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By Erika Balsom
I wouldn’t wish living in times like these on anyone. This, of course, is the irony of the title of Ralph Rugoff’s exhibition for this year’s Venice Biennale, “May You Live in Interesting Times.” On the surface, the phrase reads as a blessing; actually, it is a curse. Add to this the fact that this supposed “Chinese saying” is nothing of the kind, and you wind up with a double falseness conveyed in only six words. Ironic bemusement feels like the most useless and inappropriate of sensibilities today, yet here we are.
Last time around, Christine Macel’s “Viva Arte Viva” was widely panned for its spurious humanism, retrograde conception of art, and whiteness. Rugoff, director of London’s Hayward Gallery since 2006, has taken a very different path, but the results remain meretricious nonetheless. Strewn throughout the Arsenale and the central pavilion of the Giardini are relentless evocations of our wrecked present: mass death, climate change, war, social marginalization, artificial intelligence. The 79 artists, all of them living and virtually all of them sanctioned by the commercial market, get two chances, presenting different work in each of the two venues. Rugoff may have spurned the heavy reliance on dead artists and archives in Adam Szymczyk’s documenta 14, but in this mirrored structure he recalls that exhibition’s Athens/Kassel split. While this doubling has the virtue of a smaller selection of artists, it puts pressure on them to show twice as much work, which perhaps explains the stronger-than-usual presence of pieces already seen in prominent venues elsewhere.
Through it all—true to Rugoff’s title and to the detriment of many of the participants—a mood of glib irreverence prevails. At times, this troubling insouciance is discernible in specific works, whether Jon Rafman’s ghoulish CGI animations or Alex Da Corte’s pop forays into the iconography of American entertainment and consumerism. The Arsenale docks host the remnants of a boat that sank off Lampedusa, killing hundreds of migrants, now transmuted into an artwork by Christoph Büchel entitled Barca Nostra. The “sculpture” is immediately next to the outdoor café, as if to issue an invitation: while the world burns, have a Spritz. Are we supposed to feel good about ourselves for feeling bad? Or bad about ourselves for not feeling worse? Take selfies and not care at all? Either way, the obscene provocation is laced with cynicism.
Often, though, the sense of flippancy that pervades “May You Live in Interesting Times” is the result of curatorial manoeuvres more than individual practices, which are sometimes strong. Much of the exhibition, particularly in the Arsenale’s “proposition A,” is a hodgepodge that seems to abide by no organizational principle save for perhaps a mimicry of the random juxtapositions that occur when scrolling through a social media feed. The effect is a feeling of vast levelling, a generalized triviality, as if the exhibition’s design could not but mirror the worst aspects of the contemporary condition it purports to diagnose. When constellations of meaning do form between adjacent works, it is not necessarily better. In the largest room of the Giardini’s “proposition B,” Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s spectacular robotic arm Can’t Help Myself (2016) mops up a blood-like substance, flanked by Christian Marclay’s woodcuts of screaming manga characters and Teresa Margolles’ Muro Ciudad Juárez (2010), a wall of concrete blocks from a school, once the site of violence, now transported into the gallery for aesthetic contemplation in an echo of Büchel’s boat. One-note techno-sensationalism meets the gross frisson of being proximate to a material remnant of carnage in a mise en scène of the heaviest hand.
And screens are everywhere. Screens, but not cinema. With some exceptions, such as Haris Epaminonda’s 8mm-to-video Chimera and Stan Douglas’ stilted Doppelgänger, the material of film and the cultural forms associated with cinema are largely absent from the exhibition. There are no clattering 16mm projectors and little long-form work. The inclusion of Douglas’ two-screen tale of quantum teleportation seems a matter of content rather than form, as the work ties in with a concern for space travel running through adjacent rooms. Near the entrance to the Arsenale, Marclay’s 48 War Movies (2018) announces from close to the start what cinema has become in the new image regime: compiled, compressed, reformatted, unwatchable. Four dozen films play simultaneously, soundtracks included, tiled one on top of the other in flat cacophony.
The moving image as it appears in “May You Live in Interesting Times” is digital and transportable, malleable and calculable. Many of the moving-image works included in the exhibition make use of CGI (Ed Atkins, Ian Cheng) or images repurposed from the internet (Neïl Beloufa, Khalil Joseph, Frida Orupabo), while two use holograms (Antoine Catala and Cyprien Gaillard). Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster jumped on the VR bandwagon with Endodrome, an interactive abstract visualization that is absolutely not worth waiting in line for, or spending the time to watch even if there is no line. In This Is the Future, Hito Steyerl uses neural networks to generate morphing images of rich colour; a voiceover narrative reflecting on ecology and the predictability of the future partially mitigates the trendy gimmickry of AI by thematizing the use of machine learning at the level of content.
Faced with the array of new technologies found in Rugoff’s exhibition, it is hard to believe that only seven years ago Claire Bishop suggested—and not without cause, despite some anger from the new-media art community—that “the appearance and content of contemporary art have been curiously unresponsive to the total upheaval in our labor and leisure inaugurated by the digital revolution.” Times have changed. While some of this work is compelling, Rugoff’s exclusion of the kind of indirect engagements with the digital that Bishop detailed—the fascination with old media, archives, and processes of selection and aggregation—is striking, particularly since it occurs in tandem with an abandonment of any project devoted to a critique of the languages and logics of mass media, innovation, and technophilia that dominate our culture. Affirmation and novelty are the order of the day.
That said, the relative absence of more properly cinematic works in this exhibition should not necessarily be understood as a flaw. Durational moving-image works often fare poorly in large-scale exhibitions, which put too many demands on visitors’ time and attention for them to be encountered properly, especially when there can be hundreds of hours of work on display. To his credit, Rugoff avoided this problem, programming works appropriate for his context. At times, the reception conditions for moving-image works were in fact better than those of more traditional artistic mediums precisely because their mode of presentation—i.e., in darkness and with seating—separated them somewhat from the onslaught of the rest of the exhibition. Steyerl’s This Is the Future, for instance, was situated inside an elaborate architecture evoking Venetian methods for coping with the acqua alta and made highly effective use of translucency and multiple screens. In an inversion of the exhibition title’s sly maleficence, here curse becomes blessing, as video’s uneasy position within the gallery leads to its sequestration, with the viewer free to experience the work without distraction, walled off from the visual din.
Once within the black box housing Arthur Jafa’s Golden Lion-winning video The White Album, I quickly and happily forgot about what was outside. Departing from the virtuosic montage of Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016), here Jafa turns to a more patient aesthetic of compilation, often allowing footage appropriated from the internet to play out at length. The White Album explores the place of whiteness in American culture, manifesting anger, love, and humour with a sincerity distinctly at odds with Rugoff’s propositions. Jafa moves between the violence of white supremacy and his evident affection for particular white people, with the dividing line between the two not always clear. Among to-camera monologues, dance sequences, HD portraits of white people from Jafa’s life, and various other images are excerpts from Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time (2017). This citation may have to do with little else than Jafa’s desire to use a song from the Good Time soundtrack, Iggy Pop’s “The Pure and the Damned.” Yet the presence of a film that left critics debating whether its representation of white privilege was self-critical or not is notable given the extent to which The White Album carefully stages problems of intention and interpretation. In a time of dogma, Jafa lives in nuance. He shows how people remain complicit in white supremacy while in no way identifying as racist, and leaves many of his images open to multiple readings. This is true even in relation to his tender portraits: they may appear to be images of loved ones, and perhaps they are, but crucially these are also business relationships, with Jafa filming his gallerist, Gavin Brown, and members of Brown’s staff. Alongside their palpable care and intimacy, viewed within the larger context of the work, these images resonate as part of a longer history of white managers profiting from black talent and the white art world gentrifying black neighbourhoods. (Since 2015, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise has been located in Harlem, and Brown was a co-founder of 356 Mission, the subject of anti-gentrification protests in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.)
Cyprien Gaillard’s Ocean II Ocean also benefits from isolation. This modest 12-minute looped video, shown on a flat-screen monitor, could easily be missed, situated as it is on its own inside a small tower in the Giardino delle Vergini, at the edges of the Arsenale grounds. Contrary to the polished beauty of Gaillard’s 3D work Nightlife (2015), Ocean II Ocean is wonderfully scrappy and small. Like Jafa, but to markedly different effect, Gaillard adopts a collage aesthetic that combines low-definition footage with HD clarity. New York City subway cars are tossed in the ocean, destined to become an artificial coral reef; fossilized remains of submarine creatures are found within the marble interiors of subway stations in the former Soviet Union. Together, they evoke persistence and petrification, and speak to the radical transformations that occur over planetary time. Gaillard fixates on the figure of the spiral, suggesting at once an eternal return and an abyssal descent. Rot and ruin affect ideology and infrastructure alike. In the Giardini, Gaillard displayed a hologram based on Max Ernst’s tortured Fireside Angel, a painterly cry against rising fascism. Ocean II Ocean is oblique by contrast, but shares a deep sense of dread at the collapse of political community.
Beyond “May You Live in Interesting Times,” the national pavilions displayed more video than any edition in recent memory. In the first-ever Ghana pavilion, John Akomfrah continued to mine the vein of his recent work exploring the intersection of ecology and colonialism with Four Nocturnes, a three-screen film of immense production value. As in Vertigo Sea (2015), spectacular natural beauty collides with histories of extraction and violence, this time situated on land rather than in the pelagic deep. Laure Prouvost produced a questionable fiction film for France, riffing on a literal interpretation of Donna Haraway’s idea of tentacular thinking. Prouvost imagines her multi-ethnic cast’s passage across European borders as a whimsical journey—a very different travel narrative than that suggested by contemporary humanitarian urgencies.
Thankfully, there were some excellent works, mostly found beyond the main venues. Lithuania’s Golden Lion-winning Sea & Sun (Marina), a collaboration between filmmaker Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė (Acid Forest, 2018), Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė, is billed as an opera about climate change, but this subject du jour in fact features somewhat less centrally than this description would suggest. Viewed from above, the performance stages a fascinating tension between the scripted and the unscripted, complete with sunburned flesh and a sassy Papillon with a barky aversion to small children. References to ecological catastrophe surface only periodically, peeking through the banalities of a day at the beach, slowing accumulating into a growing unease that culminates in a song in which two adolescent sisters imagine 3D printing as a way of repopulating a world emptied of animals and corals.
For Scotland, Charlotte Prodger delivered the final instalment in a trilogy of films begun with Stoneymollan Trail (2015) and her Turner Prize-winning BRIDGIT (2016). SaF05 is named after a maned lioness, a rare creature in Botswana that adopts typically male marking behaviours and sometimes mounts other females. For Prodger, the pursuit of this animal becomes a vehicle for exploring queer desire, (in)visibility, and the body’s relationships to space and technology. Shown at scheduled screening times in pristine projection conditions, SaF05 is significantly grander in scale and ambition than the artist’s previous films, while retaining, and even intensifying, the intimate heat that makes her work so engaging and seductive. In voiceover, Prodger offers vignettes of a personal history: praying to wake up as a boy, joining and leaving a Christian youth fellowship, sex, bereavement, a friend accidentally landing on an explicit photograph while looking at her phone. Those who appear in these narrative fragments are given names after the format of SaF05, such as BaF89, preserving a measure of anonymity. Prodger, too, evades capture in some sense, for despite the force of her presence on the soundtrack she remains mostly outside the frame, with traces of her body registering only through the closely held camera’s motion or as her feet jut into the image.
Moving across landscapes in Botswana, Greece, Scotland, and the US, SaF05 assembles an inventory of different forms of camera movement, including drone shots—a current favourite of many artists. Where some embrace drone cinematography without much reflection on what is at stake in this particular mode of visuality—detachment, mastery, militarism—true to the sophisticated investigation of picture-making that runs throughout her practice, Prodger makes the specificity of drone imaging a central part of SaF05. Her whispered instructions to the operator are audible, while the drone’s drone is taken up as a sonic motif that mutates across the soundtrack, to be voiced by bagpipes and saxophones. Joining the making of images to the making of the self, SaF05 concludes with the lioness still unseen; frustrating the panoptic gaze from above, she is an absent anchor, a powerful site of fantasy untamed by the real.
While Prodger subtly crafts a queer parable of escape, in the Palazzo delle Prigioni, once a prison that housed the libertine Giacomo Casanova, Shu Lea Cheang turns to the capture of queerness in the past and present. Her multi-screen installation 3x3x6, co-written with the pavilion’s curator Paul Preciado and presented by Taiwan, offers the critical engagement with new technologies sorely missing in the main exhibition while retaining a playful and punkish verve. Working with a cast of exceptional performers and adopting a variety of formats, from the talk show to the music video, Cheang dramatizes ten cases of individuals subject to imprisonment for reasons related to gender and/or sexuality, from the Marquis de Sade to a German cannibal, from Michel Foucault to three Zimbabwean women arrested for raping men and selling their semen. As in SaF05, they are identified by code names: MW X, 00 X.
The viewer’s own body is not exempt from the grids of control Cheang interrogates: seeing the exhibition entails entering a surveillance system registering 3D scans of visitors’ faces. A searchlight prowls across the darkened space. A circular array of flat screens shows how technical apparatuses like body scanners transform the qualitative movement of fleshy embodiment into quantitative points and lines, using algorithms that rely on normative ideas of corporeality to track and administer human life. The genderless, computer-generated avatars found in Jon Rafman’s Disasters Under the Sun appear here too, but rather than indulge in Rafman’s synthetic visions of torture and industrialized death, happily shorn from any connection to the vulnerabilities and pleasures of actual bodies, Cheang illuminates the role of digital technologies in administering reality, underlining their status as a new terrain of struggle and resistance. While evidence of domination is everywhere throughout 3x3x6, the wide historical frame of the project suggests resilience and survival as well. Contra Rugoff, perhaps our times are no more “interesting” than those gone by. History might have more to teach us than staring blindly into the blizzard of the present, cut by the bleeding edge of the new.