT SHOCKED
BARCA NOSTRA – CHRISTOPH BUCHEL
Walking along the water’s edge outside the Arsenale main hall it’s easy to mistake this piece of art as just part and parcel of Venice’s marine environment. But the large blue boat with its rusty blue and red hull casting a shadow over the waterfront is not just a boat – it is part of Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Buchel’s project. Titled Barca Nostra – Our Boat – the ship, which has no signage to explain its significance, is in fact the very boat within which hundreds of refugees lost their lives. In April of 2015 the fishing boat capsized between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa killing at least 700 refugees who were trapped inside its hull.
The Art Newspaper listed it as one of the worst pieces of art at the exhibition, while other critics questioned if it was appropriate to display an object of death as art. Macabre? Perhaps. But so, too, we could argue is the death of the thousands of migrants who die crossing the seas in search of a new homeland. They don’t have the freedom of choice to escape from the shadow of their reality.
Such controversy is not unheard of at the Biennale, which has long established itself as a place where art is more than just a pretty picture. It’s also a way to raise questions about society, politics and at times life, itself. In 1990, there was a picture of the Pope, implicating the Catholic Church’s theology and teachings as being a contributing factor in the AIDS epidemic. Four years ago in 2015, it was Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Buchel, this year’s repeat offender, who turned a church into a mosque as an artistic statement that sought to probe the idea of religious freedoms.
His latest installation has been described as an object of significant socio-political, ethical and historical importance that probes the concepts of freedom of movement, migration, and borders – both real and symbolic.
THE CROWD FAVORITE
DEEP SEE BLUE SURROUNDING YOU/VOIS CE BLEU PROFOND TE FONDRE – FRANCE
Time, patience and perseverance is key to the French Pavilion. As the crowd favourite at this year’s exhibition, it drew a lengthy queue of keen art enthusiasts outside its doors each day.
It’s rare that I’d wait two hours for any event and I doubt I’d do it again – but once through its doors the French Pavilion did offer an intriguing, surrealist view of the ocean, humanity and the modern day environmental crisis. Laure Prouvost’s Deep See Blue Surrounding You/Vois Ce Bleu Profond Te Fondre takes shape inside a constructed ‘octopus” belly. Deep within the belly is a layer of resin-like substance – water filled with humanity’s mark – plastic, old cellphones, paper and other such rubbish. Walk further into the octopus and you are surrounded by the sight and sound of the artistic centrepiece – a film in which a gang of adventurers travel from the Parisian suburbs to the Venice Giardini.
A perplexing, complex, dreamy and at times humorous vision it appears to have no easily discernible narrative or message. But stay patient and read between the lines and you will discover the messages hidden within its depths that speak to human relationships, migration, culture and the physical world.
DISCOVERING IDENTITY IN ART
GHANA FREEDOM – GHANA
A warm, earthy smells envelops the senses. An array of soft portraiture hangs on the earthen walls. Shimmering bottle caps line another wall, while a row of cage-like structures filled with wood, cloth and archival material line yet another. The images are simple, but powerful in this narrative that tells the story of Ghana, its people, its culture and its liberation. The African nation has made a successful debut at the Biennale in its earth-house pavilion – Ghana Freedom – with art critics across the world singing its praises.
In total, the exhibit, curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim, shares the work of six artists from Ghana, who hail from three generations across the nation’s wider diaspora. It is, as Ayim described in the exhibition introduction, a symbol of how far the country has come since it was freed from British colonial rule in 1957. “The ensuring years saw a struggle to reshape…not just our political, but also our cultural, social and economic realities.” The pavilion’s final shape tackles this question of identity and shows through its art how its people can “interrogate what it serves for us to exist through this collective imagery known as Ghana”.
THE LOSS OF IDENTITY
ISUMA – CANADA
Canada is represented by Inuit artists’ collective, Isuma, which has, through film, highlighted the somber reality of how mining has impacted the lives of the indigenous people in the country’s north. The feature-length video documentary at the Canadian Pavilion marks the first time Inuit art has been presented in Venice for the Biennale.
Like the Ghana Pavilion, the artist collective shares a story of identity. Here, it is less about liberation and discovery, but rather a story of loss; a loss of identity, culture and an old way of life on the verge of modernity. The cornerstone of the exhibition is the film titled One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk. It comes at a time when local concerns about proposed expansion of mining activities are rising. Through Piugattuk’s story, the artists led by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, tells the story of how the mining activities have forced the relocation of Inuit communities into local towns. Its heroes are Noah Piugattuk (a respected elder in Igoolik) and his nomadic Inuit band who hunt and live a way of life that’s gone largely unchanged since the 1900s.
The film has none of the theatrics of big film productions. It shows Piugattuk meeting a government agent who offers him a house, and a chance to send his children to school to study, get jobs and make money: a concept that’s lost on the traditional Inuit man who does not understand what his children would do with such money.
The 58th La Biennale di Venezia is open to the public until 24 November, 2019.