Venice Biennale: May You Live in Interesting Times

Every other year since 1895, Venice becomes the Mecca for artists, dealers, curators and art lovers. They flock together to absorb the frankly staggering collection of contemporary art on display by the Biennale Foundation.

The 58th International Art Exhibition launched last Saturday. The Central Exhibition, curated by Ralph Rugoff, features works from 79 artists. The shows are divided into two separate locations, one at the Arsenale and one at the Central Pavilion in the Giardini; both “propositions” include works by all the participating artists.

In addition, on display are 90 national pavilions, each with its own autonomous and bespoke exhibition featuring the work of an artist or artists, commissioned to represent the host country.

Renate Bertlmann in the Austrian Pavillion.  Photo credit: @sruffa

Renate Bertlmann in the Austrian Pavillion. Photo credit: @sruffa

The title “May you live in Interesting Times”, is an English expression that has long been erroneously cited as a Chinese curse invoking periods of uncertainty, crisis and turmoil- an apt description of our current times.

Too much art? Perhaps. With so much on display, the average visitor may feel overwhelmed; critics have certainly eluded to repetition and ennui. Despite this, it cannot be denied that some truly extraordinary installations and shows are waiting to be explored.


BEST NATIONAL PARTICIPANT

This year’s showstopper and winner of the Golden Lion for Best National Participant is the Lithuanian Pavilion. Sun & Sea (Marina) is an opera about climate change by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė. The pavilion has been transformed into a pristine beach complete with all manner of sunbathers who sing continually for eight hours each day. A truly spectacular installation which is viewed from above through a hole in the floor.

Lithuanian Pavillion, Golden Lion for Best National Participant.  Photo credit: @ave_22

Lithuanian Pavillion, Golden Lion for Best National Participant. Photo credit: @ave_22

Special mention in this category went to Belgium which presented animatronic figures by Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys.

Belgium Pavillion.  Photo credit: @jacopo_salvi

Belgium Pavillion. Photo credit: @jacopo_salvi


BEST PARTICIPANT

Arthur Jafa, an African American video artist and cinematographer, was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion for Best Participant in the central exhibition.

Arthur Jafa, Golden Lion for Best Participant.  Photo credit: @jacopo_salvi

Arthur Jafa, Golden Lion for Best Participant. Photo credit: @jacopo_salvi

Among the special mentions in that category was Nigerian born visual and performance artist, Otobong Nkanga.

Otobong Nkanga, Special Mention.  Photo credit: Andrea Avezzu

Otobong Nkanga, Special Mention. Photo credit: Andrea Avezzu


LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT

Jimmie Durham, an American sculptor, essayist and poet was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Rugoff, the curator, praised the 78-year-old artist “for making art that is at once critical, humorous, and profoundly humanistic”, then added, considering Durham had his first solo show back in 1965, “we should probably be giving him two lifetime awards by this point in time.”

Jimmie Durham, Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.  Photo credit @labiennale

Jimmie Durham, Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Photo credit @labiennale


HONOURABLE MENTION

Honourable mention must go to Ghana’s powerful first pavilion at the biennial titled “Ghana Freedom”. Curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim, the pavilion featured paintings by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, films by John Akomfran, shimmering bottle top hangings and tremendous black and white portraits from the 1960’s by Felicia Abban, Ghana’s 1st professional female photographer. Housed in a structure designed by architect David Adjaye the Ghana Pavilion is a stunning amalgamation of art and architecture.

Ghana Pavillion.  Photo credit: @luxenoirmag

Ghana Pavillion. Photo credit: @luxenoirmag

Portraits by Felicia Abban, walls designed by David Adjaye.  Photo credit: @luxenoirmag

Portraits by Felicia Abban, walls designed by David Adjaye. Photo credit: @luxenoirmag

 

Museums and foundations in Venice also put on their biggest shows during the Biennale. If you have a spare week this summer, Venice would be the place to be.