Political chaos is spreading, and climate change is upon us. Meanwhile, populist leaders throughout the world are scapegoating immigrants, trashing environmental regulations and spreading blatant lies. But at the 2019 Venice Art Biennale, one of the world’s most important art exhibitions, artists are fighting back in what may be the largest exhibition of politically subversive art ever shown.
Ralph Rugoff, curator of this year’s Biennale, titled the show “May You Live in Interesting Times,” after an apocryphal Chinese “curse” pertaining to periods of danger and uncertainty, which has been cited by politicians ranging from British imperialist Joseph Chamberlain to Hilary Rodham Clinton. In his essay for the exhibition, Rugoff writes that “art can give us tools to reimagine the possibilities of these ‘interesting times’ and so transform this phrase from a curse into a challenge that we can enthusiastically embrace.”
Rugoff’s revolutionary agenda is conspicuous for an art exhibition, where the official opening in May also featured glittering parties in Venetian palazzos and a legion of plutocrats and oligarchs. The contrast was especially striking at the Biennale’s main exhibition space, a cavernous brick building known as the Arsenale, in which almost every other artwork appears to be about poverty, sexism, environmental degradation, racism, or political violence.
Indeed, at this year’s Biennale, the only thing holding an otherwise disparate show together is the focus on the ills of our time. The main exhibition features the work of 79 artists from around the world and includes sculptures of the growing homeless population in Athens, videos showing Palestinian protestors trying to breach the border in the Golan Heights, and paintings of verdant landscapes that include images of political violence in Kenya. One series of photographs shows half-finished housing developments and piles of garbage outside of Rome. Another series is about the fallout from aspirational housing developments gone bust in India, which according to an accompanying text is linked to, “developers hoardings peddling unattainable dreams.” Capitalism’s failures are rife.
One of the first exhibits is a salvo of harrowing nocturnal photographs from the series titled Angst by Soham Gupta, showing disheveled street people in Kolkata, India, whom, as an accompanying text informs us, have suffered “abuse and abandonment.” Their faces display expressions of pain, madness or lust. They are posed embracing one another, dancing wildly, lurching towards the camera or simply sitting quietly in abject loneliness. Gupta gets up close with his camera and shows these spectral characters in a soft light against a black backdrop, revealing a humanity within that you might not otherwise notice.
It might be overly ambitious to think that art can help make society more just and compassionate. However, Rugoff is expecting between 180,000 to 600,000 visitors to his show, which runs through November 11th, 2019, and is hoping that it will help change the conversation. He maintains that artists have a unique role in combatting the conspiracy theories and narrow nationalistic messages on social media that increasingly are shaping political discourse. He says that art can reveal hidden or unfamiliar truths in profoundly different ways than can journalism or historical reporting. “We [the public] don’t see things in the same ways that artists do,” Rugoff told me. “They are asking us to hold different images in our minds at one time.”
Plato warned about art’s ability to present alternative realities to the body politic, and it seems axiomatic that the more repressive a society is, the more threated it is by artists. Edouard Manet’s painting, Execution of Maximillian, was censored by the French government shortly after it was painted in 1867 because it portrayed the French puppet emperor being shot by a firing squad of Mexican revolutionaries. Fascist regimes and dictators are notoriously fearful of abstract art.
Considering that China censored images of Winnie the Pooh because bloggers were comparing the cartoon character’s appearance to Chinese President Xi Jinping, it is understandable that much of the artwork currently being produced in that country is not overtly critical of the regime. But in totalitarian societies, art is politicized even it doesn’t convey a literal political message.
“If you are an artist in China today, you are dealing with political import,” Rugoff told me, giving as an example an art installation at the Biennale’s Central Pavilion titled Can’t Help Myself by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, in which an enormous robot with a mop at the end of its arm moves with terrifying jerks as it repeatedly attempts to control a flowing red substance that looks like blood.
Currently, in most parts of the world, artists can more directly challenge the system. Several of the most political pieces in the show had their roots in Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, found objects that take on new meanings when signed by an artist and displayed in a museum or a gallery.
One is Teresa Margolles’ meditation on the violence engulfing parts of Mexico, which consists of a 39-foot-long cinderblock wall, pockmarked with bullet holes and crested with barbed wire that the artist transported to Venice from the city of Juarez. And just when one is hoping for visual relief from this compelling but disturbing show, one’s view of the canal outside the Arsenale is obstructed by the actual boat from the Mediterranean’s deadliest shipwreck, on which between 700 and 1,100 Syrian refugees went missing. The artist Christoph Büechel transported the rusted wreck, which has a large gaping hole in its side, from Sicily to Venice and titled it Barca Nostra. An accompanying wall text refers to the ship as a “monument to contemporary migration” and as “representing the collective policies and politics that create these kinds of disasters.”
A series of prints from the Body En Thrall series by transgender Latina artist Martine Gutierrez shows the artist nude in a series of staged erotic encounters with clothed mannequins, such as one where she is draped across the lap of a figure dressed in a tuxedo with a come-hither expression on her face. Calling to mind Edouard Manet’s notorious Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in which a naked woman picnics with two clothed men, the prints raise questions of power in regard to Eurocentric standards of beauty, gender identity, consumerism, and a host of other issues that are au courant in cultural studies classes at elite universities throughout the West.
The coming apocalypse is also a popular topic at this year’s Biennale. One example is the enormous Eskalation by the German artist Alexandra Birc
ken, which is ominously suspended overhead. Here, forty figurines fashioned from black calico and latex look as they are out of one of Dante’s circles of hell—they are shown climbing and hanging off of ladders that ascend towards the vertiginous ceiling of the Arsenale. Wherever they are trying to get to, it doesn’t look good.
Another work in the “end of civilization vein” is a sculptural series of large menacing mammals on the verge of extinction by the American artist, Jimmie Durham, who connects human waste with environmental degradation. Durham’s animals look angry and tortured. Their jaws are agape, and teeth bared; wires, cables and dark metal define their forms. They are constructed from contemporary civilization’s detritus, used clothes, discarded furniture, and machine parts.
May You Live in Interesting Times is intended to be aggressive and disturbing. We already are living in a post-truth age in which leaders such as U.S president Donald Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro are denying climate change and sanctioning political violence as a justifiable campaign tactic.
Rugoff clearly wants his exhibition to make us think harder about our fast-changing world. “Ultimately, what is most important about an exhibition is not what happens inside a gallery,” he writes in his essay for the exhibition, “but how audiences use their experiences afterward to reimagine everyday realities from expanded perspectives.”