58th Venice Biennale

This year I visited Venice Biennale for the pre-opening. Oh, what a different experience that was, walking amongst the crème de la crème of the art world and seeing all the artworks in the mint condition, everything still working as it should and getting your energy back with drinking prosecco on the official openings of the pavilions.

And what is this year’s Ralph Rugoff’s set up all about? I admit, this year I really came prepared. I have been studying all the articles and press releases, to not be totally clueless (not that I am any year) and be able to spend my short stay there as productive as possible.

The world has been running from crisis to crisis for some time now and needless to say that this year’s title ‘May you live in interesting times’, represents that quite well. It can be taken completely literally or as an original ancient Chinese curse (that is apparently not real, but at the same time even more important for the world now). In a way, it is completely open; to the artists it gave the space for research and subjective exploration and the audience is left on its own, as it doesn’t tell you what to look for. Actually, now that I think about it, it kind of resonates with Adam Szymczyk’s ideas for last documenta and Christine Macel’s ‘chapters’ in 57th Biennale….

But what is 58th Biennale supposed to be all about? It is all about exploring existence, the present, technological advances, the imminent death of the world and society as such, social discourse, culture, politics, social media, symbolism and all the other contemporary issues that are trying to be investigated through art. Which means there is not an exact theme, but it is very much open for interpretation. Artists were asked to think about today’s world and living and through that, make the audience think with the presented not so straightforward artworks. I do enjoy the idea of questioning and researching life through art, especially because the observations could be brought closer to people through that form, as art is a familiar vessel for presenting ideas. A lot of new topics are opened, as the artworks get deeper meanings by talking about them. They try to open eyes, change and challenge the views of the visitors and trigger emotions. And honestly, in the big majority, they succeed.

This year’s exhibition is even more inclusive as usual, being completely open to your own interpretations. You don’t need to UNDERSTAND art, just take something with you from it (and that is what I will be preaching till the end of times). Likewise, curator wanted to make complex themes playful to reflect the times we live in in a different way. Good job as well.

A big novelty Rugoff came up with is presenting the same 79 artists in both Giardini and Arsenale. With that, he wanted to show the always-present social division, as well as the multiplicity of artistic practices with varied outputs. He gave them a chance to exhibit twice, with completely open hands on what and how to produce. Another one of his fresh curatorial decisions was to include exclusively living artists, introducing them into the Canon of art. And at the same time their work really does reflect the position we are in now.

When I stepped into the Main pavilion in Giardini, one part of the ’split personality’ exhibition, I quickly realized this year’s Biennale set up is unlike any of the previous versions. I was met with a huge labyrinth waving all around the building, very minimalistically presenting big artworks in spacious rooms (the theme that goes on in all the national pavilions as well). Rooms are filled with much less artworks than usual; and these are much bigger ones. Which gives them much needed space to breathe and you, a visitor, a space to think.

Presented are loads of works playing on visitors’ senses that wakes you up metaphorically and for real (which I rather needed after a long night I had). As discussed before, artists are not necessarily putting on display objects depicting exact narrative, but offer means of calling attention to the issues they work around. Some go to the realm of metaphysical, some representing religious practices (also in a witty, playful way), some offer dialogues about social symbols, then others reimagine past, present and future through artistic practice and imagination of the visitors.

Literally, every artwork is there to make you think and question everything you know and your views on the world. Everything is big, because we need to be thinking big! Whole rooms/walls are dedicated to just one or two artists. You are not bombarded with many artworks, but the ones that are on display are more powerful; even their size intimidates you into thinking. Honestly, this year the Main pavilion really reminded me of the usual Arsenale set up.

Talking about Arsenale, when you enter it, you are standing face to face with an enormous wooden barricade. It definitely gives you a glimpse of what to expect, as Rugoff already stated he changed the huge halls into the labyrinth we are not used to. Saying one can actually focus more on individual artworks and not as much on the whole, is the right observation. It is kind of exciting with every move to step into ‘adventure awaits’ situation, not knowing what to expect ahead. Even some rooms are separated with black curtains and you sense you are going to witness something sensational. This cubing of the building gives more space to individual artists and their artworks. Somehow it felt to me more like a proper gallery setting (white cube in a definitely not white cube space), more so than other years and not as much as an art fair. But did the curator lose the feeling of Arsenale set up or break new ground? Because of this separation of the space, one has to be wary of not missing a room. I noticed visitors looking into every nook and cranny, just to be sure they saw every little thing. Panels are put there to separate the long hall, as well as acting as additional exhibition wall space. And with that they become an installation in itself, producing captivating spatial compositions.

I have been intrigued by trying to guess which artworks are connected to the same artist as in the Main pavilion. Can you even guess, if you didn’t properly remember the names, considering the styles might (not) be similar, but the topic isn’t?

In a way, artworks in Arsenale felt even more powerful. Through topics such as remembrance, macabre death, social problems, identity, equality etc. I sensed deeper meanings on the first sight (or was I just more into it on that day?). All in all, the Arsenale presents topics, sounds and dark rooms that give out the eerie feeling. And I loved it. As mentioned before, many works are made to stimulate visitors, not just physically but  mentally. Engaging the audience with participatory artworks of being almost a protagonist with walking through or into works, move with them, listen to them closely, play with them, engage in VR and so forth, makes you explore personal stories/struggles of artists, through feeling involved in producing the art. This associative dialogues I could describe as symbolistic art through fully contemporary voice.

Furthermore, what I noticed was, there is lots of movement incorporated into the artworks, like they want to spread ideas through dance (we all have dance in the heart and struggle in the mind). Also moving images. Many black boxes all around, with too comfortable sitting, so take your time because you are going to spend loads of it just watching videos. And it is definitely worth it to take the time!

All in all, I have a feeling that this year’s theme was ‘go big or go home’ (literally), so expect nothing but huge installations one can get lost in. Fun connected with social concern, all through the Main pavilion, Arsenale and national pavilions.



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