Venice Biennale 2019 – May You Live in Interesting Times

I visited the Venice Biennale 2 years ago, you can find the blog post here. This year I decided to catch the very last weekend and once again I was blown away. Venice really is probably my favourite place in the world- this was my second visit this year alone! Having an Italian partner helps to navigate the language a little and we love wandering around this tourist hot spot. Even in all the madness you can easily find a slower pace and join the locals with an Aperol Spritz! While we were there Venice was experiencing bad flooding, being in a lagoon it is well publicised that Venice is sinking. With a government initiative proving to be a slow, bureaucracy filled process, it filled me with great sadness to see this beautiful place succumbing to the very real issues surrounding climate change. It made me think back to the very apt, Support by Lorenzo Quinn, which I saw on my last visit in 2017. Equipped with my rather fetching waterproofs (always fashion forward in Italy of course!) that demonstrate just how resilient the people of Venice are I set off to catch the last Saturday of the Biennale!

Join me as I give my run down of top picks from the 2019 Venice Biennale!

MaID III, Philidelphia, 2018 Zanele Muholi

1. First up are the beautiful portraits by Zanele Muholi.

I was immediately drawn to the powerful works by Zanele Muholi, a photographer who works fiercely against muting and invisibility. Preferring to be referred to as a “visual activist” rather than an artist, Muholi is co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, as well as Inkanyiso, a platform for LGBTQ and visual activism. Her portraits of South African black lesbians are bold and captivating, the gaze of the sitter holds that of the viewer. They are strong and representative of a subject matter steeped in meaning and association, forcing the viewer to stop and reflect.

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., 2018 Taveres Strachan

2. Taveres Strachan and his bold and powerful works on Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.

Tavares Strachan’s piece: Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was another piece that dominated for me. Brought up in the Bahamas – formerly a British colony, he viewed the widely endorsed Encyclopaedia Britannica as a tool of imperial conquest. As a literature that appropriated knowledge as a means of implementing cultural domination his work acts as a rhetoric to this, highlighting everything the encyclopaedia left out, which I find really interesting and long overdue.

He gained a grant from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art + Technology Lab and was offered the opportunity to work with SpaceX, the private aerospace technology company. He began research into Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African-American astronaut, who died in a training accident in 1967, and who has remained largely invisible in standard histories of American space travel. The resulting installation at the Biennale sheds light on this history and reaffirms the guilt I and many other White people feel when faced with the reality of the actions of our ancestors. The neon transcript and skeletal representation of Lawrence are a poignant reminder that we must do better, and to do that we must revisit and acknowledge our past failings in order to move forward.

Microworld, 2018 Liu Wei

3. Liu Wei’s large scale installations

These huge pieces dominate the space and tower over the spectator. Intended to resemble molecules and other microscopic particles usually invisible to the naked eye these highly polished aluminium plates instead loom over you in an otherworldly fashion. Viewed through a glass window you still have the feeling of looking through a microscope, it’s a nice juxtaposition. I think as humans we like to play with the natural size and order of things. This piece, with its abstract dominance is fun, and tucked away it was a bit of a hidden gem!

Dear, 2015 Sun Yuan & Peng Yu

4. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu – Dear

I became aware of “Dear”, the piece by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu with the abrupt break in serene biennale viewing.. The sound of a generator that was pumping pressurised air through a hose that manically whipped about (it was contained inside a perspex box) filled the space and invited the spectator to watch its brief assault before it returned to a silent (and stationary) state. The whole piece was pretty uncomfortable to watch. When it was stationary you were anticipating what would come – like a jack in the box ready to spring! and when it was on it was so aggressive and loud that you relaxed when it finally stopped! Since it was Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s plan to create an intimidating spectacle, i’d say it was a success. Why is it on the list?? Well, as far as subjective art goes, it took me out of my comfort zone and is a piece that I remember from our visit 3 weeks ago so even though it may not be my favourite it certainly packs a punch!

The Shrinking Universe, Ireland Pavilion Eva Rothschild

5. The Shrinking Universe by Eva Rothschild

I’m a fan of anything I can climb so this piece in the Ireland Pavilion was right up my street! The Shrinking Universe is comprised of FOUR sculptural groups, all encouraging the viewer to engage in some way, all vying for attention. Rothschild uses her work to build on her interest in social sculpture, where by the installations need to be occupied in oder to activate the works, with the viewers presence completing them. I really like that these are works intended to be engaged with, as the unspoken rules of art are very much: look and DON’T touch. This element of engagement is really refreshing.

Building Bridges, 2019 Lorenzo Quinn

6. Building Bridges by Lorenzo Quinn

Building Bridges commissioned by Halcyon Gallery is contemporary Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn’s most ambitious project to date. Straddling the basin in the complex of shipyards at the Arsenale I was surprised to see it as I made my way around the exterior of the exhibition grounds. I had seen his last piece which featured at the 2017 biennale so hadn’t anticipated a return! I loved the new work. SIX pairs of human hands are to be representative of six of humanity’s universal values: friendship, faith, help, love, hope and wisdom. The artst has said of this work, that they symbolise people coming together to overcome differences and build a better world. The hands stretch to 15 metres in height and 20 metres in width, and a range of ages was used to inspire them, from a child, to those of the sculptor, as well as his 86 year old mother-in-law.

Can’t help myself, 2016 Sun Yuan & Peng Yu

7. The second piece by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu – Can’t help myself

This is the show stopper of the Biennale. It is gross, uncomfortable and much like Dear, it is an intimidating spectacle. A huge robotic arm performs in continuous motion, sweeping a never ending pool of blood, with a squeegee attached to the end. Once again housed in a giant perspex box, inviting the spectator to watch voyeuristically. Its been suggested that this piece by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu represents the blood of migrants being spilt as they desperately and endlessly try but fail to cross international borders.

Mama, Mummy and Mamma (Predecessor #2), 2014 Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Honourable mentions go to…

In an event that covers such a vast area theres always so much to see. The majority of the trip was spent walking around the different venues, hoping that i’d be able to take in everything I was seeing – a kind of creative transfer osmosis if you will..

Unfinished Conversations on the Weight of Absence, Romania Pavilion

Last time round I reached a capacity block as I tried to cram in as much as possible, I’m not going to lie… it happened again! Theres simply so much to see, and thats only covering the Arsenale and Giardini venues. In order to fully take in all thats on show, you’re best off taking a multi-day pass. I’m hoping that next time I heed my own advice haha.

Mixed media prints Ulrike Müller

As I wandered both the Arsenale and pavilions of the Giardini I was drawn to so many pieces. Of course i’ve mentioned the most eye catching works above, some of which are obvious choices, well documented in other publications I’m sure. However, these are items that caught my eye (some I loved and others I didn’t so much!) but either way they made an impression and thats why I knew they needed a mention. Art is super subjective and I love that about it. Above are a few more works that caught my eye, what do YOU think?!

Chromo Sapiens,Iceland Pavilion Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir / Shoplifter

I want to close out with the Pavilion that for me housed THE work of the whole Biennale. This belonged to Iceland. Over on another of the small islands (Giudecca), and just a short vaporetto ride away I found the last stop of my Biennale tour. Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir created a technicolour cave for the audience to inhabit and explore. While relaxing in the icy hues of the furthest flung area of the installation it was announced that the artist would be giving a guided tour/performance piece through the exhibit- what a treat! We were equipped with head torches and plunged into darkness. Playing a game of follow the leader we perilously ventured into the cave, exploring and absorbing our surroundings. Accompanied by a psychedelic piece, commissioned from the Icelandic metal band HAM.

Metal music kind of makes you go berserk and it brings out this primal, animalistic element, I wanted this kind of primal, ancient gurgle—sub-terra tremors.

Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir

This unexpected sensory experience was the perfect end to another great Biennale!

Did you visit the Biennale? I’d love to hear what your thoughts were so drop me a comment below 🙂

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*All photos taken by Anna Thomson. All images remain sole copyright of Anna Thomson for OiOi Arts.

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