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Art & Architecture Venice Biennale’s May You Live in Interesting Times is a labyrinth of art with an elusive point

Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui has a whole room to himself: He has filled it with a garden of ribbed and smooth ceramic forms on which various instruments have been rigged to play a delicate music.

Andrea Avezzù/La Biennale di Venezia

At the centre of the Venice Biennale’s main exhibition hall, a giant robotic arm trapped inside a large glass enclosure is brushing some red liquid to and fro across a white floor. The arm, created by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, rotates, bends to its task, rises and rotates again, as it deploys its big wiper in a futile dance: It is programmed to continually attempt containment of the spreading liquid – blood or paint, depending on your perspective – within a certain perimeter on the floor.

Can artists be replaced by painting robots? In the midst of the crowded and confused exhibition May You Live in Interesting Times, you may start to wish they could. This, the Biennale’s main thematic show programmed in two parts by the British curator Ralph Rugoff, is such a mishmash of work so erratic in quality that the jam-packed section in the Giardini exhibition pavilion is enough to make an art lover throw in the towel.

Its layout is labyrinthine – visitors must cross through darkened rooms where video works are playing if they want to take in the whole building – and its point remains elusive. Its nadir is a room where a near-life-size cow mounted on a small circular track rotates around a patch of fake grass, while close at hand, an ornate metal security gate swings heavily against a wall, knocking off more and more of the plaster. The cow would seem banal in any setting but the gate, a one-trick pony to be sure, might create a startling effect if you were to encounter its automated violence in an empty gallery. What to make of an installation so overcrowded it encourages the viewer to dismiss potentially interesting work? As the exterior of the exhibition hall disappeared behind dense fog effects during the preview week, a critic might have started to feel that organizers were pressing metaphors into her hands: The Biennale obscures and confuses like the cold vapour that drifts …

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In the midst of such surfeit, it’s surprising to realize that Rugoff has included fewer artists – a mere 80 – than the Biennale’s survey exhibition often does. Instead of upping the numbers, he offers the invited artists another chance at the Arsenale, the Biennale’s secondary but larger site where the participants have contributed different work, providing Rugoff with his Proposition A (in response to the Giardini’s Proposition B). And A it is, in the long string of brick warehouses in the former shipyard where May You Live in Interesting Times now rises to the level of catalogue: Here is what six dozen of the world’s most recognized visual artists are creating these days.

At the Polish pavilion, artist Roman Stanczak has taken an old plane and reassembled it inside out.

La Biennale di Venezia

If you can manage to focus, there are definitely rewards at the Arsenale. The Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui has a whole room to himself: He has filled it with a garden of ribbed and smooth ceramic forms on which various instruments – a twig broom; a light metal chain – have been rigged to play a delicate music. Meanwhile, the Italian artist Lara Favaretto offers a series of haunting concrete sarcophagi marked with evidence of the living body: They are cement blocks into which she presses her restless self until the material’s hardening forces her to climb out.

In an exhibition that, refreshingly, makes as much room for women as for men, the American artist Carol Bove contributes her own humorous redo of minimalist sculpture, twisting a great ribbon of stainless steel into an impressive vertical monument – and then painting it a pale, matte pink. The Austrian artist Ulrike Muller also rethinks modernism in her boldly coloured geometric wall pieces – some are steel panels painted in high-gloss enamels; one is a rug – that toy with inserting icons (a shoe; a leaf) into abstract designs.

Muller’s suite gets a wall to itself, but the density elsewhere is still such that you sorrow for work severely undercut by the surroundings. In one of the larger and taller rooms at the Arsenale, the German artist Alexandra Bircken has stationed wooden ladders up in the rafters and draped over them several dozen corpses or dummies, soft black figures made of cotton dipped in latex. The effect is startling, but the work’s apocalyptic angst – it is titled Eskalation, suggesting any number of competitions from the arms race to consumer capitalism – is definitely muted by all the other stuff that sits underneath it.

Bircken’s dystopian view is typical of this exhibition. (And it reappears in many of the national pavilions too: Lithuania won the Biennale’s Golden Lion prize for Sun & Sea (Marina), an operatic performance in which people face the end of the world lounging on a beach complaining about the minor inconveniences of climate change.) May You Live in Interesting Times is a catch-all title – the apocryphal Chinese curse is apparently just the Orientalist invention of the many Western politicians who have wryly quoted it. Surely, to each of us, our own times mainly seem interesting. What we live in today, and this is not historically universal, are increasingly anxious times.

The Crochet Coral Reef project of Christine and Margaret Wertheim will preserve the memory of what humans are destroying.

Italo Rondinella/La Biennale di Venezia

The American video artist Christian Marclay, who so delighted the 2011 Biennale with his 24-hour film loop The Clock, offers another montage: 48 War Movies lays one film over another – old and new, long and short, documentary and drama – in a diminishing series of concentric rectangles. The result, an unwatchable screen in which none of the individual films are visible, simply registers the cumulative effect of violence and bloodshed. U.S. artist Anthony Hernandez photographs abandoned urban sites – a flooded warehouse, a pile of refuse – while Vancouver’s Stan Douglas imagines the really big blackout in manipulated photographs that display the darkened Manhattan skyline and capture scenes of the looting that might ensue.

Perhaps the Crochet Coral Reef project of Christine and Margaret Wertheim will preserve the memory of what humans are destroying: the twin sisters, Australians living in L.A., are making scientifically accurate crocheted reproductions of reefs in coloured yarn and electro-luminescent wire and showing then at the Arsenale in darkened displays that are pretty, eerie and sad.

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The artistic imagination is a kind of psychological canary in the coal mine: At the Biennale, there is no mistaking the tenor of the times.

Critic’s picks from the 2019 Venice Biennale

At the Giardini

Poland: For Flight, artist Roman Stanczak has taken an old plane, disassembled it and reassembled it inside out so that seats and a great deal of wiring are wrapped around a shape that still looks aeronautical. Suggesting a faceoff between decay and hubris, the fractured hulk is both intriguing and haunting.

Uruguay: Yamandu Canosa presents a series of drawings, paintings and manipulated photographs of landscapes, figures and maps on the theme of La Casa Empatica (The Empathetic House). They are delicate things that chart geography, and hint at exile; Canosa introduces them with a fine ink rendering of the world’s best-known monuments, from the pyramids to the Eiffel Tower, drawn directly on the pavilion’s wall.

At the Arsenale

Madagascar: A labyrinthine forest of black tissue paper, Joel Andrianomearisoa’s I have forgotten the night is both irresistible and mysterious. The visitor is drawn into a room stuffed with torn black sheets hanging from the rafters and invited to lose the self between rows that might be clothes, documents or vegetation.

In the city

Bosnia and Herzegovina: The many national pavilions located outside the Biennale’s two official sites can provide an opportunity to peek inside Venice’s grand architecture. Far from the crowds, Bosnia and Herzegovina has installed its exhibition on the ground floor of an old palazzo in the quiet San Polo neighbourhood. Artist Danica Dakic reflects on the forgotten people of Zenica, a fading industrial city north of Sarajevo. The work includes a startling video interview with a man who goes on a dialysis strike to force changes in organ donor legislation.

Unaffiliated

Come the Biennale, opportunistic art exhibitions pop up all over Venice hoping to catch the art crowd’s attention. The British ceramicist Edmund de Waal is presenting work in two locations, one is the Jewish Museum in Venice’s historic Ghetto Nuovo; the other is beneath the baroque ceiling of the Ateneo Veneto, a cultural centre not far from the Piazza San Marco. Both feature dainty white-glazed vessels and similarly sized rectangles of polished white marble and alabaster that create quiet memorials to missing people, lost homes and misplaced books. The installation of the pieces as a min- library in the Ateneo will remind you that de Waal is also the author of the family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes. To Sept. 29

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The Venice Biennale Arte 2019 continues to Nov. 24.

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