In its 58th iteration this year, the International Art Exhibition, better known as the Biennale Arte, or more colloquially as the Venice Biennale (11 May–24 November 2019) remains the world's premier biennial art exhibition. It is primarily staged in two venues—the Giardini Della Biennale, a 19th-century parkland made by Napoleon on the eastern edge of Venice, and the Arsenale, a historic shipbuilding complex known for its impressively long hallway—alongside other locations throughout the city.
This year, 89 participating national pavilions, with 30 in the Giardini, present the best examples of art their countries have to offer, while the curated International Exhibition brings together the works of 79 artists from around the world. This year's curator—Ralph Rugoff, currently Director of the Hayward Gallery, London—had each artist exhibit works in both the Giardini and the Arsenale. The Exhibition's title, 'May You Live In Interesting Times', is an English phrase that was invented in the early 20th century as a fake Chinese curse; Paolo Baratta, President of La Biennale di Venezia, describes the title as evoking 'the idea of challenge or even "menacing" times' or 'an invitation to always see and consider the course of human events in their complexity'.
This year's jury was headed by Stephanie Rosenthal, Director of the Gropius Bau in Berlin, and comprised of Defne Ayas, Curator-at-Large for V—A—C Foundation, Moscow; Cristiana Collu, General Director of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome; Sunjung Kim, President of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation; and Hamza Walker, Executive Director of LAXART, Los Angeles.
The Golden Lion for Best National Participation was awarded to the Lithuanian Pavilion, whose performance piece Sun & Sea (Marina)—curated by Lucia Pietroiusti and executed by artists Lina Lapelyte, Vaiva Grainyte, and Rugile Barzdziukaite—transformed a room at the Arsenale into a beach lit by an artificial sun. As the audience watches from the balcony above, holiday-goers clad in swimsuits sing songs about daunting environmental disaster. The performance will take place every Saturday until 26 October; during the rest of the Pavilion's opening hours, the beach remains empty. A special mention in National Participation was awarded to the Belgian Pavilion for Mondo Cane, an installation by artists Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys featuring automated dolls in adjacent spaces that depict an orderly world of craftsmen on the one hand, and a world of zombies and poets on the other.
Arthur Jafa, the American filmmaker and artist known for his works embodying African American experience, is the winner of this year's Golden Lion for the Best Participant in the International Exhibition. His The White Album (2018), exhibited in the Giardini, is a 50-minute video that collages footage—drawn from YouTube, music videos, and the artist's personal archive, among other sources—of manifestations of white supremacy with footage of white people Jafa knows and cares for. Writing for Ocula Magazine, Mohammad Salemy noted that the film avoids 'falling into the trap of identity politics, by focusing on whiteness as a condition.' Jafa also has three sculptures in the Arsenale. Titled Big Wheel I, Big Wheel II, and Big Wheel III (2018), these sculptures are monumental monster truck tyres in chains.
The jury awarded the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Participant in the International Exhibition to Haris Epaminonda, the Cyprus-born and Berlin-based artist who showed her mixed-media installation VOL. XXVII (2019) in the Arsenale. Developing out of Epaminonda's found-object-based practice, the installation is composed of texts referring to different deities; black and white columns; and small statues of animals, among other things, neatly arranged against white walls and a white floor. Two special mentions were also awarded. One went to the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, whose Muro Ciudad Juárez (2010) in the Giardini consists of a concrete wall with signs of bullets. She removed the wall from Ciudad Juárez as evidence of the drug violence present in Mexican cities. The other special mention went to Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga for Veins Aligned (2018), a 26-metre-long sculpture in the Arsenale that extends the artist's exploration of the landscape and body.