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Between the water veins and polished facades, the 58th Venice Biennale this year opens with a proverbial curse as a title. A conceptual intention lead by Ralph Rugoff... an interesting move in an art world saturated at late with esoteric tendencies and a burgeoning occultist revolt. The title of the show is “May You Live In Interesting Times” the words are chilling and uneasy, perhaps it’s more the use of “you” rather than the often tokenized “us” or “we” that is used in the art world. One can’t help but think of it as a threat seeping out from all the fallen terrorized curators who have taken on such enormous feats at biennales in recent years and politely failed.

Courtesy Biennale di Venezia

Perhaps Rugoff is getting the curse out first before it is reflected on his own curatorial practice by the public haters ... saying that he has laid on a rather large and varied group of artists to stand behind him and his title and who can’t be fond of friction if it has a cause. So if you head into this year’s battlefield, you will be able to consume several A-listers such as Hito Steyrl, Arthur Jafa, Jimmie Durham, Cyprien Gaillard, Tomás Saraceno, Rosemarie Trockel and many others. Alongside them is the CGI deities of Ed Atkins, Jon Rafman and Ian Cheng which can be found projected next to the flaming denim ecosystems that burst with neons from another era by Korakrit Arunanondchai. Neighboring his peer Alex Gvojic – if you remember the iconic boat that was dripping with faux flowers, furs, plastics and overgrown beanbags for the DIS-curated Berlin Biennale in 2016, this was one of their collaborations complete with sea ghosting Makaras. Next to them, you have the powerful supernatural photographic self-portraits of Martine Gutierrez, who is the youngest artists to be selected for the show. They hang next to the electric landscapes of young painters like Jill Mulleady and Avery Singer.

Avery Singer: Untitled, 2019. Courtesy Gavin Brown's Enterprise, New York and Kraupa Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin

Yet this exhibition is not only high-gloss deliciously served aesthetic pieces you will also find the serene and powerful political-rendered installational fictions of Lee Bul, Nabuqi and Anicka Yi, whose works often speak out about feminist issues as part of our ever hostile world, not only as a conceptual rhetoric or political slogan hood but as something that lives and breathes inside us all. Darren Bader is also in the line-up who is best-known for his radical conceptual spoofs, such as injecting lasagne with heroin and titling it Lasagna with Heroin or driving his aunt’s car from outside of Miami to the front of the Bass Museum of Art and titling it My Aunts Car. He also has in the past let goats run wild or had people adopt cats as Bader’s artworks. What is sublime in Bader’s work once you have gotten past the three-dimensional meme quality is that he produces a crisis in art. Most people at the top of the art triad try to refrain for postulating on the question “Is that really art?” especially when it comes to artists like Bader but isn’t that the beauty of such works? Don’t we need more crisis in art, more criticism, more venting, more anger, fewer galas, fewer dinners, more questions, and multiple answers? If this Biennale curse can really deliver anything let us hope it ruptures art and the machinic tendencies of itself. Let’s hope all our eyes are bedeviled by this curse that Rugoff has set himself the pretense to deliver. May we all become Thomas Mann’s protagonist in his book Death in Venice and find ourselves opened once more to the chimera economy that should be the arts.

And to help us along our way don’t forget that all the information is listed on in our app, along with Alerts for events, performances, screenings, receptions and parties during the preview and opening days.

Philippe Parreno (exhibition view at Martin Gropius Bau Berlin, 2018). Courtesy Pilar Corrias, London; Gladstone Gallery, New York & Brussels; Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photo: Andrea Rossetti

With that in mind, we would suggest following the watery ways out of the Giardini and Arsenale into the city to Philippe Parreno’s ghosting Gesamtkunstwerk at the Espace Louis Vuitton that explores and questions tropes of narration and representation. Parreno since the 1990s has worked in ways that have agitated our crash and buy consumption of art paraphernalia, one can not really see a work by him in a rush. You have to let your mind and body adjust to his time and space before you can really begin to see the work – it’s always recommended in his shows to get utterly lost. You can also find at the Arsenale another national contribution, this time Lithuania breaking the cubed boundaries curated by Lucia Pietroiusti, who has invited artists Lina Lapelyte, Vaiva Grainyte, and Rugile Barzdžiukaite who have worked together to compose a live opera complete with video, text and performative pieces to rage every sense you have, even your sixth (ideally). Another chord is presented by The Mongolian Pavilion who will compile an interactive piece by the artists Jantsankhorol Erdenebayar (Jantsa) and Carsten Nicolai who have worked in collaboration with a chorus of Mongolian traditional throat singers. This type of ancestral overtone singing consists of reproducing natural sounds such as babbling of water, or a breath of wind, an echo in the mountains, or the rumble of thunder turned into a birdsong. It takes extreme stamina to master the art of such tones. Also touching on un/natural ecstasy inside the Estonian Pavilion, you can find the artist Kris Lemsalu extreme and mortiferous ceramic panoramas that bleed out into our domestic and take the viewers into her sleep waking worlds.

Kris Lemsalu. Photo: Edith Karlson

Also unmissable is the new commissions at “Time, Forward!” at V-A-C Foundation where you can see Christopher Kulderan Thomas and Annika Kuhlmann's epic film-based installation. That traverses the sites of celebrity culture, deep fakes, artificial intelligence by asking questions like what is contemporary culture and how is it manufactured as a personal and societal gesture. All set inside a semi-autobiographical landscape of the creators own-making in Sri Lanka and Berlin. One can also find links to rethinking ourselves as entities in a broader ecosystem in the new work of Charlotte Prodger who will represent Scotland this year. She commented on the work by saying “I understand landscape and queerness as inherently linked. And, as someone who identifies as queer, I’m excited by the fluid borders of identity – especially the perceived edges of gender and geography. The productive crux of this new work is precisely where all these things come into contact with one another.” One might remember Prodgers work as being the Turner prize winner in 2018, her iPhone film-works combine her own voice and the Scottish landscape delivering narratives of goddess and deities in a contemporary turmoil. Prodgers work is relatable and haunting, she is the voice of a generation that finds itself annexed rather than at one with its surroundings. Leading on from these ideas is Shu Lea Cheang, a pioneering figure in Internet-based art who will be exhibiting their net-based installations and spacial agitations at the Taiwan Pavilion at Palazzo delle Prigioni which has been curated by the writer Paul B. Preciado. Whose written work focuses on ideas of gender, sexuality, and technology and how it changed over the years, most notably their book Testo Junkie has become a cult-classic in queer theory. In connection with this field of thought on post humanhood is the German Pavilion at the Giardini who will present Natascha Sadr Haghighian, but she will be exhibiting under the alias Natascha Süder Happelmann. A name that maps all the misspellings of her real name generated by machines over the years.

Joan Jonas. Courtesy Ocean Space, Venice

Another pavilion which is unmissable if your the type of viewer who enjoys feeling unsettled by other is the Icelandic one, who will exhibit the artist Shoplifter who has declared they will create one of her infamous hair installations to such a degree the viewer will question if they are even inside a building. She states “You’ll be surrounded by hair, it’s going to be a cave of hair stalactites.” Speaking of disconcerting terrains another unmissable exhibition to see is from Joan Jonas at Ocean Space curated by Stefanie Hessler. The exhibition which opened in March unfolds across 500 square meters of what was once the nave of the church of San Lorenzo. The show comprises new video, sculpture, drawing, and sound works, as well as a performance, which focuses on the role the oceans have played on our cultures as a totemic, spiritual, and ecological touchstone for centuries. Another highlight in regards to this topic of monumental touchstones is at Space is the Place who will host a symposium on May 10, organized by architectural theorist Beatriz Colomina alongside artists Olafur Eliasson, Julius von Bismarck and architects Sam Chermayeff and Lukas Feireiss. He will speak about the experience of design, reflection and the imagination of space in relation to senses and sensations on the body. And what is such a topic without first seeing the retrospective of Jannis Kounellis at Fondazione Prada, who was known to be one of the key figures of the Arte Povera movement? Kounellis challenged the conception of historical art and its love affair with hung work to ensure more anarchical freedom from linguistic norms and conventional materials inside the field of contemporary art. Only time will tell if Rugoff curse will do the same to the art world of today ; )

Jannis Kounellis, Centro Arti Visive Pescheria, Pesaro 2016. Photo: Michele Alberto Sereni

Venice this year at least is advertised as being a diverse brokering space of old and new, what seems to be the true potential of these shows is that many of the artists are trying to reach the viewer politically but not with an A–Z manual of how to make yourself a better human or with an IKEA-style pamphlet of how to reconstruct the world. Instead, they are offering experience as a political linguistic, they are dealing with political phenomena but are not giving answers to the crisis of art and the world that surrounds it. Instead, they are opening up conversations, tete-a-tetes and awkward pauses. This is how we converse as humans to restructure ourselves and our surroundings, the only question is if Venice can handle such a space with its frolicking crowds and gentrified dramaturgy. Anyway, we wish you a great time in Venice with lots of insights and self-reflection. Enjoy the aftermath of art sipping on the Bellini kool-aid.

Tanti saluti!
The Exhibitionary Team

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