Facts and Fictions: The Venice Biennale 2019

Ghana Pavilion
In “The City & the City,” the science fiction novel by British author China MiĆ©ville, a murder investigation takes place in two cities that occupy the same space where residents of each city are forbidden by their respective governments from acknowledging the presence of those in the other city.

For Ralph Rugoff, the artistic director of the 58th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, which runs from May 11 to November 24, the story offers a very provocative metaphor for how so many people fail to notice the homeless or don’t pay attention necessarily to what the authorities are doing.

“Social discourse is occurring at ever decreasing bandwidths. The informational landscape is getting smaller and smaller with the people talking to each other and existing in information silos,” he notes, adding, “led by the algorithms of Facebook, you’re only presented with the news that you want to hear, that reinforces your existing bias and beliefs.”

In a world of where political discourse is corroded by alternative facts and fake news, and opinions on important issues are increasingly polarized, this year’s Biennale aims to be of the moment, not focusing on any specific theme, but instead highlighting the social function art can play both in terms of bringing pleasure as well as prompting critical thinking.
Austrian Pavilion

While art cannot stem the rise of nationalism or help alleviate the plight of refugees, Rugoff argues good art should raise our consciousness about these issues and perhaps offer a guide to living and thinking in these challenging societal times.

Currently the director of the prestigious Hayward Gallery at London’s Southbank Centre, Rugoff is a former journalist and art critic, and draws on these diverse careers, while acknowledging, “there is a huge difference between art and journalism; art really asserts its difference from the texture of facts in many different ways, but at the same time, the most interesting artists are paying attention to the world in which they are living, and their work responds to it in different ways.”

He points out that in the last couple of years, the so called post-truth era, strong divisions in society often polarised social discourse, which poses an interesting question for art and so “when governments are blatantly using make believe and tools of artifice to blur the boundaries between facts and fiction, the category questioning that artist do needs to take a new form. A simple oppositional critic is not enough. This is one thing I want this exhibition to reflect on.”

The title of the Biennale’s International Exhibition, “May you live in Interesting Times,” sets the tone. Widely thought to be an ancient Chinese curse it was actually more likely first cited as what might now be treated as “an alternative fact” in a speech by a British politician over a hundred years ago and has since taken on a life of its own.
Icelandic Pavilion

Rugoff has selected 79 artists who he believes challenge existing habits of thoughts, opening up usual readings of objects, gestures and situations with multi-layered and richly ambiguous artworks. Unusually for the Venice Biennale, they are all living artists, and they include George Condo, Mari Katayama, Christian Marclay, Lee Bul, Liu Wei, Danh Vo and Handiwirman Saputra. And with many biennales around the world recycling variations on similar themes year in and year out, Rugoff says, he wanted to experiment with the format: as such he has divided the biennale in two, with Proposition A in the Arsenale and Proposition B in the central Pavilion Giardini.

“Having a split format lends itself to a number of works that look at this idea of divided social reality,” he says, pointing out, “There are a number of leitmotifs in the exhibition including works that explore walls and barriers of different kinds, works that look at forging alternative identities, works that look at parallel worlds and virtual realities, and works that look at the way that all of us through our very selected perceptions can also create divisions in our perception of the world around us.”

Those looking for art ‘trends’ will note a number of artists are using self-portraits as a way to investigate issues around identity and social history — for example, Japanese photographer Mary Katayama, who was born with a malformed hand and had a leg amputated when she was 9, redefines conventions of beauty with her strikingly powerful photographs in the nude. And while over the last 60 years painting as a medium has regularly been declared dead, Rugoff notes it is showing an “incredible zombie-like resilience.” He has selected works by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Julie Mehretu, Avery Singer and Henry Taylor, amongst others.
The Irish Pavilion

There is also a refreshingly high number of female artists—in the main international exhibition and also in the selection of the 90 National Participations across the city — prompting some to call it the 50/50 Biennale. For its pavilion, Austria has chosen to feature Renate Bertlmann, an established feminist practitioner, while France will showcase the work of multi-media artist Laura Prouvost, who regularly straddles the lines between fiction and reality. Ireland has picked Eva Rothschild, who says she will create “a sculptural environment which engages with current social changes through embodiment, presence and materiality,” and for its first ever official participation, Pakistan has a solo exhibition by the multi-disciplinary artist Naiza Khan, who will explore contemporary life on Manora Island.

“There is a turning point after the MeToo movement, for me it’s quite obvious; it’s put the light on the fact that women are victims of harassment, but also that they are under-represented,” says Martha Kirszenbaum, the curator of the French Pavilion.

Kirszenbaum adds, “The baby boomers are slowly retiring, and we’re at a point of generation change amongst curators. There is such a need of renewal within art institutions.”