Our CEO and Artistic Director David Hevey visited the Venice Biennale this year- and found dynamic, radical and very moving works about the way we live now.

Don’t be put off by the obscuring title...

The 58th International Art Exhibition, entitled May You Live In Interesting Times, takes place from 11 May to 24 November 2019. As the Biennale explains, the title is a phrase of English invention that has long been mistakenly cited as an ancient Chinese curse that invokes periods of uncertainty, crisis and turmoil; "interesting times", exactly as the ones we live in today – says the Biennale blurb. It’s a mangled ambivalent phrase with a mangled ambivalent past, but is an attempt to get Venice into the 21st Century or at least dealing with the world as it is now. The phrase is not particularly successful at summing up what Venice in 2019 actually is. The mangled phrase also masks a little of what the Venice Biennale 2019 curator Ralph Rugoff was trying to do – which was have art about the way we live now. Why he didn’t spell it out like that, I don’t know.

Because Ralph Rugoff has pulled off some brilliant work in Venice

Because Ralph Rugoff, currently the director of the Hayward Gallery in London, has actually pulled off some hugely exciting, clever, and daring work – with art very much about the way we live now very prevalent. Behind the dripping-in-irony obscuring title, Ralph Rugoff’s curation is very clear, very exciting and is very much about contemporary arts and cultural production of diversity, outsiderism and agency - real people living real lives of less. In fact, much of the great art on show in Venice 2019 is very critical of the ‘interesting times we may live in’. Perhaps they should have called it: We live in empowering diversity times with some superb content, such as photographer Soham Gupta and his magnificent photography of despair and loss, which in particular, spoke of the times in which his subjects live lives of less – less money, less security, less safety, more fear.

Portrait of man with beard by Soham Gupta

Far more subtle politics was at play in the British, Scottish, Welsh and American Pavilions, where we saw art as free creative inquiry, art as new psycho-scapes, art as reclaimed fragments of lived lives in the under-class and more. Just as Ralph Rugoff had pushed the great art of diversity agendas successfully, so the American, British, Scottish and Welsh Pavilions were steeped in developed notions of diversity, race, queerness and class (and other intersections) that they became the go-to pavilions for me.

British Pavilion and the superb Cathy Wilkes

I found the Cathy Wilkes show – one of lived-life fragments like old dresses eerily hung on mannequins of disproportion and menace – profoundly moving and, indeed, incredibly sad, as if my Irish mother’s younger dreams had stayed in fragments somewhere in some closed house back in old Ireland. Of Cathy Wilkes, the British Pavilion press blurb says, ‘Her work recalls inchoate visions of interiors and places of loss, and meditates on the nature of love and the coexistence of life and death’ - and I so got that. Indeed, I was quite stunned by the time I left the show. So much so, that when one of the British Council asked me on the way out what I had thought of it, I was totally unable to explain, other than muttering, ‘It’s so sad…’

I knew little of Cathy Wilkes' work, but, researching her after seeing her show, I was not surprised to see she had come out of Northern Ireland; for me, the show has very much an Irish sensibility of reworked memories, terrible loss and even worse regret, but worked through hope that all will come good – elements my Irish mother carried to the end. There was criticism of the show along with the ‘there isn’t enough there’ lines, but I thought it was a solid, moving and quite a profound body of new work.

Image of Cathy Wilke's green dress

Scotland+Venice Pavilion and Charlotte Prodger

This was centred around her beautiful and brilliant SaFo5, which involves contemporary film-making around subjectivity, self-determination and queerness – in a superb moving image piece. As Scotland+Venice publicity puts it, ‘This autobiographical cycle traces the accumulation of affinities, desires and losses that form a self as it moves forward in time. SaF05 draws upon multiple sources – archival, scientific and diaristic – and combines footage from a number of geographical locations (the Scottish Highlands, the Great Basin Desert, the Okavango Delta and the Ionian Islands). SaF05 is named after a maned lioness that figures in the work as a cipher for queer attachment and desire. And, yet, the work moves in ever more involved circles – in one example, it also involves an exploration of cinematography itself, where and who places the camera where - while soundscapes hover between animal sound and human sound. SaF05 is centred by the voice-over by Prodger who weaves a beautiful, questioning, sometimes tired narrative alternating between what has been lived, what is description and what and where is desire over the mixed footage and mixed journeys.

And, of course, such wonders should be open to all – so a big mention and shout out must go to Scotland+Venice for the access of their Pavilion. By far one of the most accessible Pavilions in the Biennale - and one wonders if this, too, as well as the great work, led to even higher audiences for Turner Prize-winning Charlotte Prodger’s work. I hope so!

Wales in Venice and Sean Edwards’ profoundly moving work.

This for me was one of the best shows in Venice, maybe because I share the childhood-poverty references Sean works with; Edwards works with fragments of improbable worth, such as his FREE SCHOOL DINNERS poster announcements, as if in poverty that ‘free school dinner’ moment is worthy of some kind of pride, buried as it is in some kind of shame too. Or his huge images of fingers (or are they toes?) with nails chewed or cut to the bone, signs of worry and stress made elegant. Or the magnificent radio interview with his mother, in which she sounds, like my mother sounded, as if from another century, so far back does poverty catapult those of us who have lived it. And more. This is very much I Shall Bear Witness work but with beautiful craft and resolution; Edwards pulls it off magnificently. It’s a great show – built around the bits left from lives of poverty where one cannot buy enough bits to build a proper home, yet the fragments of poverty re-worked into beautiful works and so creating new alignments of hope which create if not a home, then at least a space of arrival, success and beauty, with his mother’s voice at the centre of it all. I loved it and the approach made for a very profound show – like the Cathy Wilkes, I didn’t quite cry, but I certainly came close.

Sean Edwards image of finger cuticles

The American Pavilion saw the superb ‘Liberty/Liberta’ showing the works of African-American artist Martin Puryear.

‘Liberty/Liberta’ displays his magnificent sculptures, works in which beauty and craft combine in free forms which, in size and build, echoes something of the historical American monument-building for grandeur and scale. Yet Puryear’s sculptures imagine a history as if American heritage had not been built on exploitation, racial divide and capitalist disruption – his superb work is mythic, grand and large, and in that way very American, but it is dominated by beauty, freedom and care for the liberty of free inquiry - and his work allows nature, beauty and organic creation to triumph above all. His work made this the best Pavilion in Venice 2019 in my view.

More than just tourists, we went to Venice to see what it has to offer. With development support from www.the-ndaca.org, the British Council and Unlimited, myself and Tony Heaton OBE (there as Shape Chair) were in Venice researching a new Shape project (working title: Shape Presents The DAM In Venice) which has the aim of building a Disability Arts Movement Pavilion and presence in Venice (and exhibiting in the UK and elsewhere) with the objective of showcasing and celebrating the heritage story and great art of the Disability Arts Movement, including new commissioning. Watch this space….

Next time, we aim to be at the lead of this push in Venice for a wider and more inclusive notion of what great looks like and how it can be much more about the way we live now. May We Live In Progressive, Radical & Inclusive Cultural Times, may well be what we could suggest Venice calls the next one.