At a press conference at the Italian Cultural Institute in London today, 8 March 2019, curator Ralph Rugoff outlined his plans for this year’s Venice Biennale. His exhibition, ‘May You Live In Interesting Times,’ will include ‘artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today’, while nevertheless acknowledging that ‘art does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics’. Emphasizing that the biennale does not have a theme per se, Rugoff instead stressed the ‘complex’ nature of the works in his presentation: art that is open to multiple readings, that can hold paradox and contradiction, rather than pushing a single message. Works, in short, that position themselves in opposition to the simplified, reductive narratives that have come to define contemporary news cycles and polarize political discourse.
Fake news, and the tools that art might present to undermine it, will also be the spectre haunting the show: the title itself first entered public discourse in a 1930s speech by the British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain – an ancient Chinese curse supposedly learned form a diplomat stationed in Asia. The curse is a fiction, but the phrase has been immortalized, Rugoff explained, by figures ranging from Albert Camus to Ted Kennedy to Hilary Clinton. (‘What can we do in times in which fake news has real effects?’)
While eschewing a theme, Rugoff has chosen to innovate with format, in effect presenting two separate exhibitions: ‘Proposition A’, which will occupy the city’s Arsenale and ‘Proposition B’, which will occupy the main pavilion in the Venice Giardini. Each exhibition has the same artist list, with different bodies of work presented in each space to emphasize the multifaceted nature of each artistic practice. (‘I’d like to think that there will be visitors – who don’t really like to read wall texts – that might go the two exhibitions and think they are seeing work by totally different artists.’)
The format is, in part, a comment on ‘divided social reality’: the cultural and intellectual silos of the social media echo chamber, and the way in which not only worldviews but the built environment are shaped by forms of ignoring or unseeing. (Rugoff cited as an influence The City and the City, 2009 – British sci-fi author China Miéville’s urban dystopia in which the co-existence of two enemy states in the same physical space is premised upon each side learning to ‘unsee’ the other.) The shows will also present work that deals with digital culture and VR worlds – parallel realities in another sense.
The exhibition will include 79 artists – as compared with 120 in Christine Macel’s biennale two years ago and 138 in Okwui Enwezor’s ‘All the World’s Futures’ in 2015. The majority of these are living and working – another point of difference to other recent iterations – in line with Rugoff’s ambition for the biennale to be a place of dialogue and exchange. Not noted in the press documents but remarked upon by Biennale President, Paolo Baratta, as a nod to 8 March being International Women’s Day, this will also be the first ever biennale exhibition in which 50% of the artists are female. The full artist list, which includes Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Ian Cheng, Jesse Darling and Otobong Nkanga, can be viewed here.