The 58th edition of the Venice Biennale—my first—was an intense, thought-provoking, and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Curated by Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery of London since 2006, this year’s biennale takes as its premise (and title) a dubious phrase originating from early twentieth century British Orientalism to describe a fictitious Chinese curse: “May You Live In Interesting Times.” The phrase has an immediate tone of subtle derision, a tongue-in-cheek playfulness that resounds as a backhanded blessing, or a forewarning portending the hardships of the future. It also has a more optimistic message of living in the present, an embrace of the current challenges and possibilities that life has to offer.
“May You Live In Interesting Times” plays on this notion of reconciling or perhaps straddling the transitional space between the negative and positive facets of our current daily lives. Responding to contemporary issues such as climate change, wealth disparity, xenophobia, and rising global trends of nationalist agendas, “May You Live In Interesting Times” not only “seeks to foreground ways in which art’s complexity… can illuminate aspects of our current social relations and psyches,” as Rugoff’s curatorial statement declares, but also offers works that act as markers or stand-ins for both beauty and decay, equally.
The Anti-Thematic Biennale?
Much has already been said about Rugoff’s exhibition being lofty or open-ended in its approach, and its adoption of a somewhat laissez-faire attitude. He has amassed a diverse roster of artists that offer a multiplicity of approaches, and thus, as he notes, have left “no overarching narrative or thematic umbrella” to the exhibition. In fact, Paolo Baratta, President of La Biennale di Venezia, in his own statement called the exhibition an “open gym” and reminisced how this year’s biennale is a tribute to the ones of 1999 and 2001 two decades prior, after the biennale “underwent major reform in 1998.” The emphasis back then was on the word “open,” and seems again pertinent to Rugoff’s biennale, fitting for the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of this momentous change in the organization’s history.
However, Rugoff’s “May You Live In Interesting Times,” takes its cues directly from the last four biennales of this past decade: Bice Curiger’s 2011 “ILUMMInations,” an examination of internationalism and the dissemination of ideas across borders through art; Massimilio Gioni’s 2013 “Encyclopedic Palace,” an ambitious and sprawling survey that spoke to the Sisephean act of acquiring all knowledge; Enwezor Okui’s 2015 “All the World’s Futures,” a groundbreaking exhibition focused on non-Western traditions of artmaking; and Christine’s Macel’s 2017 “Viva Arte Viva,” a celebration of art for art’s sake. Rugoff not only borrows themes from these past four editions, but deviates from them in ways that make “May You Live In Interesting Times” a unique and otherwise captivating experience.
In particular, “May You Live In Interesting Times” includes 80 artists (a smaller number than past versions), and showcases their works in two separate and distinct shows: “Proposition A” at the Arsenale, and “Proposition B” at the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. Furthermore, each respective exhibition presents works from individual artists that often differ greatly from one another. For example, Ed Atkins’s video installation Old Food (2017–2019) features his familiar CGI figures in a cacophonous digital space of horror in “Proposition A,” while the Central Pavilion in the Giardini features 10 small ink drawings by the artist in a series called Bloom (2018) for “Proposition B”. The drawings, in several different iterations, depict a tarantula with the head of Atkins.
Despite its ostensible curatorial looseness, “May You Live In Interesting Times” is rigid in both its structure and organization. And along with its obstinate claim that it has no theme, the exhibition does seem to be driving at something very specific. It is my impression that each biennale seems, or at least endeavors, to address the city of Venice both literally and conceptually, whether in the individual artworks themselves or in the overarching theme of the exhibition, be it in reference to its vernacular architecture or the history of the region, etc. This iteration is no exception, and in many ways stands as a mirror to the famous capital of Veneto.
One of the remarkable things about Venice is its arresting beauty (the winding canals, the translucent teal water), but the city’s grace has been sidelined by the degradation from not only its rampant and invasive tourism, but also its massive flooding and fragile infrastructure. The ruination of the Floating City is on permanent display for all to see in real time. In spite of this, the city remains resilient; a magical place, unscathed by its grim realities and dismal future—at least in our imaginations.
The phrase “beautiful decay” comes to mind when considering Venice, and the same can be said of “May You Live In Interesting Times.” One example that instantiates this point is Hito Steyerl’s video installation This is the Future (2019) in “Proposition A.” Steyerl creates a space with a system of elevated walkways and scaffolding—similar to those found in Venice, for use when it floods—and projects onto hanging transparent screens digital flowers that bloom and wither away. On the main screen, in the center of the room, a video projects the story of a woman who ventures to find a garden that she once hid in the future, in order to protect it. The piece overall is strange and cryptic, but also quite sensuous and drole, offering a kind of romantic and implausible version of the future through the lens of AI technology.
In “Proposition B” Steyerl provides another immersive video installation about artificial intelligence, albeit more politically transparent in tone, called Leonardo’s Submarine (2019). Steyerl offers AI video predictions of what Venice might look like in the future through a stream of refracted images, almost indecipherable, but constantly moving to create a rhythmic and hypnotic pattern of colors and shapes. Moreover, a voice gently speaks over the barrage of images to explain the name change of Italian weapons manufacturer Finemeccanica, to Leonardo S.P.A., after Leonardo da Vinci, the famous artist who also invented and designed weapons.
Works by Anika Yi and Ian Cheng also take AI technology as a point of departure, while others explore the symbolism of technology as an agent capable of both human destruction and revealing possibilities. This is the case of Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. In Can’t Help Myself (2016), in the Central Pavilion, the artist-duo created a hermetic cube with a giant mechanical arm, a squeegee attached to the end of it. Its sole purpose is to splatter and pool together a viscous, blood-like substance inside this eerie chamber. What looks to be a scene of carnage, as if it were some type of abattoir, is also replete with poetry in its movement, a rhythmic dance and methodical gesture.
Other works align with this notion of “beautiful decay” in more conventional terms. One example is by Japanese artist Mari Katayama, whose candid self-portraits, such as in shell (2016), depict the artist, whose limbs were amputated at a young age due to a rare medical condition, in full vulnerability. Others like Martine Gutierrez’s Indigenous Woman series (2018) or Soham Gupta’s Angst series (2013–2017), also seem to couple the glossiness or starkness of vivid and beautiful portrait photography with the underpinning of a fraught social context (i.e. the lack of visibility of indigenous people in the media in the case of Gutierrez, and the ignored and marginalized poor in the urban streets of Kolkata, in the case of Gupta).
Some artists also chose to constrict themselves to the outline that Rugoff has programmed, offering up two counterpoints or disparate visions of the world. One example of this is Rula Halawani. In her photographic series The Wall (2005), on view at the Arsenale in “Proposition A,” Halawani presents chilling photographs of the physical barrier between Israel and Palestine—the images loaded with symbolism and alluding to the ongoing violence in the region. However, for “Proposition B,” the Palestinian-born artist takes a more personal approach, and offer photographs of places from her earliest memories as a child in the her series For My Father (2015).
On the other hand, some works seem to encapsulate the feeling with great simplicity in a singular piece, like Jean Luc Moulène’s La Faucheuse (2015), a 3D printout of a plastic patio chair with a sieve attached to it. And others seem to be asking a more complex reading of the work. This is true of Neïl Beloufa’s Global Agreement (2018-2019), a collection of makeshift exercise machines that adversely restrict all movement, and forces the viewer in an awkward position to watch video interviews with young military men and women from around the world. One in particular shows a South American, who has now become a fitness model on social media, dutifully defending her choice to expatriate and join the United States Army, a choice that has afforded her opportunities she had dreamed of as a child. The impression this interview establishes is a frantic sense of empathy for this young woman, while also feeling a sense of urgency and shock for her staunch appraisal of the military and its ilk.
Make The World Great Again
What echoes throughout this exhibition is a deep unsettling of the rise of nationalist agendas across the globe. One great example that touches on this subject is Shilpa Gupta’s For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit (2017–2018), a sound installation of recorded voices speaking or singing the words of poets who have been imprisoned in their countries for their political beliefs. But what drives this point even further, perhaps, is the combination of both Khalil Joseph’s BLKNWS (2018–ongoing) and Arthur Jafa’s White Album (2019)—for which he won the Golden Lion Award, the biennale’s highest honor. The two artists, who are long-time collaborators, present works that easily go hand-in-hand, or at the very least are in conversation with each other. In contrast to focusing on the imagery of black death and violence against black bodies, both Joseph and Jafa take an introspective turn, instead looking to black excellence and black culture (Joseph) and the multivariate perspectives of whiteness as a system of power and culture (Jafa). The two offer a kind programmatic space to undergo feelings of hope, fear, resilience, and empathy within the American ethos. It feels almost fitting that in this era of Trumpism, the phrase “May You Live In Interesting Times” has an almost uncanny similarity to “Make America Great Again,” a kind of foreboding curse that, with its brutal irony, leaves us in despair. But what makes this version of the biennale so special is its emphasis on dwelling within that despair, or even crawling out from beneath it. There is no doubt a seductive quality to each biennale, perhaps due to the charm of Venice itself or the weight of the history the biennale holds. It’s hard to say. But in the end, in all its good and its bad, “May You Live In Interesting Times” doesn’t fail to keep things exciting.
 There is one big exception to this, however. Unfortunately, the Haitian Pavillion, which was slated to take place in the annex of the Circolo Uffi ciali della Marina Militare di Venezia (The Navy Officers Club) at Calle Seconda de la Fava, 2168, was cancelled due to funding issues. None of this information was indicated in any of the printed materials offered, and so looking for the pavillion proved to be a wasted effort for many visitors.
May You Live in Interesting Times, the 58th International Venice Biennale continues through November 24th at Giardini della Biennale, Sestiere Castello and Arsenale Sestiere Castello, Campo de Della Tana, 2169/F, 30122 Venice.
Terence Trouillot is a freelance art writer and editor. He is a contributing editor at BOMB Magazine and has written about contemporary art and visual culture for magazines including Momus, The Brooklyn Rail, The Village Voice, Arts.Black, Artnet News, and Eye on Design, among others. He lives and works in New York and Mexico City.