Spiegel-Wilks Seminar: Venice Biennale

Contemporary Art in East Asia and the World

May We Live in Interesting Times

I have always thought of art as another important lens through which to view history, one that captures the nuances of politics in ways that history books can’t quite achieve. The art that people produce during a certain period is a more accurate thermometer for the times than any poll or presidential speech.

Naturally, the Venice Biennale exemplifies this on a grand scale—every two years, tens of countries come together to assert their national identities to the world, as creatively as they see fit. The open-ended nature of the fair is every country’s greatest asset; no two pavilions were alike, and each was embedded with the uniqueness of that culture. From climate change to consumerism, what constituted “interesting times” varied greatly for every participating country. What resulted was a series of overlapping discourses on what it means to be alive in this day and age.

For some, the challenge of representing themselves before the world came easily. The Russian Pavilion seemed couched in a sense of self-confidence. Its harsh, dimly-lit installation curated by an acclaimed Russian film director was clear in intention and execution. Likewise, the Japanese Pavilion elevated a myth from its history into a more generalized commentary on the relationship between humans and the environment.

Other nations sought to change the ways that they have been historically perceived. Notably, Switzerland and Korea took on heteronormative hegemonies by shining a light on previously marginalized queer identities. Both nations saw dance as an art form that welcomes those who may not fit in elsewhere. On a different note, the Macao Pavilion’s Heidi Lau criticized how the region’s identity has been lost in the wave of tourism and rapid economic expansion.

There were also some nations that weren’t so sure where they stood, but took the Biennale as an opportunity to explore future possibilities for progress. Just as the Biennale can be affirming, it can be freeing. The Israeli Pavilion was an exercise in healing, simulating a hospital that airs out tragedies of the past and looks toward a healthier future. The New Zealand Pavilion felt similarly introspective, as its “list of things that no longer exist” suggested that the nation itself may become a part of that list.

At the end of the day, It was humbling to see so many nations contribute to the art world for this biannual display of culture. Without the context of past Biennales, I am unable to make a statement on the quality of the 58th iteration in comparison to previous years or other world fairs. However, to be in Venice in the year 2019 for this Biennale was an unforgettable experience (and hopefully the first of many art excursions for me). Many nations put forth their best artists and ideas solely for the purpose of international discourse, and that is something beautiful in and of itself.

A world fair such as the Venice Biennale is inherently political. From the amount of space allocated to each country to the themes found inside, it is impossible to walk through the Giardini or the Arsenale without feeling the weight of hundreds of years of history that preceded you.  Collectively, the participating nations have left us with a heavy task: take what you’ve seen here and have these important conversations about tragedy, war, environmentalism, heteronormativity, poverty, consumerism, sexuality, and more, so that even more progress can be made at the next Biennale.

By Brooke Price

brprice • November 10, 2019

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