During the opening days of the 58th Venice Biennale in June, many visitors expressed the complaint that the curator of the main exhibition, the American Ralph Rugoff, who has directed the Hayward Gallery in London since 2006, offered no theme by which they could orient and anchor their experience. Instead, there was only a sense of and, of one artwork after another, or an ambiguous and perhaps ambivalent sense of but, as in, “But culture can mean this today, but also that and that and that.” This single word could be said to offer an existential ambience of doubt, reflecting Rugoff’s own resistance to imposing an overarching and restrictive narrative, denying the authorial imprimatur to navigate the topography of our various crises around the world. To many viewers and critics, Rugoff’s lack of thematic framework seemed like a weary shrug in the decaying city of Venice—itself a prolonged symbol of entropy—a judgment underlined by the vagueness of the title he chose, as if the substance of meaning itself were crumbling into the Grand Canal: “May You Live in Interesting Times.”
Rugoff claims that the title, which quotes a World War II-era English expression supposedly translated from an apocryphal Chinese proverb, stands in as a fitting evocation for our times of “fake news” and the quicksand it creates. Yet there may be a paradoxical precision to his vagueness, a paradox underlined by his single organizing principle. His vast exhibition, divided between two venues (the deliriously long Arsenale and the warren-like Central Pavilion on the Biennale’s main grounds), is separated into what he calls “Proposition A” and “Proposition B,” offering two bodies of work by each artist and implicitly signaling duality and multiplicity. Still, this offers a quandary, too, as Rugoff’s “propositions” aren’t any more real than his Chinese proverb. After all, a proposition implies taking a stand, presenting solid ground from which to view a subject. That doesn’t mean a sense of objectivity, of truth, but instead the expansiveness captured by the Greek word parrhesia, meaning an outpouring of what the speaker believes to be true, clear light and utter transparency shining from everything the eye can see.
Rugoff writes in his introduction to the Biennale catalogue: “Visitors who do not routinely trouble themselves with reading introductory texts and wall labels might never even imagine that these two exhibitions were made by the same artists.” But that’s hardly the case—take a look online, in the catalogue, or in person. While part of Rugoff’s scheme for the 79 selected artists was to proffer a fuller view of each (rather than, say, doubling the number of artists but halving our exposure to their creative depths), the greater number of his dual “propositions” are obviously the work of a single vision and hand. And that’s natural enough, considering the brief time period of the works, since Rugoff stated that he was largely limiting himself to the two-year bracket of the biennial: no historical extension, only a form of curatorial journalism with up-to-the-minute news.
Of course, there are exceptions to this sameness: for instance, Ed Atkins’s CGI-confected animations of weeping medieval-looking figures in one space and assertively handmade gouaches of spiders graced with his own face in the other. There is Halil Altindere’s multi-disciplinary installation faking a museum exhibition centered on Muhammed Ahmed Faris, Syria’s only cosmonaut, a former hero and now exiled critic of the state, whose story inspired the artist’s question: “If no country will accept refugees from Syria, then why not resettle them on Mars?” Altindere’s other work, NEVERLAND (2019), the columned façade of a backless mock pavilion, looks different enough to have been made by someone else, but its evocation of unrecognized refugees rhymes perfectly with the Faris display. Or consider Ryoji Ikeda’s works. His data-verse 1 (2019), a jumbo screen pulsing at high speed with digital data, scanned craniums, and scrolling code, looms in the Arsenale, while spectra III (2008/2019), in the Central Pavilion, consists of a brilliant corridor of blinding white light. The installation is explained in the catalogue as “akin to a blizzard of data [that] short-circuits our ability to process what we are seeing.” Even Arthur Jafa’s video, The White Album (2019), mixing racism and the love of friends, and his brutal sculptures of gargantuan tires wrapped in chains are linked by their anthropological fascination with the allure and violence of resemblance and difference, which war between emotion and reason.
Still, the lion’s share of the double presentations look and act alike and blur amid the sheer number of works on view—a total of approximately 760 sculptures, photographs, videos, paintings, drawings, and installations. Though Rugoff proposes no particular filter through which to see it all, it’s inevitable that a timely global survey will serve up today’s most dire alarms of economic inequality, religious and racial intolerance, gender bias and sexual abuse, technological (ill) will, post-colonialist power, corporate power, and climate collapse. Such are the de facto themes here, and the question of why not resettle on Mars becomes all the more compelling with the translucent dread and chill that gleam from many of the works. Shilpa Gupta’s untitled analogue for the migration crisis, a motorized gate crashing metronomically into the battered wall behind it, comes to mind. Or Teresa Margolles’s three standing panels of graffitied glass, La Búsqueda (2) (2014), covered with posters of missing and presumably murdered women. Or Liu Wei’s Microworld (2018), with its oversize aluminum objects, silvery and cold behind glass to evoke molecular forms at an uncanny scale that simultaneously suggests intimacy and an unnerving techno-scientific disinterest distancing us from our own humanity.
It could be said that Rugoff’s eschewal of a general theme has a Whitmanesque ambition to “contain multitudes,” letting the rooms swell with the unmediated voices of the artists, every object a megaphone. Yet the question in producing behemoth exhibitions like this is always the same in terms of the number of artists and works: How many? The answer is also always the same: as many as the space will bear. The mass may be sifted and bracketed, but the logic of spectacle dictates that numerousness offers a form of presence whose gathered density increases our enrichment. More, therefore, is more, and presence is understood as the blood of experience, even if, from the time of André Malraux’s 1947 book Museum Without Walls, an argument has been made that modern technologies offer new forms of presentation, meaning that we no longer need the spatial, tactile experience of objects and images to appreciate them—a book of reproductions will do or, these days, an online catalogue or a Google search.
Though the internet may bleed away the haptic presence of art, nevertheless it’s joined in the context of image excess by the profligate expansion of biennials as a platform: spread worldwide, with hundreds of yearly openings offering thousands of objects on view for millions of visitors. No matter whether this infinite superfluity of images and objects is etherized or floods exhibition spaces with material profusion—as if the rectitude of sparseness now bears an unspoken stigma—the crucial distinction still holds that multitude is not the twin of plenitude, that quantity is not the same as fullness and depth.
And so, if every biennial curator, like Rugoff, answers the question of “How many?” with “Fill it up,” the results weigh on our sense of presence and attention both physically and intellectually—even in terms of time. After all, this is serially contested time, the time of one thing after another, of a constant yet distracted demand on presence; the time of an inconstancy of concentration: undependable, wandering, diffuse, dispersed. The fitting irony of Hito Steyerl’s lusciously beautiful multi-screen animation, This Is the Future (2019), imagines an artificial intelligence to come that predicts backward in time and is vexed by the fact that the present is too unpredictable, always chaotic and violent.
Meanwhile, the Venice Biennale, as the longest running of all biennials (it was founded in 1895), must deal with its own bifurcated time identity. Though it advertises its power and authority to deliver art of a vital contemporaneity, it bases its institutional authority on the curatorial perspective of an always-backward glance at what has just been, trying to make sense of the chaos. It privileges its enclosure of time, retrospective and archival. Time may accumulate on the surfaces of artworks in the continual reformation of styles and topicality, but, the Biennale, as with all biennials, makes those styles disappear before changes can even register. They’re replaced from one iteration to the next, only affirming the volte-face of temporariness and the eternal return of the contemporary as both a delay in history and a generator of history inimical to the Biennale’s just-in-time yet endless-and-always structure in perpetuity—at once blissfully amnesiac and elegiac.
Nothing states this more symbolically than Lara Favaretto’s sculptural project Thinking Head (2018), a multi-part work among whose components is a vaporous white cloud drifting down to welcome visitors at the entrance to the Central Pavilion. The signal of art dematerializing even before we’ve noted its substance, a history-less mist, draws viewers forward into the warren. If they find the rest of Favaretto’s piece among the welter, it is only to learn that her mysteriously miscellaneous objects sequestered in a narrow room are selected by an unnamed offsite committee and continually changing. One can never catch up or grasp the whole.
Time in this way, too, seems to be against the viewer. The velocity of the Biennale visitor is implicit, since no one can set aside whole days to sit with each work, each installation, or each of the seemingly endless number of galleries in order to etch into consciousness the intricacy of lines, forms, dimensions, colors, and the meanings of each piece and between pieces that might ascend and deepen in the mind like an endless column of provocations, insights, and possibly revelations. True, no one is forced to race through an exhibition. But with the prospect of so many works waiting, these raw quantities of art tend to impel us forward so that we graze shallowly and piecemeal among the particulates of meaning, the fineness of individual observation overpowered by superabundance, when true selectivity, true sensual and intellectual specificity, would have broadened us more than the Biennale’s urge to capture its two years of art in a glut of curatorial reportage.
It is architecture, of course, that forces this materialist ambition on the curator, with not only the scale of spaces urging curators to fill them but also scale of a grasping geopolitical kind. The grandeur of the 30 permanent national pavilions that grace the Venice Biennale’s central grounds—from Austria to Australia, the United States to Egypt, Brazil, Germany, and France, all redolent of past or present wealth built on conquest and colonizing—inevitably strains every showing with the legacy of imperialist energy. This dates back to the Biennale’s inauguration as an international exposition where all works were for sale, inspired by the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, itself advertising exhibitors from Great Britain and its “Colonies and Dependencies,” along with 44 other countries. Given the Biennale’s conventions of national authority and its long history of prestige in the art world, how could Rugoff’s version possibly escape its entrenched economy and imperial freight?
Some iterations of the main exhibition, such as Harald Szeemann’s 2001 “Plateau of Humankind” and Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 “All the World’s Futures,” have offered thematically utopian yet critical shows counter to this background. But barring a resistant theme, Rugoff is ineluctably drawn into the Biennale as a mammoth emporium in the millennial age of empire. Instead of a visionary guide prescribing his own corrective for culture, he becomes a contemporary version of the 19th-century connoisseur, now given a global stage to broadcast his personal taste. That role could hardly be less surprising in the neoliberal swoon of materialist privilege that plumps the art world’s nest within the larger market economy. Dilating subjectivity in place of diagnosis, Rugoff assumes the role of an avatar of honed discernments assigning aesthetic value and consequent, if not direct, ascension up the ladder of financial worth—perhaps less of an itch for democratic multitudes, it turns out, than the Biennale’s exclusivity wants to scratch.
Every artist’s work in this context, no matter what its content and intent, is a double-work: the artist’s own creation and the one situated for the viewer within the Biennale’s heavily imposed frame of nation-state interests. This is the real Proposition A and Proposition B underlying Rugoff’s show. The global assembly of works swallowed by this aura must be understood not only as the formal arrangement of objects within the exhibition’s curatorial plan, but also as the inherited political, social, and economic arrangements within which the curator implicitly operates. While Rugoff’s approach may appear less mediated without a theme, this deep web of connections is the Biennale’s ultimate navigational scheme. And while its terrain of contemporary technologies and events may be up-to-the-minute, the pentimento of its colonialist past can’t help but show through the curator’s map.
Still, Rugoff’s taste happens to be consistently, even remarkably, fine across this huge number of works, which fall along a continuum from the privately symbolic and autobiographical to those turned outward toward civic crisis. He gives us the spectacle of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dear (2015), a throne reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial’s with a pneumatic black hose whipping nightmarishly in a Plexiglas cage, implying the terror of authoritarian will. Kaari Upson’s dollhouse-like installation, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS OUTSIDE (2017–19), scaled up and strewn with cartoonish sculptures of body parts and the psychologically charged furniture of childhood memories, turns the states of conflict and pathos wholly inward. There are powerful paintings and photographs, too. Michael Armitage’s lush oils on wood pierce the comfortable stereotypes of African exoticism with brilliantly hued, populous images caught between journalism and fantasy. Soham Gupta’s flash-lit nighttime photographic series “Angst” renders his closely observed hell of Kolkata street life: dream-like, impoverished, stark in black and white. Sheer formalist elegance engaged primarily with its own artistic primacy shows itself in angularly beautiful paintings infused with Modernist tradition by George Condo.
Yet for all the range of Rugoff’s contemporary choices, one old thing is clear. Though the artists may have come from 38 countries, one label after another notes that they now live predominantly in the market capitals of New York, Paris, Berlin, London, and Los Angeles. Nor is there a huge number of new or lesser-known artists, but a preponderance of well-known and already marketed names. Not only does time weigh on viewers always impelled, always late for a very important date with the next object, the next installation, it also, in its form as a historical legacy of nation-state might and money, with the Biennale as its cultural emblem, weighs inevitably on the seemingly free (but not free at all) subjectivity of Rugoff as connoisseur and arbiter.
What does this mountainous exhibition ultimately do to us, for us, with us? Does Rugoff believe that the presence of so many works of crisis critique from our “interesting times” can press our civic will forward? Aren’t we already the converted of the liberal left? Is “May You Live in Interesting Times” a magnifier of conscience or finally a joy ride of contemporary tastefulness—mediatized, aestheticized, present but remote, troubling but entertaining, earnest but dazzled by pyrotechnic wonder? It states so much about our age and Rugoff’s darkened mirror of it here in Venice that it is harder and harder to tell, and the sound of impact is muffled by the luxuriance of our exhausted delight.