Interesting Times at the Venice Biennale

Through a set of lucky circumstances and generosity on part of a friend of mine, I found myself at an event which I wanted to visit for a long while: preview of the Venice Art Biennale.

It was on my radar ever since I became interested in the fascinating workings of the world of contemporary art and I actively yearned to visit after reading Geoff Dyer’s brilliant and funny Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a few years ago.

While Biennale is about displaying current art produced around the world between May and November, the preview is about people behind it and as such poses a great insight in the interplay between cultural, social and economic capital in the West. Those few days are some of the best times for networking between artists, gallerists, critics and collectors, and as such pose a great opportunity for people-watching as the participants engage in pursuits of business, politics and occasional creativity, all the while being doused with free booze and fed free food in one of the world’s most stunning cities. Indeed, if I could have it my way, the event would warrant to be televised globally, with scores of anthropologists, sociologists and economists providing real-time Attenborough-style narration of the about the little games of status played at the event by some of the most influential people in the cultural world.

This year the theme was “May You Live in Interesting Times”, set by the curator Ralph Rugoff of London’s Hayward Gallery, in order to echo the anxiety about the future which pervades in the West in the past few years. Although the concept was loose, its greatest achievement was staging a spectacle of watching some of the most privileged and powerful people in the world whizzing past aestheticized displays of inequality, racism, chaos and brutality only to  anxiously elbow each other for free spritz and all you can eat Grana Padano at the many Biennale parties dotted around Venice.

Although tasteless initiatives like hauling a ship-wreck in which hundreds of migrants died to Venice will make the world any kinder, grossly miss the mark in attempting to show that “political” contemporary art is anything more than a veneer making the cruelties of the world more palatable to those who are most to blame for them with a serving of guilt, the Biennale does show how fascinating art still is and how inaccurate the ritual whining about how empty it has become.

From the more overtly political works, standouts were the nightmarish attempts of Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu to show the mechanical brutality of the contemporary world and those in the Greek Pavilion who recalled when in 1948 it was occupied by Peggy Guggenheim. They were unfortunately surrounded by trite nods to environmental degradation and attempts to right social wrongs through overlong videos.

Rather than dour moralism, I enjoyed the attempts at levity and displays of technical prowess. Slavs and Tatars continued reclaiming “Slavic” culture by serving pickle juice, a traditional hangover cure in a socialist era-looking relaxation area, Tavares Strachan dazzled with displays of neon wonder, while Martine Gutierrez joked in a series of photos about the life of the one percent.  Thomas Saraceno’s spider-net pavilion was a breath-taking display of craft.

In terms of national pavilions, aside from Greece, I liked Russia, Brazil, China, Italy, Ghana, and Indonesia which showed how incorporation of local flair into art can go a long way (unless it slips into propaganda or self parody, which happened at a few pavilions).

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