Climate to fake news: Venice Biennale takes on era's big challenges

Ralph Rugoff’s exhibition also explores rightwing politics, migration and surveillance

A diorama purporting to show the landscape of Mars, in fact gleaned from images of the driest places on Earth; a video of legal cases with evidence obtained through walls; a huge machine that tries to sweep and contain a thick, red, blood-like liquid constantly on the verge of oozing away.

These are some of the artworks that Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery in London, has gathered for his guest curatorship of the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest and most celebrated international art event, which opens to the public on Saturday. Rugoff is the first UK-based curator to occupy the prestigious role.

His exhibition, titled May You Live in Interesting Times, is a response to the instabilities and challenges of the era, from the surge towards rightwing politics and climate change to artificial intelligence, fake news and surveillance.

Black and white portraits by Zenele Muhoti at Arsenale.
Black and white portraits by Zenele Muhoti at Arsenale. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“The great strength of art is that it’s able to explore meanings that are ambiguous and complex, that leave you with questions rather than answers. And that’s what this show has set out to celebrate,” said Rugoff.

The exhibition occupies a large building in the city’s public gardens, the Giardini, and the 300m-long former rope-making factory of Venice’s Arsenale – a space so long that technicians installing the show use bicycles to ride up and down it.

Works such as Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Joi Bittle’s Cosmorana (the Mars diorama), Turner-prize nominated Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Walls Unwalled (the video on forensic evidence), and Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself – the (blood-sweeping machine), are all examples of art that can cast a light on the world in a way that journalism and history cannot, said Rugoff.

“What art can do for us is help us become more comfortable with the grey, the shady areas, the places where identity isn’t clear cut.”

Ralph Rugoff
Ralph Rugoff. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The exhibition’s title comes from a phrase that purports to be a Chinese curse, but may have emerged in the west in the early 1930s. The British statesman Austen Chamberlain referred to it when alluding to the rise of fascism. “It’s a fake phrase but it has played a real role as a rhetorical trope in political and literary discourse,” said Rugoff.

From Rugoff’s perspective, contemporary art is getting dark and serious. The American Christian Marclay’s new video 48 War Movies is just that – 48 entire war films layered one atop the other to create a disturbing cacophony. German artist Hito Steyerl’s dystopian This is the Future takes the viewer past multiple screens showing morphing plant forms. Through a voiceover, she reminds the viewer that “100% of humans will die”. And American, Ethopian-born Julie Mehretu’s paintings often use newspaper images as their source, but overpainted and worked up into abstraction so that their original material becomes obscured.

Rugoff has also incorporated the contentious Barca Nostra (Our Boat) into his exhibition. The boat is the real vessel in which up to 1,000 people died in 2015 as they attempted to reach Europe from Libya. It was the deadliest Mediterranean shipwreck in decades.

A man takes a selfie in front of Barca Nostra, the remains of a fishing vessel that sank whilst carrying migrants from Libya in 2015.
A man takes a selfie in front of Barca Nostra, the remains of a fishing vessel that sank whilst carrying migrants from Libya in 2015. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The project to bring the boat to the Venice Biennale was spearheaded by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel. But the ethics of displaying a real scene of appalling human tragedy – in effect a mass grave – in the context of an art event are being called into question by visitors to the Biennale’s preview this week. The boat is positioned opposite the sandwich bar in Venice’s Arsenale, with two small signs explaining its significance. Some visitors were taking selfies in front of it.

Being offered the curatorship of the central exhibition is one of the most prestigious roles in the art world, and also one of the most exposed. The preview days are visited by a host of international artworld professionals. They are also descended upon by the world’s super-rich, and yachts line the quayside outside.

“I really don’t care about the opening days,” said Rugoff. “It’s a six-month show. People in the art world experience it at these opening days and they think it’s all about superyachts and moneyed people. It’s not. It’s a show that’s seen by over 600,000 people. A show with a really broad outreach. It can speak to people who don’t give a shit about the artworld, about the market, about what auction prices are. And that’s the audience I care about.”

Rugoff visited 25 countries and saw the work of about 2,000 artists, he said, to select pieces for the exhibition. It is the first such show to exhibit, according to the Venice Biennale’s president, Paolo Baratta, more female than male artists.

Aside from the centrally curated exhibition, the Venice Biennale consists of 90 national pavilions, each presented by a different country. Belgium’s is a bizarre prison for twisted versions of old-fashioned automata advertising trades or crafts – knife-grinders, potters, cooks. Lithuania’s is an artificial beach on which singers perform an opera. And the Italian pavilion is set out in the form of a haunting, coiling labyrinth, with visitors wandering through twisting passages, hearing snatches of music, hitting dead ends, and all along the way encountering sculpture, murals and sound pieces by three Italian artists: the late Chiara Fumai, Enrico David and Liliana Moro.

The 58th Venice Art Biennale continues until 24 November.

• This article was amended on 15 May 2019. Christian Marclay’s 48 War Movies is a video, not a film as stated in an earlier version.


Charlotte Higgins in Venice

The GuardianTramp

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