May We Live in Interesting Times

By Judith FreemanJuly 30, 2019

May We Live in Interesting Times
Banner image from the Venice Biennale website. Art by Arthur Jafa.


INTERNATIONAL ART FAIRS and biennales — once infrequent occasions in the global art world — have now become so common there are over 300 taking place in different parts of the globe. In the same week that a new record of almost one hundred million dollars was set for a work of art by a living artist, the 58th Venice Biennale, the world’s largest and most prestigious art exhibition, opened to the public. It comes just in time.

Long regarded as the most influential survey of what artists from around the globe are thinking about the times in which we live, the Venice Biennale is a place to see art, not to buy it. Although the invitation-only crowd that arrives for the four-day preview week includes collectors, curators, and dealers among the throngs of art lovers who flock to the city for a first look, sales become a peripheral, behind-the-scenes activity. It is a show for the general public, not just the super rich, though you might not have been able to tell that from the upscale crowd that gathered under rainy skies for the invitation-only preview of this year’s Biennale.

May You Live in Interesting Times was curated by Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London. An American who grew up in New York City, Rugoff moved to Los Angeles in 1983 (where he said he “felt instantly, if somewhat oddly, at home”) and began writing about art and culture for L.A. Weekly — a collection of these pieces was published as Circus Americanus, essays focused on the wondrously bizarre. He began curating exhibitions and became known for the much-admired shows he put together around various themes, including Just Pathetic (art that embodied failure), Scene of the Crime (a seminal show he staged at the Hammer Museum around the theme of violence), and The Greenhouse Effect (organized at the Serpentine Gallery in London).

In these exhibitions and others, Rugoff took an idea and explored the way various artists had addressed it in their art, creating the equivalent of rich visual essays (Rugoff is a very gifted writer, something not often pointed out but which becomes evident on reading his catalog essays, like the brilliant one he wrote for Scene of the Crime). He responds to artists whose work is slightly playful, like that of George Condo, Paul McCarthy, and the late Mike Kelley, all of whom he has written about. He has a light touch when it comes to eschewing the didactic; he has been quoted as saying he is not much interested in politics and prefers to talk about pleasure and beauty — but especially pleasure — and his desire to give the public an exciting and enjoyable experience and to provoke a vivacious curiosity about the work they’re seeing. This sensibility is very much in evidence in the Biennale he has curated. One feels it even in title; May You Live in Interesting Times is supposedly an ancient Chinese curse, though in fact there never was any such curse: the phrase was most likely invented by a British diplomat. The saying was uttered in a speech in Parliament as far back as 1936 and has been used over the years by various public figures, from Hillary Clinton to Arthur C. Clarke. “For an exhibition,” Rugoff wrote, “that, in part at least, considers how art functions in an era of lies, it struck me as an apt title.”

Rugoff has made some significant changes to the Biennale, breaking with established patterns. For one thing, he has included no dead artists, a tendency in the past. As he explained in an introduction to the exhibition catalog, he wanted to choose works of art that have been recently made and “that engage with aspects of this moment, including its myriad possible histories.”

It is also the first Biennale in which more women artists are represented than men — surely an appropriate concession to this moment — and the artists he has selected are predominantly young (it has been referred to as the “Millennial Biennale”), with many participants born in the 1980s or ’90s. He has also included fewer artists, only 79 as opposed to the 136 that showed in 2015 or the 120 in 2017.

Perhaps the biggest change Rugoff has made centers on how these 79 artists from around the world present their work in the two main exhibition spaces — the Arsenale, a vast, waterside industrial warehouse once used for shipbuilding, and the classical Central Pavilion, located in the Giardini, a 20-minute walk away.

For the first time, each artist was invited to show work in both spaces — but work that is so disparate a viewer might have difficulty believing it was made by the same person. In a sense, he staged not one, but two shows for the Biennale. Rugoff calls the show in the Arsenale “Proposition A,” and the different works shown by the same artists in the Giardini “Proposition B.” In doing so, he captures the flagrant contradictions of our time and points very subtly again, as he does with the title, to the idea of “alternative truths” or “facts.” Rather than choose a “theme” for the show, Rugoff has opted to highlight the heterogeneous character of the artists’ works, illuminating the multiplicity of their practice — and also perhaps the duplicity. Both the title and the format evoke the parallel information landscapes that inform our times.

I had been to the Venice Biennale only once before, almost exactly 20 years ago, but this time was different. For one thing (full disclosure here), my partner, the artist-photographer Anthony Hernandez, was invited to show his work this year, one of the handful of older artists that includes Native American Jimmie Durham and German artist Rosemarie Trockel. We arrived in Venice, exhausted after the three flights, while many of the artists were still overseeing the installation of their work, a task some had been at for the better part of a week. We met Rugoff and his French-American partner, Louise de la Tour, for dinner that first night, along with the Los Angeles–based artist Margaret Wertheim (also exhibiting this year) at a restaurant called Nevodi on Via Garibaldi. Both the exhaustion and excitement were palpable that evening in the small dining room, a place that had become a favorite with the artists. Over a delicious meal of mussels and clams, squid ink pasta and a roasted whole sea bass, Rugoff discussed the challenges of installing a show in spaces that had to be completely reconfigured to accommodate the art.

The Arsenale, in particular, posed a great challenge: it has massive brick walls, which he chose to overlay with raw plywood, using it also as panels on which to hang art and divide the space. The Arsenale is so large and cavernous that some local people who worked on the installation brought bikes to ride from one end to the other. Although the opening for the invited guests was only two days away, many wall labels had still not gone up, and there was plenty of last-minute business. Still, Rugoff, an elegant, lean man with a sly sense of humor and a graying beard, seemed cheerful and relaxed. He had been in Venice for over a month overseeing the installations, walking the 20 minutes between the spaces several times a day, and he looked fit from all the exercise. “The air in Venice is really quite good,” he said, “much better than London.” I sensed no one was more excited for the opening than he. During the previous year, he had visited 25 countries and looked at the work of some 2,000 artists to come up with his final selection of 79 participants. That nine of the artists he chose were based in Los Angeles is revealing, not only of Rugoff’s affinity for the city but also his admiration for the exciting work being made by artists who live there.

The next morning, we arrived early at the Giardini and sat outside in the garden, waiting for our friend Beatrice to arrive. A steady mist of fog erupted from the roof of the large white classical building and drifted down over the entrance. Was this steam? Smoke? Something to be alarmed about? No. As we later learned, it was part of an installation by the Italian artist Lara Favaretto, but why this obfuscating vapor?

It’s too bad more people won’t encounter the show the way we saw it that day, in spaces mostly free of people save for the artists themselves and the crews still helping them install. Later in the week, the galleries would become so crowded with an admiring audience that one had to constantly jockey for clear viewing space. But that first day, I had the galleries more or less to myself and the time to really look. I left Beatrice and Anthony to talk and began touring the exhibition alone. In room after room, I discovered works I liked — Carol Bove’s brightly painted sculptures, Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s paintings, and Alex Da Corte’s installation in a darkened room called The Decorated Shed, which included a table-top replica of Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, tiny houses with their windows glowing and a forest of corporate fast food signs rising ominously above the scene.

The sound of seagulls screaming in the next room led me to Hito Steyerl’s video piece, projected on a circular screen, a watery visual meditation set in Venice and based on Leonardo da Vinci’s design for a submarine, which he imagined might be used to defend the city, a drawing that he eventually opted to hide because he thought men were too evil to possess such technology.

From another room came a loud clanging noise and the murmur of recorded voices. Sound, I discovered, was an important part of this Biennale, various noises creating a strange cross-pollinating effect. In this room, I found a life-sized black-and-white plastic cow circulating on a train track surrounded by fake plants, from behind which came the mutter of indistinguishable voices, a work by the Chinese artist Nabuqi. It had been installed opposite a piece by Shilpa Gupta, a huge metal security gate that swung back and forth on a timer, smashing loudly and riotously into the wall on either side and causing debris to occasionally break loose and fall on the floor. Walls and barriers would begin to form a motif in the work I saw. I loved the Gupta piece, stood transfixed for several minutes, taking in its jarring, violent action.

Nestled in a little alcove near the clanging gate, I encountered the jewel-like installations by the Los Angeles–based twin sisters, Christine and Margaret Wertheim, whose “Crochet Coral Reef” project has now involved over a thousand volunteers, working in different cities, to produce exquisitely colored simulacra of reefs made out of brightly colored yarn. Here, in beautifully lit little vitrines, were gorgeous crochet reefs, suggesting the fragile state of the oceans.

This Biennale is a show with much to say about the politics of the time. In work after work, I discovered a concern for the major issues: climate change, racism, the resurgence of nationalism, identity and other communitarian politics, and the growing disparity in global wealth. Rugoff, as a curator, may profess not to be much interested in politics, but he has chosen artists who are raising questions in their work that address all kinds of societal and environmental shifts, concerns that are displayed in provocative ways.

One of the largest and most mesmerizing works in the Giardini is by the Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Can’t Help Myself. An industrial-sized black robot with a large paintbrush attached to its single arm, it has been programmed to perform 32 different movements: it turns and flexes and flails about like a restless anxious creature caught in a transparent glass cage, tasked with keeping a viscous blood-like fluid from oozing too far away by constantly sweeping it back into place with its massive brush while doing an “ass wiggle” and dozens of other movements. Turning away from this spectacle is hard, and the viewers that would later crowd the room stood transfixed, watching the robot perform its disturbing functions (that bloody liquid! The alarming, anthropomorphic machine!). Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, another installation stood stolid and silent but no less menacing — Mexican artist Teresa Margolles’s 12-meter-long section of a cinder block wall that once stood in front of an elementary school in Ciudad Juárez. The wall is riddled with bullet holes and topped by barbed wire, evidence of the violence of drug cartels and how it encroaches daily on children’s lives.

It was a lot to take in, the dozens and dozens of works I saw in the Giardini, but the piece that stayed with me in the end was by the Los Angeles–based black artist Arthur Jafa, a video called The White Album, a deeply moving meditation on the violence and insanity of white supremacy in the United States. There are a number of videos in the exhibition, and they all take patience and time to watch, but as it turned out I sat through The White Album not once but three times during my time in Venice, revisiting it with various friends. I was especially pleased, then, when during the awards ceremony that concluded opening week, The White Album won the Golden Lion for best artwork at this year’s exhibition.

We had only viewed one half of May You Live in Interesting Times the first day in the Giardini, and we spent the next day at the Arsenale looking at work by the same artists — and in most cases, what different work it was. Jafa, for instance, showed sculptural works here, giant tractor tires wrapped in chains, inspired by the artist’s fascination with the Mississippi landscape of his youth. Gupta, whose clanging security gate swinging back and forth had created such an impact on me, here installed a piece called For, in your tongue I cannot fit, a work that addresses the violence of censorship and fills a darkened room where dozens of microphones hang above a grid of waist-high steel spikes on which a single sheet of paper with text has been impaled. From the microphones come the murmured voices reading the text on the paper below, poems and statements written in different languages by the unjustly imprisoned, dating back over the centuries.

The idea behind Rugoff’s Proposition A and Proposition B began to come into clear focus: how could a single artist have made both works? And yet Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s “alternate” vision was instantly recognizable as theirs — a reproduction of the chair from the Lincoln Memorial, encased in a large glass cube, with a black rubber hose that erupted from the seat every few minutes, whipping violently against the glass and creating a noisy disturbance.

By showing different work by the same artists in the two separate spaces, Rugoff “proposes” an added conversation — that of the artist with her or his self. On the one hand, the Biennale is a “transnational” conversation a group of artists have with one another — a discourse informed by the curator’s choice of participants, revealing both their connections and disparities. Rugoff has cross-pollinated ideas on many different levels. The public sees the work of each artist twice, in different contexts, their works arranged differently in “conversation” with other pieces. This format broadens ways of seeing and adds an unexpectedly rich layer. It also feeds, once again, the idea of holding two opposing ideas in the mind at once.

The Biennale is composed not only of the two main exhibitions in the Giardini and Arsenale — the curated shows — but there are also 90 “national pavilions” — separate individual buildings and spaces where various nations, from Estonia to Egypt, and Mongolia to Mexico, mount their own exhibitions that run concurrently.

Some pavilions, like the French, Russian, Japanese, and Great Britain spaces, are housed in buildings on the grounds of the Giardini, while others are farther away, scattered throughout the city. It is hard to convey just how much work there is to see during the Biennale, in a city that is already so heavily overlaid with art.

But word does get around, and by the third day of the preview week, people were talking about the installation in the French Pavilion, and there was a long line to get in involving a two-hour wait. I was anxious to see this work, and we decided we would beat the crowd and arrive early the next day and still, as soon as the gates opened, the well-heeled throng began running, racing each other like the thoroughbreds they were, pounding along the gravel path in designer sneakers and heels, and we ran with them and managed to be among the first group admitted to see the French artist Laure Prouvost’s installation called The Deep Blue Sea Surrounding You. It was worth the stampede. The main work — again a video — portrays a poetic journey performed by a dozen characters of different ages that highlights both the fragile beauty of the world and its looming demise.

Later, we came upon the Venezuelan Pavilion, a building designed by Carlo Scarpa in the 1950s, which was completely shuttered and deserted. We were later told the Venezuelans hoped to open up with an exhibition in coming weeks, but that day we found only a leaf-blown and empty courtyard, a locked door, trash stacked in a corner, and a broken rake leaning against a stained wall. A man who had also wandered into the depressing scene along with us turned to me and said, “This is Venezuela.”

“Yes,” I said, “this is Venezuela.”

It would be impossible to list all the artists whose work I liked, to put them all down here, but they include: L.A. artist Jill Mulleady’s extraordinary paintings that combine close observations of everyday reality with surreal imaginary elements; the German artist Alexandra Bircken’s Eskalation, 40 figures made from cloth dipped in black latex and suspended from ladders that evoke such human struggle; Christian Marclay’s 48 War Movies, films layered one atop the other and spliced into a collage of violence; Henry Taylor’s powerful paintings; Frida Orupabo’s paper-doll-like cutouts of black women; Jesse Darling’s witty sculptures; and Turkish artist Halil Altindere’s space-themed works, which I found hilarious (he is quoted as saying, “I use irony because it can’t easily be touched by totalitarians”).

There is a felicity, a certain playfulness, in May You Live in Interesting Times, in spite of the seriousness of the issues so many of the works confront. Much of the art I saw gave me great pleasure, and other pieces left me momentarily perplexed and disoriented, occasionally even alarmed. I began thinking of the title of Rugoff’s book, Circus Americanus. The Biennale felt a bit like that, as if the Really Big Show had come to town, all the artists whose reputations precede them as well as the newer acts, collected in a tent of wonders erected by a talented American. It’s stimulating and provocative to see such an enormous variety of art installed this way: it’s a show that doesn’t fail to entertain, and this is a good thing. The German author Carolin Emcke has said, “Whoever wants to protect a democratic open society should try to get their own views across with a certain confidence, joy, and pleasure.” And there is a lot of pleasure to be had in this Biennale.

Rugoff has been quoted as saying in an interview, “The great strength of art is that it’s able to explore meanings that are ambiguous and complex, that leave you with questions rather than answers. And that’s what this show has set out to celebrate.” In this way, I think he has succeeded.

The day when I was touring the galleries in the Giardini alone, I happened to see him being interviewed (as he was often that first day when the press was invited), and I stopped to listen briefly as I passed by. “Experimentation and openness,” I heard him say. “Anyone can come and enjoy.”

“I really don’t care about the opening days,” he said in another interview.

It’s a six-month show. People in the art world experience it at these opening days and they think it’s all superyachts and moneyed people. It’s not. It’s a show that’s seen by over 600,000 people. A show with a really broad outreach. It can speak to people who don’t give a shit about the art world, about the market, about what auction prices are. And that’s the audience I care about.

He is talking about art that offers robust pleasures of eye and mind, work that can jive with the general public, which doesn’t need to be made to feel stupid by a cultural elite. Half of those 600,000 people who will see May You Live in Interesting Times before it closes in November will be under the age of 26. That is a hopeful statistic when you think about it, since the even more “interesting times” that surely await them will need all the illumination and pleasure that art can provide.


Watch Michael Kurcfeld’s interview with the curator, Ralph Rugoff, here.


Judith Freeman is the author of a collection of stories and several novels, including The Chinchilla Farm (W.W. Norton) and Red Water (Pantheon Books). Her most recent book is the nonfiction work The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (Pantheon, 2007).

LARB Contributor

Judith Freeman is the author of a collection of stories and several novels, including The Chinchilla Farm (W.W. Norton) and Red Water (Pantheon Books). Her most recent book is the nonfiction work The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (Pantheon, 2007). Her new novel, Macarthur Park (Pantheon Books), is coming out in October. She can be contacted at


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