From Doll Asylums to Anthropic Machines: how the 58th Venice Biennale embodies contemporary turmoil

So folks, I study Fine Art – it comes as a surprise to many I’m sure that I’m an arts student. Either way, I was a very excited art student on the morning I set out on the train from Mestre to Venice to see what my tutor had promised would be “world class art”. Wearing my edgiest urban outfitters skirt, equipped with an alternative canvas bag – one I’d bought from an exhibition in Berlin a few years ago – carrying my moleskin sketchbook and my DSLR wrapped round my neck, I was sure to blend into the flock of haute culture. I anticipated creative genius and although like others, I believe the themes of the work were very much preaching to the choir, the visual quality and breadth of the work was mind blowing. I wanted to mull over some of the work so I’ve used this page to explore in depth some of the highlights.

Before I progress I have to hand a word of caution to anyone visiting the Biennale: don’t go on a Monday! Having visited Venice before, I must admit I wasn’t looking forward to the tourist activities my boyfriend had on our agenda for the rest of the day nor was I looking forward to the lactose overdose which awaited me in the overpriced Italian restaurants; alas, that was going to be my whole day, we had forgotten to check opening times and learnt the hard way that the Biennale venues shut on Mondays…oops! Some more tips:

  • Wear comfortable shoes – you’ll be walking a lot!
  • Don’t bother buying tickets in advanced, I found this too complicated whilst travelling and the queues are so short it’s to worth it.
  • Make sure you’re there for at least 3 days to fully appreciate the free exhibitions around the city (which in my opinion were unmissable and in some ways more enjoyable than the Giardini della Biennale itself.
  • Go with someone who really loves their art. There’s nothing better than bonding over pretentious attempts at art commentating.
  • If you milk the art stereo type of being vegan (lactose intolerant) like me, bring a packed lunch(hope you can excuse my poor pun).

The first question I have for you is have you ever heard the phrase used as the Biennale’s central theme,  “May You Live in Interesting Times”? Well, I hadn’t before I did my research. The expression is purported to be an English of a traditional Cheese curse which has layers of meaning. Although it appears to be a blessing, the expression is usually placed in an ironic context, with the implication that you should encounter conflict and disorder in order for your life to be deemed ‘interesting’, indicating that ‘uninteresting’ equates peace and tranquillity. As pointed out by Susan Mansfield, despite its frequent quotation and use, “the whole curse idea is an urban myth, a shaggy dog story, fake news”(1). The curator of the Biennale, Ralph Rugoff – also curator of London’s Hayward Gallery – chose this title aptly to encompass how the chaotic nature of contemporary life is multi-faceted, multi-layered and often more complex than originally appears. The art selected by the 89 national participants displays the turmoil, uncertainty and crisis which unfolds day by day in these ‘interesting times’.


Mondo Cane.

Upon entering the Giardini Della Biennale, the liberal temple of visual content echoed the distant hum of video installations and chatter from every language. I did’t know anything about the history of the event at the time so it completely blew my mind that there should be an entire building for each country present! Belgium was first pavilion we entered and I must admit was one of the best. Titled Mondo Cane, you are greeted with a museum of local folkloric doll figures, modelled on both fictive characters that have appeared in the work of Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys and on real people. The 20 uncanny inhabitants are automated dolls that continuously repeat the same movements and appear to be stuck in the formal activity assigned to them. The space is animated with songs, plaintive cries and labour, producing an eery and uncomfortable viewing experience.

The project is divided into two parts: in the centre there are artisans – a professional cobbler, stonemason, spinner and many more – sectioned off from the prison cells in which louts, zombies, poets, psychotics, the insane and other marginalised individuals reside. Each group appears to operate with complete ignorance of the other, perhaps a commentary on the polarisation of contemporary society. What makes the figures even more intriguing is the publication which accompanies it, reading of the individuals’ narratives. We find out that the …. A demonstration of just how multi-faceted individuals are and of how tradition is often erected as a refuge for people with sometimes dangerous implications. The publication ‘Mondo Cane’ is a compilation of articles reporting various facts and events about the world that surrounds us. Each article comprises a descriptive text and one or more illustrations. There is also a bizarre website visitors are encouraged to browse.


Field Hospital X.

The Belgium asylum-like layout created a clinical environment similar to that of the pseudo-health clinic, Field Hospital X, in the Israeli Pavilion. When I walked past, initially thought they had a walk-in medical centre on site just in case of an emergency (a stupid conclusion now I come to think of it), nevertheless the artistic nature of the installation/performance piece took me by surprise due to its professionality. Israeli curator, Avi Lubin, wrote the following about FIELD HOSPITAL X in a article for the exhibition:

“Field Hospital X (FHX) is a new project by artist Aya Ben Ron. It is a mobile, international institution, an organization that is committed to researching the way art can react and act in the face of social ills. Learning from the structure and practice of hospitals, health maintenance organizations and healing resorts, FHX provides a space in which silenced voices can be heard and social injustices can be seen…

Through Field Hospital X, Ben Ron creates a space that enables people to talk about their traumas, and the social injustice that affected them. It is a space that gives the opportunity to speak without being subordinated to the expectations of the legal system, the media and the public atmosphere.

In FHX, art is not abstract and ambiguous, but rather takes a stand. FHX enables people to talk about their own trauma in their own terms, and encourages the visitors to care, to listen and to see what is happening in front of them.

Avi Lubin

Upon arrival, visitors are invited to take a number token and sit in the waiting area to endure a wait which can take up to 2 hours, watching an FHX TV Program, which tells them to “be patient; be a patient.”. I for one didn’t have the patience. However, the document(2) linked above gives information about what happens next.


The Measurement of Presence.

Visiting Deities, 2018 – 2019, 975 x 340 x 260 cm- Photos taken by Anna-Rose Wain 2019

I’ve never been particularly engaged with sculpture in my own practise so I must admit ignorance upon originally viewing this piece; regardless of my shallow knowledge on the media, I was instantly fascinated when I saw this structure in the Netherlands pavilion. Iris Kensmil(the painter who’s work is shown alongside this sculpture) and Remy Jungerman (the artist who created Visiting Deities shown above) are of Surinamese descent and seek through their work to redefine nations of nationhood and the locality of art.

The various motifs found in this particular pice reference both African Maroon culture (including elements from the Winti religion, a traditional Afro-Surinamese religion) and from 20th century modernism. The national and cultural identity of the artist seeps through into the large-scale installation in a striking composition constructed of eclectic materials which harmoniously work together: painted wood, meranti table legs, cotton textile, kaolin (pimba), dry river clay, nails, yarn, mirror and river water samples. Having visited various places in Africa, I was reminded of the cracked soil which marks the dry plains of whole acres of ground. There is a stark juxtaposition between the clean cut blocks, carefully arranged, stacked and suspended, and the natural mud which lies at the structures foundations. Upon close evaluation, we start to see more and more of the ‘natural’ elements of the piece; we see nails bent as they were pushed into the wood, highlighting again this conflict between precision ad spontaneity.

These thoughts are inly confirmed by the plaque next to the piece as it talks fo how Jungerman intends to bring together the strength of the forefathers of the greater Dutch world – ancestors from the Netherlands, Suriname, Indonesia and elsewhere – with the aim of connecting the various cultures and entering into a future-oriented, open conversation. The size and rhythm of his installations are determined by the joining of various sources, such as Winti, Gerrit Rietveld and Stanley Brouwn. In the rectangular elements we see shadows of Mondiran and De Stiji as well with links to the Russian avant-garde.


The Idea of a Parallel Universe

The main pavilion is something else completely. As soon as you enter you’re overwhelmed with options. The sheer quantity of rooms creates a challenge to those like me who wanted to explore every nook and cranny, not just to get my money’s worth but soak in all I could. This is when I came across these huge montages by Tavares Strachan; these pieces offer unfamiliar narratives on familiar historical events and figures visually. Having grown up in post-colonial Bahamas – formerly occupied by the British – Strachan came to associate the Encyclopaedia Britannica with imperial tools of conquest, using the appropriation of knowledge as a means of signalling cultural domination. Strachan became increasing frustrated with the biases and censoring in the books, hence he created The Encyclopaedia of Invisibility in 2018. Working as a rejoinder to the Britannica, it’s a self-made encyclopaedia filled with 15, 000 entire as diverse as koala ( an ultra-rare bone also known as the Asian unicorn), quantum gravity, fentanyl and omnipresence. The pages of the book were then incorporated into the huge montages which overlay appropriated photographs, diagrams, nraohucsand word puzzles in chaotic arrangements which embody the artist’s broad range of interests. Indeed, as you can see from the compositions, the subjectivity of the inclusion of certain visual information makes the pieces intrinsically subjective which acts further as a self-conscious commentary on the nature of education and knowledge.


Weather Report: Forecasting the future

There is no doubt that the whole of the biennale was beautifully curated but the Nordic pavilion stood out clearly in its intelligent use of space and materiality; Leevi Haapala and Piia Oksanen curated it masterfully, creating an eco-system like environment. In the face of the climate crisis, this exhibition artists Ane Gaff, Ingela Ihrman and artist collective Nabbteeri. The exhibitions theme centred around the climate crisis and mass extinction, focussing on the varied relations between the human and the nonhuman as life on Earth as we know it is threatened. The future of our planet is uncertain but as we look forward it is clear we’ll have to reevaluate our responsibility as humans and start acknowledging multi species entanglements, renegotiating existing interspecies relations.

This is a topic I feel very passionately about and is at the forefront of politics and global affairs at the moment as I’m sure you’re aware. I have recently started reading Homo Deus, a book which focusses on how our species is predicted to travel into the future in the face of climate change as well as in relation to other socio-political and scientific changes that are taking place; one thing is for certain, the more we develop technology, the more important our connection to other species of plants and animals will become. We cannot continue with an anthropocetric view of our place within the universe as we have in the past and this exhibition acts as a reminder of this. The exhibition attempts to establish a connection with more-than-human agencies through using the space and the artworks to heighten the visitor’s of life at different scales; whether it be microscopic organisms, the slow workings of toxic agents, or durational processes of decaying organic matter, the forms scattered around the room produce a harmony across species. The trees shown in the image above are European nettle trees growing inside the pavilion and stand as a reminder of the connection between man-made and natural phenomena.

A conceptually fascinatng piece was that of Ane Graff: States of Inflammation. The plaque reads:

The displayed objects and their containers, the glass cabinets, refer to the body and its current inflammatory state, emitting signals from the past and hinting to possible future scenarios.

A multi-disciplinary artist, Graff is engaged with micro-biology, chemistry, feminist new materialism, and alchemic experiments. Her work connects climate change to Western societies driven by economic growth, the extinction of immune-modulating intestinal microbes and the spread of inflammatory diseases.

Despite the clearly informative edge these works have, the case put forward for the environment, particularly concerning politics and social change, is rather lost on such a liberal crowd as that attending the Venice Biennale. As highlighted by Laura Cumming in her Guardian article, the exhibition is in danger of “preaching to the converted …“.

P E O P L E ‘ S R E P U B L I C O F C H I N A

Can’t Help Myself.

Can’t Help Myself (2019) – Photo taken by Anna-Rose Wain 2019

My predictions are you have probably seen this on social media already but unlike most viral art, this piece has a profound insight into the future of our relationship with technology. Artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu programmed this industrial robotic arm with visual-recognition sensors and software systems to keep the thick, deep red liquid within a predetermined area; when the arm senses the vicous fluid is escaping its reach it restlessly shovels it back into place, leaving splashes all over the walls of the transparent ‘cage’. The artists programmed the robot to perform 32 different uncannily human movements such as ‘scratch an itch’ or even ‘ass shake’. Originally the work was meant to symbolise art’s defiant refusal to be pinned down just as the fluid evades the machine’s capture, hence evading reproduction by robots in an increasingly mechanised society.

The dance like movements seem to make the arm acquire consciousness and metamorphose into a life-form that has been captured and confined to a space. The sanguine fluid stains that accumulate around it evoke the violence that results from surveilling and guarding border zones in the artist’ country of origin, China. These coherent connections highlight the consequences of authoritarianism guided by certain political agendas that seek to draw more borders between places and cultures and to the increasing use of technology to monitor our environment.

All-in-all, meandering around the streets of Venice and through the Giardini was surely up there with the best exhibitions I’ve seen. The sheer scale of the event and the depth of the art is a testament to the power and significance of art in contemporary society, in the face of an ever-fluctuating world of chaos. Hopefully you’ll be seeing how these pieces/artists will carry me through down new creative avenues in my own practise.

As always, thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed my ramblings! If you’ve got any thoughts, rants or general feedback, my comments are always open.



5 thoughts on “From Doll Asylums to Anthropic Machines: how the 58th Venice Biennale embodies contemporary turmoil

  1. Interesting! And the laurel wreath goes to … China!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Got to agree with that one, was so visually effective!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Again, your writing is beautifully fluid and exciting! You have a way of drawing the reader in to become interested, even if the subject matter is unfamiliar 👏🏼

    Liked by 1 person

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