âA day at the beachâ & other stories at the 2019 Venice Biennale
The Lithuanian Pavilion’s “Sun and Sea (Marina)” by Lina Lapelyte, Vaiva Grainyte and Rugile Barzdziukaite at the 2019 Venice Biennale
‘A day at the beach’ & other stories at the 2019 Venice Biennale
Sandra Palou (The Philippine Star) - September 23, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The Venice Biennale is perhaps the world’s most prestigious international art platform, the place for artists to dialogue on a curatorial theme. 

Ralph Rugoff, the director of London’s Hayward Gallery, is the commissioner of this year’s 58th International Art Exhibition. He chose “May You Live In Interesting Times” as its topic, which is rooted in the Chinese curse given to enemies, and implies disorder and conflict.  In a Robert F. Kennedy 1966 speech, he referred to this curse with, “Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”

Ralph Rugoff challenged 79 artists, many of whom use multimedia (sculpture, painting and video) to exhibit their works in two separate Venetian architectural settings, the Giardini and the Arsenale. Technological advances, global warming, pollution, the disparity between the rich and the poor, the impact of social media, immigration and national issues are among the subjects addressed by the invited artists. In Rogoff’s words, “…an exhibition should make the most of art’s capacity to open people’s eyes to previously unconsidered ways of being in the world so that they might change, however briefly, their view of that world and their place in it.  This is what it means to live in interesting times.”

In addition to the curated exhibition in the International Pavilion of the Giardini and the Arsenale, visitors can explore an additional 90 national pavilions, and 21 collateral exhibitions whose chosen artists express their personal views on the theme. 

This Biennale is one of the most interesting held in Venice for some years and is a must see.

This year’s top prize, the Golden Lion for best national pavilion, was awarded to Lithuania for “Sun and Sea (Marina)” by artists Lina Lapelyte, Vaiva Grainyte and Rugile Barzdziukaite. Curated by Lucia Pietroiusti, it is a performance installation depicting sunbathers of different nationalities and various ages on an artificial white sand beach. Soothing songs are sung by the performers as a melodious soundtrack is played, lulling spectators to inactivity. The mood is seductive. Once inside it is difficult to leave, hence the long line to enter. Who can resist the warmth and image of a perfect beach day? Take note, due to limited finances, performances now are given only on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The national pavilion of Belgium was awarded a special mention for “Mondo Cane” by artists Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys, and curated by Anne-Claire Schmitz. At the center of the pavilion is a theatrical setting of old world anthropological, life-size puppets dressed as tradesmen, performing robot-like repetitive actions. A painter, organ player, a cobbler, a stonemason, a spinner, and others work the same monotonous tasks. Surrounding them are various social misfits seen in cells behind bars: the psychotic, the insane, a poet, etc. A beggar woman bangs her cane against the pavement. She points at you as if to say you are part of this carousel of characters and don’t let the endless routine of human existence deaden you.

American artist Arthur Jafa received the Golden Lion for the best artist with his video, “The White Album.” The film takes a close look at white American men and women by artfully splicing video segments to create a dialogue on “whiteness.” Their facial features, fears, prejudices, and biases, symbolically reference the violence and tragic events in modern life. Here, as in many of the biennale offerings, music plays a critical role in enhancing the message. 

A Golden Lion award for Lifetime achievement went to Jimmie Durham, also from the United States.

Cypriot artist Haris Epaminonda received the Silver Lion award as the most promising young artist for her mixed media installation, “Vol. XXVII.”  Haris uses classical columns of different lengths and periods juxtaposed with other symbolic forms in a modern stage setting. Offering multiple interpretations, the work may be perceived as our connection to ancient history and how we bring that into our modern lifestyle along with religious symbols we revere and influence our daily lives.

Two other women artists who received special mentions are Teresa Margolles from Mexico and Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria. Margolles’ conceptual work, “Muro Ciudad Juarez,” is a wall of cement blocks taken from a public school where four people involved in organized crime were executed. Nkanga’s mixed media installation, “Veins Aligned,” is a 25.9-meter-long irregular line made of glass and mottled paint colors from black, gray and white to red, gray and white, mounted on white marble set on a gray base.

Aside from these award winners there is plenty of other very interesting art on view. “Lc. 15: 11-32” — an installation by Alexander Sokurov, curated by the State Hermitage Museum and its general director Mikhail Piotrovsky — is based on Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Luke. The work alludes to how often we are separated from those we love due to natural disasters, war, death, and the circumstance of modern living. The pictorial images create a very touching and emotional work.

Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda created a staggering, large-scale, high-definition video titled “data-verse 1” using data from CERN, NASA, and the Human Genome Project. It depicts a mathematical composition of digital images representing the micro and cosmic vastness of the Universe. Accompanied by an electronic soundtrack, the work is riveting.

“Can’t Help Myself” is an industrial mechanical robot designed by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu which continuously turns and flexes as it attempts to keep a dark red liquid contained within the center of the floor. This flowing liquid that seems uncontrollable is the artists’ idea of art’s elusiveness. 

“Dear,” also by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, is composed of a limp rubber hose attached to a white silicon chair. The hose gets filled with highly pressurized air which makes the hose whip violently, attacking its surrounding. The chair, which makes loose references to an imperial Roman throne, and Lincoln’s chair in his Washington, D.C. memorial, implies the power authority wields.

Among the artists representing Ghana is El Anatsui. His tapestry titled “Yaw Berko” (composed of aluminum printing plates and bottle tops held together by copper wire forming a graceful flowing curtain of yellow) was highly admired.

Indonesian artist Handiwirman Saputra makes a compelling statement on environmental waste. In three sculptures — “No Roots No Shoots no.7,” “Pruning,” ”Tak Barata Tak Berpucuk” — he focuses our attention to things we use often and casually discard. Objects like rubber bands, a deforested tree bark, architectural debris such as a fallen column, are recreated on a monumental scale.   

Other pavilions definitely worth seeing include France with Laure Prouvost’s film “Deep See Blue Surrounding You,” curated by Martha Kirszenbaum (also a long queue but worth it). Here, one is made deeply aware of our fragile environment and its global consequences. The images and music take the viewer on an enraptured, sometimes almost hallucinogenic, journey from Paris to Venice by sea.

The United States presents eight large beautifully crafted sculptures by Martin Puryear alluding to “Liberty.”  It is curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport.  At the entrance, “Swallowed Sun,” gives the impression of a black hole ready to engulf life itself. Using symbolic forms and objects, Puryear makes us consider the meaning of liberty, its duality, slavery and freedom, and questions the ways these exist in our lives.

Perhaps the most entertaining national pavilion is Brazil’s with its jaw-opening film “Swinguerra” by Barbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca. Curated by Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, the video accompanied by music that makes you want to jump up is about the dance genre in Recife where groups of as many as 100 performers practice weekly to compete in national competitions. The dedicated performers show great skill, stamina, agility and synchronization, performing moves one can hardly imagine. The film gives the viewer a glimpse of Brazilian culture and how dance plays an important role in self-expression, gender and identity.

China’s “Re” — (Rui) Wisdom — is a beautiful multimedia installation featuring the work of Chen Qi, Fei Jun, Geng Xue, and He Xiangyu. Curated by Wu Hongliang, the title refers to looking to the past to gain wisdom in the present.  Fei Jun’s film gives the feeling that China is ahead of its time and has far reaching tentacles. Chen Qi’s beautiful panoramic representation of the sea gives the feeling that the sea is not an obstacle but a highway. This national pavilion’s architectural design is perhaps the most elegant of all.

Art is an international language and our national thanks is due to all those responsible for bringing this about, the members of selection jury and its chairman Viriglio S. Almario of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and especially the Honorable Senator Loren Legarda for bringing us back into Venice’s prestigious international art competition.  

One can only hope that the Philippine government will consider acquiring our Philippine Pavilion artworks for a future contemporary art museum, which our country sorely needs.

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The 58th Venice Biennale is open daily except Mondays until Nov. 24.

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