Messages in the Cacophony of Commerce and Consumerism

Messages in the Cacophony of Commerce and Consumerism

Do the displays at the 58th Venice Biennale measure up to the complex social and political transformations we find ourselves in the middle of? Tasneem Zakaria Mehta is not convinced.

The annual Mela

Shilpa Gupta. For, in your tongue, I cannot fit (Detail). Site-specific sound installation with 100 speakers, microphones, printed text and metal stands. 2017–18. Commissioned by YARAT Contemporary Art Space and Edinburgh Art Festival. Image courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Johnny Barrington. 2019. 

 Every two years the art world gathers at Venice to get a glimpse of new directions, defining artistic practices and a new telos. I was there as part of the committee for the India Pavilion at the Arsenale, one of the two sites where the exhibitions are held, the other being the Giardini. CII’s Art and Culture Committee had vigorously lobbied the Government of India who finally decided, three months before the event and after an eight-year hiatus, to participate in the Biennale. This year the artistic director was Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery in London. Given the fraught times we live in, his curatorial concept for the Biennale revisits familiar themes. May You Live In Interesting Times, the title of this year’s edition, is an ancient Asian curse repurposed to reflect the contemporary context. To quote Rugoff, “how art functions in an era of lies.” The event has been mounted from the 11th of May to the 24th of November. The selected art works explored all the issues we know – climate change, global exploitation, LGBTQ, gender, nationalism, freedom and more. Many of the artists are familiar faces on the international circuit so there was not much that was different from what one had seen at various museum exhibitions. Though it is always exciting to see good art, the idea of Venice is that it should push the boundaries and this year’s edition did not. The political statement was a familiar one, “May You Live In Interesting Times seeks to foreground ways in which art’s complexity, its signals riddled with contradictions and ambivalence, can illuminate aspects of our current social relations and psyches.” It was an opportunity lost.