The World is On Fire, But At Least We Have Art: Venice Biennale 2019
With vibrant dashes of baby blue, yellow, orange, and pink, the official poster for the 58th Venice Biennale belies the sinisterness of its central themes about precarious survival. Taken from an English idiom that is also apocryphally known as “the Chinese curse,” the title of this year’s Biennale—“May You Live in Interesting Times”—is at once coy and menacing. Responding to anxieties about living in “interesting times” that consistently threaten the fundamentals of personhood and the possibilities of community-building, much of the art displayed this year at the Biennale takes its cue from either the rise of regressive politics or the increasingly devastating effects of climate change. The crux of the Biennale’s main message (especially at the Giardini, where the ninety national pavilions were on display) boils down to this: we—or, at the very least, the institutions that either we have knowingly elected or with which we are complicit by way of passivity and silence—are responsible for the interesting times we now live in.
In an era when the most basic infrastructures that uphold a community—that is to say, affective modes of communication such as empathy, tolerance, and compassion—teeter at the brink of collapse, contemporary artists understandably feel an urgent responsibility to critique the system and radicalize their viewer into action and social change. Yet one of the most insidious pitfalls of creating political art is that at the moment the artist reacts against the hegemonic society, she puts herself at risk of playing into the workings of the system. That is to say, within the structure of capitalism are designated venues for dissent; to that end, certain forms of protest may give the appearance of autonomy or that the individual has some purchase on the system, but it in fact falls under the surveillance and control of the establishment. Much political art therefore falls into the trap of merely replicating the failings of the system without intimating the possibilities of an alternative.
The French Pavilion, an interactive installation space designed by artist Laure Prouvost titled “Deep see blue surrounding you,” is one example of this. Following a sign that reads “Ideally you would go deeper into the building,” the viewer is directed onto an obscure path at the side of the pavilion and enters into a surrealist landscape comprised of a contaminated ocean floor made of glass, with abandoned iPods, broken eggshells, and dead octopuses splayed across it. The installation is visually stunning and thematically lucid: it disallows silence acquiescence on the part of the viewer, compelling them to confront the physical consequences of climate change and environmental apathy. Yet in tandem with the cogency of its message is also the lack of a sufficient emotional resonance: beneath the phantasmagorical spectacle is the same image we see over and over again in the news, twitter, and Netflix documentaries. The French Pavilion uncannily recreates the direness of the “interesting times” that surround us, but it also invokes much more ominous and urgent questions that are, ultimately, left unanswered: we live in interesting times, but who will survive them, and how?
By contrast, the Swiss Pavilion is one example of an exhibition that is equally politically weighty but much more emotionally evocative and thematically nuanced compared with the French Pavilion. Critiquing the authoritarian politics of its current government without lending it further credence by directly addressing it, the Swiss Pavilion offers a polemic by different means. Titled “Moving Backwards” and created by artists Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, the exhibition showcases a large film installation in a completely dark room in which a group of contemporary dancers rave to the electrifying beats of club music, but repeatedly “move backward” as the film reel plays on loop. The performance in the film is seemingly without any narrative or program, choreographed by the dancers’ affective impulse and bodily intuition; yet it is also punctuated by brief periods of intermission when the luminous curtains close in to obscure the screen and completely darken the exhibition space, but with the booming music still playing in the background, as if coaxing the audience to perform their own gesticulations of revolt. Where the surrealist landscape of the French Pavilion stirs and unnerves but does not offer any room for future possibilities of change, the Swiss Pavilion offers a radical invective while simultaneously inviting its viewers to join the performance as well as each other in a collective, celebratory affirmation of individuality and political dissent.
Overcrowded with art as well as visitors, the Biennale is an experience that exemplifies the concept of sensory overload. Ranging from hellish marionette ballet sequences tinted by moody, crimson lightings (Russian Pavilion) to quiet, Zen-like contemplations about the relations between traditional folklore narratives and the Anthropocene (Japanese Pavilion), the national pavilions at the Biennale at times dwarf the viewers with their a of visual narrative, and at other times offer them a brief retreat from the atrocities that they live with and witness daily. Not every installation hits the mark, and each piece evokes different responses from each viewer, but it is within this spectacle of profusion that the real gems shine through. American artist Alex Da Corte’s cinematic installations at both the Central Pavilion at the Giardini and the Arsenale, for instance, immerse the viewer within a hyper-saturated simulacrum of American pop culture that is at once mesmerizing and pointedly satirical, delicately balancing polemic and humor.
The Israeli Pavilion, re-adapted as “Field Hospital X” by multidisciplinary artist Aya Ben Ron, also combines acute political critique with subtle redemptive potential. In its rigorous reenactment of a local clinic—complete with nurses, dentist chairs, patient-wristbands, and the opportunity of seeking “expert opinions”—it reframes the genre of documentary film as “treatment” to cure social ills. Putting the viewer in the position of a patient, the installation acknowledges potential reasons for political silence—such as ignorance, misinformation, or disinterestedness—without judgment or condemnation. Attending to one patient at a time, the Israeli Pavilion constructs a space where reparative politics and constructive community-building becomes possible. The visceral precariousness of existence and survival makes up the fabric of the Biennale, but it is in its occasional ruptures—moments when the very language we employ to talk about the global crises that surround us is reimagined and reconfigured—that we witness the transformative and mediative potential that art offers us.