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Special Issue: Venice

May You Live in Interesting Times

Highlights of the 58th Venice Biennale

El Anatsui is one of the artists featured in Ghana's first ever Venice Biennale pavilion, designed by architect David Adjaye. Ink Splash (Installation view at the Bass Museum of Art) (2010). Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

BY Louisa Buck
contemporary art correspondent

AND Jane Morris
writer and editor

Published
In Must See

Live from the opening of the Biennale, our intrepid reporters review the best of the art on show so that you know what not to miss. C.B.

“Ghana Freedom”, Ghana Pavilion, Arsenale (11 May-24 November)

Eight African countries are represented at the Venice Biennale this year and among them is Ghana, which makes its biennale debut with a striking pavilion designed by British Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye. He took inspiration from the traditional earth houses of east Ghana and has used local earth to line six elegantly curved exhibition spaces, each of which houses one of six artists representing three generations of Ghanaian creativity.

There are shimmering sculptures by El Anatsui made from metal bottle tops and a powerfully pungent installation from Ibrahim Mahama incorporating the metal grilles used to smoke fish in Ghana’s coastal and riverside communities. Felicia Abban was Ghana’s first professional portraitist and is here showing both self-portraits as well as those of Ghanaian women in both Western and traditional African dress, while Lynette Yiadom-Boakye has made a powerful new series of figurative oil paintings. There is also a three-channel video installation by John Akomfrah and a video sculpture by Selasi Awusi Sosu. The pavilion will travel from Venice to Accra when the biennale closes. L.B.

Laure Prouvost, Deep See Blue Surrounding You / Vois ce Bleu Profond te Fondre, French Pavilion (11 May- 24 November)

Laure Prouvost’s work for the French Pavilion. Image courtesy of the artist, Galerie Nathalie Obadia (Paris – Brussels), carlier | gebauer (Berlin) & Lisson Gallery (London – New York)

Clouds of vapor pour over the roof and pillars of the French Pavilion: the lagoon is creeping into the Giardini. A discreet, apparently ancient, sign says “ideally you would go deeper into the back of this building”. Follow the instructions and the path winds narrowly through foliage—with a glimpse of a young woman playing an eerie tune on a recorder—into the bowels of the pavilion.

It’s the start of a magical journey into an installation that mixes sculpture—the washed-up detritus of the deep sea on a glazed blue floor—performers and, at its core, a film which follows a motley troupe—a musician, dancers, a magician and a priest—on an odyssey from Paris to this very pavilion in Venice, via wild coasts and deep seas. It shifts from dark—the group singing to the spirits of drowned refugees—to light: the joy of breaking free of the earth. “Flying like birds, floating on the deep, we belong to no nation now,” they intoned, and the preview audience was enchanted. J.M.

Stan Douglas, “May You Live in Interesting Times”, Arsenale and Giardini (11 May-24 November)

Stan Douglas’s work often apes the conventions of documentary film and photography, often so closely it’s hard to tell fact and fiction apart. In the Arsenale show (what biennale director Ralph Rugoff calls “Proposition A”), Douglas is showing work that explores what he calls “speculative histories” – in this case a total power cut in New York City. In one large digital C-print, a group of young men and women systematically loot a store, in another a lone figure sits playing solitaire by candlelight.
In the Giardini (“Proposition B”), Douglas presents a new film, Doppelgänger (2019), which imagines two quantum-entangled universes. We follow a female astronaut and her parallel other in a story that overlaps, loops and diverges, raising questions about time, truth and chance. J.M.

“Neither Nor—the Challenge to the Labyrinth”, Italian Pavilion, Arsenale (11 May-24 November)

Enrico David, Ultra Paste (2007) installation view from a previous exhibition. Courtesy Collection Nicoletta Fiorucci, London

A pavilion situated at the very end of the Arsenale that has been laid out like a labyrinth could be the worst nightmare for weary biennale visitors. But the format of the Italian Pavilion provides an elegantly curated container which mixes together the work of three contrasting but complementary Italian artists.

Bodies and states of mind are the subject of Ancona-born, British-based Enrico David. His bizarre sculptural creatures made from bronze, wax, Jesmonite, rubber, hair and many other materials protrude from walls, hug floors and cluster in the chambers. Liliana Moro also uses many means to intervene directly with the labyrinthine setting in ways ranging from neon texts to the broadcasting of revolutionary songs, a foam rubber wall and an inverted street lamp.

The late Chiara Fumai was acclaimed for her lecture-performances that channeled feminism, radicalism and the occult, and here her posthumous works include a recording of her repeated invocations to an ancient goddess which echoes through the pavilion. There is also a mural made to her specifications which contains the outlines of stalactites and cabbalistic signs. In another wall piece an account of a fantastical BDSM encounter with Vito Acconci has been embroidered across the pages of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs. In this haunting maze, every twist and turn offers a strange new experience. L.B.

“Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà”, US Pavilion (11 May-24 November)

At a time when so many sculptors have embraced mass production and digital technology there is something meditative and refined in Martin Puryear’s beautifully crafted pieces in cedar, cast iron and bronze. The 77-year-old African-American artist has been fêted for decades in the US but is much less well known in Europe, enjoying his first London exhibition in 2017 at the independent space, Parasol Unit.

For the US Pavilion he presents eight sculptures, almost all new, themed loosely around the theme of “liberty”. Although many of his works have an apparently hermetic, minimalist aesthetic they refer obliquely to the world beyond. Among the highlights of the exhibition are Aso Oke (2019), reminiscent of Nigerian ceremonial headwear (in the 1960s Puryear travelled to Sierra Leone, where he studied traditional crafts) and Tabernacle (2019). This form is based on a 19th-century infantry forage cap, in the sheltered space inside there is a replica of a Civil War-era siege mortar with a mirrored sphere nestling inside. J.M.

“May You Live in Interesting Times”, Michael Armitage, Arsenale and Giardini (11 May-24 November)

Michael Armitage, The Accomplice (2019). © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis)

The vividly colored, richly referential paintings of Michael Armitage, who lives and works between Nairobi and London, weave multiple narratives drawn from current news, art history, religion, folklore and his own experiences of Kenya, his country of birth. Armitage paints on traditional bark cloth from Uganda, which is stitched together to make large uneven surfaces pocked with dents and holes that then become elements in his compositions.

The six new works in the Arsenale section of director Ralph Rugoff’s exhibition are partly inspired by the staged political rallies Armitage witnessed during the 2017 Kenyan general election. He was struck by the way in which the carnivalesque and the performative combined with political agitation, and the chaos and urgency of these events feeds into his complex dynamic arrangements of figures and forms. The origins of many of these figures can be found in the ink drawings of demonstrators on show in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, which Armitage made on the spot or from film and documentary footage. These fluid, vivid works come directly from his sketchbooks and have never been seen publicly before. They stand as artworks in their own right as well as offering insight into his working processes. L.B.

Carol Bove, “May You Live in Interesting Times”, Arsenale and Giardini (11 May-24 November)

Carol Bove calls her works “collapsing sculptures”, and although they appear to refer to sculptures of a previous generation—Anthony Caro, Tony Smith, John Chamberlain—Rugoff says they “turn the conventions of modernism on its head”. In Venice she is showing a series of large-scale, crumpled tubes painted mustard yellow, fire-hydrant red and baby pink, which punctuate the spaces of the Giardini and the Arsenale.

Bove is one of a number of artists in the exhibition who play with media norms: her sculptures belie their weight, and formally hover between the factory-made and the found object. The candy colors and thick, matte paint transform their surfaces into an apparently dense, napped finish closer to velvet than the rough iron reality.J.M.

Cathy Wilkes, British Pavilion, Giardini (11 May-24 November)

A series of sculptural installations of Northern Irish-born, Glasgow-based Cathy Wilkes have transformed the British Pavilion into a sparse semi-domestic environment populated by mysterious personages. But it is not a happy home. There are small doll-like sculptural figures with blank faces and distended bellies, and a woman in a green dress who may or may not be their mother. On and around a tomb-like structure covered in gauze abject offerings—dried flowers, a dead cricket, a toilet roll—have been arranged with casual precision. In another room grimy tattered lace hangs from a table and there’s a disembodied hand in a washing-up bowl.

The pavilion has been specially adapted so that all the spaces are bathed in a natural but sallow light. Wilkes has also made pale abstract paintings, washed-out landscapes and muted scenes of mountains, all of which add to the low-key but charged atmosphere. Although Wilkes never offers any explanations there is a strong sense of both mourning something that has passed and anticipating something ominous yet to come—rather like the current state of Britain. L.B.

“Baselitz—Academy”, Gallerie dell’Accademia (8 May-8 September)

Georg Baselitz, Zero (2004). Privately owed. Image courtesy Gagosian

Georg Baselitz, born Hans-Georg Kern, remembers being bused, as a 17-year-old schoolboy, 60km from his East German home town of Deutschbaselitz, near Kamenz (from which the painter later took his name) to Dresden to welcome back its famous old master collection. It had spent a decade in exile in the Soviet Union after the Second World War, returning in 1955. The works had a profound effect on him, as did the six-month residency he won in 1965 as a young artist to study in Florence. “Baselitz —Academy” refers to that period and shows the impact of the works he encountered there by Parmigianino, Pontormo and the sculptor Francesco Pianta (best known in Venice for the walnut panels in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco).

Shortly after, Baselitz produced his “Helden” (“Heroes”) series, woodcuts and paintings of solitary figures in gloomy landscapes. The show includes several of these, his first radical “upside-down” portraits from 1969, as well as his floating “Negativ-Bilder” (“Negative Pictures”) of 2004-2012, which allude to these works. Sculpted wooden figures are dotted throughout: Baselitz showed the first of these in 1980 at the Venice Biennale, the decade he broke through to international fame. J.M.

“Alberto Burri: La pittura, irriducibile presenza”, Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore (10 May-28 July)

Alberto Burri, Plastica (1964). Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini. Collezione Burri

Three great “paintings” made of stitched, pasted, distressed jute dominate the first gallery of the Cini Foundation’s homage to the Italian artist Alberto Burri (1915-1995). Many of Burri’s greatest works are in his own museum, the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri in his native Città di Castello, Umbria. It’s rare that they are loaned—until now. Bruno Corà, the Burri foundation’s president, has mounted the first exhibition of the artist at the Venice Biennale since 1983 (it is supported by Tornabuoni Art gallery). It starts with Burri’s early “Catrami” (“Tars”) from 1948 and finishes with his late “Cellotex” series: huge black works made from insulating board shown against black walls.

The three large “Sacchi” works—jute sacks collaged on canvas—date from 1952, the first year Burri showed in Venice. Corà argues that these pictures were to have a profound influence on American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who saw them in Burri’s Rome studio in 1953. “Many artists—Picasso, the Dadaists—have used materials as metaphors, as stories, always relating to something else,” Corà says. “But Burri is without metaphor, the tar is the black, the pumice is the grey, the sacks are brown. The thing is the thing.” J.M.

“Le Pelle—Luc Tuymans”, Palazzo Grassi (until 6 January 2020)

Installation View at Palazzo Grassi of Luc Tuymans’ Secrets (1990). © Palazzo Grassi, Photography by Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti

Luc Tuymans’s stunning exhibition “La Pelle” fills the Palazzo Grassi with more than 80 paintings dating from the 1980s to the present. The title comes from a 1949 novel by the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte set in a tumultuous Naples at the end of the Second World War when, as Tuymans has remarked, “Europe was in chaos just like today”. Fascism and the Second World War are a consistent theme of the exhibition, along with more recent conflicts and horrors, but these spare, restrained works always hint at hidden trauma rather than depicting specific incidents.

The centerpiece is a giant floor mosaic, made especially for the palazzo’s grand atrium, which depicts a seemingly innocuous cluster of pine trees in a composition divided into vertical strips. However, it is based on a small 1986 painting Tuymans made of a wartime forced labor camp in Germany and the lines refer to how the prisoners cut their drawings into strips to avoid detection. Even when he is working on a grand scale, Tuymans remains the master of the loaded understatement. L.B.

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