These are the Biennale beasts of the the art world, the artists, curators, collectors, gallerists, and institute directors. Like most art fairs now, and most Insta bios of our culturally polygamous times, they are joined by the the fashion world as well. At the Biennale, it infiltrates through collaborations, patronage and parties hidden under the guise of deejays, performers and influencers who collab their way onto guest lists and crash their way into pavilions. They are joined by the wider network of the creative industries, the agencies, the producers, the makers, the department stores, all descending on this sinking city for this global art event. Everyone is here to gorge on the 360 glocal cultural narrative that this Biennale always delivers: it’s a hybrid of the Olympics, Eurovision and made-in-Chelsea, with each country having a represented artist or collective, and curator there to deliver their response to the set theme.
We are all here anticipating the art world’s global response to the social, political, and ecological crises we are in. The climate alarm is ready to be sounded, the red alert will be heard streaming from the canals… or perhaps not? We can only guess what is to come—what is to be discussed, dissected, held to rights, and what is left ignored. Rugoff states: ‘Perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in “interesting times.” May You Live in Interesting Times will take seriously art’s potential as a method for looking into things that we do not already know—things that may be off-limits, under-the-radar, or otherwise inaccessible for various reasons.’
Not only are there 90 pavilions for this to play out until late November, there is also wider central pavilions with 27 artists inhabiting Venice. A performance schedule has also been drafted for the opening week; it’s a sensory overload of delight. The schedule, devised by Rugoff, is curated by Aaron Cezar, who noted: ‘Performance is a way of processing and documenting the immediate world around us. It is both an alternative means of writing history as it forms, and rewriting history, bringing forth stories that aren’t told, which are often those that complicate the normative “textbook” narration.’
Above: 'What Are We Fighting For', part of the 'Lamyland' installation; and film still from 'Casanova x 4k' video from film series installation at 3x3x6.
Michele Lamy is also here with her ‘What Are We Fighting For’ installation, which is a part of the exhibition DYSFUNCTIONAL by the Carpenters Workshop. DYSFUNCTIONAL is a show that boasts ‘a conversation around the duality between art, design and function.’ Lamy’s installation is the continued development of her ‘Lamyland’ series, which spans the globe and exists in art fairs—Frieze 2014 featured an iteration—and nomadically spans even into department stores—Selfridges Ultra Lounge just last year. For the Biennale, she invited some other artists to collaborate: The Campana Brothers, Ingrid Donat, Kendell Geers, Studio Job, Morgane, Tschiember, Giovanni Leonardo Bassan and Connor Tingley. The works hang together as a collective whole from the sky as a surrealist mobile boxing club. Lamy states: ‘They exist and unite to provoke you to contemplate what you need to conquer, face, challenge and celebrate.’ The bags cascade into a cosmic alliance, the objects themselves are made from resin, quilting, cheese wheels (a nod to the Italian diet), woven bark, and raffia. They spin and hold the attention of the space throughout the night, like a dream you’ve never quite had, or one that you are in.
The next stop is 3x3x6, presented by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum of Taiwan (TFAM), with artist Shu Lea Cheang. As we enter, we are warned of 3D-mapped cameras as we are maneuvered through a prison-like corridor—in fact the building was a prison in the sixteenth century. All this feeds into the work of Chaeng, who is an internet art pioneer, her BRANDON (1998-1999) was the first web art commissioned and collected by the Guggenheim. It’s a must-see show, especially the video highlight of a cannibal chat room, which was one of the depictions by Cheang of the ten historical and contemporary cases of subjects incarcerated because of gender or sexual dissent.
The main spanner in the works on your iron man art mission around the Biennale is the pop of the pavilion Prosecco, nothing manifests a crowd like that subtle noise—at any given point it can cause a stampede. Post-Prosecco avalanche, it’s a disaster zone, left littered like a Glastonbury site, the Biennale beasts have the ability to transform a white table cloth of lined glasses into Tracey Emin's bed in seconds. Avoid this at all costs.
Above: film still from 'Sade x 4k' video from film series installation 3x3x6 by Shu Lea Cheang; and installation view.
Knowing Florence and Eve from London and witnessing their work firsthand already, I knew the pair were really challenging the state of art and the sensitivities of living. The performance ‘Apparition Apparition (2019),’ ‘Explores the notion of materiality and the nature of our physical selves/bodies within the frame of ecological devastation.’ As we enter, their naked forms are wrapped in leather harnesses and modest knickers, we as the viewer are beckoned to draw on their flesh, curating marks and surface colour for their later performance. They’re conversational and laid back as they clamber across the chairs and bodies of the audience. They hand felt tip pens from their holsters and regulate their body back and forth as you lay your pen on their bodies. In the second half of performance, they take to the stage and the pace changes: a video work is screened as a backdrop for their sculptural dance, set to crescendos of sounds and an ASMR voice, the aural notes push through your vision and the tempo changes erratically and constantly, like two magnets of varying poles, it’s mesmerizing and intense as they gyrate and repel one another.
This reminds me of something Cezar said about performance art: ‘There is no denying the power of the body—the significance of human presence, especially in the age of the Internet (and also in the context of a major Biennale which centers mainly on objects). The experience of engaging with or bearing witness to the human body, with all of its vulnerabilities, imperfections, and strengths, brings a certain urgency to our collective concerns and it also reminds us that the capacity for change starts within our own body. The power of the live experience is also due to the temporal nature of performance. One has to be “there” to experience it fully; however, these temporal moments can create lasting memories - and this is what Ralph and I were keen to do.’
Next I stopped by Cosmo-Eggs at The Japan Pavillion, curated by Hiroyuki Hattori and featuring works by four artists who are working in different specialties—artist Motoyuki Shitamichi, composer Taro Yasuno, anthropologist Toshiaki Ishikura and architect Fuminori Nosaku. An orange, inflatable doughnut against a marble floor was a welcomed visual retreat from the madness. As you sit (in fact I laid), you notice tubes that wrap around your line of sight, your bottom was assisting the composition of the tune, this delicate interplay between your physical self and physical actions in the world felt like a moment we rarely experience these days. The project aims to ‘create a platform to consider the ecology in which humans and non-humans coexist, as well as questions of how and in what places we can live within our world.’
Above: performance shots of 'Apparition Apparition' by Florence Peake and Eve Stainton.
Artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu presented ‘Dear’ at the Arsonali. This installation has a provocative allure: at first glance it’s a richly crafted piece of solid marble, with a contemporary steel and glass frame. Then the hissing starts, and you also recognize the chair—it’s Abraham Lincon’s seat from the Washington Memorial, then the whips and thrashes are cast by the A.W.O.L hose as it batters the glass, the force of the air propels the snake-like hose to expel its energy in a manic multitude of directions before it then wheezes and crashes to a standstill. This work delivers a poetic description of the state of our social, political, and environmental landscapes. Drop the mike, Yuan and Yu.
After outputting the energy needed to come to make our way around the pavilions, the satellite experiences, the parties and the general maneuvering you need to get around Venice, I felt beyond exhausted and visually overwhelmed. But really, where else on Earth can you see such a broad range of collective artist considerations, experience a concentrated pinpoint of the world at large. Go visit IRL, if you can, it’s so much better than the Instagram explore page.
Lead image: 'Apparition Apparition', Florence Peake & Eve Stainton is first up, Courtesy Delfina Foundation and Arts Council England, the artists and Bosse & Baum.