8 Hits of the Venice Biennale

They used to call this waterlogged city the Most Serene Republic, but there is nothing serenissima about the opening days of the Venice Biennale.

The world’s longest-running and most extravagant festival of contemporary art opens to the public on Saturday after a preview biathlon of fine art and financial profligacy that has grown more hectic than ever. The first days’ forecast included a severe rainstorm and a large pro-Palestinian protest, but both turned out to be milder than projected — and neither demonstration nor precipitation put a dent in the global art world’s pre-eminent celebration of its own good taste.

You hoof across bridges and shove through crowds. You exchange tips on shows not to miss. You judge, you gossip, you wash it all down with Prosecco. Have you seen the Uzbekistan pavilion? Can you get me into the Tate reception? Do you have a boat? Do you know who I am?

This is the 60th edition of the Biennale to take place since 1895. Its massive crowds — the last edition drew some 800,000 visitors despite the pandemic — come to see a show in two parts. There’s a principal exhibition of hundreds of artists, all chosen by a single curator, which spans two locations: the genteel, Napoleonic-era park called the Giardini della Biennale and the massive Renaissance shipyard known as the Arsenale.

This year’s guest curator is Adriano Pedrosa, the director of the São Paulo Museum of Art. He’s brought some excellent new work for the show, called “Foreigners Everywhere,” including valuable displays of lesser-known Brazilian artists. He’s also assembled a pell-mell array of older painting and sculpture from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The success of this historical section is far less evident. (More on all this in the coming days.)

Alongside the main Biennale exhibition, nearly 90 individual nations mount their own shows — mostly in pavilions in the Giardini and the Arsenale, but also around town in grand palazzi, humble warehouses, or, in one, case a women’s prison.

The United States is represented by Jeffrey Gibson, a Choctaw and Cherokee artist who has brightened up (or tarted up) the American pavilion with 70s-style multicolored wallpaper and hot-colored mannequins bearing simple slogans (“We Want To Be Free”) and Google-depth historical citations (“1866 Civil Rights Act”). It’s politically obvious and visually juvenile, and the U.S. pavilion feels especially weak in a year when other Indigenous artists, from Greenland to New Zealand, have pride of place for subtler work.

On top of all this are Venice’s many museums, which time their biggest exhibitions to open right around now, plus dozens of special presentations, pop-up shows of professional to craft-fair quality, and the odd yachtside private view. To assess it all takes both intellectual and physical fortitude, plus a reliable source of espresso.

My colleagues and I have been covering the lagoon to find out what everyone’s talking about ahead of Saturday’s public opening, when a jury awards prizes to the show’s most outstanding contributions. — JASON FARAGO

There’s an easy way to tell how popular a national pavilion is at the Biennale: Look and see who’s walking around Venice proudly carrying the tote bag.

At this year’s event, the bright green tote from the Nigeria pavilion seems to be the one that everyone wants. The bag has the name of the exhibition, “Nigeria Imaginary,” printed on one side, and “Na Condition Make Crayfish Bend,” a Nigerian proverb, on the other.

Nigeria’s pavilion has caused such a stir here partly because it’s the African country’s first major Biennale presentation. Aindrea Emelife, the pavilion’s curator, has created an exhibition featuring work by eight artists with Nigerian roots that includes stark photography, imposing sculpture and majestic painting.

In one room, Yinka Shonibare has installed around 150 clay replicas of Benin Bronzes, the ancient artifacts that, in 1897, British soldiers looted from what is now Nigeria. In another, Fatimah Tuggar has made a colorful installation centered on the calabash gourd — a hard-skined fruit that has multiple uses, including as a cooking vessel and a musical instrument.

When I visited the pavilion this week, visitors were taking selfies in front of every artwork. And there were no totes left. — ALEX MARSHALL

This year’s French Pavilion is a card-carrying member of the “more is more” club. The exhibition inside by the French art-world darling Julien Creuzet is dense with sinewy sculptures made of thread, beads, and netting. The intoxicating scent of lavender wafts from resin vessels shaped like ancient deities. And surreal animated underwater scenes play on large screens as a synth-heavy electronic soundtrack blares over the speakers.

It’s a lot.

Raised in Martinique, Creuzet is the first French-Caribbean artist to represent France in Venice; he is also one of the youngest artists the country has ever selected. Much of his work explores the extraction of wealth from the Caribbean as well as the migration of people and the exchange of cultures in the diaspora.

These themes make Creuzet’s work a fitting companion to the central “Foreigners Everywhere” exhibition. But while much of the main show shies away from spectacle, Creuzet embraces it.

Navigating the pavilion felt like being at a disorienting, overcrowded party where radically different conversations are unfolding in several languages. The subtleties of the lyrical sculptures and the reference-dense videos would have been easier to absorb in a less crowded space. But if vibes were the mission, it was accomplished. — JULIA HALPERIN

Given the Venice Biennale’s reputation as “the Olympics of the art world” — set in a spectacular city, no less — artists and curators here often favor grand, weighty gestures. This year’s Japan Pavilion wonderfully eschews gravitas for modesty and play, while still getting at something profound.

For her exhibition “Compose,” curated by Sook-Kyung Lee, the artist Yuko Mohri has created two installations of contraptions-slash-sculptures from local materials. One set, inspired by the D.I.Y. methods for fixing leaks in the Tokyo subway system, features tubes and everyday objects — like pans, rubber gloves and coat racks — rigged together and dangling through the air. The systems catch and recirculate water seeping into the pavilion, sometimes activating chimes in the process.

The second series features rotting fruit: apples, bananas, oranges and more arranged on tables and covered with flies and seeping liquid. Mohri has attached electrodes to the fruit that convert its moisture into signals that generate droning sounds in speakers or turn on suspended lightbulbs.

The result is less a cacophony than an intriguing symphony that just hangs together — and purposefully so. “Compose” captures the fragility of life in a sinking city in a warming world, but without the usual sense of doom. Instead, Mohri finds whimsical possibility — and by extension, a kind of hope — in our futile-seeming efforts to find a fix. — JILLIAN STEINHAUER

The asbestos apartment complex inside the German Pavilion is a haunting reminder for the artist Ersan Mondtag, whose father died prematurely from the toxic effects of that construction material. The slow-moving actors who inhabit the space are like wandering corpses: completing tasks such as sweeping and folding laundry, or laying down on the floor and risking injury from the pointy stilettos and business boots of visitors clomping up the three levels of stairs.

But it’s only one part of the massive exhibition, “Thresholds,” which includes work by the Israeli artist Yael Bartana and a separate experience on the island of La Certosa, reachable by vaporetto, where the artists Robert Lippok, Nicole L’Huillier, Jan St. Werner and Michael Akstaller have contributed to a nature trail.

The cumulative experience is heavy-handed, maybe even predictable from a pavilion that regularly focuses on how the past haunts the present. But the curator, Cagla Ilk, attempts to put her own variation on the theme by leaning into the building’s creepy fascist aesthetic. Dark lights and booming bass music turn Bartana’s installation into a thunderously morose ode to space operas, complete with references to Wagner and Star Wars. — ZACHARY SMALL

Tucked away around a corner and up a hill in the highly trafficked Giardini, the Australia Pavilion might be tempting to skip. Don’t. In a Venice Biennale defined by ornamentation and sensory overload, the exhibition by Archie Moore is the visual equivalent of a meditative, mournful hum.

At the center of the room is a massive table covered in stacks of partially redacted documents related to the deaths of Indigenous Australians in police custody in recent decades. Surrounded by a shallow pool of water, it’s nearly impossible to get close enough to read them.

The entire pavilion is an exercise in trying — and sometimes failing — to take in information that has been intentionally, systematically suppressed. On blackboard walls, the artist has handwritten a dizzying family tree that he says extends across more than 2,400 generations.

From the central point (“Me”) flows thousands of branches of kin that range from identifiable aunts and uncles (from the Bigambul and Kamilaroi people on his mother’s side, from Britain and Scotland on his father’s) to more elusive figures (“full blood Aborigine,” “Neddy’s wife”).

Looking up at the ceiling, the web becomes so dense that specific names are impossible to make out. The implication is clear: expand the aperture wide enough and we are all related. It’s a concept that could feel trite if it weren’t rendered with such poetry, rigor and specificity. — JULIA HALPERIN

Away from the Italian sun, in the pitch-black galleries of Venice’s old customs house, the French artist Pierre Huyghe continues to redefine art as an open system in constant evolution — and to prove that he has no rivals for aesthetic and intellectual ambition.

Software translates brain scans into disquieting images of consciousness in formation. Hermit crabs and starfish swim among decomposing sculptures. Artificially intelligent robots scan a human skeleton in the Atacama Desert of Chile, performing inscrutable rituals with stones as they zoom and pan over the remnants of humanity. Are they learning something true, and do the robots care? To them our bones are just data inputs; like many artists before them, they are observing human life and remaking it on their own terms.

Huyghe has always conceived of exhibitions as ecosystems that mutate day by day; in this one, atmospheric devices translate visitors’ breaths and footfalls into real-time edits, while performers wear A.I.-equipped masks to speak a constructed language, inscrutable to us simple humans, that grows more complex as the show goes on. Many galleries in Venice show beautiful art. This is the only art that looks like it comes from 2024. — JASON FARAGO

The sleeper hit in Venice this spring is this sprightly, surprising retrospective of a French dreamer who did it all: a poet, filmmaker, mural painter, jewelry designer and inveterate self-promoter.

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) swanned through the highest echelons of European art and literature, though his was a borderline and even disreputable kind of modernism, channeling Greek and Roman precedents into witty, even campy adaptations of “Oedipus Rex” or “Laocoön and His Sons.” The classical world also provided Cocteau an aesthetic template of homoerotic desire, and the Guggenheim exhibition includes numerous not-safe-for-work drawings of male lovers entangled and nude boys in the opium den.

Yet unlike the Biennale’s main exhibition, this one does not make the mistake of treating an artist’s status as a sexual minority as proof of moral virtue: indeed Cocteau celebrated Arno Breker, Hitler’s favorite sculptor, and this show does not shy from that. — JASON FARAGO

Everywhere around you in Venice are murals and altarpieces depicting the biggest themes of them all — life, death, and life everlasting — but only a few contemporary artists are playing for stakes as high as Titian or Veronese did five centuries ago. One who is: the Chinese painter Yu Hong, exhibiting in a small church in the city’s quieter north, whose 10-panel polyptych on thickly smeared gold grounds channels human life into a raw cycle of pain and glory.

Babies are scrunched into plastic bathtubs, girls pretzel themselves into backbends and women lie tangled in what looks like plastic wrap; by the last panel, we see a stockpile of bare feet, perhaps of the corpses our contortionists have become. They writhe and bend like Tintoretto’s acrobatic saints, but there is no ecstasy here, and no escape from the physical facts of flesh and paint. Yu is doing what we used to expect all art to do; she is showing us how to live.


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