Venice Biennale 2019 thoughts and numbers

Published May, 2019

Since 2013 every 2 years I make a pilgrimage to Venice for the Venice Biennale. These Aperol fuelled days are definitely a workout for my legs (74 km in 4 days) but as I run around Venice in an attempt to see everything it is also a time for contemplation as every new show is compared with the one before it. 

In 2017 as the world was going through political and social turmoil: the rise of Nazism and alt right, the election of Trump, Brexit, refugee crisis, #metoo, and the new wave of the black rights movement, to name a few. However, despite all this Venice Biennale was an escapist fantasy with instagrammable art. In 2019 the art world, as always, is playing catchup even the name of the show 'May you live in interesting times' is playing catchup. Two years ago it would have been timely in 2019 all I can do is roll my eyes and say 'what else is new?'

Barca Nostra in the Arsenal

As always when it comes to politics the art world is either not commenting or artwashing. The only work about the refugee crisis is Barca Nostra by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel. The boat became a deathbed for over 800 refugees onboard. Today this shipwreck serves as a backdrop to art enthusiasts drinking Aperol on the cafeteria deck. To make it worse there is no signage explaining what the boat is and considering Arsenal is home to a lot of semi-ruined shipping equipment I can't really fault exhibition goers for thinking that Barca Nostra is part of the shipyard. Of course, the irony that it is a Swiss artist shaming the world about not caring about refugees and then forgetting to contextualise the work by not providing a description of some kind should not be lost. 

Let's face it #MeToo was stopped dead in its tracks in the art world because most collectors, donors, patrons, gallerists, and museum directors are men. And when the UK art dealer Anthony d’Offay, the one who sold his collection to Tate for only £26 million, was under fire it was (surprise) the director of Tate Maria Balshaw who came to his defence. Hence it's no surprise that feminism, sexual harassment, abortion and other 'womanly' hot topicsdid not really show up at the Bienalle. There was some progress as this year there seemed to be at least four works that focused on gender identity: Charlotte Prodger's video in the Scottish Pavilion, the Brazilian pavilion's Swinguerra (2019) by Barbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca, Martine Gutirrez's photo series, and Teresa Margolles' about the plight of women who experience violence in her native Mexico.

When it comes to the black rights movement well it is an international biennale which could have created a very interesting context to talk about black artists from Africa and how their experiences differ to Black artists from the diaspora. On the bright side this year there was a retrospective of the Black arts movement in America at an offsite exhibition Africobra.

The only message that was on time this year is climate change it was at the centre of the Lithuanian pavilion that won the Golden Lion award, as well as at the centre of ‎Laure Prouvost's installation in the French Pavilion. 

Did I enjoy Venice? Of course I did, food and Aperol kept me happy, and I will be back in two years time because I am a creature of habit. This said there is a belief that artists can go and explore topics that others can't, because creative freedom allows them to do things that others can't do in their day jobs. After visiting the 2019 Bienalle I know that that is not true artists are kept on a short leash by those who foot the bill for the palazzos and the parties. Artists can go only as far as the leash held by their financier allows them to. Thank god this year climate change apparently became an allowed topic. 


My Venice Biennale in Numbers:

  • 74 km (46 miles) walked
  • 67 out of 90 pavilions seen (all in Giraldini, all in Arsenal, and at least 13 offsites)
  • 11 official and unoficial exhibitions visited
  • 3 bizarre incidents


Three Bizzare Incidents

After some debate I decided to share these.  

In previous years of me bumming around Venice I never really had any bizarre incidents or observations worth writing about this year I had three. One fits in with tone-deaf tourist trope, the other two I guess are FOMO induced paranoia. 

1 - Tone Deaf
Two middle-aged white French men taking a photograph in the Iraq pavilion with Serwan Baran's work as a backdrop. Though the murky green does make for a lovely background when you look closer it's hard not to notice that it is actually a painting of a mass grave and happy selfie pictures seem a bit tone deaf, to say the least.

2- You shall not pass?
As we explored offsite pavilions and exhibitions my approach was to go in and ask for entry. In most cases I got looked up and down then the eyes would land on a tote from another pavilion and I was granted entrance. At one offsite we were met by a bored looking staffer who said that they are closed until Monday (behind her a large crew was setting up for what looked like a boozy reception. I felt like I needed to make sure 'the exhibition is closed till Monday?' 'Yes.' 'You mean you are not doing the press preview? That you are closed during the press preview days?' There was silence then she asked 'Are you Denmark?'. I gave up after that, maybe 'Denmark' was a secret code because that was not the Danish pavilion.

3 - stop-question-and-frisk
The drinks reception was kicking off as we where leaving Africobra, so we decided to stay for a drink, as I was queuing at the bar my partner was cornered by some middle-aged white male American who decided upon himself to be the person who stops questions and frisks other Biennale goers at a party (!). Btw, my partner is mixed European and Middle Eastern heritage which is hard not to take into consideration as the stop and interrogate was done by a white American. He first took great interest in my partners European Cultural Centre tote bag to the point that he asked to look inside the bag. He then continued asking questions such as: what are you doing here, how did you find this event, and if there was a guide book to Venice Biennale in our hotel room. He thought it was okay to question my partner while ignoring or dodging any questions about himself. It's safe to say that we never stayed for that drink and an otherwise amazing exhibition, and the only exhibition centred on African diaspora was tainted by a nasty experience with a white American male who decided it's his right to hassle others and police the room.


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