Phantom Pains

Do you fancy yourself an aesthete? Do you love finely tuned museum shows? Do you fetishise Indigenous art? Then the 60th Venice Biennale might be for you!

The Huni Kuin Artists Movement (MAHKU), Kapewe Pukeni (Bridge alligator), site specifik installation, 2024. Photo: Matteo de Mayda. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

I imagine that the reception of the 60th Venice Biennale will oscillate between resignation, cynicism, and amazement. Some will certainly appreciate Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa’s elegant but a bit tedious main exhibition, where the Italian pavilion in Giardini has been painted with trendy Indigenous colours and motifs by the Brazilian collective The Huni Kuin Artists Movement (MAHKU). The work is visible from a distance and conveys a strong “we are the world” sensibility.

More difficult to digest is how the US – the world’s largest exporter of arms to Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza – has allowed the Choctaw/Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson a similar holistic approach in its pavilion, this time with a stronger “lipstick on a pig” feel. Or how Germany – the world’s second largest exporter of arms to Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza – is represented by the Israeli artist Yael Bartana, whose installation is a fantasy about the chosen Jewish people colonising outer space in a ship shaped like a gigantic Kabbala symbol.

The fact that the biennial features significant works that dream about the conquest of new territory as the solution to a political problem, while simultaneously being promoted as the most decolonial edition ever with a total of 331 artists – most of whom come from the Global South and are of Indigenous descent – can be understood as reflecting current global political tensions. But following a closer look, these positions are revealed to be wedded to one another in a logical way. That is, if we adhere to the notion of predestination, the metaphysical belief that some people are more chosen than others depending on who they are. 

In Pedrosa’s main exhibition (a review of the pavilions will follow later on), the idea of being chosen is expressed through one of four categories: the foreigner, the Indigenous, the outsider artist, and, lastly, the queer artist. Pedrosa’s curatorial approach is, in other words, representational through and through. In his exhibition, artists who are queer make art about being queer, and those who are Indigenous make art about being Indigenous. Anything else is difficult to imagine, since the artists seem to have been selected precisely in order to represent who they are said to be.

Moreover, according to Pedrosa, everyone is a foreigner at some point or another. We are all “foreigners everywhere.” Yet, everyone is not on display at the biennale, which must mean that those who are being shown are a better or more refined kind of foreigner than others. What is problematic about this idea is the underlying assumption that these ‘chosen ones’ are not selected by a worldly power but rather by history itself. It is as if the position of being foreign, which Pedrosa so fervently covets, would be fated by destiny rather than the result of actual social, economic and political conditions. Thus, we can visit an show that idealises the position of being a foreigner without having to contaminate ourselves with the reality of current refugee crises and their causes. Which is, of course, convenient.

We might ask how such a detached view of art is possible, or, rather, what curatorial decisions Pedrosa has made to enable it to operate within his exhibition. The answer is predictable: he follows the path of abstraction with its well known history of both enabling and concealing ideological assumptions about art behind the pure play of colour and form. This is exactly what occurs after one passes MAHKU’s mural and finds oneself in the first of three “Nucleos Storicos” (Historical Nuclei) with abstract works by some forty artists from South America, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Middle East – i.e. outside Europe and the U.S. These artists are supposedly united by the fact that they used more sweeping, curved lines than their Western counterparts, who employed stricter techniques. This is, shall we say, a rather loose art historical assumption.

Rubem Valentim, Composicao Bahia n. 1, tempera on canvas, 101 x 73,5 cm, 1966. Roberto Bicca Collection. / Pintura 3, oil on canvas, 100 x73 cm, 1966. Private collection. / Pintura 26, oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm, 1965–1966. Luiz Paulo Montenegro Collection. Photo: Matteo de Mayda. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia.

However, if Pedrosa was aiming for a deeper historical understanding of the artworks in question, he would hardly have chosen to display just one work by each artist, which precludes a more detailed understanding of both the individual work and its place in an art historical or social context. On the contrary, the point seems to be to cut ties to reality outside the sphere of art and to encourage the viewer to mimic a detached eye according to the ideals of retinal art. A similar operation is repeated in the next “Nucleo Storico,” which displays nearly a hundred portraits by non-European painters. Here, the selection is aimed not at presenting the portrayed individual in a particular context, but at showing the formal variety generated by the “crisis of representation” in different parts of the world.

Many of the works by artists such as Chang Woosung (1912–2005, Korea), Roberto Montenegro (1885–1968, Mexico), or Gerard Sekoto (1913–1993, South Africa) are masterful examples of modern portraiture. The Tunisian artist Aly Ben Salem (1910–2001) – who lived in Sweden in the decades after the Second World War – is featured with a gouache painting of a woman in a paradisiacal garden executed in a style that feels emblematic of the section’s focus on restful and serene encounters between viewers and the subjects being portrayed, beyond the hustle and bustle of stark reality.

Similarly, works in the “Nucleo Contemporaneo” (the contemporary section) which depicts life outside the sphere of art tend to be difficult to perceive as more than mere aesthetic objects. Are we supposed to appreciate Philomé Obin (1862–1986) or Rosa Elena Curruchich (1958–2005) for their portrayals of the social environments in which their art is said to have been deeply rooted – in Haiti and Guatemala, respectively – or because they made such beautiful decorative paintings? There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But the way their works have been torn from their original contexts and offered for our aesthetic consumption makes me cringe, no matter how much I admire their exquisite scenes. But if you appreciate artists who create their own worlds in the form of little dollhouse-like environments – and who doesn’t? – then this is the biennale for you! I’m not being ironic; this truly is a beautiful exhibition.

Gabrielle Goliath, Personal Accounts, video and sound installation, 2024. Photo: Matteo de Mayda. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia.

Fortunately, there are also artists who break with the detached historical slumber by engaging the viewer’s body and position in space. One that comes to mind is the South African artist Gabrielle Goliath. Her video installation Personal Accounts (2024) depicts women and LGBTQI+ people testifying about physical and psychological violence. Crucially, the testimonies have been edited out so that only the pauses – exclamations, hands writhing, throats swallowing  – remain, forming a sort of rhythmic concerto which effectively conveys the pain and suffering beyond words.

I was equally moved by the American artist Louis Fratino’s bold paintings depicting love between men juxtaposed with more tranquil motifs like a messy breakfast table and a sink full of last night’s dishes. I was especially intrigued by the elaborate depiction of a couple who, apparently, just had an argument, and are now asleep on opposite sides of a window, perhaps waiting to be on speaking terms again? A melancholy masterpiece.

Louis Fratino, An Argument, 178 x 165 cm, oil on canvas, 2021. Foto: Matteo de Mayda. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia.

In fact, I found the queer theme to be the strongest element of the main exhibition, perhaps because those works often have a more immediate impact (and occasionally a humorous quality) that is more easily appreciated in a crowded environment. At the Arsenale, standouts include Pakistani American painter Salman Toor’s paintings where heated embraces are juxtaposed with depictions of violence, and Chinese artist Xiyade’s masterfully ornate découpages of steamy homoerotic scenes.

Pedrosa is also artistic director of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, and perhaps his keen eye for installing art has been an disadvantage for him as a biennial curator, because I found the exhibition at the Arsenale a bit too ordered and monotonous. The large amount of work by Indigenous artists showing dreams and visions eventually acquires a tedious “you know what I dreamt last night” feel that detracts from the theme of Indigeneity.

At the end of the Arsenale – after an exposé of the fantastic, the oneiric, the idiosyncratic and the unknown – a pair of intriguing videos by Singaporean artist Charmaine Poh and Nigerian-British artist Karimah Ashadu depict current social realities in Singapore and Lagos, respectively. Also, The Disobedience Archive and Moroccan-French artist Bouchra Khalili contribute archival installations, but the general shortage of documentary work left me with a phantom pain pointing to the conflict-ridden present in which we are currently mired. Indeed, Pedrosa’s exhibition is set in a decorative and visionary realm more reminiscent of, say, Hilma af Klint, than of the grim realities and darkness of Okwui Enwezor’s 56th edition in 2015 (Enwezor was the only other Biennale curator from the Global South).

Karimah Ashadu, Machine Boys, HD digital video 16:9, colour single channel 5.1, surround sound, 2024. Photo: Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia.

In fact, Pedrosa has completely turned the tables. Instead of a contemporary art exhibition with historical elements – as has come to be expected – he has curated a historical show with contemporary elements. In addition to the 180 or so artists in the three historical sections, I estimate that at least one in five of the artists in the contemporary section are no longer alive. Thus, the majority of the artists in the exhibition are dead.

In this way, Pedrosa claims to be paying “a historical debt” to those represented artists who have not participated in the biennale in the past. But as far as I know, exhibiting at the biennale is not a right. Consequently, there is no real debt, only the phantasm of justice with the same ideological function as the phantasm of predestination: to divide, undermine demands for political change, and enable stagnation. What Pedrosa demonstrates is thus how wishful thinking about justice can also be used to convey the notion that art has reached the same state of stagnation, where it can no longer be anything but illustrative and representative. For what is justice other than an experience that must and should be treated with respect? In this regard, the 60th Venice Biennale is yet another a reminder that the propriety of social life is not always a recipe for a successful art exhibition.

Let us hope that it is not also a farewell to the radical artistic innovation of the past decades before the Venice Biennale’s newly appointed right-wing president Pietrangelo Buttafuoco puts his stamp on the institution. Worst-case, this year’s decency and explicit theme of respect for tradition and family bonds might be signs that the experimental era is already over.

Claire Fontaine, Foreigners Everywhere / Stranieri Ovunque, installation view, 2004–24. Photo: Marco Zorzanello. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia.

Translation from Swedish: Samuel Teeland.