"May You Live In Interesting Times" - stARTup at the 58th Venice Biennale

With stARTup SF 2019 still fresh in our minds, we’re moving forward with not one but TWO fairs — stARTup Small Works at The Midway in July, and the debut of stARTup Houston at Hotel Icon. Artist applications are open.

And with so much work to do, we looked to stARTup artist Clint Imboden and partner Anne Ross for a report on the 58th edition of the Venice Biennial, on view through November 24th. Here’s what they had to say on May You Live in Interesting Times.


Our first time at the Venice Biennial was pretty amazing as we suspected it would be. There were works questioning both art and contemporary life. Filtering my vision through all of this, I also came away with a constant mantra: “Someone’s art is someone else’s trash.” This is coming from someone who makes art literally out of other people’s junk.

A little background about the Biennale before getting into specific exhibitions. There are two large areas that are permanent exhibition spaces: Giardini, where all the large countries have permanent pavilions, and Arsenale, which houses most of the titled exhibition along with temporary spaces for countries that do not have permanent pavilions. Then there are satellite country pavilions which appeared to be anywhere they could find space in the city.


There was some very intriguing work, among a lot of very uninteresting work. We experienced installations, immersive art, interactive art, audio art, kinetic art, films, paintings, sculptures, process art, performance art, liminal art, etc.

A particular standout was Where He Meets Him in Venice by Inhwan Oh (below) at the Navy Officer’s Club in Arsenale, brought by and in collaboration with MMCA (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) Korea.

This piece engages the nose, eyes, brain, and heart. Incense sticks laid out on the floor of the navy officer’s club form words that at first appear random: L’Elephant Blanco, Speed, Bart, Censured. Fine, vivid green sand serenely covers the words as the incense slowly burns through, turning the green sand to ash. Each letter and word is connected to the next, forming an unbroken line. As each incense stick burns out it lights the next in line. Imagine a line of dominoes falling in very, very slow motion…

What is it all about? A lovely 20-something curator from MMCA, Korea addresses the crowd, a collection of multinationals enjoying free hors d’oeuvres and Prosecco. “The theme of this show is to make something invisible visible…” Hmmm. Later I ask her, “The words seem random, but are they?” She tells us then that they are the names of the gay bars in Venice, things that are at first invisible. And, as my colleague adds, “they are burning.”

The installation takes eight days to burn through the list of names.

We found the Zimbabwe Pavilion quite by accident, hidden behind the Andorran exhibition space — which was in a large old church on the Buccino di San Marco, one of the major waterways. We saw a small sign pointing out a back door, which led us to their space.

Installation in the Zimbabwe Pavillion

Installation in the Zimbabwe Pavillion

One of the artists, Neville Starling, a self-taught photographer is showing small black and white images printed onto glass and displayed in small crudely made white frames about 5 x 7 inches.

Photography by Neville Starling

Photography by Neville Starling

The Lithuanian Pavilion was by far my favorite, even before it won the Golden Lion. It could win awards as a stage performance, an opera, or a visual set, while beautifully addressing one of the most urgent crises of our “interesting time.”

Installation in the Lithuanian Pavilion

Installation in the Lithuanian Pavilion

We viewed the piece from the second floor and looked down on a beach of sand that filled the entire first floor with various people in beachwear laying around on blankets or playing games. The participants were actually highly skilled singers and they each took turns singing arias about global warming and the fate of the planet.

In the Iraq Pavilion what at first glance is military camouflage fabric covering the wall upon closer look is a painting of crowding of soldiers in the fetal position.

The Last Meal by Serwan Baran, acrylic on canvas, 2019

The Last Meal by Serwan Baran, acrylic on canvas, 2019

The Pakistan Pavilion, first time here, was also moving. A two channel video displayed drone strikes by the US on one screen and an artisan making large binoculars out of spare parts on the other.

But the kinetic installations by Chinese artists, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, were the most thought-provoking, walking a fine line between the disturbing and the mesmerizing.

In Dear, an intermittent gush of compressed air explodes through a long thin black rubber hose, violent in sound and movement, protruding from an empty large white throne. Leadership, reverence, history, personal space, modesty, truth, integrity, promises... all are brought into question.

This piece held the crowd spellbound for several minutes or longer, as long as an individual chose the watch. An automated, robotic, industrial machine reminiscent of a steam shovel endlessly attempts to clean up pools of red liquid, presumably blood. The cleaning is never successful. Smears and splatters cover white floor and glass walls. At times the machine seems gentle, other times it seems to stretch or jiggle or dance. It is always wiping and cleaning, determinedly yet ineffectively. It brings to mind thoughts of guilt and cover-up, drugstore bandages over gaping wounds, good intentions and powerlessness, misguided policies, and the incredible damage the human race has caused.

But not all artists at the biennale are portraying imminent dystopia. This piece by Jesse Darling is whimsical and celebratory.

March of the Valedictorians by Jesse Darling, 2016

March of the Valedictorians by Jesse Darling, 2016


Of the record 87 counties participating this edition, the Zimbabwe Pavilion remains a favorite. Will I go back? A solid Yes!


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