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It is almost impossible to describe "Venice's Biennale of Art" in just one article, especially when we talk about this very 58th edition.

However, I will try my best to convey the complexity of my personal impressions. This 2019 edition was a gigantic revelation, like a punch in the face while you are sitting in your comfort zone. I expected to visit Venice, stay overnight, walkthrough interesting sites, and then simply be enriched with a new experience. In the days that followed, the exhibition caused a disturbing silence inside my head, and I felt that kind of sporadic memories typically left by nightmares.

In the exhibition, emotional content is introduced to keep visitors thrilled, allowing them to get more in touch with the Biennale’s concept as well as with a broader vision of a complex, chaotic, unmanageable actuality. The exhibition aims at combining two “complexities”, on the one hand, the intricacy of the show which intentionally escapes from the excess of simplification typical of our times, and on the other, the complexity of the human psyche. For the first time, I happened to cry in front of an artwork, and then I also happened to be afraid. This article does not intend to scholastically explain or draw up the Biennale; instead, it will faithfully follow the line suggested by the curator.

A necessary introduction to the exhibition

In most art fairs, artists interpret and articulate a given central theme. Sounds easy, right? Not exactly, but clearly too easy for Ralph Rugoff, essayist, critic, and curator of this year's Biennale. Currently, he is the director of the Hayward Gallery in London and -between criticisms and praises- he is about to carry out one of the most significant Biennale ever. As a matter of fact, the theme he proposed was "not choosing a theme", or rather, he invited the artists to openly reflect (and make the public reflect) on several issues that stir contemporary society.

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Giardini entrance, Biennale of Art 2019, “May you live in interesting times”, 2019.

The input - and the "fil rouge" of the exhibition - is hidden in plain sight; the Biennale's title "May you live in interesting times (愿你生活在有趣的时代)" is an ancient Chinese curse which has been invoked by politicians and influential authors, for years and years. The curse, used as a supportive artifice to declarations, should have evoked difficult times and crisis periods, except that this curse never really existed. The curious persistence of this saying is what fascinates Rugoff, who reflects on how an "uncertain artefact (Ralph Rugoff)" can generate different and multifaceted visions of the same reality, in a historical period full of fake news. Therefore, the artists who took part in the exhibition focused on questioning the existing categories of thought and the excessive simplification of our present, by complicating and multiplying the perspectives on reality. In this way, they show us the order of things cannot be taken as pre-established.

The issues faced by the artists are almost as many as the artworks are: racism, gender problems, dystopias, violence, climate change, women’s condition, the digital revolution, construction of physical and political walls, migration, and totalitarianism. Art cannot give solutions, but in an indirect way, by providing interesting points of view, it can represent “a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times’ ”, as Rugoff states. To exalt this aspect, the curator overturns another certainty; the consolidated format of the exhibition at the Biennale is mirrored. The Arsenale and the Giardini Central Pavilion host the same artists for the first time.

Now, I would like to guide you in these "interesting times". I set a beginning and an end, as cardinal points to rediscover the route and to provide one of the possible perspectives of the exhibition.

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What is most important about an exhibition is not what happens inside a gallery, but how audiences use their experience afterwards to re-imagine everyday realities from expanded perspectives. In other words, an exhibition should make the most of art’s capacity to open people’s eyes to previously unconsidered ways of being in the world so that they might change, however briefly, their view of that world and their place in it.

This is what it means to live in interesting times.

Ralph Rugoff, curator of Biennale of Art 2019


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Lara Favaretto, "Thinking Head," 2017-2019, Giardini Central Pavillon.

My path opens with the entrance in the Gardens Central Pavilion. Lara Favaretto introduces us to the exhibition with a high-impact work, “Thinking Head”, which wraps the subjects giving them the lightness of a listening mind. It prepares us to set our synapses in motion and to take part in a challenging contemporary debate. Ideally, coupling this work with the first one we "experience" as we enter, the message is clear.

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Ryoji Ikeda, "spectra III", 2008, Giardini Central Pavillon.

“spectra III”, a corridor of neon lights and luminescent tubes that emit a blinding white light, whose intent is to generate a blank slate in the visitor's mind, preparing it to receive data and information with a purified vision. A baptism of light that makes us ready to face the path ahead with a preconceived perspective.

We have entered ”the interesting times”. Here, it is difficult to get lost. Keeping faith in the exhibition’s concept, I chose to describe what struck me and the most interesting works, filtered with my perception. My perspective of the interesting times.

The Interesting Things

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Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, "Can’t Help Myself", 2016, Giardini Central Pavillon.

Uncanny, spectacular and immediately political; it’s the description of the vast robotic arm designed to contain, within a specific area, a red liquid that spreads without interruption.

The reason for its success can be traced back to the terrifying aspect of the work (all scattered in its turn with "blood"), and to the humanization that has been accomplished by the artists; the arm moves relentlessly inside its transparent cage through 32 movements that were "taught" to it. The movements, as well as the autonomy of which the machine has been equipped, lead the public assimilates it to a living creature. The arm obeys and compulsively carries blood. The interpretation remains deliberately open, but the work evokes a reflection on the fear for the future, on dystopias, on vulnerability, on conditioning, and on coercive power, which seems to be the main points of the Biennale's most photographed work.

The Intimate Tragedy
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Andra Ursuţa, "Divorce Dump", 2019, Giardini Central Pavillon.

In “Divorce Dump”, the artist transforms human cages in trash bins. At first sight, it's something that could not arouse reactions. But, when I found myself reading the title, the profound message of the artwork has revealed itself in front of my eyes, as well as the direct involvement of the artist. This was the artwork that made me cry. These solitude skeletons hanged on the wall suddenly talked about an intimate tragedy: the everyday objects become purely existential garbage and the chest a heavy trash can, containing concrete memories. The objects which usually surround us (often unnoticed) regain their central meaning, describing a failed marriage.

Different Perspectives
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Alexandra Bircken, "1199", 2019, Giardini Central Pavillon.

My favorite Biennale photography so far is a man “using” the artwork as an everyday object. As I said in my introduction, the artworks presented in “May you live interesting times” are extraordinarily contemporary and tells us about our very times. In “1199”, the artist divides a motorbike into two parts to detect the inner life and provocatively "quieten" the object, reversing our usual certain on reality. This frame really encloses the spirit of this Biennale, where artists and the public are a call to seek a new way of pondering facts, from multiple points of view. So, this man “walking through art” reminds me of the dadaist ready-made philosophy of Duchamp. We see an artwork, he sees a passage in a crowded parking lot.

The Violence of Censorship

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Shilpa Gupta, "For, in your tongue. I cannot fit", 2017-2018, Arsenale.

Shilpa Gupta is an artist who focuses on the concept of border, from a physical and ideological point of view, revealing its arbitrary and repressive aspects. The artwork is a sound installation that re-enlivens 100 poets who have been jailed for their writing or political alignments. The artist commemorates the poets' right through their “voices". 100 microphones are suspended above 100 metal spikes; every spike pierces a page inscribed with verses of poetry. Each microphone, used as a loudspeaker, plays these verses. The composition alternates between English, Arabic, Russian, Spanish, Hindi, amongst other languages.

Consumerism and Climate Change
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Yin Xiuzhen, "Trojan", 2016-2017, Arsenale.

Yin Xiuzhen is a Chinese sculptor and installation artist. She uses textiles and recycled materials to create strong socio-political matrix performances.

With “Trojan”, she focuses on the excessive consumerism of Chinese society, as well as climate change issues and the environmental impact of the fashion industry, and investigates these topical issues through the threads of memory. “Trojan” is a human-like sculpture that portrays a passenger assuming the brace position on a plane seat. A warning to prepare us for very dark times.

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1.Tavares Strachan, "Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.", 2018, Arsenale.
2.Tavares Strachan, "Robert", 2018, Arsenale.

Tavares Strachan “brings to light” the history of the first African American astronaut, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., who died in a training accident in 1967. He has remained almost invisible in American space travel history. The artist remembers the astronaut with a neon inscription, which reveals the racism directed towards him, even after his death. He decided to complete the commemoration, bringing the “soul” of the astronaut in space. The second part of the artwork, “Robert”, portrays the astronaut skeleton. Strachan worked with the private aerospace technology company SpaceX to launch a 24k gold sculpture of the astronaut, entitled ENOCH, into orbit. When this satellite passes over Italy, every 4 hours, the skeleton turns off for one minute.

Social Injustice
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Aya Ben Ron, "Field Hospital X", 2019, Israeli Pavillon, Giardini

“Field Hospital X” is the name of the mobile institution founded by Aya Ben Ron. It is a "clinic" that investigates how art can act in front of social ills and corruption of society’s values. The artist builds a place in which silent voices can be heard, and social injustices are made visible through a collective process of catharsis and awareness-raising. This represented, for me, the most impactful artwork because it uses an everyday life background to spread sensitive information through real stories, which are often hidden because of fear.

Violence of War
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Christian Marclay, "48 War Movies", 2019, Arsenale.

Christian Marclay uses already existing images, videos, objects, sounds, and plays with them to realize stunning and disturbing artworks. “48 War Movies" broadcasts simultaneously 48 individual films about war, layered one on top of another, with just their outer edges visible.

The result is an extreme violent installation due to multiple high volume shots and screams sounds. The vision of those different movies together generates confusion. The installation repeats the contents in a continuous loop, thanks to the constant permutations: a clear message, without saying it, about the never-ending history of war.

The Diversity
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Mari Katayama, "On the way home", 2016, Giardini Central Pavillon.

The artist was born with a rare disease that affects the shins. In her case, also the right hand. At age 9 years, she decides to have his lower legs amputated. The shots depict the artist surrounded by self-manufactured objects since childhood, including hand-sewn reproductions of her out of the ordinary body (also present in the exhibition space). Mari Katayama does not hide but exalts her diversity dressing cloaks sewn by herself, soft sprawling sculptures that multiply her limbs. The artist firmly asserts her own self, reasoning beyond the standard of beauty.

Digital Media’s Ubiquity
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Ed Atkins, "Old Food -Good Man-", 2017, Arsenale.

Ed Atkins is a British contemporary artist best known for his video art. He is the most distinguished representative of artists explicitly responding to digital media's ever-increasing ubiquity. His CGI animations reveal, on the one hand, a precise digital construction, but on the other, they portray subjects with disquieting realism, constantly contradicting both their realism and their elaborate technology. “Old Food” is crowded with subjects, voiced by the artist himself, prey to incomprehensible psychic crises, and stuck in an incurable melancholy. A giant child, an old man, a boy stare insistently at you while they cry, drool, in front of an ideal camera. Ed Atkins is talking about us. It’s about our inner melancholic feeling, which can be hidden, but they still remain inside. It's funny how Atkins inserts a spinning little logo of Facebook, while they can't stop crying.


At the end of the trip, I selected two works that conceptually and physically outline the end. We find Ryoji Ikeda again: He frames the beginning and the end of my treatment.

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Ryoji Ikeda, "data-verse1", 2019, Arsenale.

His last message is enclosed in a gigantic immersive work, “data-verse1”, which ideally puts together all the voices heard so far, through a flow of visual and sound stimuli. His installation draws on immense reservoirs of data that are projected on a large-format video (some extrapolated from institutions such as CERN, NASA, and Human Genome Project), developing mathematical compositions that reveal an enormous amount of information and the coexistence of a multitude of events that dominates us. The point is that let’s remember we are not alone, that we are interconnected, and that we all come from gigantic phenomena.

Finally, the concept is reinforced by one of the strongest and most eloquent works of the exhibition, which tells us, without mincing words, that we are all in the same boat. And it is not really "a" boat, but "the" boat.

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Christoph Büchel, "Barca Nostra", 2018-2019, Arsenale.

At a time when the controversy over illegal immigration is at the center of political debate in Italy, the artwork Barca Nostra acquires a profound significance. The artwork, placed outside the Arsenal Pavillon, is an unexpected vision, made disturbing by the proximity of the water, and by the visible gaps in the hull, facing the public. We can see it there, alone, far from the noises, inviting us to a silent reflection. Barca Nostra, before Christoph Büchel, was the Eritrean vessel that shipwrecked on 18th April 2015, off the coast of Libya, the most tragic shipwreck in Mediterranean sea history. The shipwreck led to the disappearance of an imprecise number of people, estimated to be about 700 to 900; The number of deaths was 58, the survivors 28, the remaining people were considered missing. Although the maritime disasters have not yet found their end, the work constitutes a solid reminder, an irrefutable proof of inadequates political strategies, and a monument to freedom and unity. Barca Nostra is the symbol of migrations, which in recent years have acquired an extremely negative connotation. Besides, it is specifically exhibited in Venice, a port city of meetings and unions of peoples par excellence, such as the Biennale. The Union of different nationalities, freedom of thought, freedom of information and expression, relativity of reality, awareness-raising, and deconstruction of dogmas and facts - These are words that seem to reassume the Biennale of Art 2019 most appropriately. The 58th International Art Exhibition, which outspoken protects and uplifts the courage of its artists, invites us “to discern the ways in which ‘order’ has become the simultaneous presence of diverse orders (Ralph Rugoff)", and to consider unknown alternatives and viewpoints to enrich our way of thinking. Are you ready to find yours? Even if cursed, I am grateful to live in these "interesting times".


© Text: Statement by Ralph Rugoff, Curator of the 58th International Art Exhibition. Curtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Event Info

VenueVenice, Italy
PeriodMay, 11 - Nov. 24, 2019
Closed on Mondays (except November 18th)
HoursGiardini from 10.00 am to 6.00 pm
Arsenale from 10.00 am to 6.00 pm