Venice Art Biennale’s Foreigners Everywhere celebrates multiplicity

Foreigners Everywhere
60th International Art Exhibition (Venice Biennale)
April 20–November 24

As an architectural historian returned from a whirlwind week in Venice, my reaction to the current Art Biennale can be summarized as equal parts exhaustion and elation. The Biennale seems to get bigger and bigger each year, straining the capacity of obsessive completists such as myself to see everything. The experience is fundamentally mediatized: crowds rush from venue to venue, barely pausing but to take a few smartphone photographs. And yet for all the expense and annoyance, the perseverant visitor is rewarded.

Curated by São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) Artistic Director Adriano Pedrosa, this year’s central exhibition is titled Foreigners Everywhere. For Pedrosa, the title’s celebration of multiplicity is meant to reflect the extent to which we are all outsiders. Within the context of contemporary Euro-American politics, this statement (borrowed from a series of neon sculptures by the Palermo-based collective Claire Fontaine) reads as a rebuke to the right-wing populism of Giorgia Meloni, Jair Bolsonaro, and Donald Trump. Building upon the Italian word for foreigner’s etymological roots in strange (stranieri, strana), Pedrosa has chosen to celebrate a plethora of Indigenous, queer, and folk artists—many now deceased—whose works have not previously been shown at the Biennale.

Australia pavilion at Venice Art Biennale
Kith and Kin at the Australia pavilion (Matteo de Mayda)

For all its sincerity, Pedrosa’s curation is understandably overshadowed by twin crises of ecology and war. The hypocrisy of jet-setters snapshotting their way through exhausting quantities of art in a city acutely threatened by climate change is self-evident to the point of banality. I am, of course, myself guilty of this: A copy of Salvatore Settis’s If Venice Dies tagged along in my backpack. The ongoing war in Gaza provided a more potent flashpoint and led to the Israeli Pavilion remaining closed at its curators’ request. Many protestors focused their outrage on the German pavilion, reflecting not only the German government’s steadfast support for Israel but also specific requirements imposed on artists, such as the Berlin Senate’s now-dropped obligation for recipients of arts funding to accept the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

General themes of decolonization and the valorizing of Indigenous representation were predominant in the national pavilions in the Giardini. Kith and Kin, Archie Moore’s lovingly hand-drawn family tree tracing 65,000 years of his Kamilaroi, Bigambul, and European ancestry on the inner walls of the Australian Pavilion confronted a massive table bearing documentation of the deaths of hundreds of Aboriginal people in state custody. The work’s conceptual gravity was matched by the elegance of its execution as drawing and sculpture. Against the reams of paper recording bureaucratic indifference and outright violence, the delicate chalk marks making up the family tree, which Moore drew over two months in situ, reaffirmed the artist’s own humanity.

Austria pavilion
Research for Sleeping Positions in the Austria pavilion (Matteo de Mayda)

The power of art as a form of documentation (and documentation as a form of art) to proclaim the existence and dignity of previously marginalized communities was also affirmed by Rise of the Sunken Sun, Inuuteq Storch’s photographs of Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) in the temporarily rededicated Danish Pavilion. Against modernist photography’s fetishization of technique and equipment, Storch mostly uses cameras gifted to him by family and close friends, thereby personalizing a medium often critiqued for its tendency towards objectification.

MDM DK Denmark 1
Inuuteq Storch’s series Soon Will Summer be Over (Matteo de Mayda)

Pedrosa’s chosen theme and current events poignantly overlapped in Anna Jermolaewa’s works in the Austrian Pavilion. These were drawn either from her own experiences as a refugee, or else queried the role of art in recent uprisings. Research for Sleeping Positions, a video documenting Jermolaewa’s return to the unwelcoming bench upon which she had slept during her first week in Vienna after leaving the Soviet Union in 1989, exemplified the former, while Rehearsal for Swan Lake (made in collaboration with Ukrainian choreographer Oksana Serheieva), a performance work featuring a live ballet dancer, referenced the latter. The work’s title is taken from Soviet television’s habit of showing Tchaikovsky’s ballet during times of political upheaval.

architectural installation in the Germany pavilion
Ersan Mondtag’s Monument to an Unknown Person in the German pavilion (Andrea Rossetti)

The German Pavilion featured a more overtly architectural work in Ersan Mondtag’s Monument to an Unknown Person. Essentially a 3-story house built inside the pavilion, Mondtag’s installation functioned as a haunted, dust-covered memory palace tracing the life of the artist’s grandfather, a Turkish guest worker who died from working at a German asbestos factory. Outside, Mondtag blocked the pavilion’s main entrance with a mound of Turkish soil in an effective gesture questioning the Giardini pavilions’ simplistic national associations.

If Mondtag’s gestures are forceful and brutish, Kapwani Kiwanga’s nearby installation in the Canadian Pavilion is intricate and sophisticated. Trinket is made of millions of suspended beads, and comments upon the exploitative imbalances which fueled colonial commerce. The beads’ careful interaction with the pavilion’s architectural details offers a beautiful homage to the BBPR-designed pavilion, one which honors Venice’s painterly tradition of art completing architecture.

threads on the roof of the canada pavilion
Trinket installed at the Canada pavilion (Marco Zorzanello)

While attention naturally focuses upon the Giardini and the massive Arsenale (whose best displays included the Argentina, Benin, and Italy pavilions), the Biennale’s greatest joy for the architectural tourist comes from visiting otherwise hard-to-see spaces around Venice. The Holy See’s pavilion took this to an extreme: its chosen artworks were installed within a women’s prison on Giudecca (advanced booking is required.) Shifting geographies within the art world and its architectural manifestations were also highly visible in Venice this year: the Nigerian Pavilion in the 16th-century Palazzo Canal began with the model for Sir David Adjaye’s proposed Museum of West African Art in Benin City. Inside, Yinka Shonibare’s Monument to the Restitution of the Mind and Soul features clay replicas of the Benin Bronzes reflect upon the colonial dispersal of Nigerian artworks.

A Journey to the Infinite by Yoo Youngkuk
A Journey to the Infinite by Yoo Youngkuk (Lorenzo Palmieri)

The architectural highlight of this year’s Biennale was offered by one of its concurrent events: Tadao Ando’s stunning installation of Zeng Fanzhi’s paintings in Jacopo Sansovino’s 16th-century Scuola Nuova della Misericordia. Organized by LACMA, Near and Far/Now and Then choreographed effects of light and dark together with framed vistas to produce a spiritual aura in the two large halls (one above the other) of this former charitable confraternity. Liminal, Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at the Punta della Dogana (another Ando-designed space) deftly queried the boundaries of the human and the nonhuman. Sadly (for architects), the near total darkness needed for Huyghe’s works occluded Ando’s dexterous transformation of a 17th-century customs hall into a branch of the Fondation Pinault.

One final suggestion for readers of The Architect’s Newspaper visiting Venice this summer: the exhibition of Korean abstract modernist Yoo Youngkuk’s paintings at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia is delightful. Together with a wander around Carlo Scarpa’s ground-floor and garden, it offers a blissful moment of escape before heading back out into the crowds of tote-bag wielding art connoisseurs.

Peter Sealy is an architectural historian and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

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