Perspective | The Venice Biennale, world’s preeminent art event, is alive again

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VENICE — Something is peeking in around the edges of the 2024 Venice Biennale, the world’s preeminent art gathering held every two years, which just opened in this fragile city built on the muck of a grand lagoon. Call it humanity, or pleasure, or even joy.

That doesn’t make much sense, given the state of the world. More than 33,000 have died in Gaza, and the Israeli war machine grinds on, assuring famine will claim yet more lives. Russia is a pariah state, chewing up the land and culture of its neighbor Ukraine. The climate is worse than ever, countries in Africa, including Uganda, have criminalized homosexuality enforceable with severe penalties including death, and free speech and democracy are timorous in the face of rising authoritarianism.

Yet, somehow, this grand festival of creativity has vitality, often substance, and a sense of context wider than the usual web of art-world connections and hierarchies. Much of the credit goes to Adriano Pedrosa, the Brazilian curator of the two main exhibitions that anchor the seven-month biennale, one held in the central pavilion of the parklike Giardini, and the other in the cavernous industrial spaces of the Arsenale, where Venice once built the ships with which it bestrode the world.

Pedrosa, artistic director of the São Paulo Museum of Art, is the first South American and the first openly queer person to curate the biennale. And it shows. South America is represented not just by a phalanx of its top contemporary talent, but historic figures, Indigenous artists from the Amazon, folk painters, self-taught artists and outsider figures from across the continent. Queer artists, living and dead, reinvigorate old media, including painting, that are sometimes declared, airily and with disdain, to be passé or dead. The number of artists invited, many of them participating for the first time, has ballooned to 331. Two years ago, there were 213, and when I last visited in 2019, the number was just 79.

And for the first time in a long time, the biennale’s theme — “Foreigners Everywhere” — offers a real catalyst for processing the art. Pedrosa says it has at least a double sense: The world is full of people who are considered outsiders or foreign, including minorities, migrants and exiles; but we are all strangers, alien even to ourselves. Not every work expresses these ideas, but it is a theme large enough to be inclusive and specific enough to be meaningful.

Yinka Shonibare, a name-brand artist in a show that celebrates newcomers, captures the theme with a work that greets visitors at the Arsenale: “Refugee Astronaut VIII,” a life-size human figure dressed as an astronaut, lugging a large mesh sack of his or her worldly possessions, a playful but disorienting suggestion that Earth has become uninhabitable, and space is our last asylum.

Shonibare’s sculpture is a nice icon, but it also represents what suddenly feels like a moment that may be passing: the perfectly on-brand, well-executed, slightly conceptual, polished and infinitely reproducible art of the past 30 years. More shocking, and exciting, is Pedrosa’s focus on works that operate on a more basic but visceral level of expression. In the Giardini pavilion he has included large galleries of portraiture, gathered from around the world, including works that are decades old.

Human faces stare out from packed walls, among them “Johnny Cool,” a 1967 portrait by the Jamaican artist Osmond Watson (who died in 2005). The young man, dressed in jeans and an oversized blue shirt, has a factual presence that is more interesting and more intense than the details of the artist who made him, or the postcolonial discourse that explains his presence in the biennale.

An even older self-portrait, made in 1941 by the prominent Argentine artist Raquel Forner, is loaded with symbolism: a bloody newspaper clings to a globe in the foreground, a disembodied hand holds a dead dove behind. Standing amid signs of war, Forner holds her right forearm to her stomach, as if to settle her own fears and anguish. I made the same gesture last night, watching a CNN report on children killed while playing foosball at the Maghazi refugee camp in Gaza.

This, obviously, isn’t joy, and it speaks to the inhuman rather than the human. And the vast majority of the artists in this exhibition aren’t speaking directly of happy things. There are no signs of complacency. But there is an overwhelming and deeply moving sense throughout the biennale that art is at work again, picking up the pieces, sweeping away the dust and rubble. This isn’t intellectual play, sudoku for the eyes. The vast majority of the artists chosen by Pedrosa have something to say and the urgency to say it clearly. And the inclusion of so many new artists makes the event feel truly international, rather than a parochial display of what obsesses the insular professional art world.

The highlights are too many, but don’t miss: River Claure’s photographs re-creating Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Le Petit Prince” in contemporary Bolivian terms; a room full of Haitian art by the brothers Sénèque and Philomé Obin; utterly mysterious and deeply disturbing narrative works by the contemporary New York-based Pakistani artist Salman Toor; modern mosaics from the Lebanese artist Omar Mismar that take on subversive themes; landscapes by the Native American Kay WalkingStick; pastel abstractions mashed up with figurative asides by the Chinese artist Evelyn Taocheng Wang; paper cutouts with overtly queer subjects by the Chinese artist Xiyadie; and Rosa Elena Curruchich’s tiny, but evocative folk paintings from the 1980s, hand-sized works that capture daily life among the Maya Kaqchikel of Guatemala.

The main exhibition curated by Pedrosa is the center of a constellation of other shows, including the national pavilions clustered in the Giardini and filling yet more warehouselike galleries in the Arsenale. The United States is represented by Jeffrey Gibson, a queer artist of Cherokee descent. Gibson has covered just about every inch of the neoclassical building, which ordinarily looks like a modest branch of a regional bank, with colors, a rainbow riot of geometric patterning from the base of the structure to the entablature. In wall-sized paintings, a stylized script spells out familiar political phrases (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”) and more pointed references to Native American history (“The returned male student far too often goes back to the reservation and falls into the old custom of letting his hair grow long”). Inside, video and sculpture, including captivating birdlike forms with wildly colored dreadlocks, round out what the curators call a response to “chromophobia,” the fear of color.

The Israeli pavilion, filled with work by Ruth Patir, was closed. A sign in the window read: “The artists and curators of the Israeli pavilion will open the exhibition when a ceasefire and hostage release agreement is reached.” Through the windows, you can see a video of what appears to be ancient stone sculptures of women, animated and keening with grief. Outside, armed guards were on patrol. And throughout Venice, in graffiti on walls and in spontaneous protests, was manifold evidence of world outrage at the brutal toll of Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

Highlights of the national pavilions include Wael Shawky’s mesmerizing opera video, “Drama 1882,” using human figures in a hybrid puppet show that retells the history of a 1879-1882 rebellion against colonial rule. Shawky’s extraordinarily evocative work is also on view off-site at the spectacular Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, on the Grand Canal, where the Doha Film Institute and Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, have organized a high-tech, wide-ranging survey of contemporary art film called “Your Ghosts Are Mine.” Based on the number of “Ghosts” tote bags seen in Venice, this show has a huge promotional budget. But it’s also a compelling sampler of serious contemporary cinema.

There are also “collateral” events, 30 independent exhibitions or installations that come with the official imprimatur of the biennale. I saw a fraction of these but was moved by Berlinde de Bruyckere’s installations at the basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, one of Venice’s most impressive churches, designed by Palladio. De Bruyckere, a Belgian artist, fills the sacristy of the church with wax casts of tree trunks, laid out on rusting metal furniture like patients etherized upon a table. In the nave, giant clothes draped from frameworks and huge mirrors suggest archangels, or the echoes of angels departed. The basilica, on an island separated from the main bustle of Venice, is a refuge for people who need a pause. De Bruyckere’s spiritual art fills it with silence.

Other exhibitions include a show at the historic Accademia devoted to the Dutch-born American artist Willem de Kooning, focused on work made during and in response to his trips to Italy. It offers a view of the artist completely detached from the darker side of his reputation, as a husband emotionally abusive to his wife Elaine de Kooning, and an artist who tortured the female form into parodies of hysteria. Italy refreshed him, inspired him to create sculpture and elicited drawings of remarkable, expressive power and playfulness. The exhibition ends with his late work, including a giant, luminous, spare 1987 painting called “The Cat’s Meow,” a docile tangle of red lines and yellow forms, that seems to replicate itself in a reflection on the polished dark floor.

An independent exhibition of work by Jean Cocteau at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a small delight that reinforces a theme of the biennale: Cocteau, a gay artist, was preternaturally talented, but his sexuality and his promiscuous crossing of formal boundaries left him both an insider and a suspect outsider, or stranger, to the orthodox art world. This show amends that unfair verdict. Another independent show at the Palazzo Donà dalle Rose, of work by the contemporary Italian artist Federico Solmi, is a wild affair, and another frontal assault on chromophobia. Solmi creates carnivalesque satires of contemporary politics and culture, full of grotesquerie and preening figures who ape the mad dance of power and narcissism that define the people we foolishly but reflexively call our leaders.

When you visit someplace as saturated with history and beauty as Venice, you inevitably wonder when you leave: What will I remember? You may try to stuff your mind — or your cellphone camera — with impressions, to make the experience more real and lasting. This biennale inspires the same response. You want to distill it, and take away something larger than a long list of interesting things.

Perhaps that helps explain the difference between this one, and other, lesser iterations. If there is some brighter sense of humanity on display, it may be because Venice has gathered artists who are grappling with that leave-taking need to preserve, retain and hold on to something significant. The world is worse than it ever was, but the artists aren’t leaving without a fight.

Before leaving the Arsenale, I made one last stop, into the galleries of the Italian pavilion, where a giant deconstructed pipe organ is apparently played in the old-fashioned way, by the keys on large turning barrels. The pipes lie horizontally on metal girders, like corpses, but they emit a basic kind of music, low tones that create a minimalist soundtrack, as if the huge open space might somehow be re-enchanted into life by sounds as grandly ponderous as the ancient walls that enclose it. It’s a powerful piece, suggesting someone has restarted an old, magical machine.

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