59th Venice Biennale: What Would the World Look Like Without Us?

“Dixit Algorizmi: The Garden of Knowledge”,  installation view at Quarta Tesa, Venice, 23 April – 27 November 2022. Image courtesy of the Uzbekistan Pavilion.
Yiima, Iao Hon Dynasty, 2021, giclee printing on Photo Rag, metallic cotton paper, 1,180 x 2300 cm. © Yiima Art Group. Image courtesy of the artists and Macao Museum of Art.
Munkhtsetseg Jalkhaajav, Keeper of Protector Bird, 2017, installation view in “A Journey Through Vulnerability”, at Calle S. Biasio, Venice, 23 April – 27 November 2022. Photo by Jantsankhorol Erdenebayar. Image courtesy of the artist and the Mongolian Pavilion.
(Left) Chin-ho Huang, Fire, 1991–1992, oil on canvas, 815×400 cm; (Right) Shu Lea Cheang, 3×3×6, 2019, mixed-media installation. Images courtesy of the artists and Taipei Fine Arts Museum of Taiwan.
“2022” by Dumb Type, installation view at Giardini, Venice, 23 April – 27 November 2022. Photo by Yuki Seli. © Dumb Type. Image courtesy of the artists and Japan Foundation.
“Feeling Her Way” by Sonia Boyce, installation view at Giardini, Venice, 23 April – 27 November 2022. Photo by Cristiano Corte / © British Council. Image courtesy of the artist and British Council.
Ali Cherri, Of Men and Gods and Mud, 2022, three-channel video installation, 20 min, installation view in “The Milk of Dreams” at Arsenale, Venice, 23 April – 27 November 2022. © and image courtesy of the artist.
Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #23: Step on a Crack (Still), Hong Kong, 2020, 4 min 57 sec, in collaboration with Félix Blume, Julien Devaux, and Rafael Ortega. © and image courtesy of the artist.
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The 59th Venice Biennale is curated by New York-based Italian Cecilia Alemani, and takes as its inspiration the title of a story of terror-inspiring other-worldly creatures by surrealist Leonora Carrington. The accent is on metamorphosis, on the merging of one species with another, and on the existentially spine-tingling question: What would the world look like without us?

 TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of Various

 

“Dixit Algorizmi: The Garden of Knowledge”,  installation view at Quarta Tesa, Venice, 23 April – 27 November 2022. Image courtesy of the Uzbekistan Pavilion.
Yiima, Iao Hon Dynasty, 2021, giclee printing on Photo Rag, metallic cotton paper, 1,180 x 2300 cm. © Yiima Art Group. Image courtesy of the artists and Macao Museum of Art.

 

There are 80 countries represented in the historic pavilions at the Giardini, the Arsenale, and in the city centre of Venice. However, this is an event which is always evolving: there are eight countries which are participating in the 59th Biennale for the first time: Cameroon, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Namibia, Nepal, Oman, Uganda and Uzbekistan.

Of the new pavilions, Uzbekistan is garnering the most attention, with posters bedecking the vaporetti (boats which locals and tourists rely on for transport). It’s shimmeringly cool, golden oasis of a pavilion reimagines the shady gardens of Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, which sheltered the 9th century Uzbek mathematics powerhouse Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (whose surname is the origin of the word Algorithm). Visitors take off their shoes as if in reverence, revelling in the cold, mirrored surface underfoot.

The Asia presence here is manifold and fascinating. Less grounded in algebra is Macao’s sassy and irreverent contribution close to the entrance to the Arsenale. Ung Vai Meng and Chan Hin Io of the YiiMa group appropriate the tondo form of Raphael’s Madonnas. In place of the Virgin Mary, the artists themselves enact angelic poses in the swirling midst of Macanese, Chinese and Venetian artefacts. The good-natured combination of fantasy, religious devotion and cross-cultural brotherhood forces a wry chuckle from even the most jaded visitor.

 

Munkhtsetseg Jalkhaajav, Keeper of Protector Bird, 2017, installation view in “A Journey Through Vulnerability”, at Calle S. Biasio, Venice, 23 April – 27 November 2022. Photo by Jantsankhorol Erdenebayar. Image courtesy of the artist and the Mongolian Pavilion.
(Left) Chin-ho Huang, Fire, 1991–1992, oil on canvas, 815×400 cm; (Right) Shu Lea Cheang, 3×3×6, 2019, mixed-media installation. Images courtesy of the artists and Taipei Fine Arts Museum of Taiwan.

 

Just around the corner is Mongolia’s contribution, “A Journey Through Vulnerability”, by artist Munkhtsetseg Jalkhaajav (Mugi). Situated in a darkened room, the soft sculpture titled Keeper of Protector Bird (2017) is simply constructed and deeply moving. A human figure strapped to an image of nightmares: a kind of alliance, a burden, voluntary yet inevitable. It deals not so much with loss but with its tragic aftermath and the long shadows cast by trauma.

After its raucous contribution to the 58th Biennale, Taiwan plays it rather safe this time, with a retrospective of all its previous Biennale efforts. This archival tour through yesteryear won’t set the pulses racing, but is an opportune pause and a chance to review. Taiwan’s contribution has evolved substantially over the years from 1995’s drily educational mission “Art Taiwan” to the shouty, sexual soapbox of 2019’s “Shu Lea Cheang: 3x3x6”.

 

“2022” by Dumb Type, installation view at Giardini, Venice, 23 April – 27 November 2022. Photo by Yuki Seli. © Dumb Type. Image courtesy of the artists and Japan Foundation.

 

In the Giardini, Japan’s pavilion by artist collective Dumb Type asks the hard questions. In a darkened room, red script flashes up on the wall with rhetorical interrogatives which are pricks of doubt and regret. It’s a spectacle of pared visuals like a 1980s Casio calculator, with the swishing ambient sound of the control deck of a space craft. Those not given to introspection may be forced into it here.

In contrast, China’s pavilion in the Arsenale riffs on what artificial intelligence (AI) experts refer to as the uncanny valley, but here plants provide unsettling verisimilitude, not humans. None of the flora presented in its interior garden could be found at London’s Chelsea Flower show; they are all fictionalised extrapolations by AI. What Turing test could be used to decide if a plant is artificially created or real? Is there even a distinction once it exists? The pavilion title, “Meta-Scape”, embraces a sense of going beyond, of departure, of an exile from nature which may call to mind Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden.

 

“Feeling Her Way” by Sonia Boyce, installation view at Giardini, Venice, 23 April – 27 November 2022. Photo by Cristiano Corte / © British Council. Image courtesy of the artist and British Council.

 

Going beyond Asia, Sonia Boyce became the first black, female artist to represent Great Britain, winning the Golden Lion for her pains. It’s a sung video work of female voices in harmony and its opposites. It channels brightly coloured independence, creating soothing calm and raw, unpolished, spontaneous emotion beyond words or notes. Spending time in front of the four screens is to see a work of art being teased into being by a skilled conductor.

There are other compelling video works elsewhere: Italian artist Diego Marcon’s The Parents’ Room (2021) stars an eerily masked father coolly recounting the murder of his family. Soon, his slain daughter and wife take up the tale—oh, and it’s all sung in choral style. Lebanon’s pavilion is a video of a drive through the city of Beirut. The film is directed by Danielle Arbid and is an illustration of the economic plight of the city; the audio is the artist’s mother on the phone, pleading with mounting anguish as she tries to call in debts and stave off creditors.

 

Ali Cherri, Of Men and Gods and Mud, 2022, three-channel video installation, 20 min, installation view in “The Milk of Dreams” at Arsenale, Venice, 23 April – 27 November 2022. © and image courtesy of the artist.
Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #23: Step on a Crack (Still), Hong Kong, 2020, 4 min 57 sec, in collaboration with Félix Blume, Julien Devaux, and Rafael Ortega. © and image courtesy of the artist.

 

Another Lebanese artist, Ali Cherri, presents Of Men and Gods and Mud (2022), a hypnotic video depiction of the gruelling work of those building a hydroelectric dam in Northern Sudan, painstakingly making bricks from mud. Mud, the video intones, is the meeting point of water and earth. Finally, ecstatically, Francois Alÿs’ “The Nature of the Game” is a glimpse into the games children play all over the world. From the mesmerisingly incomprehensible Children’s Game #28: Nzango (2021) from the Congo to the universal Children’s Game #23: Step on a Crack(2020) from Hong Kong, this is a pavilion of wonder and celebration, and which teaches a seductively novel way of killing mosquitoes.

The Biennale is a busy affair, but there is emptiness too, if you know where to look for it. A highlight of the Arsenale is the Italian pavilion, which addresses the Biennale’s central question of life on Earth without humans to populate it. Through the medium of dusty, disused factories and faded wallpaper, it offers an immersive dystopia of de-industrialisation, lockdown and mortality all at once.

In the Giardini, Spain’s pavilion has erected walls; it plays on the architectural quirks of its building to imagine the straightened-out, spatially maximised construction that probably should have been built. In so doing, Ignasi Aballi alters the relationship of Spain with its pavilion neighbours, Belgium and Holland, and with the city of Venice itself. At a time of dislocating, shifting borders, this skewed perspective is timely, and the emptiness of the pavilion, with its freshly plastered and recently constructed walls offers a palate-cleansing feeling of peace and contemplation.

 

Biennale Arte: The Milk of Dreams
23 April – 27 November 2022
Giardini, Arsenale, and across Venice, Italy

 

 

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