Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Carol Bove, and Stan Douglas are included in the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Curated by Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Hayward Gallery in London, the exhibition is titled May You Live in Interesting Times. "In a speech given in the late 1930s," Rugoff states, "British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain invoked an ancient Chinese curse that he had learned of from a British diplomat who had served in Asia, and which took the curious form of saying, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ ‘There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us,’ Chamberlain observed. ‘We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.’ This summary sounds uncannily familiar today as the news cycle spins from crisis to crisis. Yet at a moment when the digital dissemination of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ is corroding political discourse and the trust on which it depends, it is worth pausing whenever possible to reassess our terms of reference. In this case it turns out that there never was any such ‘ancient Chinese curse,’ despite the fact that Western politicians have made reference to it in speeches for over a hundred years. It is an ersatz cultural relic, and yet for all its fictional status it has had real rhetorical effects in significant public exchanges. At once suspect and rich in meaning, this kind of uncertain artefact suggests potential lines of exploration that are worth pursuing at present, especially when the ‘interesting times’ it evokes seem to be with us once again. Hence the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia will be titled after a counterfeit curse.... in an indirect fashion, perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times.’ The 58th International Art Exhibition will not have a theme per se, but will highlight a general approach to making art and a view of art’s social function as embracing both pleasure and critical thinking. The Exhibition will focus on the work of artists who challenge existing habits of thought and open up our readings of objects and images, gestures and situations. Art of this kind grows out of a practice of entertaining multiple perspectives: of holding in mind seemingly contradictory and incompatible notions, and juggling diverse ways of making sense of the world."
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, installation view, 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times, curated by Ralph Rugoff. Photo by Jack Hems
May You Live In Interesting Times includes a group of new and recent paintings by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, in addition to existing works. Created specifically for the Biennale exhibition and on view in the Arsenale, Akunyili Crosby’s new series revisits her earlier interest in portraiture, exploring the legibility of the body as a surface, in which aspects such as hair, skin, clothing, and jewelry resonate culturally and historically. For Services to Mother Country (2019), for example, uses a monochromatic burgundy palette to depict a young woman with a tribal hairstyle and marks on her cheeks, of which the artist explains, "Tribal marks largely died out with my parents’ generation, so if you see someone from my generation who has it, it means they grew up in a village." Titled after a popular song by the Nigerian pop singer 2baba, the painting I Dey Feel Like . . . (2019) uses fluorescent, cobalt, and ultramarine blues to depict a young man whose photograph the artist found in Arise, a now-defunct African lifestyle and arts magazine. Simultaneously referencing Yves Klein’s monochromes and Chris Ofili’s blue paintings, the artist’s palette in this painting allowed her to explore the luminescence of black skin under colored light.
Carol Bove, installation view, 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times, curated by Ralph Rugoff. Photo by Maris Mezulis
Of the five "collage sculptures" by Carol Bove on view in the Arsenale and Central Pavilion, Bather (2019) is one of two new works made for the Biennale. To create Bather, Bove crushed and shaped stainless-steel tubing over and around itself; an application of pink color to the overall form transforms the steel—more commonly associated with inflexibility and heft—into something that appears malleable and lightweight, like clay, fabric, or crinkled paper. As the artist notes, "One of the things I am interested in is surface treatments, and how doing a colored surface treatment can change your belief about what the material is. It can throw into a dynamic interplay your visceral sense of what you’re looking at and your intellectual sense of what you’re looking at—and demonstrate how interrelated those things are."
Stan Douglas, installation view, 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times, curated by Ralph Rugoff. Photo by Jack Hems
Debuting in the Venice Biennale, Doppelgänger is a video installation by Stan Douglas, set in an alternative present. Displayed on two translucent screens, each of which can be viewed from both sides, the looped narrative unfolds in side-by-side vignettes depicting events in worlds that are light-years apart. When one spacecraft embarks on its journey, another is launched at the same time. Alice, a solitary astronaut, is teleported to a distant planet, as is her double. When Alice and her ship, the Hermes, return, she assumes her mission has failed and that she has somehow returned home; in fact, she has arrived at a world where everything, from writing to the rotation of the earth, is literally the reverse of what she once knew. Douglas intentionally heightens the viewer’s feeling of displacement through a continual sense of reversal and mirroring, both in the form and content of his installation. Intercut with quasi-abstract passages of color and light, which nod both to avant-garde cinema as well as the history of space exploration, Doppelgänger presents a nuanced and layered parable that powerfully addresses the position of the "other" in contemporary society. In addition to Doppelgänger, Douglas is presenting five works from his 2017 Blackout series, originally shown at David Zwirner last year, for which he staged scenes from a hypothetical emergency scenario of the total loss of power in New York.
Cover image: Stan Douglas, installation view, 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times, curated by Ralph Rugoff. Photo by Jack Hems