The 2019 Venice Biennale

El Anatsui, Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy.
El Anatsui, Venice Biennale; Photo credit Sydney Walters

The 2019 Venice Biennale

By Sydney Walters
The Venice Biennale is a vast and magnificent art experience nestled in one of the many gems of Italy. Showcasing artists for over 120 years, the Biennale is divided into two primary sites, the Giardini, which houses most of the international art pavilions, and the Arsenale, a massive gallery streamlining artists from across the world into one, meandering space. May You Live in Interesting Times leans more heavily on installation and video art rather than traditional mediums such as drawing and painting. As the title suggests, intrigue and innovation is the top commodity in this arena.

Sue Yuan and Peng You’s Can’t Help Myself was the first major double-take in the Giardini Pavilion. A giant mechanical arm with a squeegee affixed to the end endlessly mops up a pool of viscous red liquid at its base. It is a groaning machine whirling around, flicking the blood-like material on the surrounding Plexiglas and on itself.

And speaking of mechanized art, Shilpa Gupta creates an interesting work of a metal gate repeatedly slamming into the wall. Chunks of drywall litter the ground and a dusty trail of rubble outline the sweeping arc of the gate’s path.

Part of Christine and Margaret Wertheim’s Pod World is also displayed in this section of the exhibition. Tiny seascapes are hand knitted under encased in clear boxes like aquariums. The details captured here are remarkable as they describe rippling coral reefs.

The best video in this portion of the show is one that is modified and repeated in the Arsenale section. It is the video work of Kahil Joseph called BLKNWS, an ongoing project streaming an uninterrupted flow of images and videos of black American life. Two screens are juxtaposed on the wall on top of a large black and white photograph of nuns. Because the screens are presented like a diptych, it is difficult to not try to make connections between the unrelated news on each screen. But its disjointed nature lends itself to cast a wider net with which to consider the undulating evolution of culture.

In the British Pavilion, Cathy Wilkes exhibits a muted but powerful solo show. The ghost of Agnes Martin would nod her head approvingly at the pastel washes on canvas and soft grey curtains hung delicately on the wall. Yet the stars of the show are her free-standing figures gracing the space. A small girl, minimally described with a bald head, protruding ears and mere dots signifying two eyes and a mouth, is dressed in a plain yellow gown. A large pregnant belly which looks like a concrete semi-circle, is fixed to the front of her dress.

Another showstopper worth mentioning is El Anastui’s installation in the Ghana Pavilion. As always, his lustrous work challenges the boundaries of hard and soft materials as he creates colorful and flexible drapery. The Ghana Pavilion is an interesting space. The doorway is packed with mud giving off an earthy aroma and video installations project various elements of nature in a visual opera.

After taking the ten-minute walk over to the Arsenale portion of the show, visitors are greeted by Zanele Muholi’s wallpaper photographs at the gallery’s entrance. These striking black and white images appear throughout the space, adding unity to the exhibition. The women pictured act like larger than life goddesses, overseeing the entire affair.

Video art can be difficult to sit through, especially when there are so many other things to see. But Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic’s No history in a room filled with people with funny names 5 is well worth the thirty-minute viewing. Visitors plop down on huge fluffy pillows in front of three video projectors. The pacing is of each video is perfect, twisting and contorting like a kaleidoscope, unraveling a narrative, landscape and fantasy. It is refreshingly easy to slip into the arms of the artists and trust them to carry you through this fantastic journey.

All in all, May You Live in Interesting Times is a kinetic experience best enjoyed over several hours of days. Alongside the art installations, the Biennale features dance, music and theater performances. Happenings will occur until November 24, 2019. For further information, visit their website.

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