top of page

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VENICE: BEHIND THE BIENNALE 2024

Pedrosa’s curation seems to suggest that the external application of our own internal concepts and abstractions of anthropology, ethnicity and nationality are, when examined, as foreign to ourselves as they are to others. Is it fetishistic? A little bit. Does it still treat Eurocentrism as the default? Bien sûr. Can we all pat ourselves on the back over our seven-euro affogatos for being such good and philosophically-minded international denizens? Certainly. But it’s precisely this lens that gives this year's event such a strong sense of critical self-awareness. writes Victoria Comstock-Kershaw.

Dana Awartani, Come, let me heal your wounds. Let me mend your broken bones, 2024. Image courtesy of Marco Zorzanello


Earlier this month, Anish Kapoor slammed Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa’s title for this year's Venice Biennale: Foreigners Everywhere. “I live in Venice and see signs all over the city saying Foreigners Everywhere. Despite the, no doubt, good intentions of Adriano Pedrosa to subvert the language of racist fear and hate, these words in fact echo the language of nationalist neo-fascism.” Similarly, waves of well-meaning dilettantes have carefully wagged their fingers at the unwashed masses for their contribution to the city sinking due to climate change (from the comfort of their private jets and gondoliers, natürlich).


There are plenty of things to simultaneously fear and loathe about the Biennale: the social and philosophical hypocrisy, the blatant lack of critical thinking, the axiomatic levels of money laundering, the lack of smoking areas. It is, in many ways, the very worst of what the art world can offer. However, it is also the very best.


Unlike Kapoor, who apparently doesn’t understand the second degré, my original objection to Pedrosa’s title came from his conflation of immigrant and queer experiences. Coming from London, where the oversaturated majority of press releases now obligatorily include something about the artists sexuality and/or ethnic origins, I worried that this would be another Whitney Biennial-esque attempt at uplifting marginalised voices for clout and perceived progressiveness rather than for authentic engagement or interest with their works. But, as pointed out by Ben Davies, “centering the marginalised” – the promotion and furtherance of art made by those considered outside of society (although, one could argue, gays and foreigners have been making the best and most celebrated art since the Romans decided what a ‘foreigner’ was) - is now the primary language of contemporary institutional authority.  Foreigners Everywhere simultaneously embraces and satirises this shift while espousing the fundamentals of what any good art show should be about: reflection.


Archie Moore, kith and kin, 2024. Image courtesy of Andrea Rossetii.


In an interview with artnet’s podcast The Art Angle, Pedrosa explains how during a conversation about an upcoming show with an unnamed curator (my money’s on Chrissie Iles/Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz trio regarding the Whitney’s Even Better Than the Real Thing subtitle) he found himself asking, “but are there any artists that won’t fit the theme?”. The difficulties behind picking an exhibition theme that simultaneously provides parameters for its participants while also avoiding sounding like it's straight from Rebecca Uchill’s Random Exhibition Title Generator (I got To Find the Properties of Relevance: The Video Art of Social Practice, which might as well be the next Bermondsey Project Space show) have been well documented. Pedrosa’s choice ultimately implies that we are all foreigners, in some way or another, and it’s this subtle but delightful discovery that propels an exhibition underlined by the sort of feelings and confrontations that any contemporary art institution worth their salt should strive to achieve.


Too often do art shows pretend they are going to change (or even save) the world: the Biennale fully embraces its role as an arbitrator of internal reflection rather than external action. The juxtaposition between these deliberate interior contemplations and Venice’s own historiographic exterior (a city of foreigners in its own right, founded in the fifth century by Venti refugees fleeing Vandal invaders) provides for some really tasty experiences. By nature, the Biennale relies (both conceptually and architecturally) on the same sort of Hobbean categorisations that define the very boundaries of societal and international interaction that many of its artists are engaging with. But, unlike some institutions (sorry, I’ll stop bitching about the Whitney now), there is no illusion of solution, no vague presentation of some grand master plan that will resolve the very framework from which the artworks are functioning. The artworks are firmly focused inwards, and it’s glorious.


What surprised me truly and genuinely was how intensely my own nationalist conceptions influenced my view of the art. It is not an element that (consciously, insofar as we can be) plays a part in my assessment of works in any other context; I have never stood at the Saatchi and pondered the extent to which my thoughts about the entire population of Canada affect my estimation of a Burtynsky. This year’s Biennale and its theme re-conceptualises how we approach notions of countryship and belonging by placing the innately jingoistic nature of the fair at the forefront of both its artists and its audiences mind. This is far from a bad thing, and again I must commend Pedrosa on his choice of title; it adds a certain discomforting meta-flair when you are trying to work out if you only enjoy an artwork because because you once dated a particularly dishy snowboarder from its pavilions’ country (grüezi, Switzerland!). Am I a foreigner to my own sensibilities? A visitor to the culture of my own opinions, a tourist who may only ever grasp the surface of my interpretations of art? 



Pedrosa’s curation seems to suggest that the answer doesn’t really matter; that the external application of our own internal concepts and abstractions of anthropology, ethnicity and nationality are, when examined, as foreign to ourselves as they are to others. Is it fetishistic? A little bit. Does it continue to treat Eurocentrism as default? Bien sûr. Can we all pat ourselves on the back over our seven-euro affogatos for being such good and philosophically-minded international denizens? Certainly. But it’s precisely this lens that gives the event such a strong sense of critical self-awareness.


From left to Installation view of the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “Foreigners Everywhere,” 2024. Image courtesy of Marco Zorzanello. Miles Greenberg, Sebastian, 2024, performed at Neue Nationalgalerie. Photo courtesy of Viðar Logi.


Perhaps this is strongest in the Biennale's selection and curation of queer works. I am usually wary of any institution that uses the term ‘queer’ as a catch-all (as opposed to simply gay or transgender, as it generally implies the aforementioned desire to simply appear rather than be progressive without giving ample space for the respective individual/collective experience to be appreciated, but it’s a genuinely appropriate term here, especially considering the heavy etymological history of the word (well, there were no lesbian artworks, but what else is new?). Miles Greenberg re-imagines the plight of Saint Sebastian in his marvllous eight-hour performance Sebastian, centering motifs of the Othellean blackamoors. Louis Fratino, an emerging American artist whose work centres on portrayals of gay male intimacy and domestic life, are juxtaposed with works by late Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar, renowned for his exploration of homosexual themes in his artwork.


In another part of the Giardini, visitors encounter Dean Sameshima's recent black-and-white photographs capturing Berlin's gay porn theatres, placed opposite monochrome images clandestinely captured by Miguel Ángel Rojas at a Bogotá cinema that served as a gay cruising venue during the 1970s. Puppies Puppies’s Thursday performance piece, in which she lay naked beneath a skeleton outside the entrance to the Giardini, simultaneously homages and re-contextualises Marina Abromovíc and Ana Mendiata’s works in the contact of trans womanhood. The joy of her Friday performance, a lip sync to traditional drag numbers including Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun, is destabilised by the fact that her glowing dress is emblazoned with the references to Pulse, the gay nightclub shot up Florida in 2016. She is angry and frightened, certainly, but she is also so, so exhausted.


Jade Guanaro Kuriki-Oliv, performance at Venice Biennale 2024. Video courtesy of artist.


This dichotomous poignancy - something that isn’t quite fear, isn’t quite loathing - is an undercurrent to the entire exhibition. It’s most present in spaces like Christoph Büchel's show at the Fondazione Prada. Reminiscent of the the Churchill War Rooms in London, Büchel leads his audience through a subterranean maze filled with discarded boots and shoes, live feeds of Jerusalem and Gaza, CCTV footage feeding in from Kyiv, Dnipro and other Ukrainian cities, stripper poles and boxes of condoms, unused bombs, references throughout to the Barca Nostra, the ship carrying a thousand migrants between Libya and Lampedusa that sunk in 2015. There is an almost anarchist hatred for government and its tendency for world-ending throughout the entire show, from Finland’s Open Group (a Ukrainian collective) installation Repeat After Me II (2024) to Killing Architect’s Investigating Xinjiang’s Network of Detention Camps (2024) at the The Laboratory of the Future to the Dutch pavilion’s Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2008). Yet, counterbalancing all this is a tender fear, an almost whispered: what if it's not all okay? what if they really do it this time? what if they do it again?, as seen in Pakui Hardware’s Inflammation (2023) at the Czech Pavilion or The International Celebration of Blasphemy and the Sacred’s Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (2024). 



From left to right: Buchel's live feed of Gaza, image courtesy of Artnews, Open Group, Repeat After Me, 2022, Image courtesy of Bartosz Górka and Emilia Lipa.


It’s no coincidence that artworks like this have coincided with the release of post-apocalyptic shows like Amazon’s Fallout and, more poignantly, the rising tensions between nuke-weidling countries in the Middle East (it’s telling that the vast majority of Arab pavilions, like the UAE’s Abdullah Al Saadi: Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia and Lebanon’s Mounira Al Solh: A Dance with her Myth, are so fiercely grounded in earthly, naturalistic expressions of their country). These groundings serve as a counterbalance to the ethereal and dystopian themes prevalent in most post-apocalyptic narratives, offering a testament to the resilience of cultural identity and folklore and oral tradition. Will our own stories live on beyond the bombs too?


From left to right: Mounira Al Solh: A Dance with her Myth. Image courtesy of Federico Vespignani. Abdullah Al Saadi. Stone Slippers (Al Zannoba), 2013. Image courtesy of artist.


A core but oft-forgotten fact of contemporary art is that, ever since the cultural dissolution of pre-war art institutions, there has been no objective way of judging art as being good or bad in Western society: the evaluation, therefore, relies solely on the sensibilities of the audience. This autonomy is constantly being wrenched out of the viewers hands by public institutions in the form of prosaic press releases, obtuse gallery placards and irritatingly insipid interviews (see Arthur Jafa’s promotional interview with David Zwirner for his exhibit at 52 Walker, in which he proudly claims that he’s “not trying to say anything”). We will tell you what to think, they decide. The Biennale snatches this ability to decide if art is worthwhile firmly back from the dealers and marketers and art-speakers hands and returns it, resolutely, into those of the everyday audience. In an age marked by conflicts of a thousand differing threads, it’s no surprise that the theme of feeling foreign everywhere is the one that allows this to happen the most naturally. Ultimately, it’s as an adjudicator of introspection that this year’s Biennale flourishes and captures: the fear we feel as citizens just as conflicted by our feelings for our own country's fate as we are by others, and the loathing of the space in between.


 

Victoria Comstock-Kershaw is a is a London-based critic and contemporary arts writer.

Comments


bottom of page