This was my first time attending the Venice Biennale (better late than never!). I visited in October 2019. The event is held every two years and is described as being ‘The Olympics’ of the art world. There are pavillions in the garden area of Venice where the work is show, as well as in the Arsenale and also around Venice itself. It has a long history (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venice_Biennale).
Here are a few notes on some of the work that I enjoyed seeing. There is a massive amount of art on display, so I’m only going to point out the works that personally resonated with me.
There was a surprising amount of work that I was actually familiar with because the artist had either been featured in Sculpture magazine, or I had seen their work exhibited or seen it online through art news channels. These included: Jimmie Durham; Alexandre Bircken; Jesse Darling; Shilpa Gupta; Hito Steyerl; Alex Da Corte; Benjamin De Burca; Roman Stańczak; Ranate Bertlmann; Martin Puryear; Rosemarie Trockel; Cathy Wilkes; Christine Marclay; Teresa Margolles; Christine and Margaret Wertheim; Eva Rothschild; Enrico David; Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster; Martine Gutierrez.
‘Mondo Cane’ by Jos De Gruyter in the Belgium pavilion was very interesting as the artists had used servo mechanisms and embedded systems (such as Arduino) as the controllers to create an installation of robotic figures. Anyone who has ever experimented with this as a material will know how difficult, complicated and time consuming it can be. Furthermore, to ensure that it is robust and capable of running daily for 6 months is a feat in itself!
The front of the main building was covered with a fog that was generated from the roof. This was a work titled ‘Thinking Head’ by Lara Favaretto (Italy). There was a lot of art and technology on display. At the entrance of the Central Pavilion Antoine Catala’s nine large panels covered in coloured silicone constitute the work It’s Over (2019). Stationary for one minute and slowly morphing into something else. However I’m not sure how much of the technology was actually manipulated and made into an art work by the artist versus being wholesale shipped in from a supplier i.e. in the form a multi bank of 12 monitors with little computers to play the video across all of them! I always like to see how cleverly artists can work with technology, but I think it gets a bit lost at this level in amongst $$$s worth of commercial equipment. If it was not spectacular technology on display, then it was minimal art works. However there were some really interesting uses of technology, such as Jon Rafman’s ‘Disasters under the sun’ that uses AI and behavioural modelling to show characters that live in a world of perpetual imminent doom and danger. Hito Steyrl showed 2 large scale video installation. However I did feel that if you took away the mechanisms of spectacle such as wrap around video displays and walkways, then essentially what you have is an ordinary single channel video. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster work took the form of a VR experience in the Arsenale. ‘She opens up new temporal, spatial, and mental dimensions with Endodrome, a project that uses VR (virtual reality) to involve viewers in trance-like encounters where they can alter themselves and their surrounds’.
Sourcing and using objects and materials of a controversial nature forms the work of several artists at the Biennale: Augustas Serapinas (Lithuania) uses blocks from the defunct Ignalina Nuclear power station; Teresa Margolle who uses concrete blocks from a public school front from where a reckoning took place with 4 people involved in organised crime, the bullet holes visible in the blocks; Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel who displayed the boat in which hundreds of migrants died. The 90ft fishing boat sank on the night of 18 April 2015 between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa, after it collided with a vessel that had responded to its distress call. There were only 28 survivors. The people on board were mostly trapped in the hold as the boat capsized. Thought provoking indeed.
Two works by Shilpa Gupta were being displayed and she is a very interesting artist,
‘Shilpa Gupta works around the physical and ideological existence of boundaries, revealing their simultaneously arbitrary and repressive functions. Her practice draws on the interstitial zones between nation states, ethno-religious divides and structures of surveillance – between definitions of legal and illegal, belonging and isolation. Everyday situations are distilled into succinct conceptual gestures; as text, action, object and installation, through which Gupta addresses the imperceptible powers that dictate our lives as citizens or stateless individuals.’
Untitled(2009) is a gate slamming back and forward against a wall and the plaster work after months is falling apart. It mad me think of a door being slammed shut. Gupta’s other work was 100 microphones that had been rewired to act as listening devices. The multi-channel sound installation ‘For, in your tongue, I cannot hide’ gives voice to 100 poets who have been jailed through time for their writing or their beliefs. On entering the dimly-lit space visitors encountered 100 microphones suspended over 100 metal rods, each piercing a verse of poetry. Over the course of an hour, each microphone in turn recites a fragment of the poets’ words, spoken first by a single voice then echoed by a chorus which shifts across the space.
Several pavilions appeared to eschew from presenting the image of forward thinking cutting edge technology and it’s influence on the human condition in favour of the more traditional static inanimate world of minimal objects. This was evident in the some of the pavillions of the Eastern European countries, but also in the British pavillion (Cathy Wilkes) and the American pavilion showing Martin Puryear.
The works I felt resonated the most for me were by Shilpa Gupta, Christian Marclay (49 War Movies), the Brazil pavilion ‘Swinguerra’ by Benjamin De Burca & Barbara Wagner, the Polish pavilion and Roman Stanczak’s ‘inside out plane’ and finally Jon Rafman’s amazing ‘Dreamland Journal 2016-2019’ film which is best described as a ‘3D-hobbyist computer animation depicting an ever-expanding absurdist narrative’.