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The curse of interesting times

Johannes Saar (3/2019)

Johannes Saar reminds us that every road which metaphorically leads to Rome also leads away from it.


8. V–24. XI 2019
Biennale Arte 2019: "May You Live In Interesting Times"
Giardini, Arsenale, the city of Venice
Main exhibition with 79 participants, 89 national pavilions, 22 events accompanying the biennale
Curator: Ralph Rugoff

A few months after its ceremonial opening, this year's Venice Art Biennale has once again melted into the city and become one with the summer humidity typical of Mediterranean countries. Tuxedos and evening gowns have disappeared, as have the directors, curators and artists always dressed in black undertaker fashion. Only blue-collar staff and foot dragging tourists remain. There seems to be space, the heat has scared the weak to higher latitudes or to the shores of the open sea. Only the mad seek to enter the burning stone walls of the lagoon city.


The curator and his ideas

This year's main curator, Ralph Rugoff, born in New York in 1957, has gradually developed from a freelance art critic into a curator and then director of the Hayward Gallery in London. He also recently embarked upon the sixth decade of his life. All indicators seem to suggest he is a suitable candidate for a job that demands global reach, an equal measure of roundabout talk and the ability to coax colossal entities into becoming an exhibition that speaks to everybody. After all, the target group is the whole world and its wallet, not a continent, let alone some region.

In accordance with all the curators of the Venice Biennale before him, Rugoff has proposed a simple umbrella theme, under which one could fit all the mammals, birds and reptiles if necessary. "May You Live In Interesting Times" is an archaic Chinese curse, which the Chinese themselves first heard from Western diplomats on the threshold of the Second World War and which has established itself in Western culture as a truism pertaining to China and its cultural stances, despite it lacking any historical basis.

Rugoff uses this exemplum like a mediaeval admonisher – to indicate the worrying growth of fake news and post-truth in the global Western view of reality. His train of thought casts a shadow over the fact that China seems once again to have been "orientalised", placed into a story devised in the West and imprisoned in an exotic role-play, in which it must perform as the distant and strange land – which seems to fit well with the Anglo-American spatial awareness drawn from London and New York.

However, this conceptual colonialism isn't really brought up much, because it is "only" a regional problem. And anyway, it is hard to think about it in the heat.


The curator and his artists

The 79 artists invited by the curator have found their place, as always, at the Arsenale and the main pavilion at the Giardini. Two expressly different works from each, so each artist could be represented in both exhibitions and so that both exhibitions would be worth a separate admission fee. As usual for grand art events these days, the fruit is ripe before the blossoms. These are not searching artists, they have already found something and done so before the curator found them. These are creators at the height of their careers, who have been offered the opportunity to illustrate the trains of thought of the designated curator.

Nothing has come from this. It is like it has always been; the artists tread well-worn paths and repeat previously successful steps. The proportion of Chinese contemporary artists is remarkable (almost 10% of those invited), but their swift invasion of the large exhibitions of the global West is old news. True, Ai Weiwei (born 1957, China) is not among the participants. And in fact, the Chinese have been largely incorporated into the general populace of participants as heroic radicals to Western individualism and creative freedom, only indirectly rioting against the Chinese cultural policy they see as boring and hostile to change.

In other words, there is also a role as artist awaiting them in the West that conforms to local expectations and they play it well. There are disciples of modernist classical sculpture (Liu Wei, born 1972) and fierce monumentality critical of power (Sun Yuan, born 1972 and Peng Yu, born 1974). Liberal Europeans have quite a few of their own men in Havana as well as Shanghai. And this during a time when Cuba is clinging to its communist past, and an ideological loyalty control-and-points system for law abiding citizens is spreading through a legalised computer virus across digitalising China.

Colonial guilt barges through in a harsher fashion in the way the Anglo-American hand of the curator has set everything in display cases and bestowed them with awards that touches on black history and the traumatic experiences of being black. Zanele Muholi's (born 1972, South-Africa) black and white portraits are the first to welcome visitors to the Arsenale and are also prominent in the main pavilion. They continue to bring to the media's attention questions of the possibility of black lesbian artists to avoid stigmas placed on them by white heterosexual quacks. Frida Orupabo (born 1986, Norway) tries to pick apart a similar bundle of stigmas, namely the options a black woman has to break the racist and chauvinist stereotypes in white pop culture and step out of the world of exotic girls diminished to paper marionettes.

That said, the weightiest contribution comes from Arthur Jafa (born 1960, USA), winner of this year's Golden Lion for best artist and the undisputed audience magnet of the main pavilion. His "White Album" (2018) presents a bountiful posy of visual documents and a couple of camera confessions of white supremacy and paradoxically the fragility of racial self-determination, its performative character and the hunger for media coverage. The Charleston shooter, O. J. Simpson and other anti-heroes in racial conflicts melt together in this procession of pictures with psychoses from Stanley Kubrick's cult film "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) and with obviously trauma-therapeutic appeals for moral self-enforcement. Nevertheless, these voices can be heard across the whole biennale, in the national pavilions as well as at satellite events.

Far Eastern, Middle Eastern, Indo-Chinese and Indian contemporary art has also received an overview that is critical of colonialism. Obviously, Rugoff has a thing for the burden of guilt born by the United States of America as well as the former British Empire, but also the cultural genocide perpetrated by the Spanish conquistadors in Central and South America. Again and again the curator finds artists outside the Christian world or on its creolised borders, speaking the cryptic and wound affected language of homo sacer, the oppressed indigene. And gradually, the fabricated ancient Chinese curse starts to come true with real historical content.

It turns out that there is no continent or region, which white cultural power has not imprisoned in a fabricated story nor reduced to the cultural politics of othering. Teresa Margolles' (born 1963, Mexico) installation at the Giardini with a wall and barbed wire doesn't leave much doubt as to the content – it is the conceptual conquering of Mexico as a problem "behind the wall" and a threat to "our culture". At the Arsenale, Margolles adds a ready-made to this reference with collages of the social price of the cross-border drugs trade – missing person announcements for children forced to become drug mules, a row of cenotaphs of "someone else's children" who have died in "someone else's war", which naturally is not "our problem".

In contrast, one of those to grab attention at both the Arsenale as well as the main pavilion, Martine Gutierrez (born 1989, USA) refers to her Mexican roots in the fictitious ethno-glamour magazine Indigenous Women, where she enacts with the grace of a model various Aztec deities, naturally fuelling the desire machine of the white master concerning the muddled fantasy of a hot, untameable and wild southern woman. She is complemented in a similar fashion by Mari Katayama (born 1987, Japan), whose self-portraits melt together physical disability with the demands placed upon models by the fashion industry and she herself is revived as a cyborg with prostheses, a woman-machine able to satiate the voyeuristic pleasures of even the most demanding male-viewer.

These choices also reflect the curator's image of the exhibition public – a portly white uncle remaining in the position of overseer, fighting his historical guilt concerning the harassment of colonies, people of colour, LGBT minorities and women. Not that Rugoff has announced this as his position as curator – instead his choices speak for themselves in this instance. The curator himself speaks only prudently in open debate.

Gauri Gill (born 1970, India) and Soham Gupta (born 1988, India) waste neither time nor energy in amplifying the Western cultural mirages into a polished mythological display. Together with Shilpa Gupta (born 1976, India), they add colour to the biennale with direct and critical exposures of the social price of India's modernisation. All three are connected by a dystopian stance and the dry documentary approach of film noir and arte povera. Today's India emerges as post-apocalyptic, a wasteland in ruins and destruction, where weakly waifs fight for survival in the meagre shade. Soham Gupta's portrait journeys through the nights in Kolkata's ghettos and casts the asceticism forced upon the homeless and the outlaws on the streets and wastelands in a saintly light one by one before the lens.

Once again we have to acknowledge the authority of Giorgio Agamben's homo sacer idea as well as the reality that an increasing number of people in the modern world are living in a temporary camp at the border of society and are also dying there with no knowledge of the world beyond the borderlands. The historical colonial experience of India is bloody, but neither independence nor a period of relative peace brought succour to its social problems, neither did the fading of the caste society nor the emancipation of women. However, the army of outcasts has grown and the mechanisms of control that discipline it have been perfected.

As a tenuous link, an authentic Chinese proverb hatches from this grisly panorama, which according to sinologists may offer some sort of a credible equivalent to the old homespun understanding of the British diplomats – 寧為太平犬,莫做亂離人 or "better to be a dog during a period of peace than a person during a chaotic period (of war)". Based on these pictures, though, it seems that many see no difference anymore – life has contracted into a purely physical existence and political turns can no longer change this.


National pavilions and their artists

The geography of the exhibition and its visibility is affected by money. More money equals a better location, which in turn, equals more visibility. Even more money equals professional visibility, which the mass of tourists can only dream of. And however you may try, there will always be less of either for the poor and the late – as always, the national pavilions usually implement the exhibition format, through which they address issues that transcend place, nation and state. Only a few newcomers tried to present "the musicality of their steppe" or some other kind of homeland lyricism to the masses fatigued by the heat. However, the poetics of a place and celebrating genius loci does not cut it.

89 national pavilions have been prepared this time round, the more developed countries, as always, at the Giardini in their own exhibition spaces and the growing number of late additions towards the end of the colonnade at the Arsenale, after the artists invited by the curator. And there are late-comers also in the buildings adjacent to the colonnade. A decreasing number of national pavilions can be found in the heart of Venice and on its edges. The remainders mostly congregate in the San Marco and Cannaregio districts as well as on the Zattere banks.

Obviously, the younger countries from the European region congregate at the "family of peoples" at the Arsenale, where the differences between the countries melt into one unending visual carnival. Latvia is there for the second year, Lithuania remains in the Castello district neighbouring the Arsenale. Estonia on the other hand, has moved from beside the Grand Canal in the heart of the city to Venice's neighbouring island, Guidecca, to accompany the lonely pavilion of Iceland. There is no common denominator among the national showcases – each sings according to their own nature. Therefore, it only makes sense to mention one's personal subjective favourites, of which there are three.

First, Canada, located in Giardini. The Inuit artist group Isuma and their 112-minute digital video-installation "One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk" (2019). As president of the USA in the mid-1980s Ronald Reagan, fervently in favour of minimal government, came out with the statement that the most ominous sentence in the English language is: "I am from the government and here to help." This year, Canada's pavilion adds historical content to this chrestomathic position. The public is presented with a video-projection of a laboured dialogue between an elder of an Inuit community and a representative of the Canadian government amid the arctic snowfields of Baffin Island.



Still from "One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk", 2019
© Isuma Distribution International
Canadian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale
Photo by Levi Uttak



The discussion re-presents a dialogue that actually took place in 1961 with broad approximation and artistic emphasis, which ended with the deportation of the Inuit into reservations established by the government, to make room to drill for oil. The dialogue consists of reciprocal misunderstanding and good intentions, as well as clearly divergent understandings concerning what is good. Both speakers represent something larger than themselves – one an indigenous culture, the other corporate business interests. Neither can sacrifice them and during the discussion, the embittered government representative presciently starts to perceive the violent aftermath of their talk and his dirty role in the circumstances.

The young interpreter between the two sullen old men gradually rises as the hero in the cascade of misunderstandings. In his attempt to build bridges between the two, he also understands the absurdity of the white master's wish to make the entire indigenous Inuit people happy by removing them from their home. He starts adding his own comments to the cumbersome translation, which the big white boss doesn't catch, although he perceives in the laughter of the Inuits that the seed of his migration project has fallen on the snow.

Second, Lithuania, located at Castello. Artists Rugilé Barzdžiukaité, Vaiva Grainyté and Lina Lapelyté and their opera "Sun & Sea (Marina)" (2019; premiere 2017). Winners of this year's Golden Lion for the best national pavilion at the 2019 Venice Art Biennale. One can look down from the circular balcony on the second floor onto the floor of the atrium. It is covered with sand and behold…!

Below sun-worshippers and sun-seekers, drowsy sun-bathers with families, dogs and children lollop around – beer bellies, caesareans, the overweight and the underweight, whites and coloureds. A patterned mosaic of towels on the sand, deck-chairs, beach food, ice cream, sandwiches in plastic boxes. From time to time, one of the loungers lifts their eyes to the heavens (read: towards the viewers) and presents a complaining aria about the pointless drifting of their life towards the inevitable climate catastrophe. And fades back into the invincible exhaustion of the spotlight of the fatal sun. After that, someone else presents a personal melodic complaint. It turns out that every one of them is a classically trained singer, all of them in this production slowly dying due to the climate, all of them have already given up the fight and instead have been practicing for some time the sentence, "Oh, I am dying!" in this opera aria.

The placement of the audience in the position of gods and the arias rising up towards the heavens or the circular balcony has a strong effect. Framing the climate message as Job's Lament also adds an Old Testament layer of meaning to the situation. That said, the presenters do not carry the religious burden of Judaism nor the anger of Yahweh on their shoulders. No, their everyday prose is the sadness of the earthly, inactive lounging of obese idlers with time on their hands. An existential lament before the Last Judgement, a late confession from the mortals left behind by Noah's Ark.

Third, Brazil, located at Giardini. Artists Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca and their two-channel video-installation "Swinguerra" (2019). The title of the work is derived from the provocative hip movement from Brazilian street dance and the word for "war". A dance battle summarises the story of the series of images, but not the various social and sexual allusions therein. First, the obscenity and narrative motifs of sexual domination in the lyrics, which add a subtitled story to the choreography and rhythm. These provide the work with a basic legibility. However, the story told by the pictures greatly trumps that of the words. All the dancers, more precisely, two rival groups, represent both genders.

The cloths, hairstyles, actions, glances and stance of all of them simultaneously combine the cultural gender roles of both men and women and this elevates the work above the war of the sexes. What remains is an androgynous battle of bodies barefoot on sand, as well as a war of glances and dance pieces evolving from attack formations, from clenched fists, from tactical repositionings and prowlings on the battlefield and around it. With a background of a dark night sky and the ruins of the Brazilian economic success story, this series of images also emerges from an abandoned ghetto landscape, which does not include bright highways extending beyond the horizon. The whole battle starts and ends here and it lacks a noble and grand justification.


Instead of a conclusion

Obviously, we can dismiss the idea of a shared Baltic pavilion for some time. The three neighbours have for some time made decisions that have removed them from each other.

Lithuania's prize-political success this time makes one ask whether they need a shared pavilion, would it give them anything. Their persistence in Castello, right next to the Arsenale, has provided them with a spot on the geographic map of the biennale and their location will be remembered, the more knowledgeable public visiting the biennale will add that location to their logistical plan far in advance.

Latvia already selected a gap between pillars at the Arsenale instead of the old city last biennale, after eight national pavilions and 14 years presenting at the Palazzo Malipiero, and Estonia has chosen a customised boat shed on Guidecca. Both lose a degree of visibility, but for opposite reasons. The Latvian pavilion drowns among the multitude of visual impressions of the curated exhibition at Arsenale, whereas the Estonian pavilion on Guidecca is starved of daily visitors. Yet perhaps that is how it was meant to go; in a strange way, it reflects recent local political developments in Estonia – a tiny "pariah state" on the road to cultural isolationism.

Every road that leads to Rome, also leads away from it.


Johannes Saar is an art historian, art critic and media sociologist.

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