May You Live in Interesting Times – Venice Biennale 2019

In order to explore the work of contemporary artists, curation, to better understand the current mulitiplicity of visions and voices and to consider my place and development in this context; I attended Venice Biennale in May.

This was like the ultimate contemporary art experience of current creative thought and processes. I was determined to immerse myself in it in order to consider the works that had an impact on me and held meaning and influence and the threads connecting these .The lens through which I chose to reflect is taken from Gilda Wilson’s book How to Write about Contemporary Art.

It is composed of three reflective questions:

“What is it?

What might it mean?

What might this add to your thinking or the world at large?

(section 3:1)

Barca Nostra, Installation. Buchel, C. Venice Biennale:2019.

Barca Nostra, 2018-2019 : a collaboration between the Italian government and artist Christoph Buchel . This is a fishing boat that tragically sunk in the Sicilian channel in April, 2015 with hundreds of migrants on board, the wreck of which was raised and exhibited without signage at the Biennale Arsenale in order to provoke thoughts and questions.

In the Biennale Arte 2019 Short Guide it was described as “ A collective monument and memorial to contemporary migration, is not only dedicated to the victims and the people involved in its recovery, but also represents the collective policies and politics that create these kinds of disasters.” – (N.M. 2019, p.60)
It’s looming presence and sense of sadness and horror struck me in the stomach. Like the painting at the Louvre: The Wreck of the Medusa ( Shipwreck, Gericault ,T. 1818-1819) it has caused considerable controversy. Is it Art or sensationalism? Shameful capitalism , a trojan horse or simply a monumant to a tragedy at sea?

However there was no demarcation of what this was and as it was situated on the side of the Arsenale near the sea channel it could have been mistaken as simply a wreck or meant that if you did not have prior knowledge, you may well walk past it as many did on the way to the cafe. Was it then succesful at provoking thought or questions? Having experienced this in person, I felt prior knowledge or some kind of knowledge of the ship’s aweful history was needed to fully understand and feel the impact of the wreck, the loss of life and the legislation that makes this sadly possible. It made the context or lack of context and it’s narrative an issue or dilemma.

Image result for Jill Mulleady this connection is not private
This Connection Is Not Private, Oil on Linen. Mulleady, J. Venice Biennale:2019.

The Swiss-Uruguayan artist Jill Mulleady exhibited a series of paintings called This Connection is not Private.(2019) in oil on linen.Inspired by historic works of Munch,the paintings were figurative yet shared a landscape, imaginative in the landscape setting and yet the figures were contemporary, everyday folk occupied by a personal moment such as having a smoke.

This could mean a moment of shared intimacy and the darkness of human contact combined with the narcotics contrasted with the landscape. I Imagined it with a wall in the background and then realised the sweeping landscape juxtapostioned with the figures in the foreground gave it a different context: Dark and furtive reality set in an expansive land and seascape where the boundaries meet.

This led me to consider edges, the liminal spaces in air, sea, land and points in time. Liminal could be a point or place of transition or a threshold.

Of all the pavilions in the Giardini the Nordic Countries (Finland – Norway – Sweden) held the most impact for me.Weather Report: Forecasting Future highlighted the interspecies dynamic we share and the threat of mass extinction. In fact the current climate crisis and dystopian view was echoed in other pavilians such as the film ‘Heirloom’ in the Danish pavilion.

Weather Report: Forecasting Future

The States of Inflamation, Installation. Graff, A. Venice Biennale: 2019

In the article ‘Ane Graff goes to Venice”, Ane Graff states:

“I focus on human and non-human relationships; viewing human beings as part of an expansive, material network, stretching inside and outside of our bodies.”

I found the connection between the elements chronicling our decline extremely poignant. A pathos to our situation. The beauty and delicacy of the cabinet contrasting with the reality of change we are driving as a species. The connections between human economic growth and the destruction of the environment both internal (microbes) and external. The whole experience was highlighting the interconnectedness of all life . My thoughts were developing along these threads.

Shilpa Gupta

Image result for shilpa gupta venice biennale
For in your tongue, I cannot fit. Installation. Gupta, S. Venice Biennale: 2019.

Shilpa Gupta’s sound installation in the Arsenale For in your tongue , I cannot fit (2017-2018) appeared to be a half-lit poetry garden which on closer inspection was filled with the voices and work of 100 poets spanning 13 centuries who had been imprisoned  for a range of reasons. The poetry was speared on spikes and the hanging microphones were reverse wired to act as speakers so that when I walked amongst them the voices and poems sounded as I passed by. They were in several languages, some in English, so I understood and others in Arabic, Azeri, Hindi and Russian, so I listened to the intonation of the voices.

Of all the works at the biennale this had the greatest impact. It was altogether magical, strange and at times poignant walking amongst the poetry fragments. The experience of it was greater than the sum of its parts. It managed to be both expansive over time and yet it had deeply personal and almost ephemeral looking sheets of spiked poetry paper.

The elements of time and the delicacy and power of the paper and word were elements that I wanted to develop in my own practice and thought. This whole experience had made me question my concepts, my practice, my direction. It was like an unravelling and at the same time a kind of distilling of ideas.


The experience led me to consider the place of painting in contemporary art as most exhibits here were film or installation. It seemed like painters were perhaps the outsiders. Elements of curation, artistic creation and the distictive conveyance of ideas led me to develop ideas of working with collections and curators around the key themes of time, perception, and to further explore mysticism, symbolism and interconnectedness.

Wilson , G. (2014). How to Write about Contemporary Art [kindle]. London:  Thames and Hudson. (Section3: 1).

Margutti, F& M,N. (2019). May You Live In Interesting Times. 1st ed. Venice: La Biennale di Venezia 2019.

Graff, A. (2019). Ane Graff goes to Venice – Oslo National Academy of the Arts. [online] Khio.no. Available at: http://www.khio.no/en/about/news/ane-graff-dreg-til-venezia [Accessed 17 Jul. 2019].

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