REVIEW: Venice Biennial – The Center or the Periphery?

By: Maya Castro Gutiérrez


What’s more interesting: the center or in the periphery?

There are definitely pros and cons to both. For one, if you’re in front and center, let’s say at a concert, you get to see the musicians’ sweat roll down their face. However, if you elect to stand by the side, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the cool pedals they use others are too careless to notice. But since we’re going to talk about art, I’m going to suggest that one is more favorable than the other.

The 56th Venice Biennial, which opened to the public on May 9th, is the definition of visual presentation on a grand scale. Comprised of a plethora of artists from every corner of the world, All The World’s Future is the culmination of years of hard work on behalf of the curator, the Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor, and the many participating countries. Centering on his impeccable signature of clean installations and flawless writing, Enwezor has presented his curatorial project in conversation with Marxism, highly enforced by daily readings of Das Kapital throughout the duration of the biennial. Although it may seem contradicting to talk about art in the context of Marxism, which is hugely driven by the financial market, All the World’s Future adapts Marx’s writing into a world that has already accepted its fate in Capitalism and that is still trying to adapt it to the 21st century.

The structure is essentially simple. The Giardini and Arsenale are together the Queen Bee of this production and all the collateral events in surrounding spaces are the humble and quiet workers who insistently try to make her proud. While the Giardini houses pavilions representing specific countries, the Arsenale, in a different yet not so far location, makes space for other countries to share the spotlight. Both spaces allow for breathability among the artworks and allow for a personal conversation between each other.




As it was my first time visiting attending the biennial, I had a vague idea of what to expect. Every important art dealer, collector, curator, director, you name it was there and the art definitely made an impression. Heading towards the center pavilion in the Giardini you are welcomed by the impressive nature of Oscar Murillo’s and Glenn Ligon’s work that is mounted at the entrance of the center building, where Enwezor’s show is. Once you exit the Arsenale, you walk down a long corridor with Ibrahim Mahama’s Out of Bounds covering the ancient walls.

Of course, there is so much to see and everything to love but I have to say that the following are my top picks:

  • Belgian Pavilion (Giardini)
  • Latin American Pavilion (Arsenale)
  • Singapore Pavilion (Arsenale)
  • Nordic Pavilion (Giardini)
  • US Pavilion (Giardini)
  • Germany (Giardini)

But even with this concept of what the Venice Biennial is, the true treasures are found outside of the center; they live on the periphery.

Possibly two of the best exhibitions out there are Proportio and My East Is Your West.

Proportio, located at the Palazzo Fortunymanages to bring the old with the new in multiple floors. Beginning with the first floor, you make your way around about four handmade hut-like structures that capture the essence of the golden ratio and sacred geometry. As you ascend to see the sculptures, architectural renderings, paintings, installations, sound pieces, and videos, you soon realize that the connecting thread of proportions is apparent but not obvious. The building itself is a relic from a couple of centuries ago and makes for a beautiful location to house artworks from different places and from different years. One of the most curious arrangements comes from the second floor, or the Fortuny Floor, which pairs a Sandro Boticelli piece with an artwork from the late 20th century. The top floor also houses a piece that is situated perfectly with one of the windows that overlooks all of Venice and its beautiful architecture. Three wood swings move back and forth at different intervals while carrying a small glass of water. As you look through the water in the glass you see a complete reversal of your gaze: the buildings appear on the top as the sky now lays on the ground. Even as you experience this simple yet sophisticated placement, a site-specific sound piece by Marina Abramoviç–Ten Thousand Stars–plays in the headphones you were given upon reaching the top level. Here, you look at art while audibly experiencing art.




My East Is Your West is collaboration instead of a presentation between the East and the West. With artists Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana from India and Pakistan respectfully, the exhibition plays with the idea of location, whether it be present or constructed like borders of countries. The small and hard to find area that houses this exhibition serves as a metaphor to the biennial itself. In order to visit this exhibition you really have to work for it. There are no easy street signs or any physical indicator besides a small sheet of computer paper with an arrow pointing at a long alley to tell you where it could possibly be. The most impressive piece within the show is a video installation that works more like a web camera installed in Pakistan. When I entered the room I found myself standing “across” from three young boys who didn’t speak a word of English but kept smiling and waiving and posing for photos. This interaction with someone from another culture five time zones ahead proved to fully capture the premise of the title of the show. As you exit the room to the one before it, where you originally entered, you quickly see yourself in real time from a few moments before. This feeling of seeing yourself moving without you moving creates a sense of time delay and makes you think about a parallel world where this art installation could possibly be real.

I wasn’t able to see Proportio and My East Is Your West until my last day. Until then, I was rather impressed with everything I saw but nothing really stood out. I felt that something was off with me internally but I kept asking myself if there would be anything that I would truly be enamored by. It took one day to completely step outside the center stage to see what everyone back stage was working on.




When I found out that Marx was an integral factor in the biennial I wondered why. Marx will always be relevant as long as Capitalism is around, but what does this have to do with art? The bourgeoisie and the proletariat live in two entirely worlds. One is caught up with commodity while the other is extorted for its labor. In art the same exists with some artists working for pure profit and with others trying to make a difference. What it all boils down to is where you find yourself: do you long to see the show-stoppers or are you more interested in checking out the overlooked?




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