American curator Ralph Rugoff has chosen a propitiatory title for the 58th International Art Exhibition: May You Live In Interesting Times. A Biennale on art’s social function? Invited artists (coming from across the entire globe) deal with a variety of issues, from violence to racism, to the dire consequences of climate change, and at times they do so in a harsh way, through works that incorporate horrific and shocking elements

The result is… a very interesting Biennale

Out of 79 artists (with women outnumbering men, which is a first), only two are Italian: Lara Favaretto (born in Treviso in 1973 but Turinese by adoption) and Ludovica Carbotta (born in Turin in 1982). Three are the artists invited by Milovan Farronato (Piacenza, 1973), curator of the immense Italian Pavi- lion (commissioned by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and located at the Arsenal): Enrico David (Ancona, 1966), Liliana Moro (Milan, 1961), and Chiara Fumai (Rome, 1978 – Bari, 2017), who died prematurely.

Ed Atkinson (GB), Good Man, 2017 (video sonoro)
Ed Atkinson (GB), Good Man, 2017 (video sonoro)

Inspired by La sfida al labirinto (Challenge to the Labyrinth), a famous essay written by Italo Calvino in 1962, Farronato’s project is titled Neither Nor: The Challenge to The Labyrinth, where the challenge exten- ded to visitors consists in proceeding through a jungle of corridors and handless doors to admire the works of excellent artists, up until the final challenge: finding the exit (which, to be honest, is not an easy task). And some visitors do come back, to have a second go at a pleasing art adventure. According to Rugoff, while art “does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics”, it can “serve as a guide” for understanding the emergencies of our time. At the Arsenal, visitors are welcomed in a singular way by a painting by American artist George Condo, where two drunkards, almost two zombies, are a symbol of human baseness

Aresnale, opera del pellerossa Jimmie Durham
Aresnale, opera del pellerossa Jimmie Durham

A manifestation of that baseness is certainly the horror of the young women kidnapped and killed by drug traffickers in Messico, which Teresa Margolles (recipient of the jury’s special mention) commemorates (in the Gardens) with a wall perforated by bullet holes and surmounted by barbed wire. Also featured are a number of African and African-American artists who expose racial discrimination, most notably Arthur Jafa (USA,1960), whose film “The White Album“ won him the Golden Lion for best participant in the international exhibition. Jimmie Durham (born in 1940, of Cherokee heritage), who wants to be called a ‘redskin’ and whose art exposes the violence and discrimination against Native Americans, has brought his “monsters” to Venice: sculptures and installations often inspired by Native American traditions, incorporating bones and skulls of buffaloes and other animals.

The Silver Lion for promising young participant went to 39-yearold Cypriot artist Haris Epaminonda

while the Golden Lion for best national participation, somewhat unexpectedly (considering that there were 90 national pavilions), went to Lithuania, which presented an opera performance, “Sun & Sea (Marina)”, inside building 42 of the Italian Navy, at the Arsenal, Fondamenta Case Nuove. Three Lithuanian artists recreated an artificial beach, with sand, sunbeds, beach umbrellas, towels, beach buckets and swimmers. The jury was impressed by the graceful environmental denunciation and “the inventive use of the venue to present a Brechtian opera”.

But the Golden Lion may lose its hair: who’s going to pay (and find) fake bathers until 24 November? What’s going to happen when the weather is cold? Quite a number of artworks spill over into horror, such as Ed Atkins’ video “Good Man”, but some are bold, sexy and moving, like those by Japanese artist Mari Katayama, who finds beauty in maimed bodies, bravely dealing with the tragedy of a rare ge- netic illness that affected her limbs. Another artist, Zanele Muholi, advocates LGBT rights with paintings that repeatedly depict the face of a South-African lesbian.

Un'opera di Ludovica Carbotta a Forte Marghera, progetto Monowe, città di un secolo
Un’opera di Ludovica Carbotta a Forte Marghera, progetto Monowe, città di un secolo

In theory, this Art Biennale should be the last one chaired by Paolo Baratta

whose fourth mandate will expire on 12 January 2020. But, you know, never say never. At the opening of the Italian Pavilion, the Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, thanked Paolo Baratta for “his commendable work, which I hope will continue.” An important synergy has been established between the municipal administration and the Biennale, especially with regard to the impro- vement of Forte Marghera, strongly desired by Luigi Brugnaro as a means to give new life to Mestre and supported by Paolo Baratta, who has been bringing events from the Biennale Architecture and Art Biennale to Mestre for years. This year’s special event was the beautiful exhibition of works by Ludovica Carbotta in the former Austrian powder mill in Forte Marghera an exhibition which is pretty easy to reach, since the tram stop is only 250 meters away.

But let us turn to the Venice Pavilion, in the Gardens

Owned by the Municipality and curated by Giovanna Zabotti, it is one of the best pavilions, featuring seven international artists who have reconstructed the magical atmosphere of the city with sacred images, huge mooring dolphins that stand out in the water, fog, ropes, fabrics and wood. Turkish film director Ferzan Ozpetek contributed a wonderful video, featuring actress Kasia Smutniak who, while swimming, leads the viewer through the most beautiful city in the world. At the opening, Mayor Luigi Brugnaro expressed his enthusiasm for an initiative he strongly supported: the national competition for young artists aged 18 to 35 years. Winners will take turns to exhibit at Ca ’Pesaro and in the Venice Pavilion for the entire duration of the Biennale (until 24 November). Among the seven international artists featured, worthy of particular note is Brazilian friar Sividal Fila, the first clergyman to participate in the Biennale.