This year’s central exhibition is curated by Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London. The title, May You Live in Interesting Times, is a reference to a supposed ancient Chinese curse which was popularised by Sir Austen Chamberlain in the late 1930s in reference to the rise of fascism. The show takes place across two sites: the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, and the Corderie in the Arsenale. Coming from thirty-eight countries, the curator has reduced the number of exhibited artists to almost a half: seventy-nine artists, all of them alive, and fifty per cent of which, for the first time, are women.
The show, apart from its confusing title, pretends to point out the crises and difficult times we are living in. Rugoff clarified that the fact that the big present issues – climate change, nationalism, racism, liquid gender, disparity of wealth, violence, and the global impact of social media – dominate the work of many of the artists in the show, “art is more than a document of its times” and, therefore, “there is no thematic umbrella.” The exhibition is divided into Proposition A in the Arsenale, and Proposition B, in the Central Pavilion. Another important novelty is that, for the first time, the seventy-nine artists are featured on both sides, and each venue highlights different aspects of an artist’s practice.
The Golden Lion for the Best Participant in the International Exhibition was muchly deserved given to Arthur Jafa (1960, USA). Jafa’s film The White Album focuses on white supremacy and features, among others, footage of a young, racist YouTuber, the anti-racist speech of a former white nationalist, or CCTV footage of the white supremacist and murderer Dylann Roof. Music is a huge factor in the film, which includes Iggy Pop, for example. The piece is always engaging, as Jafa implicates us in every clip and every word.
The Silver Lion for a Promising Young Participant went to Haris Epaminonda (1980, Cyprus). Two special mentions went to Otobong Nkanga (1974, Nigeria) and Teresa Margolles (1963, Mexico), who shows two found-object sculptural installations conveying the horror of violence in her native Mexico. Jimmie Durham (1940, USA) is the recipient of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.
New set galleries have the largest number of participants, like Mexico City’s Kurimanzutto or Kreps, which mostly feature millennial artists. Rugoff, the curator, also spotlights other millennials such as Neïl Beloufa, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Korakrit Arunanondchai, or Avery Singer. More consolidated artists include George Condo, Stan Douglas, Nicole Eisenman, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Shilpa Gupta, Anthony Hernandez, Ryoji Ikeda, Christian Marclay, Tomas Sarraceno, Hito Steyerl or Rosemarie Trockel.
Clouds of whitish mist involve the Central Pavilion entrance, an intervention by Italian artist Lara Favaretto, where the central exhibition is located. A transcendent virtual reality world of wonder, computer game violence, multiple screens with bright colours, or slowly morphing futuristic plant forms are emblematic of the best of the show. The curator’s main theme ahead of the Biennale: the culture of fake news and alternative facts, the culture of fictions as public narratives are mostly developed in video and digital art.
Hito Steyerl’s installation at the Giardini, consisting of four curved screens that enclose the viewers, shows them the study of Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for a submarine for Venice linked to the weapons manufacturing company of the same name (Leonardo). Contemporary corruptions and inequalities always go hand in hand with the absurd and the ironical, with playful storytelling and re-envisioned histories.
The next room features an enigmatic sculptural assemblage by Nairy Baghramian, with the expressive figurations of George Condo and Henry Taylor and the calligraphic abstractions of Julie Mehretu. Elsewhere, Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s dense paintings of figures in interiors are put together with Carol Bove’s steel sculptures, paintings by Avery Singer, and the photographs of Anthony Hernandez. Visual cacophonies and collisions between works hugely distinct in form and content from one another; is this a sort of planned chaos? Then follows a work by French artist Cyprien Gaillard, who projects a flailing, dancing monstrous figure on to a whirring fan. Move to the side and it disappears. Gaillard’s apparition glows in an otherwise semi-darkened room filled with threat and menace.
The Arsenale, aided by the elegant use of plywood partitions to break up the monotony of the columned 300 metres-long Corderie, surrenders to massive video art installations. At the entrance, Christian Marclay presents a collage of 48 War Movies, his latest screen montage, in which each spooling film blocks out part of the one beneath it in an infinite regression of violence.
For me, one of the best pieces is Kahlil Joseph’s filmic collage using found and original footage. BLKNWS is a two-screen news channel of American black life, from archive footage of Malcolm X and Miles Davis to leading African-American thinkers at public events, accompanied by different soundtracks. On another hand, Jon Rafman has been creating video-game-style films for some time now. In Venice, he presents a film which is a stream of dream-like absurdities, with a figure consisting of a child’s head on legs as its protagonist. In Giardini, groups of faceless figures are repeatedly and brutally destroyed and abused.
Ed Atkins shows a vast installation titled Old Food, which involves multiple video screens showing CGI tearful children in motion and some other digital figures historically dressed like coming from a Medieval video game. They are all, inexplicably, weeping. Whilst in the Giardini, Atkins’ self-portrait drawings as a tarantula – scuttling across hands and feet – enigmatically punctuate the space appearing in several different places.
There are a lot of photographic portraits in the show. The curator’s choice to use this media is strong, just like Mari Katayama’s unflinching self-portraits exploring her disabilities or Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits in which she explores her identity. She has a towering presence in the Arsenale, where her gaze repeatedly confronts one in vast wallpapered images.
Soham Gupta’s studies of the dispossessed people of Kolkata, with whom he collaborates so that they help dictate how they appear to the viewer, are deeply affecting, whether in black and white in the Giardini or in colour at the Arsenale. In words of the curator, he has chosen artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions, and relationships of the ‘post-war order’.