In the post-truth era of democracies in crisis, fake news and cultural relativism of our neoliberal globalized world, from its opening on May 11, the 58th Biennale di Venezia embarks upon a critical exploration of the sociopolitical function of art as signified by the title “May You Live in Interesting Times,”. For the first time, Ghana, Malaysia, Madagascar, and Pakistan will be inaugurating their countries’ pavilions.
The curator Ralph Rugoff of the London Hayward Gallery develops a contemporary implicit theme through the different national pavilions and 79 transnational living artists exploring installations, performances, films, paintings and more. Among them Laure Prouvost for France, Stanislav Kolíbal for the Czech Republic, Dane Mitchell for New Zealand and others.
90 countries will reveal their own paradigms while being commonly gathered in the exhibition through a common thread in the show’s two venues, the Arsenale and the Giardini.
Mirroring international relations in the political scene, one can expect that the artistic message of the inaugurating countries put in the spotlight by the world art event will act as a milestone. The art world being closely linked with the economic market and geopolitical power-centered system, periphery countries with strong economic disparities are well aware of the international role of contemporary large-scale art institutions such as the Venice Biennale. Coping with somewhat deficient cultural assets like underdeveloped infrastructures or funding sources for art, and struggling with national political instability and tension, they will now proudly herald their pavilion’s flag.
Following this year’s theme, topical political subjects resonate at the core of the exhibition through the artists’ hindsight. At the Ghana pavilion designed by the architect David Adjaye, references to postcolonialism, Ghana’s historical 1957 independence from Britain, and repatriation of art and cultural African artifacts, are at the heart of the exhibition. Titled “Ghana Freedom” it is formed by 6 artists, notably Al Anatsui, but also Felicia Abban, John Akomfrah, Ibrahim Mahama, Selasi Awusi Sosu, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Demonstrating again – if needs be – the ever-increasing importance of contemporary African art as a cradle of creation, Ghana has fully embraced its inventiveness and imposed itself on the global sphere.
The continuous attendances of non-western developed countries from different continents – like India (with a pavilion centered around the figure of Mahatma Gandhi) or Latin American countries – mark indeed the awareness of the heterogeneity of discourses and plurality of legitimacies, while acknowledging their influence on the future of contemporary art. At the first Malaysia pavilion, four Malaysian contemporary artists will sharply reflect on this idea, with the concept of identity echoing the controversial questions of ethnic and religious diversity unsettled in their national political debate.
In addition, it seems to be a way of introducing their national treasures to a perhaps unknowing public – without overly stressing on their thorny political positions or social tense climate. The Dominican Republic and its first pavilion reflects on the fragile ecosystem and wealth of the land in a multiple artists’ exhibition named “Nature and Biodiversity in the Dominican Republic”. In a similar stance, the solo exhibition of female artist Naiza Khan for the Pakistan pavilion delves into a documented immersion of living on Manora island, in the small southern archipelago of the city of Karachi where the artist is based.
Madagascar and his pluridisciplinary artist Joël Andrianomearisoa will take the visitor on a poetic stroll through evocations of the countries’ mythical tales in his black papers installation “I Have Forgotten the Night”.
Challenging national borders in a time of migration and exiles, A Greater Miracle of Perception: The Berlin Iteration for the Pavilion of Finland, the cinematic work of the artists collective, blending activists, performers, writers, is eminently political. Disobedience and resistance, seeing beyond the visible and national identities is what miracle stands for in their site-specific installation by Outi Pieski.
At the Luxembourg Pavilion, “Written by Water” by Marco Godinho examines one of the fourth element, epitome of Venice, as a motif for questioning geographical boundaries crossed by men and women since marine expeditionary conquests. From leisure journeys to forced fleeing from poverty and war we have changed our perception of the “otherness” and ecumene (inhabited surface of the world).
Shattered world order and climate crisis will be other major matters of the Biennale, notably towards the new generation of artists calling to attention the most pressing issues. “Weather Report: Forecasting Future” at the Nordic Pavilion will investigate through the digital art and performances, the Anthropocene notion and our threatened life on Earth.
Artistic methodological doubt, disclosing the underlying, offering novel narratives are the Biennale’s focus while seeking to challenge norms in the inclusion of a growing number of women artists and gender diversity. This 58th edition is thus an invitation for a reflexive pause in the current “interesting”, nonetheless overly disrupted and fast-moving times, so as to re-establish trust in our belief and common ground for our values. More than openly symbolically knocking over Trump’s wall, Rugoff hopes to “[Articulate] a counter offer” for the visitor when enjoying the art walks on the urban space of the city.
Aesthetic and art, as a social means of understanding the world, and intricacy thinking, ahead of conformism, are an answer to ward off the “May You Live in Interesting Times” Chinese curse.