Before it sinks into the lagoon, Kirsty Buchanan encounters a gang of difficult women and a bookish man at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
Ralph Rugoff is the curator of May You Live In Interesting Times, the 58th Venice Art Biennale, and both the Giardini and the various scattered pavilions feel refreshingly consistent and a pleasure to meander around.
|Sun Yuan and Peng You, Can’t Help Myself, 2016, image courtesy Ben Davis|
In previous years the Arsenale has felt tedious and walking around a long dark corridor with angry art can be very exhausting. Last year the work seemed to want to cause discomfort to the audience, my recollection was of feeling like I was in a ghost train torture chamber from which I desperately tried to escape. This year however the whole thing is more like a fairground fun house than a horror train. It is not all entirely light hearted of course, there are important and poignant messages throughout, yet it is done with an inviting and inclusive touch which has so much more power. For example the terrifying sculpture by Sun Yuan and Peng Yuan, a giant squeegee that moves red glutinous ink around a perspex box at high speed with violent and abrupt movements which are impossible to predict. Contained, like a dinosaur at a zoo. It is uncomfortable to watch yet mesmerising and at times funny.
The strongest voices are those of troublesome women, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I found myself drawn to the confrontational photographs of Martine Gutiérrez and the witty photographic compositions of Mari Katayama. Renate Bertlmann, the first solo female artist to represent Austria, defines the difficult women of the female avant garde art movement, with her punky tongue in cheek aesthetic, I enjoyed the way it is contained in the clean white Austrian pavilion with her signature covering the outside.
The main highlight of the exhibitions at the Giardini and the Arsenale is the strength of the painting, and most of the paintings I loved were by women. Jill Mulleady’s large yet sensitive compositions made me want to dive into her world. Nicole Eisenman and Nijdeka Akunyili’s paintings contribute to a beautiful conversation between unrelenting women with an exceptional demonstration of sensitivity and accomplishment.
In the satellite exhibitions and pavilions there are a number of references to loss of knowledge, which link nicely to the city of Venice itself. That anxiety of losing knowledge and forgetting history fascinates me and I often feel it when I’m in Venice, a city I love so much but don’t want to imagine ever not existing. Edmund de Waal’s exhibition Psalm is located in two parts, one in the Jewish Ghetto and the other in the beautiful Ateneo building near the Fenice Opera House. The second part is based on the lost libraries of the world and the books written by exiled writers. I found this thought provoking and once the concept was explained by an enthusiastic member of staff I felt compelled to participate by suggesting a book written by an outlaw (Edna O’Brien) and writing my name in a book which has been banned (Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea). The exhibition is however somewhat clunky in its delivery. De Waal’s ceramics don’t make any sense - just placed next to some bookshelves in a box, and the concept was unneccessarily over explained. In this city positioned on the precipice of disappearance the literal weight of this information excess seems particularly inappropriate. With continuing climate change all the artworks and all this information about the artworks could be submerged and lost in the Venice Lagoon. Maybe the weight of all of this excess could just tip the delicate balance – interesting times indeed.
|Edmund de Waal, The Library of Exile, 2019|
11 May - 24 November 2019