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58th Venice Biennale: I Giardini

By Melanie Damani, Hottinger Art

Yesterday marked the first day of pre-opening for the 58th Venice Biennale curated by Ralph Rugoff, currently the director of the Hayward Gallery in London. The Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement has been awarded to artist, performer, essayist and poet, Jimmie Durham (b. 1940). The acknowledgment will be presented on Saturday, 11th May 2019 by a Jury chaired by Stephanie Rosenthal (Germany).

The title of the Biennale “May You Live in Interesting Times” is purported to refer to an ancient Chinese curse and was mentioned in a speech by Sir Austen Chamberlain in 1930s. Chamberlain observed “We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.” It sounds uncannily familiar today as the news cycle spins from crisis to crisis, and in particular around the new theme of fake news. The art presented at the Biennale is meant to include artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the ‘post-war order’. “An exhibition should open people’s eyes to previously unconsidered ways of being in the world and thus change their view of that world,” says curator Rugoff.

The exhibition will include 90 nations in the historic pavilions at the Giardini, at the Arsenale and in the historic city centre of Venice. Four countries are participating for the first time: Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia and Pakistan. The Dominican Republic is exhibiting with its own national pavilion for the first time.

The Giardini (the Gardens) have been the traditional site of the Biennale since it began in 1895. Over time, foreign nations were invited to build their own pavilions to exhibit art during the Biennale. The Giardini now play host to 29 pavilions of foreign countries, some of which have been designed by famous architects. Each country commissions one or more of its citizen artists to exhibit during the Biennale. For the artist, exhibiting at the Biennale is an important step and recognition in their career.

The Biennale is not an art fair, i.e. artworks are not for sale. However, important galleries such as Pace, Hauser & Wirth, or White Cube, had up to 6 artists represented at the Biennale. As a matter of fact, collector François Pinault bought 8 Georg Baselitz works for $8.9m in 2015. Interestingly, this year, Baselitz has a solo show at the Galleria dell’ Accademia. On a changing note, blue-chip galleries seems to be less present this year. This could be attributed to curator Rugoff, who announced that his desire to put forward millennial artists, who tend to be represented by younger and smaller galleries.



Natacha Süder Happelmann and her personal spokeswoman Helene Duldung during a press conference.

Germany won the award for best pavillion at the last edition of the Biennale. This year, the site presents a work from Natacha Süder Happelman, Ankersentrum (Surviving in the ruinous ruin), curated by Franciska Zolyom. Some spaces are ruins as soon as they are created, and consequently irreparable. But can ruins also cause permanent damage, can they be persistently ruinous? According to artist Süder Happelmann through her personal spokeswoman Helene Duldung, Ankersentrum consists of an expansive installation; its structural, sculptural and sonic elements open up the space of the German pavilion for an immediate somatic experience. Six musicians and composers from various musical backgrounds and genres have created contributions for the sound installation.


Flemish School inspired work by the artist Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai.

The Russian pavillion presents Lc. 15: 11-32, curated by The State Hermitage Museum and the General Director Mikhail Piotrovsky. The exhibition takes its name from the Gospel of Luke and the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’. The painting on this theme by Rembrandt has become the main masterpiece of the Hermitage Museum and the central theme of an installation for the Pavilion by the famous film director Alexander Sokurov, simultaneously representing one of the halls of the museum and an artist’s studio surrounded by the turmoil and war of the modern world. The inner staircase sends us down into the world of the Flemish School, brought to life by the artist Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai. It  is a tribute to the intricate mechanisms in the Winter Palace such as the famous Peacock Clock.


A visitor wears a mask designed by the artist and pets a dove.

Laure Prouvost and curator Martha Kirszenbaum represents France this year with a work entitled Deep See Blue Surrounding You. Prouvost has imagined a liquid and tentacular environment, questioning who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Tinged with utopia and surrealism, the project discloses an escapist journey, both tangible and imaginary, towards an ideal elsewhere. The exhibition takes the form of an invitation to melt into the different unveiled and shared realities intermingling there, and challenges the representation of a fluid and globalized world, made of exchanges, connectivity, and discrepancies. The pavilion has had a continuous 90-minute queue to access it and many visitors seem to believe that France will win this year.


Automated traditional Japanese instrument providing music for the installation.

Artists Motoyuki Shitamichi, ArtistTaro Yasuno, Toshiaki Ishikura, Fuminori Nousaku and curator Hiroyuki Hattori take as starting point the “tsunami stones”, which artist Motoyuki Shitamichi came across in the Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa in 2015. Shitamichi has been researching and photographing these for several years. The stones are natural rocks that retain memories of disasters, but they have also become the subject of local religious beliefs, elements of mythology and folklore, colonies for migratory birds and homes for nsects, creating unique landscapes in which nature and culture are commingled. Shitamichi likens tsunami stones, which look like meteorites or giant eggs, to public squares or monuments. Whilst Shitamichi’s artwork Tsunami Stone is central to the exhibition, by expanding on the comparison with a public square and working together with a composer, an anthropologist and an architect, the artist will create a variety of physical experiences in a single, unified space, with music and speech echoing through an otherwise quiet, tranquil visual world. This is an entry not by a single artist representing his country but by a collective of specialists with different occupational abilities to create an experiential place to imagine and think about the fundamental issues of today.


Scene of the artist’s movie (source: Danish Pavillion, www.danishpavillion.org, 2019).

The Danish-Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour presents Heirloom, an otherworldly rumination on memory, history and identity. Curated by Nat Muller, the exhibition comprises of a two-channel science-fiction film, a sculptural installation and an architectural intervention, inviting the viewer into a dark universe. The film, entitled In Vitro, is staged in the town of Bethlehem decades after an eco-disaster. The dying founder of a sub-terranean orchard is engaged in a dialogue with her young successor, who was born underground and has never seen the town she’s destined to replant and repopulate. Inherited trauma, exile and collective memory are central themes.The younger woman struggles with her memories of the past, dismissing them as nothing but reductive patterns, tropes and iconography.

The Biennale

The Giardini has a main pavilion, which traditionally exhibits a group show of artists from around the world. This year, the quality is exceptionally high.

New Moon, 2018, by Carol Bove (b.1971), Switzerland.


Home: Say it loud, 2017, Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b.1983), Nigeria.


Can’t help myself, 2016, Sun Yuan (b. 1972) and Peng Yu (b. 1974), China.


Divorce dump, 2019, Andra Ursuta (b.1979) Romania.
Untitled, 2019, Shilpa Gupta (b.1976) India.

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