Speaking in a frescoed room overlooking the Grand Canal — a world away from the brutalist surroundings of his day job at London’s Hayward Gallery — Biennale Arte 2019 curator Ralph Rugoff is explaining why he was reluctant to tie the 58th edition of the world’s oldest international art event to a theme. ‘If you create a title like Life in the Anthropocene,’ he says, ‘everyone’s going to look at every work through that.’
Instead, Rugoff chose a saying: ‘May you live in interesting times’. This supposedly ancient Chinese curse is in fact a Western fake, as authentically Mandarin as Staffordshire willow-pattern ceramics.
Rugoff, a serious, professorial New Yorker with a deadpan sense of humour, takes it as a fitting label for our current era. ‘I was struck,’ Rugoff explains, ‘by this question of art, which is supposed to be the realm of artifice and distance from reality. How does that function in an age when lying and fiction-making have been taken over by politicians?’
The big novelty this year is Rugoff’s decision to present works by his chosen 79 artists or collectives twice — first in the neoclassical halls of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, and again in the Arsenale’s former naval yards. The idea is partly to show how varied an artist’s output can be.
But it also stems from the curator’s belief that, in an age of wall-building and entrenched positions, art is a ‘unique cultural area, where we’re asked to think in ways that reflect how complex we actually are’.
Among the artists creating new work for the Biennale, Rugoff singles out Michael Armitage, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and George Condo, as well as Hito Steyerl, whose ‘two major new installations will be key moments’.
He has also commissioned what he believes to be the first augmented-reality piece in an art biennial — an app by US artist Darren Bader that will allow visitors to ‘go around and see alternative monuments in Venice’.
Rugoff is also the first curator to have achieved gender parity in his selection. Asked if this was happenstance or affirmative action, he replies, ‘A little bit of both... nobody was getting a show because of their gender or race, but I don’t think things are going to change on their own.’
The 58th Venice Biennale Art Exhibition runs from 11 May to 24 November