Like the Oscars, the Grammys, and the Super Bowl of the art world packed into one, the Venice Art Biennale 2019 has officially opened for its 58th international session. Curated by the amazing Ralph Rugoff, and titled ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’, the world-renowned art exhibition held its highly anticipated inauguration ceremony on 11 May, and is now open for visitors to explore until late November.

Yet be you a Venice Art Biennale fan, and you’ll know that ‘explore’ is a word to be taken with a grain of (fine Italian) salt. Definitely (and every year, impressively) one of the largest exhibitions of its kind, the Venice Art Biennale is not your regular hop and scotch to the museum. With the works of over 79 artists from around the world to admire, as well as 89 national participations and 21 collateral events, what is one art lover’s dream is the nightmare of any easily whelmed first-time visitor. Here, we’ve broken it down for you in digestible, bite-size art pieces. From themes to tickets to special exhibitions, read on for how to visit the Venice Art Biennale 2019 and not get completely lost — unless you get dreamily lost in art, that is.

All images via La Biennale

via La Biennale

‘May You Live in Interesting Times’

American curator and director of London’s Hayward Gallery Ralph Rugoff is the curator for the Venice Art Biennale 2019, giving the exhibition a title which runs very much with the present.

‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ stems from a speech given in the late 1930s by British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain, wherein he quoted the phrase to come from an ancient Chinese curse. He stated, “There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us… We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.” It seems somewhat relevant, then, given the current status of news cycles and fake news cycles, and the discourse we are presently often at hands with. Yet the plot thickens. Quoted many times by various politicians and speechmakers thereafter, it was later unearthed that there is actually no such thing as an ancient Chinese curse that goes by the lines of ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’, but rather that it was completely fictional and used for rhetorical and socio-political effect. This in turn is what Rugoff has classified as an ‘ersatz cultural relic’, and now serves as the doubly intriguing counterfeit curse title for the Venice Art Biennale.

How does this translate into art? Open to much interpretation, ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ centres in large part around themes of ‘post-war order’, be it order in its traditional sense, or lack thereof. It aims to act as a guide on how we should live or think through these ‘interesting times’, as well as how art can invoke both creative and critical thinking, and explore topics otherwise considered off-limits. Rugoff explains, “Biennale Arte 2019 aspires to the ideal that what is most important about an exhibition is not what it puts on display, but how audiences can use their experience of the exhibition afterward, to confront everyday realities from expanded viewpoints and with new energies.”

Exit, Konstantin Selikhanov, Republic of Belarus Pavilion

Get the right ticket

Whether you’re there for the sole purpose of exhibition-hopping or whether you’re there for an all-around Italy trip, there are several types of entrance tickets, depending on how much time you want to spend and how much you want to see.

Regular tickets are priced at 25 Euros for one entrance to Giardini and one to Arsenale. A Plus Ticket (35 Euros) allows for multiple visits on 3 consecutive days (ideal for weekend trips), whereas a One Week pass (45 Euros) allows for multiple visits on 7 consecutive days. If you’re a full-out art geek, go for an Accreditation Ticket, which allows for unlimited access at 85 Euros. New for this year, serious aficionados can also become members of La Biennale with the Biennale Card, with four different cards (from Silver at 65 Euros to Diamond at 2,200 Euros), which grant even greater access to things like the dance, music and theatre events, as well as the Venice Film Festival.

Great news for those visiting Venice and who don’t feel like spending a single buck: most of the national pavilions which are located outside Giardini and Arsenale don’t require any tickets at all. The same applies for some collateral events.

Venice Art Biennale 2019
Jon Rafman

Know your pavilions

Following the same procedure as every year, the two main sites for the exhibitions are Giardini and Arsenale. They are day trips in themselves and feature the most amount of works in a single space. Each location has one main exhibition hall, featuring the work by artists invited by curator Ralph Rugoff, as well as a selection of national pavilions, wherein each country selects an artist to represent their contribution to contemporary art for the year.

Giardini was the site of the first ever Biennale back in 1895, and this year plays host to the Central Pavilion curated by Rugoff, as well as the 29 oldest pavilions including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Giardini features a lot of leafy open-air spaces and outdoor pavilions, so be mindful of the weather before heading to this one, and pack an umbrella should it be looking a little grey. It’s great to head here around noon, as its ambience also makes a great lunch spot. Partial standouts at Giardini include Danh Vo’s illusion-like hologram piece, the crochet and bead coral reefs by Christine and Margaret Wetheim, Alex Da Corte’s miniature suburban American village, and femme fatale photography by Martine Gutierrez.

Venice Art Biennale 2019
Martine Gutierrez

Once an old shipyard, Arsenale features a larger space at 50,000 square metres, and includes the other international pavilions including the Italian Pavilion. As opposed to Giardini, it emphasises larger, more monumental works, as well as interactive spaces like Dominique Gonzalez Foerster’s virtual reality experience. Fret not that you’ll miss out if you only manage to visit one of the two main halls; many artists actually have pieces present in both locations.

Outside of Giardini and Arsenale, there are still 35 national pavilions and 19 collateral events spread around the Venice historic centre, Giudecca, San Servolo, and Forte Marghera. Some collateral exhibitions take place in old churches, palaces, or convents, so really, if you’re wandering around Venice, you’re bound to bump into some art even outside the main streams of Giardini and Arsenale.

Venice Art Biennale 2019
Interesting State, Elsie Wunderlich, Marco Manzo, Guatemala Pavilion

Don’t be overwhelmed by the 89 national participants

This one is perhaps easier said than done. With 89 national participants, it’s easy to get lost in an artful sea. Definitely hit up the ‘old timers’ at Giardini, and be sure to visit the newcomers of Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia, and Pakistan. Thailand too continues to participate with an exhibition entitled ‘The Revolving World’, featuring works by Somsak Chowtapadong, Panya Vijinthanasarn, and Krit Ngamsom. Yet once you’ve taken in as much Thai pride as possible at the Thai Pavilion in the In Paradiso Gallery, there have undeniably been a few standouts to explore this year.

Venice Art Biennale 2019
‘The Revolving World’, Somsak Chowtadapong, Panya Vijinthanasarn, Krit Ngamsom, Thailand Pavilion

The Lithuanian Pavilion has been getting hot hype for its ‘Sun & Sea (Marina)’ exhibition by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, featuring an artificially lit beach and opera performance. The Dominican Republic bathes its visitors in colour with hopeful and richly hued paintings with ‘Naturaleza y biodiversidad en la República Dominicana’ in its very own pavilion for the first year. Science and tech lovers should check out the Republic of Slovenia’s ‘Here we go again… System 317’, which follows the metaphor “lighting a match and keeping it lit during a hurricane,” whilst the Japanese Pavilion will make you question your existence with very intriguing ‘Cosmo-Eggs’. Poland brings a dose of surrealism to the event, with a deconstructed inside-out airplane, whereas Cuba explores the relationship between man and nature in ‘A Cautionary Environment’. Whatever you may do, leave Giardini with a smile after visiting Brazil’s pavilion and ‘Swinguerra’: a two-channel video installation bringing to screen the world of dance near Recife. A definite crowd pleaser.

View the full list of National Participations here.

Naturaleza y biodiversidad en la República Dominicana, Dario Oleaga, Ezequiel Taveras, Hulda Guzmán, Julio Valdez, Miguel Ramírez, Rita Bertrecchi, Nicola Pica, di Luggo & Casciotti (Annalaura di Luggo & Alessandra Casciotti), Dominican Republic Pavilion

Pop into the collateral events (the hidden gems)

Whilst the artists in the main exhibition and the national pavilions scattered around the city offer much to admire, it is perhaps the Biennale’s best unkept secret that the hidden gems are definitely the collateral events and exhibitions. Again, there’s plenty to choose from, between post-war paintings by Georg Baselitz and mythological ceramics by Heidi Lau.

Looking into digital surveillance technology and the power of social media, Taipei’s Fine Arts Museum of Taiwan invites to ‘3x3x6’: a 16th-century Venetian prison turned interactive installation centred around wrongful incarceration due to gender or sexual dissent. ‘AFRICOBRA: Nation Time’ explores the work of African American artists that found empowerment through art and culture. Designed for Escape Louis Vuitton Venezia, Philippe Parreno’s exhibition analyses time, in the framework of the Fondation Louis Vuitton ‘Hors-lesmurs’ program. Lastly, Shirley Tse’s ‘Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice’ offers an investigation into material and space, and the reflection of our co-existence within these realms.

Find the full list of collateral events here.

Venice Art Biennale 2019
Flight, Roman Stańczak, Poland Pavilion

But largely and mainly: relax

Ahead of the Biennale, Vogue asked various industry professionals about their tips for visiting the Venice Art Biennale 2019. The answer of Kurimanzutto founders Monica Manzutto and Jose Kuri perhaps hit the nail on the head the hardest. They explain, “the first thing you have to understand is that you cannot do everything and go everywhere: enjoy yourself rather than stressing. Allow yourself to get lost and be surprised by streets and small shops around the corners.”

The best way to ‘do’ the Biennale is to let it do you. Walk around, explore the sights, uncover something unexpected. The flexibility with tickets and the expansive layout of the exhibition offer an opportunity to really embrace entering into a sense of parallel art world. The point is not to fear getting lost at the Venice Art Biennale 2019, but rather immerse yourself in being there (lost or otherwise). Wander vividly between what may be art and what may be not; interesting times indeed.

Friendship Project International, Gisella Battistini, Martina Conti, Gabriele Gambuti, Giovanna Fra, Thea Tini, Chen Chengwei, Li Geng, Dario Ortiz, Tang Shuangning, Jens W. Beyrich, Xing Junqin, Xu de Qi, Sebastián, San Marino Pavilion

Venice Art Biennale, 11 May to 24 November, Tues-Sun 10am-6pm, Arsenale and Giardini, Venice, +39 041 521 8711

Lisa Gries
Managing Editor, Bangkok
Lisa loves to travel, and is always on the lookout for the world’s best nap spots. She’s a serious Asian art history nerd, and has a knack for languages and coffee table books. She hopes to publish her own novels one day, one of which will likely be called ‘All The Great Conversations I Had In A Bangkok Speakeasy.’ It’s a work in progress.