A review of the 2019 Venice Biennale

Published The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, May 2019

When the architect of the Australia pavilion at the Venice Biennale dropped by Richard Bell’s Aboriginal tent embassy in a park near an entrance to the exhibition, people thought there might have been tension.

Bell had wrapped a large model of John Denton’s award-winning, $6 million Australia pavilion building in chains, craned it onto a barge, and motored it up and down along the Biennale’s Giardini foreshore - to protest the white bias of art world hierarchies: or “white art in black boxes” as Bell put it. But Denton loved the humour and congratulated Bell.

Some believe all art is political, but Bell, whose work was short-listed for the Australia pavilion, said: “Political art only makes up 4 per cent of the market. I see that as an opportunity.”

It was always paradoxical for the Venice Biennale, an exhibition founded in 1896 to present the art of nations, to adopt the quasi-political theme: May You Live in Interesting Times.

Northern Irish artist Cathy Wilkes almost rejected her invitation to represent Great Britain - because of her dislike of countries and borders. The new selection process for the Australia pavilion with an Australia Council-appointed panel selecting from proposals open to the artistic public also caused controversy.

Philanthropist and former Australian Biennale commissioner Simon Mordant AM, who donated $2 million and led the campaign to help raise remaining funds for the construction of the new Australia Pavilion, said the new process was more prone to being influenced by political correctness. "That certainly wasn’t the case [this] time. It was an excellent panel,” he said, referring to the panel chaired by artist Callum Morton which selected the pitch from artist Angelica Mesiti with curator Juliana Engberg to represent Australia. "But there is that risk in future.”

Few chosen artists created work about the politics of art but the variety of ways Biennale artists reimagined politics was nevertheless inspiring.

Christoph Buchuel placed "Barca Nostra', the mangled hull of a ship in which 700 refugees drowned off Sicily in 2015, on the wharf outside a cafe at the end of the main exhibition building - to protests from one artist, who said: “that’s not art, it’s media, it’s death, it shouldn’t be here”.

At the other end of the political art spectrum, Australia pavilion artist Angelica Mesiti’s video 'Assembly', featured a subtle, slow representation of a political forum - the Italian Senate - by musical translations, dissonance and shimmering harmonies.

A majority of works by the 79 artists in the curated exhibition, and in the 90 international pavilions, were political, even when they took an ironic approach to global issues. Two of the best were made by Chinese couple Sun Yuan and Peng Yu.

Their giant hydraulic, robotic, limbed paintbrush, housed in a clear acrylic cage, span threateningly and bent down to sweep up dark crimson liquid - oil, paint or blood - which kept spreading across the floor. Every few minutes the robotic brush paused to do a celebratory dance, proud of what it had achieved. 'Can’t Help Myself' was a comical but ominous depiction of the technology that claims to save us from disasters.

There were several haunting memorials, not to fallen soldiers, princes or queens, but to the citizens, poets, journalists, women and children “disappeared” by dictatorships.

'Discordo Ergo Sum' (I protest therefore I am) by Renate Bertlemann, in the Austrian pavilion, featured glass roses skewered on rows of metal spikes, neatly fusing the flowers of anti-war protests with a World War I cemetery.

On similar rows of metal spikes, Indian artist Shipal Gupta skewered the words of 100 poets imprisoned or killed since the 7th century. 'In your tongue, I cannot fit', a work coming to Dark Mofo next month, features microphones suspended above the spikes that broadcast their words about prison, intermittently forming a chorus of urgent whispers, hauntingly bringing the poets’ ghosts to life.

Some work was too overtly judgmental and approached propaganda or essay, albeit for a good cause. 'The White Album', a film by Arthur Jafa which won the Golden Lion for Best Participant prize, began with a wonderfully challenging collation of found footage of people being racist, criticising racists or occupying threatening racial archetypes (a Muslim with an automatic rifle, for example). But then the voiceover descended into slogan and polemic.

The value of this Biennale’s survey of political art was demonstrated when two artists addressed the same subject or trope - an aeroplane for example.

Poland pavilion artist Roman Stanczak’s 'Flight', turned a luxury jet inside out, with its wiring and engine organs on the outside, in a succinct inversion of the winged symbol of western progress, a symbol imploded this century by terrorism and the tangled futures of technology and wealth. In the main exhibition, Yin Xiuzhen’s 'Trojan' let viewers walk inside a six-metre tall doll-like sculpture of a passenger in crash position, head praying between her knees.

The main exhibition featured as many female artists as male (and a few non-gendered) for the first time in the Biennale’s 123-year history. Several women photographers produced powerful self-portraits that challenged the viewer’s gaze, in a genre popularised by Frida Kahlo.

For 'Body En Thrall', New York artist Martine Gutierrez posed naked in the arms of a male dummy bridegroom, her expression both acquiescent and defiant. South African artist Zanele Muholi portrays herself as a defiant black queen wearing accessories that yet refer to bondage. Japanese artist Mari Katayama made disturbing and beautiful self-portraits by adorning her amputated and prosthetic limbs with the materials of doll making.

There were few works requiring words to frame their ideas in this Biennale, and there were several signs that the conceptual modern era is giving way to more kinetic or accessible engagements with mainstream news media. Artworks that challenged political biases of news media formed some of the most striking works.

US artist Christian Marclay’s '48 War Movies' is a nauseating tiling of 48 complete films about the horrors of war that creates a media vortex. 'BLKNWS' by experience music video clip director Kahlil Joseph is a two-channel music video that samples black political figures and footage of persecution and survival, high and pop art, sublimely and powerfully edited to match the different rhythms of the soundtrack.

There was a parallel growth in the number and sophistication of collaborations - works made by teams of accomplished artists and artisans, with principal artist as director, and curator as producer - a growth led by an impressive collection of video works. Many works also more seamlessly combined genres of art - music, theatre, poetry, puppetry or dance.

Lithuania won the Golden Lion for best national pavilion for an opera - theatre, music and poetry - set on a rectangular beach observed from above as if it was a painting, with performers dramatising climate change.

Ironically, in this context it was almost a political act to depict positive visions of the future. The latest work by Japanese screen artist Ryoji Ikeda, 'data-verse', is a dangerously beautiful vision of a universe depicted by movements of data. Ikeda’s monumental mathematical and musical composition contrasted with the tenderly crafted mathematics of underwater organisms explored in the fine crochet coral and toxic reefs curated and created by Australians Christine and Margaret Wertheim.

In a Collateral event outside the Biennale grounds, South Australian artists created a 30-metre installation and film depicting the passage of three billion years in 'Living Rocks'. The visualisation was scientifically researched yet almost too photographic to believe. But the time-lapsed landscape, and score, to volcanoes rising, erupting and eroding, for example, succeeded in making one feel like a dot at the end of time - as insignificant as responsible for the future of the earth.

But the last word about politics and art might go to the director of an organisation that abstract painter Mark Bradford has helped fund since his US representation at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Bradford has sponsored Process Collettivo, an organisation that helps prisoners in Venice recover their self-esteem, before and after release. Process Collettivo director Liri Longo described their shared political mission: “We try to help people discover better parts of themselves.”

© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.