An Exhibition Minus the Art World: Ralph Rugoff’s Venice Biennale (2019)

An unpublished review of the 58th Venice Biennale

An Exhibition Minus the Art World: Ralph Rugoff’s Venice Biennale

The Venice Biennale is a brand—just like Prada, Gucci or Versace. Its challenge is to maintain elite status when every two years its artistic director changes. The event must remain fashionable … yet relevant. That’s the sticking point. However, the brand can be product-tested only once every other year, as the event itself, when the fashion mob, sorry, the art world, congregates to adjudicate both the national pavilions and the curator’s own exhibition staged between the Arsenale and the Giardini’s Central Pavilion. The late Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 Biennale was judged to be too political. In turn, Christine Macel’s 2017 outing was thought to be too humanist, too aesthetic, and ultimately not political enough. Could an antidote to the antidote be found in the middle, a middling that was not merely “interesting”? Ralph Rugoff’s May You Live in Interesting Times promised “both pleasure and critical thinking.”

Opinion was divided as to whether Rugoff delivered—exactly along the lines of his decision to split his exhibition into two “propositions,” one at each site, and sharing the same artists across both. Rugoff did succeed in delivering a very interesting exhibition, however it’s one that confounded the expectations and habits of the alighting-and-disappearing international art world. Hence the equivocation: with its equal mix of the same artists, the Arsenale was deemed good, the Giardini bad. Yet overall Rugoff produced not only a compelling exhibition but also a very good one, one attending to these troubled ecological and political times, one that advances curatorial thinking, too. But you had to be able to see it.

Rugoff offered no themes. He stated that art cannot be political, or rather that politics is not its domain. But in its complexity it “can serve as a kind of guide” for defying categories, marking boundaries, and enabling multiple perspectives. Without direction, then, the beginning of this exhibition can serve an allegory for what follows, starting with George Condo’s shimmering silver Double Elvis at the Arsenale. In a city of icons, this painting’s role was not transcendent (as if signaling an overarching theme manipulated by a god-like curator). Rather immanent, its two lowlife doppelgängers suggest two ways to enter the exhibition. Either option is distressing: past Soham Gupta’s nighttime photographic portraits of the vulnerable people of Kolkata, on one side; past Anthony Hernandez’s photographs of Rome’s abandoned, incomplete, or failed building projects on the other. Together these series bracket Christian Marclay’s 48 War Movies, a vertiginous, cacophonous mise-en-abyme of said number of war films bombarding the senses. Not political enough already, you ask?

You can’t have an artistic concept of “boundary” that is not political at the same time. Walls abound in the exhibition. Sometimes they are actual, such as the bullet-ridden one Teresa Margolles transported whole from Juárez, Mexico. Sometimes they are poetically transformed, as in Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s work where fluctuating images and ephemeral shouts flit between the two opposing walls of its installation, evoking the “acoustic leak” of the Golan Heights’ “shouting valley” that divides Palestinian families on the border between Syria and Israel. In-between states are not always liberating; ask any migrant. Many works register a persistent level of anxiety about these limbo states, which perhaps are rendered best at a remove in CGI worlds, such as literally those of Ed Atkins and Jon Rafman, with their comical yet unsettlingly trashing of non-descript—hence, unempathetic—human beings.

Closing off the opening gallery, a second set of icons—two enormous, striking photographic murals, fearless and theatrical self-portraits by South African Zanele Muholi—announce that, artist-forward as this exhibition is, it is Black forward, too. The presence of artists from Africa, its diaspora, and the United States is immediately felt here with paintings by Henry Taylor and Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and media work by Kahlil Joseph (his counter Black news channel BLKNWS), in addition to awesome, shackled monster truck tires by Arthur Jafa, and staged photographs by Stan Douglas, among others.

You have to admit that the exhibition design of the Arsenale is better than it ever has been. You are easily guided down the daunting 300-meter tunnel instead of anxiously ricocheting side-to-side fretting about missing works. Rugoff got top marks here; but at the Giardini Central Pavilion, itself posing very different problems, he was severely criticized. The installation was a “mish-mash,” a “jumble” of too-many “jam-packed” works disserving the artists. Indeed, one gets this impression, surprisingly, given that Rugoff’s decision to iterate artists in both pavilions led to a smaller selection: 79 versus 136 in 2015 and 120 in 2017. But that first impression evaporates, like the shimmering mists of Venice, once the three-day preview passes and the art crowd dissipates. Then the exhibition Rugoff wished to be experienced as a “slow response” reveals itself. It breathes. And the feeling emerges that not only two propositions here, there are two exhibitions: the first with the art crowd present, and the second when the exhibition phenomenalizes itself in its absence. Ironically, it’s the art world’s privilege—the three crowded preview days it commands—that prevented it from seeing the show Rugoff intended.

Not that Rugoff imagined an exhibition without people. But he imagined the experience of it differently. Even small things matter, as collector chatter worryingly confirmed, such as Rugoff’s decision to delete commercial gallery credit on wall labels in order provisionally to dissociate art from the market.

Rugoff’s two propositions are only the first measure of doing something differently. Ostensibly, they were to demonstrate that artists have multiple practices: for instance, Stan Douglas’s photographs in one, his two-channel video projection, Doppelgänger, in the other. It’s not just that Douglas’s counterfactual world is emblematic, in Rugoff’s mind, of the ways artists counter our world of fake news and “alternative facts.” It enacts, as well, the entanglement the exhibition performs. This language of “entanglement and porousness” (as stated on an intertitle to John Akomfrah’s film in the Ghana pavilion) was everywhere, evidence of the seeping influence of feminist new materialism on the art world. Indeed, Stan Douglas’s Black futurism and the dilemma of his female astronaut(s)—fatefully entwined with a doppelgänger across the two screens of his split projection—directly derive from quantum entanglement’s paradoxical correlation of pairs of particles across a distance. Such thought makes the exhibition ripe for radicality both between the works and within them as well.

Taking a page from Umberto Eco’s 1965 book The Open Work, Rugoff himself said of the exhibition’s artists “that everyone’s work had this fluidity and openness and multiple possible interpretations.” This was consequential both for the choice of work and the organization of the exhibition itself. But it is up to us to draw conclusions.

When it comes to art practice, work is no longer medium specific, but processual: for instance, the digital origins of Avery Singer’s paintings lie in 3D modeling software, whereas Andra Ursuța’s glass sculptures pass through various stages of 3D modeling and printing, then moulding and casting. It is now more a matter of what a medium does rather than what it represents. And if, in the end, painting and sculpture are still too reified forms and not fluid enough, we should look to how art forms take shape through their processing of data, as in Ryoji Ikeda’s monumental projection data-verse 1 or the self-generating, real-time system of Ian Cheng’s absurdist virtual life-form BOB (Bag of Beliefs).

When it comes to the exhibition, such notions as openness and fluidity fundamentally call into question our relation to artworks as individuated entities, as things that can be possessed, however we define this in terms of interpretation or investment, of meaning or money. Traditional concepts of artworks’ boundedness and self-coherent identity have to decay for them to be connected otherwise. I venture that it was Rugoff’s sometimes anti-denominational, so to speak, dispersion of works in the Central Pavilion that led to criticism. For instance, instead of presenting a phalanx of paintings, each artist to a wall, in one room Rugoff serially interspersed the works of George Condo, Julie Mehretu, and Henry Taylor, so that they variationally responded to and reinterpreted one another. Obviously, the proper name of the commodity form is difficult to dispel.

Of course, as spectators we are implicated, too, in this boundary dissolution—in terms not only of the loss of our own identity (the “folding in” of the word’s etymology), but also as responsible to the works’ content. If global warming and ecological disaster are leitmotifs running through this exhibition floating in a sinking city, fluidity and connectedness of necessity are implicative concepts. The exhibition cannot parenthetically close itself off from its site; work spills over metaphorically as in Hito Steryl’s immersive video environments that diffract the mirage Venice already is to absorb us in their multi-screened, technology-mediated futurology. These are messages in a bottle destined from the future that we read now.