The 58th Venice Art Biennale is certainly a sign of the times. This year it is titled May You Live in Interesting Times, which sounds at once a curse and an opportunity.
As the Biennale’s president Paolo Baratta put it, it is an ‘invitation’ to observe the complexity of the world and human events instead of simplifying it. It seems all the more important to address this at one of the world’s most important art exhibitions.
While artists around the world gathered together to showcase their latest works in the sphere of contemporary art, it was also a chance to surface socio-political issues and encourage debate with their audiences.
On a more positive note, it was also a chance to encourage diversity. The 58th edition also welcomes the debut of Ghana and Madagascar pavilions to much fanfare.
With over 90 international pavilions this year, there’s much to explore. But these ones are worth giving some extra attention.
Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel’s installation sets the mood for the Venice Biennale. The installation, Barca Nostra (Italian for ‘our ship’), is one of the most sombre pieces to grace the scenic Arsenale shipyard. The rusting fishing boat on display is salvaged wreckage from one of the deadliest shipwrecks in modern European history. More than 800 refugees, packed into the ship’s hold, drowned after colliding into another vessel in 2015. Büchel meant for the installation to serve as a memorial for the dead while criticising growing anti-immigrant opinions. Its striking contrast to Venice’s peaceful backdrop is, to say the least, thought-provoking.
- Building Bridges
Renowned Italian sculptor Lorenzo Quinn goes for a more hopeful message with his largest sculpture work yet. ‘Building Bridges’ is a site-specific piece which sees six pairs of alabaster white hands, each titled ‘Help’, ‘Love’, ‘Friendship’, ‘Faith’, ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Hope’. Through these universally-recognised symbols, Quinn suggests a need for collaboration and unity around the world. Well, there’s certainly no better time to preach this than at the world’s biggest art symposium.
- Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme
This year’s centrepiece for the Singapore Pavilion takes cues from government campaigns to introduce culture and music to Singaporeans in the 1970s. Artist Song-Ming Ang, together with curator Michelle Ho, constructed the exhibition as a multi-medium showcase. This centres on Recorder Rewrite, a three-video installation of children playing the recorder in various locations at the Singapore Conference Hall. The anthropological study continues on with sculptures made from reassembled parts of the recorder as well as paper art made from music manuscripts.
Beijing-based artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu have made a name for their provocative and confrontational works. This year, at the China Pavilion, they are not disappointing audiences. ‘Dear’ sees a white silicon chair (reminiscent of the one in the seated Abraham Lincoln statue from Washington) fitted with a thin rubber hose, displayed behind a cracked up plexiglass barrier. Random blasts of pressurised air are fed through the chair, leaving the hose to whip around violently and threatening to break apart the barrier. It is, perhaps, a pointed statement of the unpredictable on-goings of the trade war between China and the US.
- Ghana Freedom
Ghana’s debut pavilion, designed by the highly-acclaimed architect Sir David Adjaye, should be admired as work of art alone. The pavilion is dubbed ‘Ghana Freedom’ and Adjaye pays careful attention to details — from the material (earth from Ghana) to architectural styles. On the curved walls, reminiscent of those in traditional Ghanaian homes, are hung an array of paintings and photos by artists like Ibrahim Mahama and Felicia Abban.