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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Our Critics Discuss Their First Impressions

As the professional preview days for the 2024 Venice Biennale draw to a close, the ARTnews team has been taking it all in, from the main exhibition, titled “Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere” and organized by curator Adriano Pedrosa; to the national pavilions, numbering to almost 90 this year; to the dozens of officially sanctioned collateral events and the smattering of unofficial shows all being staged in La Serenissima.

With this in mind, ARTnews senior editors Maximilíano Durón and Alex Greenberger started a Google Doc to begin a candid conversation on their initial thoughts about this Biennale. Their thoughts follow below. 

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View of a room with blackboard paint and thousands of names scrawled on it. In front is a structure of stacks of white documents floating above a reflecting pool.

Alex Greenberger: Many of the artists who’ve done works for the main show and the national pavilions at this Biennale sound a similar note: can’t live with art institutions, can’t live without them. 

Glicéria Tupinambá, as part of her Hãhãwpuá Pavilion (née Brazil Pavilion), is showing her correspondence with several museums in which she seeks the return of cultural objects related to her people that are held abroad. One partly redacted email, purportedly with Brussels’s Musée royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, seems to have befuddled its recipient, who sassily snipes back, “Reading the project and the letter, it was quite unclear what do you expect.” But Glicéria, undaunted, has continued on with her project, contacting other museums with the aim of seeking justice.

Her pavilion, which features fishing nets and more from the communities of Serra do Padeiro, suggests that there is a place for members of her community in Western art spaces. It just doesn’t always look like a traditional white cube. Spain’s representative, the Peruvian-born Sandra Gamarra, expresses a related sentiment with a pavilion that’s billed as a “Migrant Art Gallery,” featuring the words of Indigenous activists. And in the main show, the Puerto Rico–born, Connecticut-based Pablo Delano is showing The Museum of the Old Colony (2024), an installation predominantly composed of others’ photographs attesting to America’s exploitation of the island.

Pablo Delano, The Museum of the Old Colony (2024).

Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

The decolonial subject matter broached by all these projects typically lends itself toward bitterness and anger, and rightly so, yet all these works are quite hopeful. Admittedly, I’m dubious anyone can decolonize museums without undoing them entirely, but I’m struck by the artists’ optimism about imagining other possibilities for institutions and, by extension, biennials. So, my question to you is: How successful do you think this is as a decolonial biennial? Have the artists in it persuasively proposed alternative forms for institutions?

Maximilíano Durón: I think it’s important to broaden that a little. What even is a museum? And what are the histories of those institutions? As many in Venice this week know, museums are part of Western colonial projects. It’s a tradition that goes all the way back to the wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, amassed by European aristocracy beginning in the 16th century. A wunderkammer boasted how much its owner had traveled beyond his homeland—and how much he had plundered. Museums in many ways grew out of that. And I’ll add to this lineage the world fairs and international expos that displayed the day’s latest technologies and architectural innovations, while also putting humans, often African and Indigenous people, on display. 

This is all to say that encyclopedic museums, for all that they have purported to show off the diversity of world cultures, do not show off diversity as we understand it today. Typically, they have had the effect of othering people from the Global South. 

The other, the foreigner, the stranger (l’étranger, el extranjero): those are the words that recur at this Biennale’s main exhibition, titled “Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere,” which takes its name from an ongoing series by artist duo Claire Fontaine, in which those words are translated into the local languages of the places where the work is displayed as neon sculptures. Here, more than 50 of them hang over the shipyards at the Arsenale. The main exhibition is in many ways a deviation from that history, but I don’t think it’s necessarily aiming to decolonize the Biennale, which is itself rooted in histories of colonialism and nationalism. Showcasing the work of dozens of Indigenous artists and artists from the Global South itself is not necessarily a decolonial practice—the Biennale isn’t divesting itself from the current biennial model, even if some of the artists seek to do so. Rather, I think it’s an effort to expand the canon and the purview of all who attend. That in itself is a cause that shouldn’t be taken for granted or dismissed. 

But I want to go back to Delano’s The Museum of the Old Colony. I think that work really stands apart from the rest. Adriano Pedrosa, the main exhibition’s curator, has said in multiple interviews that he sees his Biennale as a provocation. I’ll take it a step further. It’s a condemnation of much of our current situation. How can you not read the Delano installation as a denunciation of the US and its exploitation of Puerto Rico, often called the world’s oldest colony? It’s a work that requires you to spend time with it, to see how all that has been collected here speaks to what the US has used to its benefit. 

I think that’s especially potent right now as discussions around self-determination and settler colonialism are being applied to Israel and Palestine. It’s worth noting that Puerto Rico has held six referendums on whether or not its populace would like to see the island become the US’s 51st state or a fully independent nation. All of these have been non-binding votes, as the ultimate decision on Puerto Rico’s future is held by Congress. 

AG: It’s interesting Pedrosa views his main show as a provocation, because to me, it didn’t seem so shocking. Much of what’s in it is really elegant and quite beautiful—the art doesn’t seem designed to trigger. I’m thinking in particular of the historical sections, the thematic parts of the show that assemble older works, many of them by dead artists from the Global South who have yet to be canonized in the West. 

Take the portraiture galleries in the Central Pavilion. Here, you can find Lim Mu Hue’s incredible Self-Expression (1957–63), featuring the Singaporean painter wearing half a pair of glasses, an abstract painting reflected in its sole lens, not far from a singular work by the Mozambican artist Malangatana Valente Ngwenya, To the Clandestine Maternity Home (1961), with its array of colorful women meant as a testament to female oppression under colonialism. The only thing that shocked me was that both of these artists, along with most of the others here, had never before appeared in the Biennale. Hats off to Pedrosa for fixing that.

One thing is abundantly clear from these sections: Pedrosa has great taste for art-historical deep cuts. But more than simply flaunting his research abilities, he’s also continuing his project of rewriting the canon, breaking down geographical and stylistic hierarchies, and even eliding a chronological structure. 

To further that project, he sprinkles dead artists throughout the main show. In the Central Pavilion, he places recent paintings by the young American Louis Fratino, who envisions nude men fornicating and dancing together, alongside canvases from several decades ago by Indian painter Bhupen Khakhar, who made no attempts to hide his work’s homosexual content. Even if Fratino didn’t know Khakhar’s art when he started out, Pedrosa suggests the former is working within a lineage seeded by the latter. That’s compelling.

I also wonder how successful it really is. The historical sections seem to suggest that all the artists held within are similar, which I don’t think is fair because it strips away a lot of nuance. In the abstraction section, for example, there’s a great canvas by the Palestinian painter Samia Halaby called Black Is Beautiful (1969). It features a dark cross that emerges from a void just barely tinted pink. The wall text mentions that the painting plays with depth and color, but it doesn’t state that the title is an allusion to a slogan voiced widely by Black Americans. Pedrosa mainly seems interested in pointing out how formal innovations took place outside the West. I just wish he paid more mind to the actual cultures from which those innovations were born.

MD: I agree to an extent. There is a certain amount of nuance that has been sanded down here, though I don’t know how that could be avoided with the sheer amount of work on view. But there is something beautiful about being able to take in all the abstract works for their formal innovations all at once. I found the three sections devoted exclusively to 20th-century artworks to be overwhelming. Each artist is represented by one work with a wall of text, and by my estimate there must be at least 150 works in those sections in total. Pedrosa has called this portion of the Biennale, which tells the story of global modernism with a focus on the Global South, “an essay, a draft, a speculative curatorial exercise that seeks to question the boundaries and definitions of modernism.”

The abstraction section is overloaded with paintings, which is actually pretty interesting because it flattens geography and time. Modernism, as defined by MoMA and its first director, Alfred H. Barr, was a relatively linear progression of movements. Pedrosa is suggesting that we can’t think about modernism linearly—which also reflects the ways many of the Native and First Nations artists here think about time. To me, he’s rendering the European avant-gardes and manifestos that define the first half of the 20th century as inconsequential.

It’s also worth noting that abstraction wasn’t invented at the turn of the last century. It has a long history throughout the course of humanity, particularly in the Global South and among Indigenous peoples. In many ways, we are being asked to look at the work of artists who are under-recognized internationally on their own terms. To understand what is going on here, you have to broaden your point of view, to think in ways you likely haven’t thought before. That’s a fascinating challenge, and in my mind what a great exhibition of art should do. 

AG: Forgive me for invoking one biennial to discuss another here, but I wonder if the best way to describe this Biennale is by using the terminology provided by Meg Onli and Chrissie Iles for their current Whitney Biennial, which they called a “dissonant chorus.” That, to me, is how this Biennale reads as well. It’s a mixture of unlike individuals working in unlike styles, and if it all comes off a bit inharmonious, that may be intentional. I can’t say it totally works for me, but I admire the ambition.

MD: Oh, for sure. This edition is nothing if not ambitious. First, there’s the sheer number of artists selected: 331, to be exact. That’s over 100 more artists than the 2022 edition, and nearly four times as many as the 2019 edition. More than half are dead. Even in a moment in the art world that is exceedingly pushing to correct and expand the canon through “rediscoveries” of art historical import, this show is a tough sell. 

There’s a precedent for all this: the 2015 and 2022 Biennales, by Okwui Enwezor and Cecilia Alemani, respectively, both contained a lot of artists who were neither white nor male, and also a lot who weren’t straight. But here, queer artists, Indigenous artists, artists from the Global South, and artists who have migrated, whether voluntarily or by force, account for almost the entire artist list. 

AG: Before anyone had even seen the show, critic Dean Kissick called it “exceedingly stupid” that the Biennale classed queer people as foreigners. That’s a reactionary take I can’t abide. I like Pedrosa’s logic that queer people sometimes feel like aliens in their own land. Perhaps that’s too expansive a conception of the term “foreigners,” but I thought he made a solid case for it.

MD: I couldn’t agree more. Kissick’s logic is that Pedrosa is othering queer people, but Western society has othered queer people for centuries. Being queer myself, there are moments still where I feel like a foreigner in certain spaces (read: straight spaces). And in his essay, Pedrosa says he himself “feel[s] implicated in many of the themes, concepts, motifs and framework of the exhibition,” as someone who has not only lived abroad but someone who is also the first openly queer curator of the Biennale. And there’s definitely some latent homoeroticism running through a number of works, like in the pairings of Fratino and Khakhar, or even Dean Sameshima and Miguel Ángel Rojas. 

AG: For me, one of the big discoveries at this Biennale was Erica Rutherford, an Edinburgh-born painter who died in Canada in 2008. She painted spare images of faceless women as a reflection on her own transition. Without any features, these women are totally distanced from us, just as Rutherford was distanced from a world that sometimes would not accept her.

Erica Rutherford’s Rubber Maids (1970), Self Portrait with Red Boots (1974), The Coat (the mirror) (1970), and Yellow Stockings (1970).

Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia and The Estate of Erica Rutherford

Other artists go in a different direction, evoking sci-fi and horror to disturb gender binaries. In a Biennale that’s unfortunately light on notable video art, Joshua Serafin’s VOID (2022) stands out. In this video, this Philippines-born, Belgium-based artist dances around in a pool of oil, covering themselves in the stuff as they writhe around amid two blue neon lights. Dripping with black liquid, Serafin appears creaturely, totally unbound from the rules that have traditionally guided human bodies. It feels eerie, off-kilter, and, well, a bit foreign.

MD: A standout for me was a sculpture by Agnes Questionmark of a pregnant, not-quite-human figure receiving some kind of medical procedure—perhaps gender-affirming surgery. As we look at the figure’s innards on two screens, an eye stares back at us in a third. 

Key to understanding “Foreigners Everywhere” is the political situation it’s working against: the right-wing governments around the world that seek to strip women, queer people, and immigrants of their rights. Regarding the latter, that’s particularly the case in Italy, one of the many European countries directly impacted by the refugee crisis across the Mediterranean. Given the political leanings of the Biennale foundation’s new president, I’m not sure we’ll get another Biennale quite like this anytime soon. Pedrosa has added his own response to this crisis with the historical section “Italians Everywhere,” showing how countless Italian artists have fled their country and settled elsewhere, ultimately becoming famous in their local scenes

AG: I wasn’t a fan of the “Italians Everywhere” section—it felt overly indulgent, to me, and kind of out of place, compared to the two other historical sections, which are more about artistic genres—but I see your point. It’s nicely installed, for sure, with works mounted on structures by the late Italian-born, Brazil-based architect Lina Bo Bardi, taking a cue from how she conceived of displaying the permanent collection of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Pedrosa’s home institution. These glass elements enable works to hang in the center of the room, instead of on the walls, and through them, you can see a bunch of other pieces all around. They essentially turn the works into prisms for each other, suggesting that all of these Italian migrants are bound to each other.

There’s an emphasis on collectivity running throughout that’s important to note. Take that gallery devoted to the Disobedience Archive, a project begun by curator Marco Scotini that here marshals videos by nearly 50 artists, from Seba Calfuqueo to Hito Steyerl. It is almost impossible to watch any one of these videos, since they’re crowded together into a circular gallery shaped like a zoetrope, and even if you wanted to try, there’s no information provided for individual works. The point, it would seem, is to view them together, delighting in the cacophony of sounds they emit.

An installation shot of Disobedience Archive, a project by curator Marco Scotini.

Photo: Marco Zorzanello. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

MD: Exactly. As I wrote in my highlights about the living artists in the main exhibition, I was prepared to hate the Disobedience Archive. Something about how it was presented on the official artist list as one entry, with no biographical details for each participant, irked me. But it really does work. Archives are both imposing and incomplete. Some things come to the fore more easily than others. That’s exactly what happens here, and it’s exceptional. 

AG: There’s also a lot of collaboration on display. Isaac Chong Wai, in one of my favorite works on view, has a performance in which a group of dancers, all from the Asian diaspora, pretend to protect each other when they fall. When one collapses, the others join in to ensure that the fallen dancer does not get hurt. Solidarity is thus a protective mechanism.

Meanwhile, Claudia Alarcón, a young Wichí artist from the La Putana community in Salta, Argentina, produced some of the most impressive works in this show: a series of fiber pieces done with the 13-person Silät collective. Executed in traditional Wichí techniques, these pieces look more like modernist abstractions. They deliberately hang loose, offering a full view of all the disparate threads that combine to create these pictures, and seem like a metaphor for what the show is all about.

MD: The threads that connect us is certainly an apt metaphor for this show and for the times we live in. A good chunk of the work on view at the Arsenale is fiber- or textile-based. I can’t stop thinking about Dana Awartani’s Come, Let Me Heal Your Wounds. Let Me Mend Your Broken Bones (2024), composed of several lengths of silk dyed in hues of red, yellow, and orange via herbs and spices that have medicinal properties. 

AG: Likewise. Awartani’s work is one of several in this show that refers to the current war in Gaza, where more than 34,000 people have been killed since October 7. But this artist, who was born in Saudi Arabia and is of Palestinian descent, has chosen not to represent all that carnage and cultural destruction, instead depicting it metaphorically, via hanging silk sheets that she has torn, then darned back together. Though not visible from a distance, these darned parts look like scars—welts, even—up close. It’s striking that the work, with its rows of yellow and orange fabric, is so beautiful, despite its horrifying subject matter.

MD: That approach to handling violence—alluding to it without replicating it—also recurs in some of the national pavilions. In Australia’s, Archie Moore (Kamilaroi/Bigambul) has created an extremely elegant installation in two parts. The walls of the building have been painted a chalkboard black onto which Moore has scrawled his family tree, going back 65,000 years, 2,400 generations, and encompassing an extensive notion of kinship. There are elisions here, represented by rubbed-out voids. The names may be lost to time but their lives and their importance to their people are not forgotten. Moore gets at violence more directly, but rather obliquely, in a display of dozens of stacks of paper related to First Nations people who have died in police custody. The names are redacted out of respect but the amount here illustrates just how endemic this is to Australian society, a constant threat faced by First Nations peoples.

A similar formal approach occurs in a video and sound installation by Onyeka Igwe that’s in the Nigerian Pavilion, the country’s second one ever at the Biennale. If you hit it at the right time, you might at first you think the projector isn’t running, since all you get is sound from a film without an image. The work, titled No Archive Can Restore This Chorus of (Diasporic) Shame, reinterprets films that were censored in Nigeria by British colonial rule via Igwe’s own archive of personal sounds. The destruction of an archive is the destruction of a people’s history—itself a violent act. What happens when people try to fill in those gaps, recovering and reimagining those histories anew? Contrast that with a more explicit installation, also in the Nigerian Pavilion, by Ndidi Dike featuring 736 black wooden police batons that have been used by the state to beat Black bodies. 

AG: Yes, it’s not as though the artists are retreating from the harsh realities of the past and the present—they just want to supply alternate visions of it that aren’t as harmful. In the main show, Marlene Gilson, a Watharung/Wadawurrung Elder based in Gordon, Australia, is showing paintings that contend with British colonialism, minus any representations of the violence that accompany it. In one called Culture Learning (2023), Aboriginal people mill about on a beach while a ship with a British flag looms nearby. It’s easy to miss that vessel because the focus is the placid existence of Gilson’s community, not the invaders who approached it by force.

But I wonder, Max, if you think the main show feels a bit polite? It occurred to me quite often that the exhibition seemed calculated not to offend, which I found pretty odd, considering its politics. 

It’s not like 2022’s Documenta 15, the last big European art festival devoted to the Global South, to which this Biennale feels like a response. The former show featured works that were explicit in addressing the Israel-Palestine conflict and its impact on countries as far-flung as Algeria and Indonesia. No surprise it got the artists—and the showrunners—in a good deal of trouble

A large-scale mural showing a machine in a lush landscape that emits noxious red smoke.

Frieda Toranzo Jaeger, Rage Is a Machine in Times of Senseless, 2024.

Photo Maximilíano Durón/ARTnews

But I don’t think anyone is going to protest one of the biggest Palestine-related works in this show, a vast Frieda Toranzo Jaeger mural that has the phrase “VIVA PALESTINE” scrawled on it. Generally, the painting, which depicts a vast machine emitting toxic red smoke, deals more with utopian visions of the future than it does our ugly current moment. To be clear, I’m not saying Toranzo Jaeger’s work is bad—it’s one of the best pieces on view, actually, in my opinion—but it seems to me that there are too many objects here that function similarly.

MD: To answer your question, I find the situation to be a catch-22 for artists: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I wouldn’t call it polite. I’d call it sly. It’s a form of subversion of putting the politics in their subtly. You see that happen in a lot of art scenes under repressive governments, particularly in Latin America, where artists have historically had to obliquely insert their politics to avoid government censorship or worse. Sure, you have to read between the lines here, but that can be the fun of it—you need to spend time with the work to figure out what exactly is going on. 

Perhaps what we’re seeing here is artists responding to a different kind of repressive ruling class: the international art world and the market. Of course, the Biennale is not a market-oriented event; the wall labels are essentially forbidden from listing the names of artists’ galleries in their credit lines. But the market has a chokehold on the art world right now, and it’s affecting what we’re seeing throughout the world. For artists to live on their work, it has to sell. Who’s buying it? The ultra-rich, whose politics might not align with the artist’s. So, if a very wealthy collector somehow does manage to later purchase a work that was on view here, they may be getting more than they bargained for. So, who gets the last laugh? I can’t wait to find out.

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