More than the installations or the paintings, the photography in this edition seems to make the strongest impact. In the Arsenale, Rula Halawani’s ghostly photographs of the violence that periodically rocks Palestine are like a Shakespearean dirge. Halawani reflects on the barriers which the Israeli forces are erecting to control access to the occupied territories and the fading traces of a beloved land, its lost traditions and its devastated people.
Zanele Muholi. Various works. Wallpaper. 2015 – 2018. Photograph by Andrea Avezzù, Italo Rondinella, Francesco Galli and Jacopo Salvi. Image Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia. 2019.
Zanele Muholi’s photographs are a powerful but very different statement of resistance, courage and confidence. She confronts the viewer head on in her ongoing work Faces and Phases, which is an evolving archive of portraits of South African black lesbians. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is a Tibetan/Bhutanese lama respected for his spiritual teaching and writing who is also an artist and film maker. His photographs shot around Kathmandu during the filming of his recent film, Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache capture the multi layered reality of the city oscillating between its seedy nightlife and its centuries old rituals.
One of the more striking installations at the Arsenale is Alexander Birken’s ESKALATION (2016). About 40 figures made from Calico dipped in black latex, are suspended from ladders that crisscross the space from floor to ceiling. They look like dying acrobats – people whose life has been squeezed out – a comment on our competitive society and on the hierarchies that bedevil our existence. But it felt more like theatre than art.
Not to be missed is Christian Marclay’s 48 War Movies (2019), a single-channel video installation. Marclay is famous for his work, The Clock, a 24 hour-long single-channel video, featuring thousands of found film fragments that function as an actual time piece, synchronised with real time. The installation at the Tate Modern was always packed and Marclay’s new work at Venice received a similar response. Instead of fragments, here Marclay takes entire films and superimposes them one on top of the other so that only the edges are visible creating a vortex of constantly changing partial images that scream violence and war and suck you into a mesmerising and terrifying grid.
My choice of the best artist at the Biennale would be Hito Steyerl. In the installation at the Arsenale, This is the Future, a woman sets out to find a garden that she has to hide in the future in order to protect it. A massive installation with raised walkways and digital screens that project luminous flowers morphing through their life cycle – they bud, bloom, wither and die – set the stage for an investigation into Artificial Intelligence and its implications for the future. The artist emphasizes that AI can never replace the real. The beautiful digital flowers will never have the intrinsic essence of natural flowers.
In her piece, Leonardo’s Submarine, at the Giardini’s Central Pavilion, Steyerl employs Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings of a proto-submarine designed to defend Venice against the attacks of the Ottomans. Leonardo buried his invention afraid that it would fall into wrong hands, and the artist too questions ideas of war and violence and the corruption embedded in both art and warfare. The installation takes you on a metaphoric journey past dream-like images of Venice both above and underwater, blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality, art and politics, philosophy and news. A silky voice – an AI algorithm – guides us through this journey convincingly distorting the truth.
Alexander Birken. ESKALATION. 2016. Photograph by Andrea Avezzù, Italo Rondinella, Francesco Galli and Jacopo Salvi. Image Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia. 2019.
Unlike previous editions where the selection of artists was much wider, Rugoff has given each artist a space in both the Arsenale and the Giardini as a way to explore each artist’s work in greater depth and read the works “in the light of the other”. Also, unlike previous editions this edition did not include works of dead artists. Given the scale of the exhibitions, the strategy only partially succeeds as attempting to remember what each artist had produced at the other venue was challenging. While the exhibition at the Arsenale presented more installation works, Giardini showed more paintings and two-dimensional works. One of the most engaging of these is a series of 10 acrylic on paper works by the Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga. Titled Reconciliation, the paintings which are rendered in jewel tones and precise images that evoke 19th century draughtsmanship and the scientific documentation of life, are poems on the nuances of identity.
Martin Puryear. Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute). Photograph by Andrea Avezzù, Italo Rondinella, Francesco Galli and Jacopo Salvi. Image Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia. 2019.
Both Arsenale and Giardini house some 90 National Pavilions. Most countries from Saudi Arabia to the island country of Kiribati are represented and have chosen themes aligned to the main theme of the Biennale. India chose to focus on Gandhi, a wonderful choice, especially since we are celebrating his 150th birth anniversary. The exhibition titled Our Time For a Future Caring curated by Roobina Karode, director and chief curator, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, was a condensed compendium of Indian modern and contemporary art through the lens of Gandhi’s ideals and work. Starting with the Haripura Posters by Nandalal Bose to M.F. Husain’s classic 1955 Zamin/Zameen, Rummana Hussain’s powerful work Fragments, Atul Dodiya’s extraordinary Broken Branches, Jitish Kallat’s compelling Covering Letter, Shakuntala Kulkarni’s remarkable Of Bodies, Armour and Cages, G. R.Iranna’s Navu (We Together), and Ashim Purkayastha’s Holy Water, the India pavilion at the end of the Arsenale was an ambitious statement. I would have preferred an edited and more focussed exhibition but that is a curatorial prerogative.
Manisha Gera Baswani. Postcards from Home. 2017. Photo credit Jeetin Sharma. © India Art Fair.
Many of the European pavilions that usually present outstanding work seem to have missed the bus. However, the Icelandic Pavilion that is not a part of the official Arsenale/ Giardini presentations was a tour de force of colour and sensation. The artist Hrafnhildur Arnardottir commonly known as Shoplifter, used the igloo as a metaphor for the home, the womb, the earth and enveloped the audience in a dynamic field of colour, texture, light and shadows. Other pavilions that deserve mention are Ghana, Chile and Brazil. They excelled both in terms of concept and the quality of display. Many considered the Ghana Pavilion the best. It examined the legacies and trajectories of freedom through the work of noted artists El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama, the outstanding painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the artist-film maker and cult figure John Akomfrah. The Chilean Pavilion’s exhibition Altered Views was a beautifully presented, well-researched document on the impact and atrocities of colonialism. The Brazil Pavilion presented an extraordinary series of dance moves which become a metaphor for independence and equality. Titled Swinguerra, playing off the words in Brazil for popular dance and war, the moves reflect local traditions but capture global hierarchies and subtle forms of violence.
Otobang Nkanga. Installation shot of Reconciliation. Round stickers, acrylic and crayon on paper. 2009–2018. Photograph by Andrea Avezzù, Italo Rondinella, Francesco Galli and Jacopo Salvi. Image Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia. 2019.
One cannot conclude without noting the work of African American artist Martin Puryear, whose enormous Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute) sits at the entrance of the US Pavilion. Known for his devotion to material and his minimalist forms, this work almost frames one’s experience of the Giardini. The black sun sitting at the apex of a large wooden architectural statement that approximates the sun’s rays could represent many things: Euro-American domination, liberty, freedom, identity and more. As the structure fans out, the US pavilion seems caged by its rays and the spiralling serpent like form behind the rays seems to turn on itself. The spiral is an old symbol for the movement of history, something that has concerned Puryear who is known for his examination of Black American history and ideas about liberty.
The Biennale was established to challenge existing habits of thought, to provoke us into being more responsible towards our fellow human beings and to encourage us to rethink our positions on the many topics it addresses. But set against the backdrop of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, a tourist mecca, the seriousness of the message is lost in the cacophony of commerce and consumerism. Hopefully, some of the works will continue to haunt audiences and occasion a pause and a change of heart and mind.