The world in the image of man, Danielle Arbid and Ayman Baalbaki
The installations on display in the Lebanese pavilion reflect the endless chaos that afflicts this Middle Eastern country, which has collapsed both economically and politically. Arbid’s split-screen video, Hello Honey (2022), stops visitors to the Arsenale in their tracks – what is this sinister car chase around Beirut and why is the woman who narrates the play constantly on the lookout for money? “The voice in the film is that of my mother”, says Arbid The arts journal. “I installed a spy machine in his mobile phone with his agreement. I thought she had a very quiet life, but then I found out she had a secret and ran her own banking system.
The frenetic and desperate audio recording was made three years ago, but the video piece was edited this year, rising to prominence following the huge explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020, which left more than 200 dead. “Lebanon has so many money problems,” says Arbid. Baalbaki bifacial installation, Janus gate (2021), reinforces the idea of a fragmented city; one side is covered in alluring neon lights and spray-painted tarpaulins while a bewildering trash-filled hut sits behind the glitzy facade, eloquently and forcefully illustrating the “two faces” of Beirut.
Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol, various artists and scholars
What’s it like to be descended into the depths of a bog? The Chilean pavilion recreates the journey by leading visitors onto a circular platform surrounded by a translucent screen onto which images of the descent into the squelchy belly of a bog are projected.
All around is living wet moss, the smell of which hits you before you even enter the pavilion. A soundtrack shakes the ground as tribal chants, throaty noises and high-pitched screams fill the air. When you reappear in daylight, figures dance around you.
But all this theater has a serious point: understanding and, more importantly, conserving peatlands is essential if we are to succeed in mitigating the increase in CO2 emissions caused by human activities. According to the organizers of the presentation, peatlands “absorb more carbon than forests, a capacity that makes these wetlands one of the most valuable ecosystems on the planet”.
These lands, in this case located at the southern tip of South America in Patagonia, also have cultural significance. Here they have been home to the indigenous Selk’nam people for eight millennia. And they will have to continue to exist if we are to have any hope of human existence on this planet for many more millennia. (To learn more about the bogs and the Selk’nam culture, visit the fascinating website.)
Peace is a corrosive promise, Herbert Rodriguez
Herbert Rodriguez was once a studious fine arts student at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Lima, Peru. But, at the age of 21, he resigned and disappeared into the shadow of the Subterráneos. Throughout the 1980s, the young artist made the underground of Lima his gallery, working within new collectives such as Artistas Visuales Asociados and the group Las Bestias.
The work presented in Venice responds to the realities of the new Peruvian democracy, born from the ashes of a 12-year-old junta. The title of the exhibition, Peace is a corrosive promise, reflects the authoritarianism, terrorism and relentless violence that often defined Peru’s early attempts at democracy, as warring factions battled for power and supremacy.
Rodriguez is the sole representative of Peru in his pavilion, and this is one of the first times the artist has been recognized in any meaningful way by the established Western art world. But it’s not art, it’s punk. Rodriguez always remained disinterested in the gallery system. His work is fungible and raw; disposable agit-prop made for the street. The work exhibited in Venice is printed on cheap, mass-produced paper; like in Lima in the 1980s.
The works are direct to the point of sinister penis-shaped collages, filled with photographs from pornographic magazines cut and shaped to tessellate with documentary images of conflict, or interspersed with headlines reporting political violence from newspapers.
But the intention is clear. One work reuses text from an Amnesty International report, dated October 1983, which detailed torture, disappearances and executions in the Peruvian capital. Rodriguez transforms dry, technical text into strong graphic animation.
New Zealand flag
paradise campYuki Kihara
With wit and verve, Yuki Kihara reworks Paul Gauguin’s problematic Polynesian paintings to center members of Samoa’s ‘third sex’ community, the Fa’afafine, including herself. A culturally recognized group in Samoan society for generations, the Fa’afafine are people who were assigned male at birth but express their gender in a feminine way.
When Kihara first saw Gauguin’s paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2008, she was struck by the resemblance between the half-naked Tahitian women he depicted and his Fa’afafine friends. Revisionist search for Maori scholar Ngahuia Te Awekotuku even suggested that Gauguin’s models were Mahu, members of the “third sex” of Tahiti.
These are the twin inspirations behind Kihara paradise camp project, dissecting the painter’s erotic and exotic images of a “paradise” island and reproducing them as celebratory portraits of queer Samoan culture. This triumphant photographic series, sized to match Gauguin’s original paintings, covers two walls of the pavilion.
Meanwhile, Kihara literally confronts Gauguin head-on in a video that imagines a conversation between the 19th century painter – Kihara transformed through prosthetics and a fake mustache – and herself as Fa’afafine and artist empowered. Rather than dismissing his work out of hand, she informs him that she’s just “recycling” the paintings into “something far more fabulous.”
Astuta Diplomacy (Sly Diplomacy), Arcangelo Sassolino, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci and Brian Schembri
Entering the Maltese pavilion is a bit like arriving at the final moments of a biblical fire and brimstone storm. Drops of molten steel fall into seven square water reservoirs, each representing Caravaggio’s figures. The beheading of St John the Baptist (1608). A complex system is hidden in the ceiling of the facility, feeding a loop of steel through an induction system that heats it to 1,500°C before it drips like a miniature liquid fireball , before fizzing in the water.
Beyond the molten metal and the vats is a vast plate of solid steel, the same size as Caravaggio’s canvas and on the reverse of which are inscribed biblical texts. The curatorial presentations bring several themes to the table, from allegories of the “continuous cycle of agency and loss” to the layering of “noetics over metaphysics”. But usurping these complex – and sometimes overly complicated – narratives and concepts is the overriding wonder (the “maravilla” as co-curator Keith Sciberras puts it) of walking into a room and seeing fire rain down from the sky.
History of the night and fate of cometsGian Maria Tosatti
At the far end of the Arsenale is the cavernous Italian Pavilion, a 2,000m² space that dwarfs many of the other national pavilions put together. Here, Gian Maria Tosatti, the first solo artist ever selected to exhibit in this huge blank canvas, has found the perfect film for his site-specific environmental installations.
Waiting in a queue outside, visitors are invited to enter one by one and remain silent inside the pavilion, in order to preserve the immersive experience. Don’t be discouraged by these rules, or by the grandiose title of the work: Tosatti has orchestrated a real transformation, accentuated by the atmosphere of hushed reverence.
A theater of Italy’s industrial decline unfolds through a sequence of warehouse spaces filled with old machinery and rigging from abandoned factories, relics of a bygone era of productivity and prosperity. They are punctuated by an eerie domestic interior, with multiple doors to nowhere and the ghost of a crucifix on the wall behind an empty bed. The labyrinthine journey ends with a waterlogged finale that could be read as annihilation, were it not for the distant lights piercing the darkness, a sign of hope for humanity in the face of climate catastrophe, according to the artist .