None wanted to travel overnight to somewhere incomparable, to a fantastic mutation of normal reality, where did one go? Why, the answer was obvious.” —Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
Perhaps it’s the light. Reflecting everywhere in shimmering, stippled brilliance off the cerulean blue of canals, lagoons, and occasional open expanses of the Adriatic. Casting its glow over the ornate splendor of palazzi fronting the labyrinthine waterways, marble balconies flanked with carved lions and bursting with flowers, the domed cupolas of San Marco dominating the skyline like a crown. Or is it the fact that no matter how many times you visit, you can always get lost, finding yourself in some forgotten corner of the city with only the sound of water lapping up against pavement underfoot, the hubbub of the crowds receding like a distant echo. Despite the maddening tourist hordes snapping selfies at the Bridge of Sighs, Venice will always be a magical place.
But Venice is more than a time warp, a sinking, centuries-old monument to human artistic achievement. Every two years, it plays host to the most important event on the international contemporary art calendar—the Venice Biennale d’Arte. While biennials have proliferated in recent years as interest in contemporary art has gone viral, few would dispute that the Venice Biennale reigns supreme.
Founded in 1895 to mark the silver anniversary of the accession of King Umberto I and his consort, Margherita of Savoy, the Venice Biennale has become a world fair for the art world, with 90 countries represented in national pavilions concentrated primarily in the Giardini (public gardens) and Arsenale, a complex of former shipyards and armories. National culture ministries nominate their best and brightest artists to create what are often monumental projects as they vie for the coveted Golden Lion prize for best national pavilion. Opportunities for new discoveries abound. In recent years, the Golden Lion has been won by Germany (2017), Armenia (2015), and Angola (2013). This year, four countries will be participating in the Biennale for the first time: Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia, and Pakistan.
But the beating heart of the Biennale is its central exhibition, organized around a unifying theme and presided over by a rotating cast of prestigious curators who step into the role of artistic director—The Art Newspaper recently referred to the role as “the most scrutinized curatorial job in the world.” This year, for the 58th edition, American curator Ralph Rugoff of London’s Hayward Gallery takes the helm. His enigmatic theme is “May You Live in Interesting Times”—an apparently mythical Chinese curse misquoted by a British politician in the 1930s. If this feels like a mantra for the post-truth era, you’re on the right track. Rugoff has chosen to work with 79 living artists who respond to the times we live in, making art that is richly ambiguous, full of paradox and contradiction, and which reflects on the divisions that have emerged in social discourse in a way that generates open conversation rather than pushing a particular point of view.
Among the artists selected by Rugoff is current art market darling Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Nigerian-born and Los Angeles–based, whose multi-textured, color-saturated domestic scenes in paint and collage contain layers of personal, political, and art historical references. Akunyili Crosby was awarded the esteemed MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2017, with the foundation praising her large-scale works that “convey meaning across multiple registers and speak to disparate times and places simultaneously.… Many layers of materials from different sources overlay one another, with the final effect being that of an image that refuses to stay fixed, vacillating across different cultures and traditions.”
Also singled out by Rugoff is Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Joi Bittle’s Cosmorama (2018), which was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) and The Illustrated Man (1951). Their immersive diorama of a dreamlike Martian landscape is part science fiction, part current events (in a year when NASA successfully launched the InSight mission to Mars), and perhaps an evocation of dystopian chaos in our near future.
The exhibition will also showcase work by the young Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, who was given a solo show at MoMA PS1 in 2014. His installation No history in a room filled with people with funny names 5 (2018) includes three-channel videos and green LED lights emanating from a phantasmagorical garden of seashells and plants. Arunanondchai has said he often contemplates “the collapse of nature”; however, the work also draws together references as diverse as verbal storytelling and mythmaking in modern-day Thailand, spirit mediums and monks, the American military, Elon Musk, and the artist’s grandmother, hospitalized with dementia.
The 58th edition of the Venice Biennale is open to the public from May 11 through November 24, with the VIP-only vernissage preview taking place May 8 to 10. While the carnivalesque vernissage attracts a glittering crowd of collectors, dealers, artists, curators, and partygoers wheeling and dealing at exclusive events and pop-up nightclubs, if you go later in the season, you might actually get to see the art.