Art review: Venice Biennale 2019

The Ghana show at the Venice Biennale
The Ghana show at the Venice Biennale
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A curse that isn’t really a curse is at the centre of this year’s Venice Biennale, writes Susan Mansfield

Ever hear about the ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”? Well, it isn’t one. Despite being quoted as such for more than 100 years, the whole curse idea is an urban myth, a shaggy dog story, fake news. That’s one of the reasons Ralph Rugoff, curator of London’s Hayward Gallery and of the central exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale, chose it as his title. The work which he brings together to address these calamitous times is plural, multi-faceted and questions everything.

Laure Prouvost's show in the French Pavilion

Laure Prouvost's show in the French Pavilion

Rugoff’s exhibition is vast, filling the Central Pavilion at the Giardini and a sizable stretch of the Arsenale, the city’s erstwhile ship-building powerhouse, but it is still only a fraction of the whole. This year, 90 countries are represented, with a further 21 “collateral projects” (of which Scotland + Venice is one – see for our review), and a raft of other concurrent events, from the monumental paintings of Georg Baselitz at the Gallerie d’Accademia to the delicate, perfectly judged ceramics of Edmund de Waal in the Jewish Ghetto.

Rugoff’s show differs from previous Biennales in a number of ways: he has selected artists on a 50/50 ratio of male/female, from a broad international base, and shows works by all 79 in each venue. He has chosen only living artists, and much of the work here is new or very recent.

The work is multifarious, from painting, sculpture, photography and film to virtual reality, computer games-style animation, robotics and instagram feeds. The tone ranges from playful to poignant, dreamy to discursive. There is no theme or message, but the question to which it returns time and again is: in a world in which we are swamped with visual information, much of it unreliable, can art still communicate some kind of truth?

Jordan’s Lawrence Abu Hamdan examines walls and borders, with a film made in the cell-like studios of the former state radio headquarters in East Berlin and phone footage of a protest in the Golan Heights in 2011 where the barrier was breached and four Palestinians killed. Palestinian photographer Rula Halawani visits similar territory with poignant photographs of the same wall at night.

Work by''Zanele Muholi

Work by''Zanele Muholi

Teresa Margolles, making work about drug violence in Mexico, instals an actual section of wall from the city of Juarez, pock-marked with bullets and topped with barbed wire, while Shilpa Gupta, in a new iteration of the work she showed at Edinburgh Art Festival last summer, creates a chorus of voices of writers who have been imprisoned for their work.

Hito Steyerl’s multi-screen installation for the Giardini considers the submarine designed by Leonardo da Vinci to help Venice defend itself against the Ottomans, then kept secret by him because he feared its potential for destruction. Steyerl’s ambitious installation in

the Arsenale, This is the future considers the problem of making predictions and asks, in a rare explicit moment: “Why didn’t anyone predict Brexit?”

The presence of the marginalised is a recurring theme, as in Soham Gupta’s photographs of Kolcatta’s night people, and the work of Tavares Strachan, who focusses on untold stories, particularly those from non-white communities. His work in the Arsenale illuminates (literally, with fibre optics) the figure of Robert Henry Lawrence, the first African-American astronaut, who died in a training accident in 1967 and was marginalised in NASA history.

Giving space to the stories and perspectives of people of colour is a big part of this show, and there is important work here, such as Arthur Jafa’s The White Album and Michael Armitage’s superb paintings done around the time of Kenya’s turbulent 2017 election, but there is so much that, after a while, it does start to feel like overcompensating.

That said, Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai brings a valuable perspective to the story of the rescue of 12 children and their football coach from a cave in Northern Thailand in 2018 in his powerful triple-screen film, and Martine Gutierrez, a trans woman of Latin American descent, dissects questions of representation by staging glossy magazine-style photoshoots with herself as the star.

Some of the quieter works are among the most enjoyable: paintings (and sculpture) by Nicole Eisenmann; paintings by Jill Mulleady and Njideka Akunyili Crosby; animal sculptures by Jimmie Durham (check out the half-bison, half-wardrobe); delicate sound sculptures by Tarek Atoui. The large violent robotic installations of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, contained in perspex cages, cause a big sensation but the ideas behind them feel comparatively slight. Christoph Buchel’s work, a boat which sunk in 2015 with the loss of more than 1,000 migrants and was later raised by the Italian navy, is causing controvery, but unless you’ve heard the furore you might miss it altogether, moored calmly in the waters of Arsenale with (at the artist’s insistence) no signage.

Out among the national shows, the idea of representing a country is often troublesome, with curators and artists either going to great lengths to be ironic, or ignoring it altogether. Sinister mechanical figures populate the Belgian pavilion while the USA’s is given over to the monumental sculptures of Martin Puryear, and Austria hosts a retrospective of radical feminist artist Renate Bertlmann.

At the French Pavilion, former Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost has created a delightful, disconcerting journey into the subconscious which begins by scrambling through the bushes to reach a side door into the basement. Every inch of the pavilion is filled, from the octopi and broken cell phones embedded in a resin floor to Prouvost’s film, a quirky road movie about a journey from Paris to Venice. There is singing, magic tricks, a brass band and did I mention the performing doves? She has made a show which is endlessly unexpected and occasionally sinister, but also quite a lot of fun.

In the Arsenale, Eva Rothschild’s sculptures (representing Ireland) challenge our perceptions of the work, the space and ourselves, with the added bonus that you can climb on them, while Mark Justiniani, for the Philippines, creates stunning installations looking like glittering caverns descending into the depths of the earth.

Nearby, Ghana, making its Biennale debut this year, produces one of the stand-out shows, with works by five artists including John Akomfrah and Lynette Yiadam-Boakye. As the first nation in sub-Saharan Africa to throw off colonial rule, Ghana has enjoyed a cultural flourishing which means it is now able to field a pack of mature artists engaged in a thoughtful, visually impressive exploration of the idea of freedom. Among much posturing and showing off, it’s a reminder of what the Biennale can do at its very best.

Until 24 November