The 2024 Venice Biennale, Reviewed

Granted, there are things worth getting upset about here, with good and bad art works talking over each other for entire rooms at a time. Peak braying is reached in a single tall gallery that Pedrosa has stuffed like a storage unit with abstract paintings by thirty-seven artists, most of them making their Biennale début. You can always try to make up for neglect by rushing lots of strong material through at once, but this doesn’t necessarily do the material any favors: plenty of abstraction needs time and space to bloom in the beholder’s eye, and none of the paintings in this room are permitted much of either, with the result being that nothing much blooms at all. Blame the curation, blame the inherent dilemma of the logjam—either way, it’s the one portion of the Central Exhibition which strikes me as an outright failure. A Rothko couldn’t thrive in a place like this.

The most obvious way to stand out in a big, loud multitude is to be louder, and loudness, with a side helping of eeriness, was more or less the métier of the mid-century Italian artist Domenico Gnoli. His sprawling painting of a woman’s shoe looks as rough as sandpaper, with two vampire fangs of red fabric poking down from its top edge—it has to be one of the most calmly odd things in the Central Exhibition this year, and also one of the most purely pleasurable, pulling you in with the friendly yank of a pop song. Gnoli’s approach isn’t so far from that of the Mexican Ana Segovia, whose “Pos’ se acabó este cantar” is one of this Biennale’s more memorable film pieces. Panting with hot color and haywire machismo, it features two Mexican cowboys, or charros, standing millimetres apart, their every move swollen to monumentality by the camera’s closeness. Flirtation is hard to distinguish from violence, sexy thrashing being rather similar to the angry kind. You may long for answers, or learn to enjoy the twinges of comedy and menace.

With fewer than half of the Central Exhibition artists presently breathing, the national pavilions have double the usual pressure to sum up the state of contemporary art. Some countries always participate, though others, like Ethiopia and Tanzania, are here for the first time, and another, Russia, declined to take part and lent its empty pavilion to Bolivia. On my second day of pavilion-going, a P.R. person told me that the decision was only a tiny sub-scheme in Russia’s ongoing bid for Bolivia’s mining reserves. Oscar Wilde thought that all art was quite useless; whether it can win Vladimir Putin a bottomless supply of lithium remains to be seen.

“I love finding new places to sit in silence and scroll on our phones together.”

Cartoon by Sarah Akinterinwa

If this Biennale can be trusted, though, the state of contemporary art is rumbly. At first, I thought the noises were coming from thunderclouds, or my own gut, but no—ambient echoes score a significant number of the national pavilions this year, enough to give the entire show a low, uniform, very important murmur, italics for the ears. It’s the right soundtrack for pavilions that seem locked in a deadly serious arms race of whimsy. Visit a few and fun quickly hardens into formula. You wait in line, drone-serenaded. You go in and immediately some whatsit mugs you: a gaggle of masked figures rolling around in muck, a rain forest of rainbow tendrils, an arrangement of rainbow beads, a wrecked boat, a dead giraffe.

The giraffe—actually a spotted hut-like structure, modelled on the carcass of a giraffe that died in the Prague Zoo in the nineteen-fifties—can be found in the Czech pavilion, courtesy of Eva Kot’átková. Some informal polling suggests that it’s one of the more popular pavilions this year, which I suspect has a lot to do with how nice it feels to squat inside the giraffe hut and rest for a minute. When you stand up and return to the rumbling outside, the visceral weirdness fades fast—just another interchangeable phrase in the big Biennale Mad Lib. A welcome exception is Yuko Mohri’s installation in the Japanese pavilion. Several of her pieces transform the space into a cavern of dripping water, a nod to the leaks, worsened by a series of earthquakes, that have dogged Tokyo’s metro system for years. The most striking works star rotting fruit, which has been poked with electrodes that translate moisture into—you guessed it—drone noises. It’s no less weird than a dead giraffe, of course, but for once the weirdness doesn’t feel like a weapon aimed at the viewer. The tone is calmer, serene in its indifference; nature and technology are locked in a Platonic dialogue that we mortals can only eavesdrop on. Mohri doesn’t demand your shock, and so earns your interest.

Good? Bad? When you’re deep in the trance state brought on by pavilion-hopping, it’s probably more honest to think in terms of what works and what doesn’t. Two days after our first meeting, the man who yelled at me walked right by without showing any sign of recognition—too preoccupied with the forty-sixth President, I suppose, or possibly with the timeless mysteries of art. Maybe he’d just come from the German pavilion, the apotheosis of post-good art at this year’s Biennale. It contains multiple offerings, including a video by Yael Bartana that crosscuts between woodland witchcraft and a spaceship, and an unclassifiable piece by Ersan Mondtag that can be read as a wretched, furious monument to the artist’s grandfather, who died of asbestos poisoning. Alone, each piece might not have fared so well—Bartana’s might have been too woozy-cheesy, Mondtag’s too self-definingly sombre. Yet they somehow unlock each other. Wandering through Mondtag’s re-creation of his grandfather’s world, complete with performers and mounds of dust, I caught a glimpse of C.G.I. outer space, and the obscenity of this old family tragedy jabbed at me like it was mine.

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