R alph Rugoff, the director of London’s Hayward Gallery, says he took a moment’s pause when, over lunch in Rome, he was asked to curate the 2019 edition of the Venice Biennale. “It was November 2017 and I was just about to reopen Hayward (after its £35m renovation). And I realised that the next very nice year, all planned, was going to be exploded by this,” he says. But he didn’t hesitate long. “Most people feel like me. You know it’s a one-time opportunity.”
The Venice Biennale was the world’s first art biennial when it was founded in 1895, and is now by far the biggest. As well as Rugoff’s exhibition, there will be 90 national pavilions showing anything from one to 30 artists. Almost 100 other shows and happenings – from a major Baselitz retrospective at the Galleria dell’Accademia to the pop-up Piedmont Pavilion backed by über-art patron Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo – make up the enormous numbers.
But for the 25,000 collectors, critics and curators heading for the preview next week (7–10 May) and the 600,000 anticipated for the public opening (11 May–24 November), it is the huge director’s show that is in the spotlight. Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of the New Museum in New York, and director of the 55th edition in 2013 says: “Venice gives you an opportunity to make a great show. But it’s immediately put in a dialogue with its predecessors, with a history and on a scale that nothing else approaches.” Anticipation started growing in July last year when Rugoff revealed that his exhibition – May You Live in Interesting Times – would focus on “pleasure” as well as “critical thinking”.
Rugoff, a self-deprecating American, appears unruffled, despite the pressure. He started his career in New York and then Los Angeles, as an art and cultural critic. He has published books of essays and in 2005 won the $100,000 Penny McCall Foundation curating and criticism prize. He has directed one other major biennial – Lyon’s, to acclaim, in 2015. And he has a raft of exhibitions under his belt, first as an independent curator, then as director of the experimental CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco. He moved to London to lead the Hayward in 2006 and has gained a reputation for unorthodox, ideas-rich and experiential shows.
In 2016, Rugoff wrote that the Venice Biennale at times resembled “a collective exercise in sado-masochism, due to [its] overwhelming and inhuman scale”. In 2018, he told an audience at Art Basel’s Conversation programme that “the nature of biennials has nothing to do with the nature of good exhibition-making”.
For Venice, he said he had considered inviting 100 artists to set up in residence and just get on with making work for the seven months of the show. In the end, he has taken a more pragmatic approach. There will be just 79 artists in the 58th show, almost half the number of recent Biennales. “I wanted to work with fewer artists, give them more space and allow the visitors to engage more closely with their practises,” he says.
Meanwhile the two spaces used for the director’s show – the 1895 Palazzo dell’ Esposizione in the Giardini and the Corderie in the medieval Arsenale – will be treated as separate shows. The point, Rugoff says, is that the same artists will make work for both, “although a visitor who doesn’t read wall labels might assume they are by different people”. It fits with his desire to work with artists whose work is “multi-valent, ambiguous, deals with paradox and contradictions, and generates complex associations and ideas”. Artists whose work, as the double-exhibition format should reveal, proves difficult to pigeonhole.
Given the Venice Biennale’s zeitgeist-capturing reputation, who has been selected is already the subject of interested debate. Rugoff’s list already shows notable divergences from 2017’s Viva Arte Viva, which was selected by the Centre Pompidou’s chief curator, Christine Macel. He wanted to work with living artists and the group is markedly younger than usual: well over a third were born since 1980.
Several artists – Ed Atkins, Neil Beloufa, Ian Cheng, Hito Steyerl – work with digital technology. There are artists known for off-beat sculptural installations – Handiwirman Saputra, Carol Bove and Otobong Nkanga – and photographers, like Zanele Muholi and Mari Katayama, who use their bodies to explore identity and representation.
“I wanted work that felt open-ended, that didn’t fit, right away, into a recognisable category,” Rugoff says. The 31-year-old American painter, Avery Singer, is a good example. Her monochrome works hover between figuration and abstraction, and between photography and film. “Is it digital art, it is analogue art? I was looking for things that jam up against the usual cookie-cutter type of thinking,” he says.
Rugoff has written that “art does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics… It won’t stop nationalism, authoritarian governments… or the tragic fate of displaced peoples”. But that doesn’t mean, he says, that this exhibition is apolitical. It’s starting point was the “polarising, narrowcasting, corrosive state of public discourse” and “the idea that all truth can be put into doubt”. Trump’s image will not be shown, “or at least I think it won’t”, Rugoff says, “but his spirit haunts this Biennale”.
The title, meanwhile, is a reference to a snippet of unintentional, colonial-era, British fake news. In the 1930s, Austen Chamberlain, half-brother of the more-famous prime minister Neville, referred to an alleged piece of Chinese schadenfreude, “may you live in interesting times”. Recycled in anecdotes by the likes of Robert Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, it has now acquired its own authenticity, but is more likely the figment of a nameless British diplomat’s imagination.
“Art isn’t going to change the world, the audience for art is limited,” Rugoff says. “But you have to hope that at least in one area of our culture, a different way of thinking is kept alive.” Canadian artist Stan Douglas is known for using film and photography to play with narrative, fact, fiction and technological mediation. For May you live… he has created a new film installation “that’s very complicated, but about parallel journeys in a quantum entangled universe”.
Photographer Soham Gupta, whose striking images co-produced with homeless people in Calcutta, “show us the extreme things that we don’t want to see”. Gupta has worked with people to stage the pictures, to show them as they want to look. “By creating a fictive dimension, he makes you feel more connected to them,” Rugoff says. Darren Bader, meanwhile, is producing a downloadable smartphone app that can be used by Venice residents, tourists and Biennale visitors alike. It’s an augmented reality tour of Venice, with “surreal, absurdist animations”.
Unlike some events – the curator of the German extravaganza Documenta gets four years – the director of the Venice Biennale has less than 18 months to pull this most scrutinised of exhibitions together. Rugoff admits “you end up putting yourself through an enormous amount of work”. So does he regret it? “No, I was very glad to be invited.” And what is the best thing about the Venice Biennale?
He hesitates and laughs. “The unique thing is the tension between the national pavilions and the international exhibition,” he says. “A lot of utopian ideas about global platforms and international exchanges seem to infect biennial thinking. There’s this manifestation in Venice of national self-interest that balances out… the dreamy hippyness. And then there’s about a month’s worth of other stuff to see. There’s more art there than anywhere else on the planet.”
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