As far as I can tell, Ladbrokes isn’t taking bets on the winner of the Golden Lion for best national pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale, but if it were, my money would be on Ukraine. (Ukrainian flags are ubiquitous around the Biennale and environs, including, as of Thursday, the empty Russian pavilion, where a small handheld one was attached to the locked door.) My personal best in show, however, goes to the French pavilion, where Franco-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira created an immersive, quasi-autobiographical installation that unfolds as a sequence of vignettes recalling film sets, alternately reconstructing spaces of personal significance, like the living room of her Brixton apartment, and scenes from pivotal cinematic depictions of Algerians in the 1960s and ‘70s, like the Battle of Algiers (1966) and The Stranger (1967). I didn’t regret the hour or so I waited on line to get in.
A close runner-up is Simone Leigh’s United States pavilion, which managed to meet the considerable expectations set up by the pre-Biennale hype cycle (including the requisite longform profiles of the artist in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and so on), and served as a welcome reminder of Leigh’s formal and technical range as a sculptor.
Another highlight is the Polish-Roma artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’s installation for the Polish pavilion, comprising an ornate program of textile-based wall murals wrapped around the entire interior. Made from stitched scraps of fabric, the installation is modeled on the astrologically themed fifteenth-century frescoes in the Hall of the Months at Ferrara’s Palazzo Schifanoia, incorporating the Italian Renaissance iconography of the originals into a narrative cycle about Roma history and mythology. Similarly rooted in a sort of art-historical détournement is Ilit Azoulay’s project “Queendom” at the Israeli pavilion, for which the artist drew on an archive of photographs from the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem documenting thousands of examples of medieval Islamic metalwork, most of which belong today to Western museums, to create new digital artifacts by extracting, manipulating, or combining their features.
Other artists preferred to manipulate the pavilion buildings directly: Maria Eichhorn’s original proposal was to temporarily relocate the German pavilion during the Biennale so it would be simply absent from the show, then reassemble it, calling to mind her 2016 Chisenhale Gallery solo show “5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours,” for which she mandated that the institution remain closed and the staff be given paid vacations for the entire run of the exhibition. Eichhorn’s final project is a more scaled back version of this initial concept, involving an excavation of the building’s foundation and the removal of portions of the walls to reveal the many structural changes and additions made to the original 1909 Bavarian pavilion by the Nazis in 1938. At the Spanish pavilion, Ignasi Aballí attempts to correct supposed “errors” in the building’s layout relative to its surroundings by rotating the pavilion by ten degrees through the construction of an additional set of walls, resulting in an irrational space full of dead zones and narrow crevices. Though the artists’ motivations for their architectural interventions were distinct, the end results are ultimately pretty similar (though Eichhorn’s is both more thoughtful and more formally interesting), suggesting the limits of hacking away at the pavilion as a form of institutional critique.
Some pavilions I never quite wrapped my head around: I was intrigued by the Australian entry, featuring a durational performance in which artist and musician Marco Fusinato continuously plays an experimental noise composition live during the Biennale’s opening hours, accompanied by a flashing slideshow of randomly generated images from the internet, but the sound was so ear-splittingly loud that I only lasted about a minute (and pitied the gallery attendants, who were, at least, mostly wearing noise canceling headphones.)
By day three, it was clear there would be no obvious runaway hit along the lines of Anne Imhof’s “Faust” at the German pavilion in 2017, or the Lithuanian trio Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė’s “Sun & Sea (Marina)” in 2019. There are plenty of things I’ve enjoyed, but few that I imagine we’ll all still be talking about five years from now.