Art

An Art Of Interesting Times

09 July 2019Rebecca-Anne Proctor
An Art Of Interesting Times
An Art Of Interesting Times
An Art Of Interesting Times
An Art Of Interesting Times
 

Zanele Muholi’s haunted face can be found at various intervals of the Arsenale. Works from the South African’s series Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness (2012-ongoing), seem to build an expressionistic fervor, as the artist reveals herself in a variety of unapologetic black and white self-portraits taken over the better part of a year. Her gaze is assertive, alluring, and yet there’s a lurking sense of chaos behind it, much like the theme of curator of the 58th Venice Biennale Ralph Rugoff’s May You Live In Interesting Times

 

Zanele Muholi | Various works, 2015-2018, Wallpaper Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times Photo by:  Italo Rondinella

 

Rugoff’s ambitious curation sprawls out amidst the Arsenale and the Giardini, igniting a wave of intense emotion that evokes the precarious state of existence today. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dear (2015), a white throne-like chair with a long hose emerging from its seat thrashed with such violence that we were begged to question what was being tortured, and why—or perhaps the work was representative of the tumultuous state of our world today and the many battles, both mental and physical, that are continually waged. At once intimidating and deeply visceral, the violent acts of Dear garner a crowd of fascinated onlookers.

 

Shilpa Gupta | For, In Your Tongue I Cannot Fit, 2017-2018. Sound installation with 100 speakers, microphones, printed text and metal stands. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times Photo by: Italo Rondinella

 

Shilpa Gupta’s installation For, in your tongue, I cannot fit (2017-18), offers a poignant representation of the violence of censorship through a symphony of recorded voices that speak or sing the verses of 100 poets imprisoned for their work and political positions. Gupta has placed the verses of each individual’s work on pieces of paper throughout the room, spliced by the sphere-like pedestal that upholds it. Corresponding microphones dangle above each paper, reciting the verses in diverse languages (Arabic, Azeri, English, Hindi, and Russian) to create a soundscape that includes, and also excludes, the listener.

 

 

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu | Can’t Help Myself, 2016 Mixed media. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times
58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times. Photo by: Francesco Galli

 

Then there’s Nigerian Antwerp-based Otobong Nkanga’s A Lapse, A Stain, A Fall (2018), a winding 26-meter long “vein” that charts its course through one end of the Arsenale. The vein—made of Murano glass and marble, both materials sourced from the earth as well as evocative of post-colonial and colonial exploitation of natural resources—is also a metaphor for history. “It feels like history is a hole that we keep on digging, excavating, and building on—and then it collapses again, and something new starts,” says Nkanga.

 

On either side and in different sections are vibrant works on canvas by some of greatest stars of African American art and the African continent itself: Njodeka Akunyili Crosby, Henry Taylor, and Michael Armitage. These are all names, along with Muholi and others, that symbolise the great rise and fixation with contemporary art from Africa.

 

Tarek  Atoui. The GROUND, 2018. Mixed media. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times. 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times Photo by:  Andrea Avezzù

There’s a real mix of performance, sound, and film taking place simultaneously throughout Rugoff’s exhibition. Tarek Atoui’s The Ground (2014-19), a work made up of numerous ceramic pieces and amplifiers, creates a mechanised sonic installation of unconventional noise-making instruments. In the Giardini is Turner-prize nominee Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Walled Unwalled (2018), a single channel video shot in the former broadcasting booths of the East German State Radio in Berlin, portraying the artist speaking about legal cases in which audio evidence, sounds heard by witnesses or recorded using surveillance technologies, played a crucial role in ensuing verdicts. Our walls of privacy, seems to say the artist, are no more.

 

Lawrence Abu Hamdan | Walled Unwalled, 2018 Single channel video installation, colour, sound. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times. 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times. Photo by:  Francesco Galli

 

Back in the Arsenale, Neïl Beloufa’s Global Agreement (2019) is a popular one, featuring a series of walk-in sculptural installations whereby viewers can watch clips of filmed interviews regarding military power, fitness, beauty, weapons, and an obsession with one’s body image—all themes that interest not just the artist, but signify the predominant themes of the media today. At the end of the Arsenale, George Condo’s large painting Double Elvis (2019) seems to greet those who exit with a bit of humour and a message: two men raise their mugs in celebration. They are, according to Condo, “the grand glorification of low-life humanity.” Is the placement a tribute to the works inside, or to the need, as Rugoff states, to live in “interesting times?” Maybe both.

Neïl Beloufa | Pre-Post 1-2, 2019. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times Photo by: Francesco Galli

This Biennale includes works by a large portion of younger, under 40 artists, as well as those from what has been often termed the “global south.” Through unsettling works in a variety of media, Rugoff comments on the uncanny nature of today’s world. It’s a world where news cycles portray catastrophe after catastrophe, and where the advent of what is now called “fake news” has prompted mankind to look for other ways of understanding what is “true.” Art, Rugoff prompts the visitor to see, offers another way to read what is real. It can be a guide for how to live in these indeed interesting times. At the 58th Venice Biennale, art has a social function: it’s a means to an end, and a way that we can make better sense of alien gestures, thoughts, and fears, in an increasingly divided world. Art, Rugoff shows, is reality, as much as it is pleasurable fantasy.  

 

About Rebecca-Anne Proctor

Rebecca Anne Proctor is the Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar Art and Harper’s Bazaar Interiors, a role she has held since 2015. She has written prolifically for publications including The New York Times Style Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, Canvas, Artnet News, Frieze, BBC, Galerie, The National and The Business of Fashion as well as written several art catalogues on Middle Eastern art and culture. 

 

Through unsettling works in a variety of media, curator Ralph Rugoff comments on the uncanny nature of today’s world. It’s a world […] that has prompted mankind to look for other ways of understanding what is ‘true’.”