The 58th edition of the Venice Biennale, opening this weekend, features 90 pavilions and an exhibition, curated by Ralph Rugoff, titled “May You Live in Interesting Times,” which takes the Chinese curse as a starting point for a show featuring artists changing our world in a time of political upheaval. But take it from us: The parable of this summer ought to be, “If a pavilion has a long line, it’s usually worth the wait.” The biennale, which runs until November 24, in Venice’s Giardini and Arsenale, and in 21 venues across the sinking city, is more than just a call and response to the daily news cycle. This 2019 edition is filled with dance protests, queerpos video art, an app for climate change, and a cave made of synthetic hair. Here is a roundup of the buzziest artworks, from Iceland, Taiwan, Brazil, and beyond.
Shoplifter at the Iceland pavilion
Shoplifter, a.k.a. Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, is known for her collaborations with Björk (she designed the Medúlla album cover) but is also renowned for making enormous, furry installations of synthetic hair. It isn’t your average brunette and blond, though—fluorescent green, pastel blue, and pink grace the walls of her volcanic-cave-like installations. The top selfie-op in Venice, this piece, set in a warehouse on Giudecca island, has a womblike quality. It draws visitors from darkness into light. It breaks the ”don’t touch the art” rule too, as visitors are encouraged to hug the furry icicles hanging from the ceiling.
Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz at the Swiss pavilion
This video-art dance protest is potentially the buzziest project of the biennale. Moving Backwards, which has dancers moving to trap beats and techno in reverse, could be the next big dance move. The deeper meaning? It symbolizes resistance against regressive politics. The artists’ letter to viewers on the wall here asks us all: “Do you sometimes feel you are massively being forced to move backwards?” Dancers in the video wear an array of beanies, sequined pants, and skirts, drawing attention to nonbinary visibility. The piece has ties to the queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, who said the now is “a prison house.” Backward is the new forward, “or the other way around,” say the artists.
Shu Lea Cheang at the Taiwan pavilion
The Internet art pioneer Shu Lea Cheang has been working in the digital realm since before most millennials were born (the early 1990s). Now, she brings an app and exhibition called “3x3x6,” referring to the size of a prison cell. Her exhibition, which is in the Palazzo delle Prigioni (a 16th-century prison), comments on our current surveillance state and the perils of facial recognition and smartphones. In 10 short “trans punk fiction” films, she presents legal cases where people have been imprisoned for their gender or racial nonconformity. It’s not all Judge Judy jargon—some clips are YouTube-esque cooking classes, while others are bedroom dance parties. The artist says they stand for “self-affirming dignity against repression.”
Marina Abramović’s Rising at Ca’ Rezzonico
The godmother of performance art is tapping into the most widespread digital language: video games. At the Ca’ Rezzonico gallery, the artist draws our attention to rising sea levels with her latest exhibition and app, Rising. Strap on a virtual reality headset to follow the artist turned avatar in a video game–esque scenario—she’s a character who needs to be saved from drowning in a glass tank in the Arctic, surrounded by melting ice caps. Only good deeds to help the environment will save her from despair. Process photos of the making of the app are also on view, as are videos with commentary.
Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca at the Brazil pavilion
Though Brazil is under conservative rule, the country’s national pavilion is anything but. This video celebrates swinguerra, a dance phenomenon in the city of Recife, where youth groups battle in annual dance-offs. It comes off like a choreographed music video, but swinguerra is also a competitive sport. Fusing hip-hop and samba, it’s an inclusive, underground community of mostly nonbinary dancers. The curator Gabriel Perez-Barreiro says this video is at the core of the country’s “disputes on visibility, legal rights, and self-representation.”
Lorenzo Quinn at the Arsenale
After his success at the last Venice Biennale, the artist Lorenzo Quinn (son of the Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn) has returned with six pairs of monumental hands at the Arsenale, a 12th-century shipping dock, for an installation called Building Bridges. Each pair of folded hands has a different symbol that represents a human value, from friendship to hope and faith. The resin-fiber hands are 50 feet tall, and Andrea Bocelli raised his fist with the artist at the unveiling this week. Quinn’s inspiration was “overcoming differences and build[ing] a better world.”
Ghana Freedom at the Ghana pavilion
Never in the Venice Biennale’s 124-year history has Ghana had a pavilion, until now. For the inaugural exhibition, the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye has designed six circular rooms with walls covered in clay from Ghana. Six artists are on view as part of “Ghana Freedom,” which lifts its name from a song by the 1960s crooner E.T. Mensah, written after the country gained its freedom in 1957. Works include portraits by the painter Lynette Boakye-Yiadom, which hang salon-style; photos by Felicia Abban; and a three-channel video by John Akomfrah, who combines footage from Ghana’s countryside with historic moments in African politics. Ghana is the eighth African country to participate in the Venice Biennale (Mozambique is also participating for the first time in 2019).