UK-based Ed Atkins created the multimedia installation Old Food. Located in the Arsenale, it envisions a world where bucolic peasantry, ruins, and CGI dummies (which replace humanity) coexist. It’s a world rife with drama: the CGI creatures weep constantly in search for a dramatic redemption that will never come, and the installation makes large use of racks brimming with opera and ballet costumes, which convey both the performativity of the CGI dummies, and the way nostalgia both romanticizes and dramatizes past events. Rounding out the installations are article-like texts written in mock artspeak.
It’s virtually impossible to give a cohesive assessment of the 58th Venice Biennale: its multiple venues are distributed between the industrial-looking former shipyard space Arsenale, the quaint Giardini with the various national pavilions and the dozens of individual installations scattered all over town. As a result, what tends to stick after a visit is whatever happened to align with an individual’s personal taste—and with so much on view, there is something for everyone.
What we could observe was that, at the 58th Biennale, what usually falls into the “immersive” or “experiential” artwork umbrella finally proved itself worthy of carrying its own weight. Immersive art has suffered from a bad reputation lately, with pizza/rosé-themed museums or Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms merely serving as the backdrop for social-media-forward photoshoots. The large-scale installations that populate the Venice Biennale are, at least at first glance, non-threatening, spectacular, and able to engage the viewer, quietly challenging them without violently shocking them.
Indian artist Shilpa Gupta fashioned a somberly beautiful sound installation (which looks like a recording booth) called For, in your tongue, I cannot fit. It’s a symphony of recorded voices that, through each of 100 speakers and in a wide variety of languages, utter the lines of 100 poets who were censored or imprisoned for their ideas. The result is a harmonious cacophony, where the viewer/listener has the freedom to gravitate towards the languages they know.
Italians combined immersive art with the legacy of the ever-protean author and essayist Italo Calvino. Né altra né questa: la sfida al labirinto is a labyrinthine installation whose title is based on a seminal 1962 essay by Calvino, who pondered about the role of culture in a context that had lost all its points of reference. The maze-like structure, curated by Milovan Farronato, collects work by Enrico David, Liliana Moro, and Chiara Fumai. The intent of the labyrinth is to stage an exhibition within an exhibition “with neither a beginning nor an end and open to parallel interpretations.” With its game of mirrors and its minimalistic aesthetic, it mostly echoes De Chirico.
Volumes have already been written about the huge success of the French and Lithuanian pavilions, both shepherded by women artists and both marine-themed. The former hosts Deep See Blue Surrounding You / Vois Ce Bleu Profond Te Fondre by Laure Prouvost, both a video installation chronicling escapist journeys across France and an immersive environment recreating a sea bed, a nod to Venice being a city surrounded (and about to be engulfed) by water.
The Lithuanian Pavilion, which was awarded the Golden Lion award, hosts Sun & Sea (Marina), a beachside opera directed by Rugile Barzdziukaite, composed by Lina Lapelyte with a libretto by Vaiva Grainyte, where the cheery disposition of the beachgoers heavily contrasts with the dystopian landscape they discuss in singing; unfortunately, due to shortages in funding, the opera is now only performed on Saturdays. For the rest of the week, all visitors get to see is an empty beach and sound installations. That’s an artistic statement too: “Performance art needs care and support that it doesn’t always get,” curator Lucia Pietroiusti told the New York Times.
One can’t simply ignore to what extent mainstream experiential installation influenced the artworld, though, and the Icelandic pavilion, located in the quieter island of Giudecca, hosts “Chromo Sapiens,” which consists of three chamber-like environments that artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir artfully decked in synthetic fur. Its color palette comprises darker hues, rainbow colors and pastel tones, and it makes the viewer feel like they’re inside a fantastic creature or in the depths of a tropical rainforest, and the result is, simply put, trippy, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see Arnardóttir’s work being hosted in Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return.
The title of the 58th Biennale, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” is purported to derive from a curse. Given the dystopian current that underscores the majority of the works, this title rings quite true, but it does prove that challenging times like the ones we’re living in are, indeed, fertile ground for art. Hegel himself said “World history is not the ground of happiness. The periods of happiness are empty pages in her.” True, politically and socially charged art abounds at this Biennale, but, in my opinion, art that is both artistically and conceptually relevant and meaningful without necessarily carrying a political agenda can —and does—exist. We should not forget about it