‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ is curated by Ralph Rugoff and the title of this year’s main exhibition is supposedly taken from an ancient Chinese curse; the phrase was popularized by figures including the British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain and US Senator Ted Kennedy. Rugoff has said that the exhibition includes ‘artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today’, while nevertheless acknowledging that ‘art does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics’. As well as the main show, 90 nations will stage their own curated exhibitions in pavilions across Venice, including Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia and Pakistan, who will participate for the first time.
Before we move onto the pavilions, we have to mention six gigantic human hands rise 50 feet above the old shipyards of the Arsenale. For Lorenzo Quinn’s sculpture ‘Building Bridges’. The colossal resin fibre artwork is billed as a reminder to political leaders that we need to ‘work together’ in order to battle climate change. “I want everyone to be able to relate to my sculptures,” he says, “hands are familiar, of course, but also acceptable worldwide, removing the issue of censorship and taking away the element of race and gender. If I want to communicate with everyone, I have to do it through a universal language.” Each pair is designed to represent one of six human values—friendship, wisdom, help, hope, faith and love—providing a timely celebration of the power of forming connections rather than constructing walls and barriers.
Shoplifter – Iceland Pavilion
Artist Shoplifter aka Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, is known for her collaborations with Björk (she designed the Medúlla album cover) but is also renowned for making enormous, furry installations of synthetic hair. It breaks the ”don’t touch the art” rule too, as visitors are encouraged to hug the furry icicles hanging from the ceiling. Artist Shoplifter has transformed a warehouse into ‘a giant psychedelic furry grotto’ that helps visitors reconnect with their primal selves for 2019 Icelandic Pavilion. “I wanted to create a completely immersive space that would embrace the viewer,” Arnardóttir told. “It’s like an inverted animal fur hide, like going into the belly of the beast.”
Deep See Blue Surrounding You – France Pavilion
For her project for the French Pavilion, Laure Prouvost has imagined a liquid and tentacular environment, questioning who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Tinged with utopia and surrealism, the project discloses an escapist journey, both tangible and imaginary, towards an ideal elsewhere. The exhibition takes the form of an invitation to melt into the different unveiled and shared realities intermingling here and challenges the representation of fluid and globalized world, made of exchanges, connectivity, and discrepancies.
We, Elsewhere – Turkey Pavilion
Designed as an architectural installation, We, Elsewhere , a new work by İnci Eviner is an investigation into the spaces that we create and are created for us as a result of collective displacements and how subjects who find themselves in these spaces react and interact with one another. Reconfigured objects and characters crafted by Eviner evoke the sense of a search for the missing, the erased and that which is elsewhere. The space uses different levels of aural and visual elements such as drawing, moving image, sculpture, sound and performance, interacting with one another in order to insinuate the workings of a device. The visitors are invited to walk along ramps, courtyards and edges of the space, which displays permeability, allowing views through cuts and cracks in the walls. Together, the characters, the space and the paths tell a story akin to Hannah Arendt’s narrative of struggles in “We Refugees.”
“They would not let us in, and so we rose, indignant, from below. But we found we had left behind, all the way down there, fragments from an arm, a leg, another half, a flank. There lies the reason for the cripple’s limp in our step, the shiver in our crawl, the hiccough in our speech, the stutter in our coupling.” Orhan Pamuk, from the book that he wrote for We, Elsewhere, 2019
Sun & Sea: (Marina) – Lithuania Pavilion
The winner of Golden Lion prize at the Venice Biennale for its indoor beach installation, Sun & Sea (Marina), is an opera about climate change set at the beach. The pavilion offers the spectacle of a beach of holidaymakers singing an “opera-performance” and the observation of sitting idly in the sun while everything around you rots. Their stream-of-consciousness libretto, alternating between solo songs and group choruses, is by turns prosaic, poetic, bizarre and often very funny. But this apparently charming microcosm of humanity comes with a barbed ecological message for the age of climate emergency—stay until the end for the full apocalyptic impact. The work, however, comes with a barbed message for humanity, warning of ecological disaster.
Island Weather – Philippines Pavilion
Artist Mark Justiniani reflects on the thousands of islands that make up the Philippines, contemplating the land masses as they relate to the nation’s colonial history, the environment, and social issues by sleek islands filled with mirrors that create an infinity effect. “We call it Island Weather because the weather is not just atmospheric weather, it’s about the state of the world, how fickle situations can be, and how vulnerable we are,” said curator Tessa Maria Guazon. By allowing viewers to experience the work by walking on it, Guazon added, that emphasizes “how deceptive appearances are.”
3x3x6 – Taiwan Pavilion
The Internet art pioneer Shu Lea Cheang has been working in the digital realm since before most millennials were born (the early 1990s). Now, she brings an app and exhibition called “3x3x6,” referring to the size of a prison cell. Her exhibition, which is in the Palazzo delle Prigioni (a 16th-century prison), comments on our current surveillance state and the perils of facial recognition and smartphones. In 10 short “trans punk fiction” films, she presents legal cases where people have been imprisoned for their gender or racial nonconformity. It’s not all Judge Judy jargon—some clips are YouTube-esque cooking classes, while others are bedroom dance parties..”
Cheang states, “With this exhibition, we explore the possible strategies for resistance against highly controlled societies, the self-affirming dignity against repression, and the variable versions of self-granted pursuits for (un)happiness.”
Swinguerra – Brazil Pavilion
Though Brazil is under conservative rule, the country’s national pavilion is anything but. This video celebrates swinguerra, a dance phenomenon in the city of Recife, where youth groups’ battle in annual dance-offs. It comes off like a choreographed music video, but swinguerra is also a competitive sport. Fusing hip-hop and samba, it’s an inclusive, underground community of mostly nonbinary dancers. The curator Gabriel Perez-Barreiro says this video is at the core of the country’s “disputes on visibility, legal rights, and self-representation.” The name of the project, Swinguerra, combines the style of dance with the Portuguese word for war—a reference to the fact that these dancers (predominantly black and non-binary) are also at the center of an offscreen sociopolitical debate in Brazil, where some question whether their bodies, which move so freely onscreen, have the right even to exist.
“Liberty/Libertá” – United States Pavilion
Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà reflects Puryear’s long-held interest in the power of objects in visual culture and how they are shaped by historical and contemporary contexts. While his vocabulary is distinctly American, his practice incorporates different manifestations of material culture from around the world. His work challenges expectations about how everyday forms become sources and symbols that transform perception, inspire individuals, and question history.
Moving Backwards – Switzerland Pavilion
Switzerland has turned its pavilion into a darkened night club, with a sequined curtain opening to reveal Moving Backwards, a film by Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz. They wrote a bold letter simultaneously welcoming visitors to their Swiss pavilion and rejecting their government. The first line reads: “We do not feel represented by our governments and do not agree with decisions taken in our name.” They go on to express their concern over European nations building walls and refusing refugees; rampant hate speech; and a decline in the use of gender-neutral language and polyamory. They propose a recipe for the contemporary state of the world: “Let’s collectively move backwards.”
This statement of resistance comes to life in their pavilion, tapping into contemporary dance and queer underground culture. In a video installation, five dancers from distinct backgrounds follow jaunty choreography and backward dance moves, progressively becoming more expressive with the beat of the music.