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Venice Biennale 2019: exploring the world through art

Venice Biennale 2019: exploring the world through art

Betsy Bickar

By Betsy Bickar

Art Advisor, Art Advisory & Finance

June 26, 2019Posted InWealth Advisory

Every two years, the entire city of Venice is overtaken by contemporary art in what is known as the Venice Biennale, or officially titled the ‘58th International Art Exhibition’. It is a large-scale international exhibition spread across various venues, exhibiting artwork from artists all over the world. This spectacular experience opened in May and runs through November 24, 2019. The main exhibition includes the work of seventy-nine artists and is spread across two exhibition venues. Additionally, eighty-seven countries each chose one artist as a national representative to showcase their work in a national pavilion. Several artists under forty years old are presenting, and many of these artists are already well-known in the international art market, a clue into the increasing global nature of the Contemporary art world. The theme of this year’s Venice Biennale, ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’, chosen by the exhibition’s curator, Ralph Rugoff, originated from a 1930s speech given by British statesman Joseph Chamberlain about a supposed ancient Chinese curse. Intended to reflect the socio-political sentiment felt around the world today, the title also encapsulates a significant moment of change we are experiencing in Contemporary art.

Much has been discussed about the increasing exposure given to more a more diverse artist base: both to women, LGBTQ+ or artists of color. However, a point which seems to be equally as important in the sea change felt at the 58th International Art Exhibition in Venice, is that there is a real sense of excitement as younger artists’ voices – those under forty years old -- are gaining international exposure and cultural weight. Today, technology is closing the gap between cultures more than ever before in a more globally interconnected world, perhaps in some ways analogous to the development of rock and roll in the mid-twentieth century, during the Great Migration (when six million black Americans moved from the rural southern United States to the urban Northeast, beginning in the early twentieth century and lasting for decades). This cultural integration catalysed a moment of significant development in musical history. In our twenty-first century cultural exchange, facilitated by technological advances in communication, information moves much more rapidly and involves artists from all around the world. The Biennale did not create the artistic communication, but rather evidenced the consistency of the dialogue reflecting socio political issues among cultures, whether from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America or the US. While its very nature has always been to unite artists from around the world in a single exhibition, this year’s Biennale presentation highlighted common threads in artistic thinking more than ever before.

The Venice Biennale is a unique event in the art world’s calendar for other reasons: tangential exhibitions take over the entire city of Venice, filling its picturesque streets, palazzos, and churches with Contemporary art, creating a striking contrast between the abstract and conceptual contemporary works against the backdrop of historical Italian architecture. It is an event where one can truly focus on the artwork itself; as it is not a fair or auction, there is no official selling component. Because of its lack of cars, labyrinthine streets and unreliable GPS, one cannot get anywhere quickly, so we are forced to slow down, walk the streets and move from venue to venue while taking the time to reflect and appreciate the discoveries of new artists.

This year, figurative painting and large-scale abstract sculpture were plentiful, as was video. There were fantastic works by Andra Ursuta, Jill Muleady, Cameron Jamie and Michael Armitage, all working in the tradition of figuration, with twenty-first century conceptual viewpoints. Muleady’s paintings, for example, are loosely based on Edvard Munch’s group of paintings, ‘The Frieze of Life’, with her own surreal and cinematic interpretation of human psychologies via characters with a seemingly artificial existence. There is a large room in the main pavilion where market darling George Condo is unexpectedly re-contextualized with Julie Mehretu, Henry Taylor and Nairy Baghramian. In the Arsenale the El Anatsui installation was of an incredible scale and impressively overpowering. One can also see a beautiful installation of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Carol Bove and Anthony Hernandez: Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s work uses many layers of various media, such as collage, paint, photo-transfer and drawing to depict interior scenes of domestic life, family and home. She pulls in a history of place with images of popular Nigerian culture, such as advertisements, product labels, and photographs of daily scenes, drawing the viewer’s attention to subjects which have been absent in traditional portraiture throughout history. She observes the younger generations’ participation in a more global culture, juxtaposed with the more localized rural and traditional gender roles of the older generation in her family. Martin Puryear, the US representative artist, exhibited sculpture and installations that were all-encompassing. His abstract sculptures contain references to common familiar objects but cleverly illustrate conceptual ideas such as freedom, liberty, and justice.

In addition to more traditional media, there were two massive jaw dropping installations by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, which offered a violent and futuristic viewpoint – one involves a large Plexiglas room-sized cube containing a robot in the form of a forklift shovel, programmed with various movements to scoop up a thick, red liquid. Danish artist Danh Vo’s work was shown in a small but concentrated space, and across the Biennale one could see installations by Kemang Wa Lehulere, a South African artist, and arresting photographs by Indian artist Soham Gupta.

If one still has energy after visiting the two main sites of the Biennale, there are many other important exhibitions to see in churches, museums, palazzos and unexpected spaces all over the city. A short list includes: Luc Tuymans exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi; Arshile Gorky at Ca’Pesaro; Alberto Burri on the island of San Giorgio; James Lee Byars installation near Zattere at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione (‘Death of James Lee Byars’); Adrian Ghenie at Palazzo Cini; Gunther Förg at Palazzo Contarini Polignac and Helen Frankenthaler at Palazzo Grimani.

One word of advice: give yourself two to three days with an open agenda, and be sure to bring comfortable shoes.

The views expressed herein are for informational purposes only and are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Citigroup Inc. All opinions are subject to change without notice.