Innovations abound at the 2019 Venice Biennale

Image: The Biennale Foundation

 VENICE – The defining characteristic of the 58th Biennale is innovation, though not in the way you might expect. Of course, contemporary art is almost by definition probing, exploratory, and this year’s art is no different. What is different is the subtle metamorphosis of the whole event beyond its normal boundaries into something international, introspective and altogether more interesting. 

 The Biennale has become one of the most prestigious cultural organisations in the world and it has always attracted a staggeringly high number of visitors. While 224,000 people attended the first ever Biennale in 1895, the number is now around half a million. Tradition has its benefits, of course, but in the contemporary art scene Venice’s challenge has always been to remain fresh and vital.

 For those attending, you can see why this is such a challenge. Venice itself can feel weighed down by its history. The great and the good of the art world have their own expectations from the event, which runs May 11 to 24. No matter how exciting the art itself is, Venice must constantly search for ways to make the presentation anything but orthodox.

  That is one reason why Biennale curator Ralph Rugoff’s choice of theme for this year’s event is clever: “May You Live In Interesting Times.” As an explicit call for artists to take stock of their times, it demands that they be relevant. And by focusing on artists who “challenge existing habits of thought and open up our readings of objects and images, gestures and situations,” as the website elaborates, it demands that art remains an instrument of critical thinking as well as of pleasure.

 As part of this process, the Biennale must reflect the globalised and international world we inhabit, which it does. We see for the first time the presence of art from Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia and Pakistan, and the first national pavilion of the Dominican Republic.

 Perhaps the most exciting trend in evidence here is how eager artists and organisers are to break out of the traditional moulds of artistic production and presentation.

 Performance art plays a more important role than ever before. For example, “Meetings on Art” is a series of performances produced by the Delfina Foundation and Venice Biennale, commissioned by Arts Council England. Rugoff himself is a curator, along with Aaron Cezar, the Director of the Delfina Foundation. The performances take place, significantly, outside of the two historic locations for art at the Biennale, the Giardini and Arsenale.  

 This is a pattern repeated in the new Giudecca Art District project (GAD), which sees the setting up of a network of galleries and spaces across Venice’s island of Giudecca. Though not an official part of the Biennale programme, its launch deliberately coincides with the main event and reflects the Biennale’s wider influence on the art world. GAD, unlike the Biennale, has no end-date.

 General director of the Giudecca project Pier Paolo Scelsi and artistic director Valentina Gioia Levy have chosen this year’s title to be “Take Care of your Garden: Cultivating New Humanism.” They explain this, a quotation from Voltaire’s Candide, as a call to look beyond national and political borders towards a shared human experience.

 The flagship exhibition, “Body as Home, by Aleksandra Karpowicz with October! Collective, works along these lines. Filming a local, a visitor and the filmmaker herself walking naked around four different cities, it explores how our ideas about home and about our bodies might overlap, addressing the parallels between feeling at home in a physical place and at home in ourselves.

 There is a sense in which these are questions the Biennale is asking about itself. What does it mean for the event that it takes place in a centre of historic imperialism and military power? Where does the art end and the city begin? This is an exciting time for contemporary art and an exciting time for the Biennale.


Meetings on Art. Image: My Art Guides
From Body as Home, by Aleksandra Karpowicz with October! Collective