Dennis Broe reviews the biennial festival of contemporary art
May You Live in Interesting Times is the title and organizing principle of this year’s Venice Biennale, year curated by Ralph Rogoff, head of the Hayward Gallery in London. Mr. Rogoff is now an officer in something called The Order of the British Empire, though many of the best pieces in the show are blows against the idea of a (white, masculinist, colonial) empire. An exception was the British Pavilion which made its colonial subjects (audience) stand in line for a half an hour in the Venetian heat and humidity to have their own private viewing and in the process seeming to affirm the idea of empire.
The phrase itself, employed across the political spectrum from as far left as Brecht and as far right as Hillary Clinton has seemed to reference an ancient Chinese curse, though there is a bit of orientalism in that explanation since there is no trace of the phrase in Chinese. It all comes down to the meaning of the word interesting. The more astute artists in the exhibition translate “interesting” as horrible, blood-curdling, perilous, while others seem to reaffirm Rogoff’s catalogue description of the phrase as “complex”. These interpretations come dangerously close to reaffirming a virtual utopia, or simply wallowing in the chaos that the combination of climate disaster, impending global recession, nuclear war and continual appropriation of more resources by the wealthiest have wrought. The catastrophic meaning of interesting seemed to prevail in the real-world politics of Italy, as yet another government collapsed during the exhibition – though the phoenix if it rises from the ashes will have a more progressive drift – and in the face of this wanton destruction the stock market went up.
Kaari Upson's Dollhouse
Rogoff did a splendid job of organizing his curated part of the exhibition, often juxtaposing or combining elements that heightened their effectiveness. So, art world breakout star of the exhibition Kaari Upson’s eerie full-scale dollhouse, which she had rampaged through destroying the furniture, and which shows her video with herself in grotesque doll costume with blotchy, smeared red lipstick, is paired with Mari Katayama’s images of herself as a Japanese doll, belied by the fact that she has lost both her legs so that she appears in photos with the stubs or her prosthetic legs appear amid the eroticized stockings and other accoutrements of the trope of the Japanese human doll. Both do a splendid job of making us gasp at the image of the woman as toy for male desire.
Elsewhere, Rula Halawani’s sodden black and white images of walls and enclosures built by Israel since 2000, which in their sad bleakness suggest images of the earlier Berlin Wall, link to Teresa Margolles’ stone wall, with barbed wire and bullet holes depicting the enclosed structure in Juarez, which has the highest murder rate in the world. Women, of course, are disproportionately victims of the violence.
Works and walls
Shilpa Gupta's Ominous Gate
Both works and walls are much in abundance here, criticizing the global right-wing resurrection of borders. They are perhaps summed up by two more abstract but equally powerful installations. Firstly, Shilpa Gupta’s large mechanical door with spikes on top, that bangs shut and revolves from one side of a wall to another, slowly breaking down the wall in the process, with the sound and the image stressing the violence of the border. Secondly, Sun Yan and Peng Yu’s giant robotic arm, taught 32 different movements all of which end in the arm sweeping what looks like blood on the floor, perhaps the result of not only mechanical systems of walls and surveillance but also suggesting the blood that is the residue of the drive toward automation, as more and more workers lose their jobs.
Women’s installations were the most powerful in the exhibition, with US Trans Latina artist Martine Gutierrez enacting a kind of post-colonial Cindy Sherman. She places herself amid dummies that she has constructed framing, black and white scenes of the exploitation and exoticization of non-white women. The most striking of these are of her as maid in what might be a Cuban Batista resort, and anther showing her rising out of the water at the feet of a suited man with black polished shoes. It’s a pose that eroticizes her, but she has a masterfully cunning look on her face and thus transforms the moment into a trans-gender transgressive seizing control of the situation.
My prize for best overall work goes to the Alexandra Bircken’s stunning Escalation, a series of ladders reaching to the sky and intercrossing on the way up with hollowe- out black figures draped over the ladders, or hanging from them like so many corpses, victims of the ever increasing drive to get ahead – the human waste in the accelerated competition for ever growing quarterly profits and increase in Gross Domestic Product.
The climate crisis was everywhere, and many of these presentations centered around either the questioning or the reaffirming of the Anthropocene, the melding of man and machine as the virtual world merges with our world. Christine and Margaret Wertheim’s intricate coral reefs constructed of yarn showed in their complexity how nature thwarts in the multitudinous shapes of the reefs the more rigid rationality and logic of Euclidean geometry, which they diagrammed on a board next to their colorful concoctions.
Even more to the point, Irish artist Jimmie Durham, who body of work was honored in this year’s event, displayed the maimed but proud heads of animals tortured on the bodies of industrial pipes or electrical wiring. It emphasized the growing number of species that are becoming extinct as the race to exploit the world’s resources heats up, and as Trump and the Pentagon are trying to claim Greenland’s mineral wealth as their own – while the Amazon burns.
This year the curated exhibitions outshone the national pavilions in the Venice Gardens, the Guardini, but two especially strong works stood out. The first was Chile’s Hegemonic Museum, a truly remarkable work by Voluspa Jarpa that attempts to trace in four rooms histories of colonial expansion and exploitation.
Western Rogues' Gallery
The first concentrates on the upside-down hanging of the DeWitts in Holland who challenged the place of the Dutch East India Company, and pushed for a more democratic state. This is followed by maquettes, tiny models of a vicious attack on women who demanded their rights in the Vienna uprising of 1848, part of a wave of revolutionary activity in that year. The next room is a taped opera whose verse is Western men singing “Blessed be the whiteness of my skin” and “I cannot own slaves and love them too” while a chorus of non-Western peoples, women and children answers these sentiments. A final room contains redacted official documents tracing the CIA’s involvement through operation Glaudio in not only interfering, but overturning the results of the 1948 Italian election, finishing with an illustrated three-dimensional rogues’ gallery of Western violence. An exemplary tour-de-four of an exhibit.
The violence underlying capitalist life
This was topped though by the outstanding country pavilion, my prize for best and honoured by the Biennale jury as well, Belgium’s Mondo Cane. It’s a dog’s world indeed but that is not apparent as at first sight as the exhibition looks to be a celebration of different aspects of the orderliness of bourgeois life in its idyllic mannequins of a knife sharpener, zither player, minister and town crier, each making their own sounds. The text accompanying the display tells another story as the knife sharpener – all these are based on actual characters – is at night a Sweeny Todd monster, whose knife could cut off the legs of a horse.
The town crier, whose thin moustache suggests Hitler, is actually crying an off-color, bigoted joke and the musician is based on a character wanted for mass murders. Circling them are three jails which house the overtly violent or repugnant or rebellious members of the town such as the rat lady, a harbinger of death. The exhibit is an exceptional exposing of the violence that underlies all aspects of the repressed normalcy of capitalist life.
I have to question the meaning of reflection which the British Pavilion posed. Kathy Wilkes’ series of somnolent works suggesting a solemn and sepulchre-like female interiority were allowed to be viewed only by 15 visitors at a time, though the pavilion accommodates far more. That meant long lines in front of the exhibition in order to guarantee this privileged moment of a privatization of the experience. The work was in a way a standard YBA (Young British Artists) aging into more conservative maturity, but the idea that reflection must be done in private, that the group reflection the Biennale everywhere else encourages is somehow false or wrong, is one worth challenging.
The best exhibits this year were critical works that were meant to be shared and thought about in their public context, not fetishized as some wholly private revelation. We are long past the days when salvation in the actual dystopia the exhibit elsewhere so well describes, can be achieved by individual contemplation. What May You Live in Interesting Times says implicitly in its overall impact is that the only way out of the impending doom humankind has created for itself is together. And perhaps together, we may yet transform “interesting” meaning terrifying into “interesting” meaning abundant.
Dennis Broe is a television, film and culture critic whose latest works are Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and the detective novel Left of Eden. He taught in the Master’s Programme in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne. His criticism appears in the Morning Star, on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris, People’s World, and Crime Time. He is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.