60th Venice Biennale

Linnéa Bake embarked on a journey to Venice, joining the frantic rush that is the preview of the 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia.

Venice, bird’s eye view

My my
My most pollutable one:
I fantasise about entering your body
And setting up my nest up inside of you.

I’ll take flight!
I’ll fly towards you.
To you. You.
My wings whistling!
Faster than beauty, my wingbeats
Beauty can’t catch up with me.

My beak. Peck-peck. Peck. 
Yearning for your earlobe,
I’ll glide down to your shoulder,
Dig my beak into your earlobe. 
Soft. Chewy. Tasty.

What sounds like every Venice visitor’s worst nightmare (tourists’ and art dwellers’ alike) – being attacked by a swarm of those angry pigeons whose persistent presence may be one of the things the city is most known for – is a quote from Selin Davasse’s captivating performance titled Biting, which I attended during the preview days of this year’s edition of the Venice Biennale. In her performance, Anatolian-born, Berlin-based Davasse embodies various feminine beasts in gestural and vocal perfection, co-implicating animality, language, capital and foreign bodies to speculate on an ethics of hospitality: To whom does this city belong? Who is the invasive species here? Who performs for whom on this stage, and at what cost? In her playful and elegantly articulate singsong-speech, set on the sleek stainless-steel stage of the sound-laboratory-pavilion conceived by Luxembourg’s Andrea Mancini and the Every Island collective, she-pigeon Davasse establishes a permeable and unpredictable, sassy and definitely intimidating relationship between us, the spectators, and her, a plurivocal bestial stranger.

Foreigners everywhere
In adopting the perspectives of various alien, animal “others”, Selin Davasse’s performance resonated, not just as a mirror exposing my own status as one of millions of transitory passers-by that permeate and occupy this city every year (reportedly more than half the beds on the island of Venice are dedicated to tourists these days), but also as an unexpected reflection on the titular phrase of the 60th Venice Biennale, presented under the artistic direction of Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa. Borrowed from a 2005 series of neon works by Palermo-based collective Claire Fontaine and indeed setting the tone for the overall biennial, Foreigners Everywhere is the title of the Pedrosa-curated main exhibition in the Giardini and Arsenale. The neon signs, written in languages living, endangered and dead, have been installed in the entrances to the central pavilion in the Giardini and to the Arsenale, where the words are reflected in the mediaeval dock’s gloomy water, repurposing the phrase, often uttered in a xenophobic manner, to instead celebrate the multitude of voices that echo through the city. 

Adriano Pedrosa’s exhibitions reflect on the experience of being a foreigner, an outsider (to the art canon or otherwise), an “other” in some of its most literal senses: Addressing themes of colonisation, migration and diaspora, the central pavilion highlights artistic practices predominantly from the so-called Global South, largely featuring contemporary and historic artistic positions that have never been shown in the biennial before, giving (belated) recognition to Indigenous artists who have worked for decades at the margins of, or entirely overlooked by, the Western-centric art world. With a focus on the journey of European Modernism to the Global South, the exhibition spaces give an oftentimes rather panoramic view into the ways in which Western Modernism has been adopted, adapted and rejected. The painting- and textile-heavy show ranges from embroidery of daily life in a Chilean fishing village (Bordadoras de Isla Negra) to spectacular emulations of woven Māori birthing mats (Mataaho Collective, Golden Lion for best international participation); from a thematically complex installation centering the enduring colonial structures of US presence and domination through the lens of Puerto Rican experiences (Pablo Delano) to large-scale video projections tracing migratory journeys across maps of Europe and North Africa (Bouchra Khalili). While curated in rather classical gestures, encountering the exhibition indeed evoked the distinct feeling of being in a Modernist museum: Lina Bo Bardi’s iconic freestanding glass and concrete easels from the São Paulo Museum of Art (while I loved seeing them IRL for the first time) supported this feeling, as did the thematically and formally organised spaces, like the “abstraction section” accumulating the so-designated works in a dense panorama of colour and shape. In a pre-preview interview, Pedrosa, as the first Latin American curator to direct the Biennale, described feeling a huge sense of responsibility to curate the show “strategically”, and that’s what these exhibitions indeed feel like: While the main exhibition undoubtedly features countless exciting and deeply moving artistic contributions (some of them listed in my highlights below), sadly, it often risks framing them as part of a strategic selection. 

Indisputably, representation matters, and the Venice Biennale is arguably one of the most important sites of the art world to put this into practice. Both in regards to the main exhibition and the over 80 national pavilions’ contributions, it’s worth looking beyond the surface of the timely imperatives of “the first queer curator to…”, “the first Indigenous artist to…”, “the first migrant artist to…”; looking beyond the status of each one’s “foreignness”, to let beauty catch up

Oh hi, soft power
Ever-ingenious Cem A. aka Freeze Magazine posted a classic meme on Instagram during these days, surtitled “Why so quiet? What’s on your mind?”, centrally positioning in the empty void of a sketched out human head the question: “Why are there still national pavilions?” A relevant question. 

The country-by-country pavilion structure indeed goes back to the Venice Biennale’s very beginnings in 1895, consolidating the nation state as the organising unit in a very 19th-century-idea – a very colonial idea, that is – of the representation of a “world tour”. International biennials have since played their part in a discourse around the “soft” powers of cultural assets in supporting national political interests. The manifestation of ​soft power is not characterised by a country’s direct political imperatives, but rather it “rests on its resources of culture, values, and policies”, as Joseph Nye defines it in his seminal introduction to the concept. Following these terms, soft power reflects the “attraction” that a nation-state enjoys in relation to others; it is understood as the ability to affect others (most effectively when covertly), in order to achieve foreign policy ends – and contemporary art has traditionally been one of its most welcome exploitable and manageable resources. Back to Venice 2024, there is no lack of evidence for how a country’s politics might influence its performance on this stage of the art world: Russia lends its pavilion, set to remain empty for the second year in a row, to Bolivia, after striking a multimillion-dollar lithium deal with the South-American Plurinational State; Poland changes its Venice programming right after the country’s government turn from a right-wing populist to a centrist party: from paintings evoking nationalist imagery to the Ukrainian art collective Open Group that instead spotlights the experiences of Ukrainian refugees; and of course there is the matter of the closing of the Israeli pavilion, which the artist and the curators enforced, assumably very much against the interest of their national leaders, in what some called a media stunt on the day of the press preview; a day that was also marked by pro-Palestinian demonstrations echoing through the gardens. Soft power may be critically addressed as a form of political instrumentalisation of art, but it also offers pockets of reappropriation.

So, as one wanders through the Giardini, casually uttering phrases like “let’s meet in Egypt,” “is Serbia worth it?” or “Germany is really hard to get into,” let’s take a breath and consider the normalisation of the terminology and the reductiveness that the stubborn existence of national pavilions as an overall framework evokes in a place where one might least (want to) expect it – especially coupled with the title and theme of this year’s biennial, that decidedly seeks to position itself at odds with the nationalisms and exoticisms that continue to construct otherness through the means of national affiliation. Everyone is a foreigner somewhere, remember? 

So, what about the art?
You might ask. Under the circumstances of having spent the preview days in a frantic race, standing in line (the pre-public opening days are not as exclusive as you might think), skipping lines (sorry) and using the cigarette breaks between pavilions as an attempt to find a moment of reflection before jumping into the next one – I often felt like, forgive the rather unorthodox reference, South Park’s Cartman when he finally gets to go to the theme park Casa Bonita and rushes around trying to fit as many roller coaster rides as possible into the short and precious time of his stay – I rather reluctantly compiled an incomplete list of recommendations below, in three distinct and honest categories. Please enjoy, try to make sense of it, disagree, call me a disgrace for forgetting something, or suit yourself and see you soon in Venice (as you will note, I’ll obviously have to go back).

Things I saw and loved:

Lap-See Lam’s The Altersea Opera (Nordic Countries Pavilion, Giardini)
– Lam turned the Nordic pavilion into a sunken dragon-ship, inviting us into its underbelly in a visually and sonically captivating performance (with Kholod Hawash and Tze Yeung Ho) that masters storytelling, pop cultural and Cantonese opera references alike. A very welcome moment of dreaming away! 

Nebula (group show with video works by Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Saodat Ismailova, Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado, Diego Marcon, Basir Mahmood, Ari Benjamin Meyers & Christian Nyampeta), Fondazione In Between Art Film (Complesso dell’Ospedaletto, collateral event)

– This group show curated by Alessandro Rabottini and Leonardo Bigazzi, a collateral event housed in the spectacular architectural setting of an old hospital complex, not only convinced with its selection of remarkable video works (highlight: Saodat Ismailova!), the show also sets new standards of how moving image should be curated <3Andrea Mancini & Every Island’s A Comparative Dialogue Act (Luxembourg pavilion, Arsenale)

– Selin Davasse with her aforementioned performance (with sound by Alexander Iezzi) was first in a row of “residency” artists invited to activate this evolving and aesthetically so very pleasing pavilion project by the collective Every Island and artist/musician Andrea Mancini, curated by Joel Valabrega – keep watching out for this one!Louis Fratino (Central pavilion, Giardini)

– I was quite blown away by this young (born in 1993) painter’s presence in the central pavilion: The homoerotic imagery of Fratino’s paintings and drawings expresses the complexity of a queer experience and socialisation as “outsiders” in a way that stood out among the overcrowded rows of paintings, in itself a remarkable feat.Pakui Hardware & Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė’s Inflammation (Lithuania pavilion, Sant’Antonin church)

– An intriguing and delirious intergenerational dialogue between a site-specific installation by artist duo Pakui Hardware and modern figurative paintings by the late Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė curated by Valentinas Klimašauskas and João Laia. (Post)human bodies, disease, containment and permeability set in what felt like a sterile operating theatre, a post-socialist dystopian landscape, and a baroque dream all at once.

Things I saw in under 5 minutes and want to come back to:

Wael Shawky’s Drama 1882 (Egypt Pavilion, Giardini)
– A filmed rendition of an original musical play directed, choreographed, and composed by  Shawky, telling the story of Egypt’s nationalist Urabi revolution against imperial influence (1879-82), which I would have liked to delve into deeper.Guerreiro do Divino Amor’s Super Superior Civilizations (Switzerland Pavilion, Giardini)

– Brazilian-Swiss Guerreiro do Divino Amor stages a grand allegory of Switzerland, represented as a miraculous and super-fictional paradise on earth, messing with the national logic of celebratory self-representation through culture, which is a topic that interests me (as you may have gathered) and which I did not have enough time to wrap my head around. A visually overwhelming, queer and fun spectacle of immersion, which I loved for that reason itself.Karimah Ashadu’s film Machine Boys (main exhibition, Arsenale)

– I literally saw 2 minutes of this film, as the Arsenale closed its doors and kicked me out, and I want to go back! Karimah Ashadu portrays the now banned motorcycle taxis, colloquially known as okada, in the megacity of Lagos, relating the performance of masculinity to the vulnerability of a precarious class of workers.

Things I didn’t see which I hate having missed out on (this list is longer than I dare to admit)

Mounira Al Solh’s A Dance with her Myth (Lebanon pavilion, Arsenale)
– Al Solh’s installation featuring painting, drawing, sculpture, embroidery, and video revolves around the mythical tale of the abduction of Princess Europa. I’m sad to admit that I missed out on this. I’ll be back!Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, Ndidi Dike, Onyeka Igwe, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Abraham Oghobase, Precious Okoyomon, Yinka Shonibare & Fatimah Tuggar’s Nigeria Imaginary (Nigeria Pavilion, Palazzo Canal)

– I heard this is a great group show (and great group show pavilions are rare) celebrating different perspectives and constructed ideas, memories, nostalgias, and “colonial hangovers” in historical, contemporary and futuristic-dreamy terms. Coming back for this one!Michael Akstaller, Nicole L’Huillier, Robert Lippok & Jan St. Werner as part of Thresholds (German pavilion, La Certosa)

– While I saw the German pavilion (Yael Bartana and Ersan Mondtag) in the Giardini – a theatrical/sci-fi spectacle! – I missed out on the second location on the island of La Certosa. Next time!

Words Linnea Baké