May We Live in Interesting Times is the title of this year international exhibition at the Venice Biennale displayed in two parts, one in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini (former Padiglione Italia) and the other in the Arsenale.
The curator of this Biennale is Ralph Rugoff. At Hayward Gallery in London, where he works as director, he often mounts “experiential” group exhibitions, which invite the visitors to partecipate. “Tate Modern is like the Bluewater shopping centre,” Ralph Rugoff said to Alastair Sooke (10 June, 2013, The Telegraph). Many would probably agree (I wrote an essay in 2010 where I articulate this point - The Fine Line between Private and Public Spaces). However, a few times the Hayward Gallery itself looked like a playground or a funfair.
So what is the role of artworks and exhibitions?
Ralph Rugoff says that art should be playful and should be able to entertain (Ralph Rugoff on his Venice Biennale concept by Ben Luke The Artnewspaper, May 2019).
A work that exemplifies this idea powerfully is English Magic a mystical, pop film by Jeremy Deller who kept the British Pavilion packed with visitors in 2013. The music played by the Melodian Street Orchestra recorded in the Abbey Road Studios, enchanted the public. The video was showing people having fun jumping on a bouncy Stone Age, a Range Rover as it was being wrecked and an elegant detailed flock of two rare birds of prey. It referred to a news story. In 2007 two rare birds had been shot down over the Sandringham estate. The only people shooting that day, were apparently Prince Harry and his friend William van Cutsem. Shooting the protected birds would carry a prison sentence but after police inquiries no action was taken.
Rugoff’s statements though seem weakened in his exhibition at the Giardini, for example in the room with a gate banging on the wall by Shilpa Gupta, Untitled, 2009 and the caw moving on a track by Nabuqi, Do Real Things Happen in Moments of Rationality? 2018. Not funny enough, not engaging enough.
The work we think impersonated perfectly Ralph Rogoff intentions was Can’t Help Myself by Sun Yuan & Peng Yu. It was commissioned by The Guggenheim Museum in 2016. It consists in an industrial large scale black robot, moving inside a glass cage. The machine is huge and powerful and makes sudden unpredictable movements. But then, at times, it is also very funny, it moves like an animal would move its tail joyfully. The result is hypnotic in its repetitive dance. The robot seems relentlessly trying to control a dark red liquid from going away from it. Besides some liquid is lost in this attempt and drips down the clear vertical surfaces. The machine looks animated as a living creature and the visceral liquid is not alive, looks like “rotten blood”, and it is not contained within a body but on the ground as a small pond and dripping from the walls. The robot makes us smile at points but we look at it through a glass dirty with blood-like stains. The viewer has to make sense of all these opposite feelings: fear, pleasure, curiosity and repulsion. We then learnt that, collaborating with two robotics engineers the two Chinese artists, designed a series of thirty-two movements for the machine to perform. Their names are “scratch an itch,” “bow and shake,” “ass shake” and this is the funny side of the work. However, it evokes violent acts. Again something we should make sense of on our own: who is the perpetrator of the violence? And who is being violated? And why in such scenario do we laugh?
The Golden Lion went to USA artist Arthur Jafa, whose video work The White Album is on display at the Giardini. It is about white supremacy. The CCTV footage of violent acts are mounted together with recordings of the artists’ friends suggesting a reflection upon news and fake news. The White Album succeeds in raising a sense of gilt : we wonder if the target, the one per cent of the population who visits the Venice Biennale, is the right one.
My mind goes back to Iranian artist Shirin Neshat: in 1999 she was awarded with the Golden Lion too for her photographic and video work. She is also an activist for the rights of her own community but her work is open and poetic. Neshat has brilliantly reached that very difficult balance between Critique and Aesthetics. Thanks to a range of powerful tools such as a clever use of the camera, the use of black and white films, she takes the viewers into a mystical, dreamy place that position her work beyond time and place. This way we no longer see the political elements contained.
This is what a work of art should do if it wants to be critical avoiding to become mere propaganda.