VENICE — The Venice Biennale, first held in 1895, is the world’s oldest survey of contemporary art. This year the official exhibition May You Live In Interesting Times had 79 invited artists (or groups) in the Arsenale gallery and the central pavilion of the Giardini. There were, also, 90 official national pavilions in the Giardini. And scattered throughout the city were 21 collateral events and 30-some general exhibitions. Usually the Carnegie International and the Whitney Biennial are confined mostly to a single large building.
Here, however, you needed to travel extensively. Venice is a relatively small city, but getting around on vaporetti, the water buses, takes time. In eight days I saw, sometimes quickly, everything in the central pavilions, some of the national pavilions, and many of the collateral events and general exhibitions.
But most contemporary works here could fit in a Carnegie International or Whitney Biennial. The goal, curator Ralph Rugoff says, is to provide a “guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times,’” a statement vague enough to apply to much contemporary art from everywhere. The handout at the Saudi Pavilion says that its artists’ “complicated sociocultural history forced them, and others, to see and be seen as interesting.” And the brochure in the Pavilion of the Islamic Republic of Iran said that its show, which interested me, “is a homage to life and to precious moments of the past, present and future.”
Rugoff presents art that speaks to the present, not in the direct fashion of journalism, but in ways that can aid in “making sense of the world” by challenging existing habits of thought. His show deals with such important themes as Middle Eastern border disputes, the Nigerian diaspora, minority rights, gender relations, migrants, artificial intelligence, the role of nonhumans in shaping our environment, the idea of progress, Indian nightlife, urban homelessness, and the celebration, and mourning, of Black American lives. Employing familiar international biennial tropes, his artists make installations, videos, and of course much politically critical art. Almost none of them are making work that could fit alongside the Old Master works in Venetian churches.
Rugoff’s division of his show into Proposition A in the Arsenale and Proposition B in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini, aiming to “feature different aspects of each artist’s practice,” wasn’t effective. You would need to walk repeatedly between these physically distant displays, taking notes, in order to understand that distinction. I didn’t.
Do the math! If you devote just 10 minutes to each of the 79 invited artists — not a lot of time since many of them do videos — then, without allowing for the time needed to walk around these large buildings, seeing these works would take two full, busy days.
Nor, I confess, did I understand his title. Since May You Live in Interesting Times is, as the catalogue explains, a fictional phrase, misattributed to the Chinese, does that mean that we do live in interesting times, or not? And because the two-volume catalogue, which costs 85 euros, was too massive for carry on luggage, I relied upon the affordable Short Guide.
When the 1964 Biennale introduced Robert Rauschenberg to European viewers, that exhibition enlarged the European art world. But now the travel of artists and artworks is frequent and swift, and many nations and peoples make art and show it everywhere. And the visual overload in Venice makes for a setting uncomfortably like an art fair, designed for quick consumption without time for contemplation.
It’s difficult to concentrate on work by such good artists as Julie Mehretu, Christian Marclay, or George Condo, whose “Double Elvis” (2019) greets you at the entry to the Arsenale. In contrast, I admired the precision of Altered Views (2019), Voluspa Jarpa’s project for the Chilean Pavilion, an enclosed display that used six case studies to examine the history of European hegemony, with panoramas presenting European cannibalism, Viennese working women, “scientific” racism, Charcot’s hysterical women, and other colonist themes. I would love to see more paintings by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a Nigerian-born American narrative painter, as well as the figurative work of Jill Mulleady, and the installations of Zhanna Kadyrova. And I admired the paintings of Henry Taylor, which I’d seen in the last Carnegie International.
The best National Pavilion was Martin Puryear’s Liberty, the official United States presentation. In five white-walled galleries as well as the entrance courtyard, Puryear dealt with this political theme through works such as “Tabernacle” (2019), an enlarged version of a Civil War military cap, with a glass window on top, so that you can see your reflection inside the crown, and “A Column for Sally Hemings” (2019), a stake mounted on a classical Doric column dedicated to Sally Hemings, the enslaved African American and mistress of Thomas Jefferson, who fathered children with her. And, my favorite, “Hibernian Testosterone” (2018), for which the artist mounted the skull and antlers of a great Irish elk on an upside down cross. One sculpture, “New Voortrekker” (2018), which featured a cart modeled on those used by the South African Voortrekkers and in 19th-century American wagon trains, is overtly literal. But the rest of these works are highly effective.
A number of collateral events also were first-rate. Pittura/Panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952-1992, found on the second floor of Palazzo Grimani, includes 14 large, mostly horizontally oriented works. It provided a good presentation of Frankenthaler’s development in a grand setting that enhanced the aura of the already color-besotted paintings.
In “Pink Bird Figure” (1961) she paints that enormous abstracted bird-shape on a relatively blank canvas. “Italian Beach” (1960) sets intensely colored green, blue, and ochre shapes on the raw white canvas. And “Overture” (1992), which unlike the two earlier oil paintings uses acrylic, covers the canvas almost entirely with gestural green. If the Old Master Venetians had painted abstractly, they might have done sensuously handsome works like these.
At Fondazione Prada, more than 60 works from 1959 to 2015 by Jannis Kounellis are presented in Ca’ Corner della Regina, the grandiose 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal, in another, very different full-scale retrospective. Employing raw materials such as soil, cacti, wool, coal, cotton, fire, and — in “Untitled (Tragedia civile)” (1975), gold leaf contrasting with black clothing, Kounellis revealed the poetry of absolutely banal artifacts.
“I use the space as a theatrical cavity,” one wall label says, quoting the artist: “The space needs to exist in order to express myself.” When he began to make large installations in the late 1980s, he used stones, lead sheets, and iron bars. In one room, an enormous, rectangular array of grappa glasses covers one side of the floor. “Liberalism,” another wall label reads, “has granted painting a freedom reaching to the limits of the imaginary and has fully restored the role of the intellectual to the artist.” Kounellis used that freedom wisely.
Förg in Venice, at Palazzo Contarini Polignac, however, shows what goes wrong when a gifted artist is presented in an infelicitous setting. Gunther Förg’s small sculptures and informal paintings are overwhelmed by the marvelous galleries of the luxurious Palazzo, which sits beside the Academia on the Grand Canal.
Alongside the gorgeous Venetian wall mirrors and stucco decorations, Förg’s works seemed slight. By contrast, Emilio Vedova’s show curated by Georg Baselitz in Bigliettera Spazio Vedova, a stripped-down permanent exhibition space designed by Renzo Piano, is a most effective installation of this Venetian Abstract Expressionist. In a long dark wide tunnel, sloping downwards, with large paintings on both sides, you see his large mostly monochromatic paintings, akin to the art of Franz Kline, to best advantage.
Notes: Venice Art Biennale 2019: Map-Planner-Journal, inexpensive and lightweight, available from Amazon, has full maps. On the visual environment, see S. J. Freedberg, Painting in Italy 1500 to 1600 (1970). On the political setting, Migropolis: Venice/Atlas of a Global Situation (2010) by Wolfgang Scheppe and his colleagues. The short guide is May You Live in Interesting Times (2019).
The 2019 Venice Biennale continues through November 24. The official exhibition, May You Live In Interesting Times is curated by Ralph Rugoff. Voluspa Jarpa: Altered Views at the Pavilion of Chile is curated by Agustín Pérez Rubio. Martin Puryear: Liberty / Libertà at the Pavilion of the United States of America is curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport.
Pittura/Panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952-1992 continues at Museo di Palazzo Grimani, Venice, through November 17. The exhibition is curated by John Elderfield.
Jannis Kounellis continues at Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice, through November 24. The exhibition is curated by Germano Celant.
Förg in Venice continues at Palazzo Contarini Polignac, Venice, through August 23. The exhibition is curated by Elisa Schaar.
Emilio Vedova di/by Georg Baselitz continues at Bigliettera Spazio Vedova, Venice, through November 3. The exhibition is curated by Georg Baselitz.
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