As usual for the Venice Biennale, this year there are dozens of national pavilions—some housed within the Arsenale and the Giardini, the two main spaces, and many not. It is virtually impossible to see them all, much as one may be tempted to try. That poses a challenge: How does one pick out the most important ones?
To help out, we’ve assembled a list of the 10 best pavilions at this year’s Biennale.
Marco Fusinato nearly blows off the walls of the Australian Pavilion with his sound installation DESASTRES, in which the artist performs live playing an electric guitar at an eardrum-splitting volume. (Earplugs aren’t supplied, but visitors to the pavilion would do well to bring their own.) As Fusinato plays his music, a complex technological loop spits out images that were generated by plugging in undisclosed terms into search engines. When I stopped by, illustrations from centuries-old books, photographs of protests and burning buildings, and more abstract imagery flitted by. Those pictures, which appear on a towering LED screens that runs almost the entire length of the pavilion, constitute what Fusinato has called a score.
When it won the Berlin Film Festival’s top award in 2018, Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not polarized critics with its clinical portrayals of forms of unsimulated sex rarely represented on screen. Pintilie has returned to that feature with far greater success for the Romanian Pavilion, which reconfigures some footage from Touch Me Not into two new video installations, as part of an ongoing research project. One is set across many screens in a room with reflective walls, the other on a piece of camera equipment in an adjacent gallery. In paying such great attention to disabled and largely non-heterosexual individuals, Pintilie intends to foster a more expansive definition of intimacy and greater empathy between her interviewees and the viewer, a device underscored by having the subjects stare right back at you.
“Overall, I like my body as it is,” one man with spinal muscular atrophy says. “It’s a gift.”
While most visitors will only attend the Giardini pavilion, this exhibition’s best portion is actually housed across the city, in the New Gallery of the Romanian Institute for Culture and Humanistic Research. The can’t-miss work there is a VR piece in which the viewer is allowed to look at, touch, and even see through the eyes of Pintilie’s subjects.
So many pavilions this year envision the structures in which they’re set as bodies that doing so became something of a cliché. Jonathas de Andrade’s Brazilian Pavilion was among them, but it stood out among the crowd because it did so with such dry wit. At this pavilion, you enter through one gigantic sculpture of an ear. You could, in theory, go out the other—that is, if you don’t get nearly trapped in the middle by a massive red plume of fabric that puffs up with air à la a lung. Throughout are other oddities: a sculpture of a severed tongue leaking blood, a suspended head that bobs up and down (and threatens to hit viewers that aren’t careful), and more. The fun and games end, however, when you encounter a video in which rhythmically cut zooms into people’s hands and feet are interspersed with shots of upheaval in Brazil. In de Andrade’s hands, his home country of Brazil is an ailing body in need of a cure.
Vampires that inhabit a slowly drifting spacecraft are the subject of Pedro Neves Marques’s offbeat Portugal Pavilion, a show that doubles as a smart play with horror and sci-fi trappings and a tender meditation on bodily transformation. Though there are several elegant poems printed on long sheets of paper, three films are the main attraction here, each of them focusing on five people who travel amid the stars with the aim of reaching some unknown destination. In one film, one of the passengers mysteriously pulls out a retainer fitted with a set of fangs and places it on a table; in another, the protagonists read X-Men comic books about mutated superheroes. While there’s nothing overtly queer in these films, vampires have been used as metaphors for people passing in a world where just about everyone else functions differently. Neves Marques’s creatures function similarly—they look like us, but they have been marginalized to a point where they no longer live on the same planet. In spite of it all, they find means of survival.
The Biennale’s big surprise was the Latvian Pavilion, a handsome assortment of too many loopy ceramics to count by the duo Skuja Braden. None of the sculptures here are of the dramatic scale typically seen in Biennale pavilions, but all of them impress by virtue of their weirdness. Some appear to be misshapen plates that loll off the side of tables, and others could act as vases; one is even a functional fountain, and another takes the form of a tiled wall. Fish, snails, serpents, Dalmatians, and buxom women appear throughout, as do images of the Buddha, a reference to the artists’ Zen faith. The so-bad-it’s-good maximalism could easily go awry, but it pays off in spades, offering a rare moment of pure and unfettered visual pleasure.
Rarely, if ever, are group shows in pavilions a good idea, but Mexico tried its hand at the format for its entry this time, a bracing four-person exhibition that evokes the Indigenous cultures of the country by way of conceptual art. The best work of this pavilion is Fernando Palma Rodríguez’s Tetzahuitl (2019–22), a group of 43 dresses that are arranged to move in a pattern similar to how a Nahuatl shaman might by way of machinery. The movement of the dresses, each of which stands for a student who went missing in 2014 in a mass kidnapping that provoked national protests, is unpredictable and somewhat terrifying. Meanwhile, Mariana Castillo Deball has designed a wood floor engraved with patterning recalling colonialist mapping, Naomi Rincón Gallardo has a wacky video in which she has performers inhabit the guises of deities well-known to Oaxacans, and Santiago Borja has 23 textiles made in collaboration with Tsotsil weavers, who translated a human DNA sequence into hanging abstractions.
This lush pavilion by Sonia Boyce featured wild arrays of photographs, sound, and video, and focused on the under-acknowledged contributions of Black British musicians to culture of their country. In the central work of this pavilion, a video installation called Feeling Her Way (2022), five singers—Errollyn Wallen, Jacqui Dankworth, Poppy Ajudha, Sofia Jernberg, and Tanita Tikaram—meet for the first time at the famed Abbey Road Studios to record together for the first time. The group spans generations and musical genres, and the varying sounds they produce ironically have their own unusual harmony. Throughout the other galleries, Boyce, who is the first Black woman to represent Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, features videos of each singer separately, along with memorabilia related to Black British musicians that she has collected. Visually striking and concise, this pavilion suggests a form of togetherness in a community that has long been made invisible in the British mainstream.
Perhaps one of the most anticipated pavilions of the Biennale, the U.S.’s Simone Leigh show, the first ever given over to a Black woman by the country, lived up to the hype. The elegant, sedate sculptures in this pavilion unfurl—and remedy—interwoven histories of anti-Black racism and misogyny, taking as their reference point photographs that promoted pernicious stereotypes and colonialist expositions that cemented harmful attitudes among white Europeans. As per usual, Leigh’s focus is specifically Black women, whose bodies she augments with the jug-like forms for which she has become known. It’s all a lot to take in, but Leigh works her magic, and the pavilion never once feels overly academic. And it is a joy to see Leigh pushing her style in new directions, applying her thatch forms to the pavilion’s roof and causing the neo-Palladian structure to look quite unlike it ever has before. Seeing an accomplished artist at the top of their game is a rare and special thing; look on at this pavilion with wonderment.
Typically, this structure is labeled the Nordic Pavilion; this year, however, it was renamed in honor of the Sámi, the only Indigenous people native to Europe. That alone would make this significant, but the art on view by Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna also matched the ambitions of the pavilion. There are works on hand that allude to the carnage wrought on the Sámi by Nordic colonialism, but any kind of violence on display is counterbalanced by a deep-rooted belief in the power of resistance. Sara’s two-part sculpture Du-ššan-ahttanu-ššan is composed of the sinews of reindeer, key animals in Sámi culture, that are augmented with various scents; one is meant to smell like fear, the other hope. Not far from it is Sunna’s positively epic painting Illegal Spirits of Sápmi (2022), which charts 50 years of activism since the passage of a law in Sweden that protects Indigenous people’s rights. The installation literally contains history—in it are shelving units that are host to archival materials documenting court cases brought by the Sámi.
Zineb Sedira stole the show early on with her pavilion focused on the movement to achieve independence for Algeria as it manifested in films of the 1960s. The subject matter is heady material, though Sedira went at it in a way that feels largely accessible. This pavilion features sets inspired by films such as Luchino Visconti’s The Stranger (1967) and Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1973), along with a film of Sedira’s own making and art related to the research she compiled while making this exhibition. Both dense with information and clear-eyed in a way that is unusual for pavilions at the Biennale, her exhibition mined a legacy of anti-colonial activism that has historically been a bitter pill for the French to swallow, and did so in a way that was by turns hopeful and moving.