If the art world has anything close to the Olympics, or the Oscars, it’s the Venice Biennale, where countries send representatives every two years to present the best contemporary art they have to offer and compete to be named best in show. This year, the international jury has awarded the top prize for an international pavilion to Lithuania and the Golden Lion for the best participant in the central international exhibition “May You Live in Interesting Times” to American artist Arthur Jafa.
Several artists and pavilions received special mention by the jury. Teresa Margolies, who represented Mexico, was acknowledged for her affecting installation about the plight of women who experience violence in her native Mexico. Honored with a special mention for participation in the central exhibition is Otobong Nkanga for, as the jury stated, her “exploration across media into the politics of land, body, and time.” Finally, Belgium recurved a mention for its pavilion, which featured a surreal installation of puppets by Jos de Gruyler and Harald Thys.
Honored with the Silver Lion for a promising young participant in the central show is Indonesian Artist Handiwirman Saputra.
The biennale’s central exhibition, curated by Ralph Rugoff, carried a unique curatorial conceit. The Hayward Gallery director selected a smaller-than-typical artist list—around 80 individuals and collectives—and included their work in both main venues, rather than creating two entirely different shows. (He called the Arsenale “Proposition A” and the Giardini “Proposition B.”)
Jafa, the Golden Lion winner for the best participant in Rugoff’s show, is known for his gripping videos that incorporate YouTube clips, news broadcasts, and original footage to examine race and culture in America. At the Giardini, he showed his latest film, The White Album (2019), an exploration of whiteness. At the Giardini, he showed a very different side of his work: monumental sculptures made of tires and chains that recalled gallows.
Lithuania was selected for its performance Sun & Sea (Marina), an opera about the dangers of climate change and a biting critique of leisure. The project is the work of theater director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, playwright Vaiva Grainytė, and composer Lina Lapelytė. It first debuted at Vilnius’s National Gallery of Arts in 2017 in Lithuanian and was adapted into English for the biennale.
The international jury of curators tasked with selecting the winners is composed of jury president Stephanie Rosenthal, the director of the Gropius Bau art center in Berlin; Defne Ayas, curator at large for the V-A-C foundation in Moscow; Cristiana Collu, director of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome; Sunjung Kim, president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation; and Hamza Walker, director of the LA nonprofit LAXART.
As previously announced, the jury awarded the coveted Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement to American-born, Berlin-based artist Jimmie Durham. Although Durham is not a recognized member of the Cherokee tribe—which has recently been a source of controversy—he self-identifies as a Cherokee, and much of his artistic practice deals with issues of colonialism and Native American identity.
In the Arsenale section of Rugoff’s exhibition, Durham presented a series of sculptures dedicated to the largest mammals in Europe—many of which are on the verge of extinction—made out of furniture, industrial materials, and used clothes. In the Giardini, he presented a slab of marble accompanied by a detailed description of exactly how the material traveled from a quarry in India to his studio in Berlin to the exhibition in Venice.
In a statement, Rugoff praised the 78-year-old artist “for making art that is at once critical, humorous and profoundly humanistic.”
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