Compiled by Elfriede Dreyer
Figure 1. View of the Grand Canal in the city of Venice from the Palazzo Bembo where Biennale fringe exhibitions were hosted by the European Cultural Centre. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer
Arguably the world’s most popular and comprehensive international arts event, the Venice Biennale continues to be an inspirational experience to artists and art lovers alike. Generally speaking, Biennales are important international events, since it entails crucial, public sites for the production, distribution, and generation of public discourse around contemporary art. An art biennale is furthermore an event during which audiences can encounter various forms of art and ideas from all over the world. Relations are set up between different cultures, countries and individuals through cultural dialogue and exchange of ideas. Another advantage is the fact that under-used public and private spaces can be utilised for fringe exhibitions, leading to urban renewal, and since a biennale celebrates the cultural life of a city, it attracts domestic and international visitors through so-called cultural tourism. These factors are also applicable to the Venice Biennale as probably the most prevalent of the Biennales.
Figure 2. Entrance to the main exhibition space of the Venice Biennale at Giardini, 2019. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer
The Venice Art Biennale (Figure 2) is a contemporary visual art forum consisting of a main exhibition curated by the official Biennale curator (a new one with every Biennale), hosted at two principal sites, Giardini and Arsenale. At these two venues, most countries of the world have permanent exhibition spaces, so-called ‘pavilions’. Countries have to fund their participation themselves. Each country appoints curator(s) who then selects one or more artists to represent their country. The main Biennale curator sets a theme, which the individual regional curators have to respond to in their selection of work. In addition to the main pavilions, there is usually a host of fringe exhibitions in venues scattered all over Venice (Figure 1). From very early on awards were given to best performances and exhibitions to stimulate and reward quality art production. Many artists have launched their international recognition at the Venice Biennale through the enormous publicity generated by the event.
The Venice Biennale has its origin towards the end of the 19th century when the Italian king, King Umberto I, nicknamed the ‘The Good’ (Il Buono), proposed hosting a multi-disciplinary arts event in celebration of his silver wedding anniversary with Queen Marguerite (Artstein s.a.). In 1893 the mayor of Venice, Riccardo Selvatico, committed to transforming the artists’ evening meetings at the famous Caffè Florian on Saint Mark’s Square into a prestigious international exhibition. On 19 April 1893, the Venetian City Council passed a resolution to set up an Esposizione Biennale Artistica Nazionale (Biennial Exhibition of Italian Art), to be inaugurated on 22 April 1894. At the council meeting of 30 March, 1894, the first decisions were taken: to adopt a ‘by invitation’ system; to reserve a section of the Exhibition for foreign artists too; and to admit works by uninvited Italian artists, as selected by a jury. On 6 April 1894 Selvatico announced the first Exhibition for the following year. On 10 April, economist and scholar Antonio Fradeletto was nominated as the Secretary-General. The place of work was the little Council library and the first Venice Biennale then took place in 1895.
Umberto I was assassinated in 1900, but his legacy to the arts remains to this day in the form of the Venice Biennale. The president of the Biennale organisation is veteran Italian politician Paolo Baratta. The Venice Art Biennale takes place every two years on odd-numbered years, starting in 1895; the Venice Biennale of Architecture takes place on even-numbered years, starting in 1980; the Venice Biennale Musica (the International Festival of Contemporary Music) takes place annually in September and October, starting in 1930; the Venice Biennale Teatro (International Theatre Festival) takes place annually in July and August, starting in 1934; the Venice Film Festival takes place annually in August and September, starting in 1934; the Venice Dance Biennale takes place annually in June, starting in 2004 (between 2010 and 2016 it took place biennially); and the International Kids’ Carnival takes place annually during the Venice Carnevale in February, starting in 2009. (For a comprehensive overview of the sequence of Art Biennales, please see the Addendum).
The Venice Art Biennale (Figures 2 and 3) is a contemporary visual art forum consisting of a main exhibition curated by the official Biennale curator (a new one with very Biennale), hosted at two principal sites, Giardini and Arsenale. At these two venues, most countries of the world have permanent exhibition spaces, so-called ‘pavilions’. Countries have to fund their participation themselves. Each country appoints its own curator(s) who then selects one or more artists to represent their country. The main Biennale curator sets a theme, which the individual regional curators have to respond to in their selection of work. In addition to the main pavilions, there is usually a host of fringe exhibitions in venues scattered all over Venice (Figure 1). From very early on awards were given to best performances and exhibitions to stimulate and reward quality arts production. Many artists have launched their international recognition at the Venice Biennale through the enormous publicity generated by the event.
Figure 3. Lorenzo Quinn installation at the Arsenale, 2019. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer.
The 58th Venice Biennale, entitled May You Live In Interesting Times, takes place from from 11 May to 24 November 2019. The Biennale showed a record of 90 national participations, nine of which are from Africa, with Ghana and Madagascar debuting their respective pavilions at the Arsenale. Ralph Rugoff, the current director of the Hayward Gallery in London, curated the Exhibition. Between 1985 and 2002 he wrote art and cultural criticism for numerous periodicals, publishing widely in art magazines as well as newspapers, and published a collection of essays, Circus Americanus (1995). During the same period he began working as an independent curator. On the official Venice Biennale website, Rugoff explains his curatorial theme as follows (Ralph Rugoff s.a.):
“TERMS OF REFERENCE: In a speech given in the late 1930s, British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain invoked an ancient Chinese curse that he had learned of from a British diplomat who had served in Asia, and which took the curious form of saying, “May you live in interesting times.” “There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us,” Chamberlain observed. “We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.”
This summary sounds uncannily familiar today as the news cycle spins from crisis to crisis. Yet at a moment when the digital dissemination of fake news and “alternative facts” is corroding political discourse and the trust on which it depends, it is worth pausing whenever possible to reassess our terms of reference. In this case it turns out that there never was any such “ancient Chinese curse,” despite the fact that Western politicians have made reference to it in speeches for over a hundred years. It is an ersatz cultural relic, and yet for all its fictional status it has had real rhetorical effects in significant public exchanges. At once suspect and rich in meaning, this kind of uncertain artefact suggests potential lines of exploration that are worth pursuing at present, especially when the “interesting times” it evokes seem to be with us once again. Hence the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia will be titled after a counterfeit curse.
ART AS A GUIDE: May You Live in Interesting Timeswill no doubt include artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the “post-war order.” But let us acknowledge at the outset that art does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics. Art cannot stem the rise of nationalist movements and authoritarian governments in different parts of the world, for instance, nor can it alleviate the tragic fate of displaced peoples across the globe (whose numbers now represent almost one percent of the world’s entire population).
But in an indirect fashion, perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times.’ The 58th International Art Exhibition will not have a theme per se, but will highlight a general approach to making art and a view of art’s social function as embracing both pleasure and critical thinking. The Exhibition will focus on the work of artists who challenge existing habits of thought and open up our readings of objects and images, gestures and situations. Art of this kind grows out of a practice of entertaining multiple perspectives: of holding in mind seemingly contradictory and incompatible notions, and juggling diverse ways of making sense of the world. Artists who think in this manner offer alternatives to the meaning of so-called facts by suggesting other ways of connecting and contextualising them. Animated by boundless curiosity and puncturing wit, their work encourages us to look askance at all unquestioned categories, concepts and subjectivities. It invites us to consider multiple alternatives and unfamiliar vantage points, and to discern the ways in which “order” has become the simultaneous presence of diverse orders.
May You Live in Interesting Times will take seriously art’s potential as a method for looking into things that we do not already know – things that may be off-limits, under-the-radar, or otherwise inaccessible for various reasons. It will highlight artworks that explore the interconnectedness of diverse phenomena, and that convey an affinity with the idea, asserted by both Leonardo da Vinci and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that everything connects with everything else.
May You Live in Interesting Times springs from a belief that interesting art creates forms whose particular character and delineation raise questions about the ways in which we mark cultural boundaries and borders. Intelligent artistic activity involves creating forms that call attention to what forms conceal, and the functions that they fulfil. The Exhibition will highlight art that exists in between categories, and which questions the rationales behind our categorical thinking.
May You Live in Interesting Times will aim to welcome its public to an expansive experience of the deep involvement, absorption and creative learning that art makes possible. This will entail engaging visitors in a series of encounters that are essentially playful, taking into account that it is when we play that we are most fully “human.” This will mean tweaking aspects of the exhibition format where possible to make sure they are sympathetically aligned with the character of the art being presented.
MAY YOU LIVE IN INTERESTING TIMES: Finally, May You Live in Interesting Times will be formulated in the belief that human happiness depends on substantive conversations, because as social animals we are driven to both create and find meaning, and to connect with others. In this light, the Exhibition will aim to underscore the idea that the meaning of artworks are not embedded principally in objects but in conversations – first between artist and artwork, and then between artwork and audience, and later between different publics. Ultimately, Biennale Arte 2019 aspires to the ideal that what is most important about an exhibition is not what it puts on display, but how audiences can use their experience of the exhibition afterwards, to confront everyday realities from expanded viewpoints and with new energies. An exhibition should open people’s eyes to previously unconsidered ways of being in the world and thus change their view of that world.”
Many countries and curators did not follow Rugoff’s curatorial brief closely, but those that stand out, such as Russia, the Netherlands, Belgium Turkey and Ghana, broadly correspond with his vision. It is impossible to provide a comprehensive overview of all the Biennale exhibitions in this article, therefore only the award-winning pavilion of Lithuania and that of South Africa are presented here.
The Lithuanian Pavilion at the Marina Militare, Fondamenta Case Nuove 2738c, Calle de la Celestia in Castello, won the Golden Lion for the best national exhibition (Figures 3 and 4, Sun & Sea (Marina) 2019, video clip available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZPF6DFWPjk. Entitled Sun & Sea (Marina) and consisting of an installation as well an opera with libretto, the exhibition was curated by Lucia Pietroiusti and produced by the artists Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė. The exhibition was commissioned by Rasa Antanavičiūtė (Nida Art Colony of Vilnius Academy of Art) and Jean-Baptiste Joly (Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart).The opera performance takes place every Wednesday and Saturday (until October 31) from 10 am until 6 pm. On the other days, one can listen to the opera and watch the empty beach.
Figures 4 and 5. Lithuania Pavilion, Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer. Watch online
The curatorial statement for the exhibition is as follows:
Imagine a beach – you within it, or better: watching from above – the burning sun, sunscreen and bright bathing suits and sweaty palms and legs. Tired limbs sprawled lazily across a mosaic of towels. Imagine the occasional squeal of children, laughter, and the sound of an ice cream van in the distance. The musical rhythm of waves on the surf, a soothing sound (on this particular beach, not elsewhere). The crinkling of plastic bags whirling in the air, their silent floating, jellyfish-like, below the waterline. The rumble of a volcano, or of an airplane, or a speedboat. Then a chorus of songs: everyday songs, songs of worry and of boredom, songs of almost nothing. And below them: the slow creaking of an exhausted Earth, a gasp. Lithuanian Pavilion curatorial statement
The word ‘imagines’ features prominently in the statement, suggesting the idea of fictive place of leisure, whilst threats of an endangered and exhausted environment are looming. Utopian notions of world making, ideas of a ‘good place’ and leisure are depicted through an artificial beach installation inside a spacious warehouse in the unique setting of the Marina Militare, adjacent to the Arsenale. From the mezzanine gallery, spectators can observe people in colourful bathing suits lying on their towels on the beach. Throughout the contemporary opera performance, which presents an everyday leisurely scene on the beach, the characters sing songs, both solo and in unison. An innovative aspect of the work is that the public is invited as ‘props’ to participate as beachgoers in the performance; the only requirement is to lounge on the beach for at least three consecutive hours. As a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, there is an interdisciplinary mingling of theatre, music and visual arts, explored through topics ranging from trivial concerns about sunburn and plans for future vacations to some of the most pressing issues of our times such as fears of environmental catastrophe (Review Of The Art Biennale 2019: Lithuania).
Fitting the utopian genre, the commentary in the songs departs from the everyday present that is full of problems and not always so pleasant and proposes pleasurable, teleologically better places and futures. The beach as site embodies the dream of such a place; simultaneously it acts as a liminal place on the boundary between the reality of everyday life and the ‘good place’. The beachgoers become symbolic actors on a utopian stage where the walls of the venue form the boundary edges of the utopian dream. In The production of space, Henri Lefebvre (1991:384) argues that the beach is the only place of enjoyment that the human species has discovered in nature. As a result “It [the body] behaves … as a total body, breaking out of the temporal and spatial shell developed in response to labour” (Lefebvre 1991:384). In Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre notes that in “the modern era” beaches have been discovered “as a space of enjoyment that could be used by everyone, all class distinctions being dissolved in a strip of land near the sea” (Lefebvre in Gordillo 2014). Democratic places of leisure like the beach for Lefebvre are “an extension of dominated space” (Gordillo 2014). Camillo Buano (2015: 547) refers to Lefebvre’s architecture of enjoyment as a space that cannot consist of a building, an assembly of rooms, places determined by their functions, but rather spaces of play. “Only collective gestures and actions can create spaces of enjoyment, primarily through an ‘economy of joy’”; all spaces and architecture are created as projects through the imagination of a possible, a future; there is “no plan without utopia; and there is no social space without an equally distributed stock of possible” (Lefebvre in Buano 2015: 547).
Sun & Sea (Marina) embraces such ideas of the creation of utopian spaces of leisure as social, embodied spaces where people can play and escape from reality. Conceptually, the exhibition fully realises Rugoff’s main curatorial theme for May You Live In Interesting Times, since it reflects his objective for artworks to “raise questions about the ways in which we mark cultural boundaries and borders”, as well as to engage visitors in encounters that are playful, “taking into account that it is when we play that we are most fully ‘human’”. It also links to Rugoff’s objective to “underscore the idea that the meaning of artworks are not embedded principally in objects but in conversations … and how audiences can use their experience of the exhibition afterwards, to confront everyday realities from expanded viewpoints and with new energies. An exhibition should open people’s eyes to previously unconsidered ways of being in the world and thus change their view of that world.” Not only does the work comment conceptually and intellectually on the creation of spaces of leisure, but as an event and a spectacle it becomes entertaining, engaging and pleasurable.
The curatorial theme for South Africa’s pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale is The stronger we become. The exhibition included the work of Tracey Rose, Dineo Bopape and Mawande Ka Zenzile, and was curated by Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makubu. In their curatorial statement (The stronger we become s.a.) the curators state that the exhibition is a trialogue about resilience, expounded through the work of Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose and Mawande Ka Zenzile. Kuijers (2019) provides an explanation to the title of the exhibition as derived from the song (Something Inside) So Strong by Labi Siffre, a British musician and the child of diasporic immigrants; a song inspired by a documentary about Apartheid which showed white soldiers opening fire on black civilians and a soulful expression of solidarity and self-worth in the face of struggle. In a strongly worded curatorial statement compounded with political terminology and current polemics, the exhibition addresses the crux of postapartheid and decoloniality sentiments operative in South Africa. The curators interpret the artists’ work as probing the politics of self-determination, situatedness, political displacement and epistemic violence. They further state that under the weight of the country’s complex histories, being resilient is the capacity and the will to resist historical injustice and that it is through the simple things in everyday life – laughter, conversation and play – that powerful forms of resistance emerge and unknown but shared histories, hidden epistemes and the intricacy of neglected knowledge systems can be uncovered. They consider the artists as interrogating gaps and silences as socially located, political struggles in order to reckon with the failure, misadventure and deficiency of postcolonial, post-apartheid democracies.
The curators further propose the exhibition to be based on the politics of space and time, and as tackling perplexing questions about land, displacement, mobility and, intimately tied to this, rights. In their statement they view the exhibition as engaging with affective politics, of anger, outrage, exhilaration, optimism and disappointment, and by doing this as pointing directly to the quest of the struggle, namely dignity. It is stated that they are acknowledging the climate of cynicism and disillusionment in contemporary life, and what it is that makes us tenaciously human, in the context of a dehumanising history.
All three artists’ artworks on the South Pavilion speak to these concerns. Especially Ka Zenzile’s organic two-dimensional works deliver potent comment in this regard. The artist was born in Lady Frere, Eastern Cape, in 1986 and is currently completing an MA Fine Arts degree at Michaelis School of Fine Art at UCT. Since 2013, Ka Zenzile has held five solo exhibitions at Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Stevenson (Mawande Ka Zenzile 2017) interprets his work as drawing a link between politics and perception and as shifting into non-representational imagery so as to sieve ideologies and convert these into material for his works. His work is characterised by his predominant use of cow dung as painting medium alongside oil paint, and he derives his subject matter from various sources, including but not limited to his own IsiXhosa modality, questions around ontology, popular imagery as well as socio-political and esoteric knowledge (Mawande Ka Zenzile 2017).
Utilising autoethnographic visual language grounded in local African materials and socio-political subject matter as in Intellectual convictions and Behaviorism 101 (Figures 6 and 7), abstract visual language opens up the content to various interpretations. The viewer is guided to understanding context through the titles of the work, which points to ideology as a result of intellectual conviction and its patterns of behaviour and other consequential materialisations. Behaviorism 101 is inscribed with the words “The four stages of subversion – Demoralization – Destabilization – Crisis –- Normalization”. Whilst presenting subversive resistance to unwanted ideology in soft protest format, the artist communicates his philosophical observation of the stages of subverting oppression and domination.
Figure 6. Mawande Ka Zenzile, Left: Intellectual convictions, 2018. Cow dung, gesso and oil on canvas, 900 x 1790mm. Right: Behaviorism 101, 2018. Cow dung, gesso and oil on canvas, 905 x 490mm. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer
Figure 7. Mawande Ka Zenzile, Left: Intellectual convictions, 2018. Cow dung, gesso and oil on canvas, 900 x 1790mm. Right: Behaviorism 101, 2018. Cow dung, gesso and oil on canvas, 905 x 490mm. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer
Figure 8. Dineo Sesee Bopape, Marapo a yona dinaledi (Its bones the stars), Sketch no 22. 2019. Installation. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer
Aftermath as concept stands out pertinently in Dineo Bapape’s installation entitled Marapo a yona Dinaledi (Its bones the stars), Figure 8. In an ongoing way Bopape’s work has been characterised by a preoccupation with loss, memory, history and issues of sexual and gender identity. The ideological content in the work speaks to rampant chaos, dishevelment and ‘unfinished business’ as consequence of the ravage of colonial and apartheid enterprises. Similar to the work of Cathy Wilkes on the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale 2019, objects in the installation are presented as undone, partial, fragmentary and ravaged, becoming metaphors of memory in the fragile histories of political and gender violence.
Figure 9. Tracey Rose, Still from Hard black on cotton, 2019. Film. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer
Known predominantly for her performance work, video, installation and photography, Tracey Rose’s work on the Biennale once again explores issues of identity and the politics of gender, sexuality and race. In Hard black on cotton (Figure 9) Rose engages with cultural conflation and the absurdities of one culture imposing on another. As part of the narrative unfolding, an African man dressed in traditional clothes is depicted as attempting to read and pronounce Latin with no avail. The artist deconstructs notions of flattened differences in the formation of global culture in the third millennium, and the difficulties in reconciling differences between cultures, a view that responds to current polemics of migrant permeation and, similar to the other two artists on the South African Pavilion, the legacies of colonial and apartheid histories.
The South African Pavilion certainly presented one of the more successful shows on the Biennale, claiming a distinct modern African identity grounded in its own ethnographies, sensibilities and encounters. Although it engages with mainstream political battles in postmemorial context, its unique attribute is the commonality of the use of indigenous materials, the confluence of digital and material culture and the digital divide characterising African communities.
The Venice Biennale as a kind of World Olympics of art continues to function as debatably the foremost venue for the presentation of vanguard, progressive contemporary art. The artworks presented reflect their times, whether following the overarching curatorial theme or not, so that the spectator is provided with a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into the thinking, fears and joys driving the world as it stands.
Click the link above – The summary of Art Biennales has been compiled according to the information available on the official site of the Venice Biennale, La Biennale Di Venezia (https://www.labiennale.org/), Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venice_Biennale) and other sources on the Venice Biennale as listed in the Bibliography. On some of the Biennales there is not much information available. South Africa’s participation receives specific attention. The focus is only on the main exhibition venues, but over the years some South African artists also exhibited privately in Venice.
Accea – Venice Biennale. 2018. Armenian center for contemporary experimental art. http://accea.info/en/venice-biennale# (accessed 16 October 2019).
Artstein. s.a. The history of the Venice Biennale. https://www.artstein.co.uk/features/venicebiennalehistory (accessed 15 October 2019).
Barnett, Vivian, E. 1992. The Russian Presence in the 1924 Venice Biennale. https://monoskop.org/images/9/97/Barnett_Vivian_Endicott_1992_The_Russian_Presence_in_the_1924_Venice_Biennale.pdf (accessed 12 September 2019).
Biennale Arte 2019. s.a. https://www.labiennale.org/en/art/2019/58th-exhibition (accessed 3 September 2019).
Buano, Camillo. 2015. Henri Lefebvre: Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment. The Journal of Architecture 20 (May, 3):544-549.
Foucault, Michel. 1984. Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias. Translation of Des Espace Autres, 1967, by Jay Miskowiec. Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité October: 1-9. http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/foucault1.pdf (Accessed 4 September 2019)
Gordillo, Gastón. 2014. Lefebvre’s Beach. Space and Politics. Blog on the spatial and affective rhythms of politics. http://spaceandpolitics.blogspot.com/2014/09/lefebvres-beach.html (accessed 3 September 2019)
Kuijers, Isabello. 2019. Strength and Opacity: ‘The stronger we become’ at the 58th Venice Biennale. Dineo Seshee Bopape & Mawande Ka Zenzile & Tracey Rose. Artthrob. https://artthrob.co.za/2019/07/30/strength-and-opacity-the-stronger-we-become-at-the-58th-venice-biennale/ (accessed 16 October 2019).
La Biennale di Venezia. 2017. https://www.labiennale.org/en/ (accessed 3 September 2019).
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The production of space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Lithuania – Sun & Sea (Marina) – Venice Art Biennale 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZPF6DFWPjk (accessed 10 August 2019).
Mawande Ka Zenzile. 2017. Archetypocalypse, 26 April – 3 June 2017. Stevenson. https://www.stevenson.info/exhibition/1752 (accessed 15 October 2019).
Ralph Rugoff. s.a. Introduction. https://www.labiennale.org/en/art/2019/introduction-ralph-rugoff (accessed 3 September 2019).
Review Of The Art Biennale 2019: Lithuania. The Venice Insider July 10, 2019. https://www.theveniceinsider.com/art-biennale-2019-lithuania/ (accessed 15 October 2019).
Sun & Sea (Marina). Lithuanian Pavillion 11 May – 31 October 2019. https://sunandsea.lt/en (accessed 10 August 2019).
The stronger we become: The South African Pavilion. s.a. https://www.thestrongerwebecome.co.za/ (accessed 1 September 2019).
Venice Biennale 2019: Installation View: National Pavilions. 2019. Contemporary And (C&). https://www.contemporaryand.com/magazines/installation-view-national-pavilions/ (accessed 15 October 2019.