A t the heart of the Venice Biennale is the Director’s show. It takes place over two sites, the Central Pavilion in the Giardini and in the vast Arsenale building, the historical dockyards in the east of the city. This year’s show is curated by Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery in London. Under the title May You Live in Interesting Times he has put together an exhibition of surprisingly young and diverse artists.
A large number of artists were born after 1980 and that youthful energy crackles throughout both spaces. While the headlines have focussed on virtual reality installations there is also a very strong showing for both sculpture and, especially, painting. The size of the show makes it resistant to quick summations. It is certainly a powerful experience with political anxieties and declarations that insist on being heard rising loudly from both spaces.
WATCH: Tim Marlow's Must-See Museum Shows: The Venice Biennale's Best Installations, from America to Ghana
At the entrance to the Central Pavilion Antoine Catala’s giant sculpture It’s Over greets the visitors. Its nine pastel coloured silicone panels reveal messages written on them as the air is pumped out of each panel pulling the silicone over a relief carving. The messages that are revealed such as “Don’t worry”, “It’s over”, “Everything is ok”, “Tutto va bene”, “Hey, Relax” are either reassuring or disconcerting in their blandness, depending on your point of view.
Miniature villages take on a new fascination in the hands of Alex Da Corte. With The Decorated Shed in the Central Pavilion, Da Corte creates a miniature replica of the suburb in the American TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood except that he has added in a signage from restaurant corporations. This testament to what goes on in men’s sheds is set on a Federal-style mahogany table in a room lined with velvet upholstered flowers. The intricacy of the work seems to deflect the witty criticisms of power and control made by the work and it is fascinating.
Shilpa Gupta’s For, in your tongue, I cannot fit in the Arsenale is both sound installation and sculpture. Row upon row of spikes, 100 in total, impale sheets of paper. On each piece of paper is a poem by a writer who was imprisoned as a dissident for their work. Suspended above each spike a is a microphone that broadcasts, rather than receives, these poems. There is something disquieting about confronting freedom and speech in this work and within the low light that it is shown it is a powerful experience.
In the Arsenale, paintings by Julie Mehretu are in an uncharacteristically muted palette of greys blacks and blues. For Mehretu, “It’s about what is undefined, unstable – and for me, that’s important politically. There is always a multitude of ways of seeing.” The works contain a multitude of marks against a smooth grey background that conjures a rhythm out of what at first appears to be chaotic. From within the restrictions set up by these paintings Mehretu achieves a breadth and charge that is compelling.
Danh Vo’s Suum Cuique [To each his own], is an installation where his own biography meets censorship and torture on a grand historical scale. Paintings by Vo’s own professor of art are hung above chairs modelled on chairs designed by Bauhaus architect Franz Ehrlich while he was incarcerated in a concentration camp.
The typeface designed by Ehrlich to go over the gate to the Buchenwald concentration camp is used to spell out Suum Cuique, the Roman legal maxim that was perverted by the Nazis to justify the fate dealt out to the Jews. The darkness of the domed room where this work is located becomes both literal and pervasively metaphorical in the presence of Vo’s installation.
At the centre of the central pavilion Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself is mesmerising. A robot arm with pre-programmed movements, including a “bow and shake” and an “ass shake” that seem perilously human, is programmed to keep a thick red liquid within a certain space locked within a giant vitrine. The combination of human-seeming actions with no free will conjures difficult and fascinating questions about human behaviour. It is hard to tear yourself away.
Michael Armitage was born in Nairobi and now lives and works in both Nairobi and London. In the Central Pavilion his untitled work is a series of drawings in ink that depict the staged political agitation and civil unrest that preceded the general election in Kenya. The images are taken from documentary photographs and news footage. Taken together they form an image of the chaos around Armitage but each figure on its own, isolated on a white background, has a very different, rather delicate, atmosphere that is quietly impressive.