Visiting Venice during the 2019 Art Biennale ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’, curated by Ralph Rugoff, is really overwhelming. The number of art exhibitions and events during the Biennale seems to have exploded this year. It is therefore almost impossible to see everything during one visit. However, the Art Biennale runs from May 11 until November 24, so you might be lucky enough to plan a second round. Otherwise, a good preparation is important, so you don’t miss the ones that appeal most to you.
In general, I was less impressed by the national pavilions in Giardini and Biennale this year, compared to previous editions. Art is however a very personal thing, so you might disagree with me on this point. Luckily, the large number of events ensures that there are still plenty of good ones to visit. Several exhibitions also give you a unique opportunity to enter palazzos in the city which are otherwise closed.
In this post, I have listed my 12 favourite exhibitions of the 2019 Art Biennale. I have limited my selection to those which are officially linked to the event. My list includes 6 national pavilions, 3 collateral events and 3 female artists from the May You Live In Interesting Times exhibitions at Arsenale and Giardini.
National pavilions: Lithuania – Belgium – Saudi Arabia – Ghana – Serbia – Luxembourg
Collateral events: The Spark is You – Processional – The Death of James Lee Byars
Artists: Njideka Akunyili Crosby – Alexandra Bircken – Zanele Muholi
Lithuania – Sun & Sea (Marina)
(Marina Militare, Calle de la Celestia, Castello. Performance on Wednesday and Saturday)
If you only have time for one pavilion during the Biennale, then this opera performance is the one you need to see. Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė wrote an opera about climate change which is performed live on the artificial beach inside the Marina Militare. The setting itself is already unique, as it brings you to a part of Arsenale Nord which is usually not accessible to the public. While you watch the scene and listen to the professional and highly skilled singers, children, dogs and other vacationers are performing their beach routine. Children are running around, playing with a ball or eating ice-cream, dogs are barking, people are reading, … It is a very impressive performance. As there is so much going on and the team of singers and volunteers/vacationers changes constantly, I am certainly tempted to attend it again, even if it requires another long wait in line.
You can read a detailed review with pictures in ‘‘Review of the 2019 Art Biennale: Lithuania’.
Belgium – Mondo Cane
Another pavilion where you can spend a lot of time is the ‘folkloric museum’ of Belgium. When you enter, you are greeted by ‘The fool’ who sings a Flemish children’s song out of tune. He is one of the 20 mechanical puppets designed by Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys. Some puppets, mainly artisans, are based in the central hall of the pavilion. They sing or perform their duties such as spinning, painting or ringing a bell. Others, such as the zombies and marginalised, are standing behind bars in the side wings. It’s a strange and a bit creepy installation, but it’s also fun once you start reading the ‘personal’ stories of the puppets in the visitors’ guide. Many visitors take the time to observe each puppet and read their, real or fake, stories. Some puppets seem to resemble famous Belgian people. I thought I recognized for instance Showbizz Bart (The Swiss) and Hilde Van Mieghem (Kristinus Oplinus), but that might also have been my imagination.
You can read a detailed review with pictures in ‘‘Review of the 2019 Art Biennale: Belgium’.
Saudi Arabia – After Illusion
The Saudi pavilion is an oasis of peace and quiet in the Arsenale. Coming out of the noisy corderie and entering this pavilion puts you immediately at ease. Artist Zahrah Al-Ghamdi created 50,000 leather pieces from natural products for this installation. The brown sphere-like shapes, which refer to her home, are mounted on white curvy backgrounds and create a magical setting. I was immediately mesmerized when I entered, and I was very happy to see that the entire pavilion was more of the same. Just wander around, listen to the quiet music and look at the details of these shapes in all different formats and sizes. In the back of the pavilion, you can watch a video on how she created them. I can’t even imagine how much time it must have taken her.
Ghana – Ghana Freedom
With its first participation to the Art Biennale in Venice, Ghana immediately impressed the art lovers. Within the corderie of the Arsenale, they created their own pavilion with curved lime walls, inspired by the traditional earth houses of the Sirigu village. The entry is decorated with fish nets filled with fish. This beautiful set-up on itself is already worth a close look. It forces you to walk through it and discover the 6 artists one by one. I especially loved the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the black and white pictures of Felicia Abban. They both bring the faces of the people of Ghana to Venice. The other artists are John Akomfrah, El Anatsui, Ibrahim Mahama and Selasi Awusi Sosu. I look forward to see more from Ghana at the 2021 Art Biennale. The catalogue of the Ghana Freedom exhibition can be ordered online.
Serbia – Regaining Memory Loss
The Serbian pavilion is located in one of the outer corners of Giardini, after you cross the bridge over the Rio dei Giardini. The exhibition shows large grey sculptures and colourful paintings of Djordje Ozbolt. The combination of the walls which are painted with a grey abstract landscape and the raw sculptures makes the paintings stand out in the large pavilion. These refer to fragments of memories, frozen on canvas, which explains the variety with for instance 2 small dogs next to an abstract painting.
Luxembourg – Written by Water
The centerpiece of the exhibition of Marco Godinho is a high slope covered in coloured books. The pages of the books have been wrinkled in different shapes. It has a beautiful and tranquilizing effect. Underneath the slope, a video shows how Marco Godinho put the books in water in different places of the Mediterranean Sea to create this effect. Hence, the books contain the memories of the sea and tell the invisible stories of the migration flows across the Mediterranean. The installation makes you stand still for a few minutes to think about the complexity of the world and the difficult situation of these people.
The Spark is You – Parasol Unit in Venice
(Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello di Venezia, Campo Santo Stefano, San Marco 2810. Closed on Sundays)
The exhibition in the music conservatory of Venice is really worth a visit. You will discover the art works of 9 contemporary Iranian artists in the stunning setting of this grand palazzo while being surrounded by the sound of practicing musicians. There are several rooms which are only temporarily accessible to the public, so you get a feeling of the former glamour and lifestyle in palazzos such as this one. I was especially intrigued by the delicate installation with concrete biscuits and the beautiful cookie box of Koushna Navabi, and by the golden painting of Mitra Farahani. Other artists are Morteza Ahmadvand, Nazgol Ansarinia, Siah Armajani, Sahand Hesamiyan, Y.Z. Kami, Farideh Lashai and Navid Nuur.
Processional – Todd Williamson
(Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pietà, Riva degli Schiavoni, Castello 3701. Closed on Mondays)
Hidden next to the scaffolding on Vivaldi’s church on the Riva degli Schiavoni, I discovered this beautiful exhibition with paintings of Todd Williamson. The large, rather monotone paintings fit perfectly against the ancient walls of this small church. I was immediately impressed by it. In the background, you can hear the classical music which was composed by Greg Walter for this exhibition.
The Death of James Lee Byars – Zad Moultaka in dialogue
(Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione, Fond. Zattere ai Gesuati, Dorsoduro. Closed on Mondays)
When you enter the church via the side entrance of the Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli, you are immediately attracted to the golden box that shines on your left side. The huge cube is completely covered in gold leaf, as is the coffin in the middle. If you look carefully, you will also see a few Swarovski crystals on top of it. The image on the poster of the collateral event shows James Lee Byars ‘rehearsing’ for his death and for this piece of art. In the installation, the coffin takes the place of his body. In the background, you can hear the music of Zad Moultaka which was created specifically for this occasion. It’s a captivating installation which makes you reflect about life and death.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
(May You Live In Interesting Times, Giardini and Arsenale)
The paintings of this Nigerian artist, who emigrated to the United States as a teenager, really show people at their best. Her work in Arsenale consists of 8 monochrome paintings of faces, which reflect upon her experience as a member of the Nigerian diaspora. Each painting is stunning on its own, but the combination of the different colours adds another level of depth and beauty to the entire series. In Giardini, she shows huge paintings of daily life scenes inside homes. The soft colours blend perfectly together and make you feel as if you are present in the room.
Alexandra Bircken – Eskalation
(May You Live In Interesting Times, Arsenale)
In the corderie of the Arsenale, you can spend a lot of time looking at the 40 latex figures which are climbing and hanging on the ladders that go up to the ceiling. The installation shows the struggle between heaven and hell, success and failure, and hope and despair. The black figures of this German artist seem like a shell which only consists of a skin. The scene looks apocalyptical with burnt people trying to escape from the end of the world. At the same time, it’s also beautiful and the setting within the Arsenale is perfect. I could have spent hours watching it and trying to capture it on camera.
(May You Live In Interesting Times, Giardini and Arsenale)
You cannot miss the huge black and white pictures of this South African artist in the central exhibitions. They are part of ‘Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness’, a series of self-portraits that the artist intends to build into 365 images of a year in the life of a black lesbian in South Africa. Looking at the pictures, you want to understand what she was thinking of, but she seems too far away with her thoughts as if she was disconnected from the world and not even aware of the camera.
If you want to know more about the Biennale and prepare your visit, I suggest you read my posts ‘What to expect from the Art Biennale 2019’ and ‘How to prepare your visit to the Art Biennale 2019’. You can also order the 2019 Art Biennale catalogue to browse through all the exhibitions of this year’s event.
Enjoy your visit!