10 Highlights From the Venice Biennale

The Venice Biennale, the art world’s most prestigious exhibition, opened last week to some fanfare, some criticism and a number of protests. Viewers generally look to the Biennale as a reflection of its time, and this one arrived at a fraught moment in history defined by political unrest and distrust for traditional systems of power. (And not for nothing, Indigenous and African artists, historically underrepresented in Venice, are notably more visible than in previous iterations of the show.) Here, a look at some of the standouts from the 2024 edition.

The Vatican’s Holy See Pavilion organized an exhibition based on the theme of human rights, titled “Con i Miei Occhi (With My Eyes),” at the Giudecca Women’s Detention Home, an active prison for female inmates. The show includes works by the feminist art collective Claire Fontaine, the Brazilian textile artist Sonia Gomes, the American artist Corita Kent and the Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan (whose new fresco “Father,” depicting a pair of wounded feet, graces the building’s facade), all of which contemplate, in some way, the desire for freedom. Several inmates are giving guided tours and, on April 28, Pope Francis will stop by, making him the first Pontiff in history to visit the Biennale.

For the country’s second-ever pavilion in Venice, eight Nigerian artists installed site-specific works at the Palazzo Canal in a show organized by the London-based curator Aindrea Emelife. Their projects — including Yinka Shonibare’s replicas of the Benin Bronzes that were plundered by the British in the late 19th century, and a sculpture by Ndiki Dike commemorating protests against police in 2020 — look at the violence of colonial history, as well as charting a path out of it.

Sook-Kyung Lee, the director of the Whitworth gallery at Manchester University, organized this installation, titled “Compose,” by the Tokyo-based installation artist Yuko Mohri, known for working with ready-made materials and incorporating sound into her sculptures. Largely using objects sourced from grocery stores and flea markets around Venice, Mohri addresses issues of environmental collapse and sustainability. In one part of the show, called “Decomposition,” a series of hanging lights are connected to electrodes inserted into rotting pieces of fruit, whose moisture creates electric signals that power the bulbs. The fruit will eventually be composted.

The artist Koo Jeong A is representing South Korea at the Biennale with an original commission called “Odorama Cities.” The artist, who is known for exploring smell, worked with a Seoul-based perfumer in an attempt to capture the scents of the Korean Peninsula. The installation includes a bronze sculpture that emits a variety of fragrances based on more than 600 responses, which the artist gathered from people who live in or have visited Korea, to the question, “What is your scent memory of Korea?”

The new-media artist and filmmaker Ruth Patir, working with the curators Tamar Margalit and Mira Lapidot, closed her already installed exhibition “M/otherland” at the Israel Pavilion on the day it was set to open in protest of the war in Gaza. Visitors to the show, which considers the idea of fertility, are greeted with a sign posted at the entrance that reads: “The artist and curators of the Israeli pavilion will open the exhibition when a cease-fire and hostage release agreement is reached.”

At the Fondazione Prada’s venue, the 18th-century palazzo Ca’ Corner della Regina, the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, perhaps best known for building a functional mosque at the 2015 Venice Biennale, has installed an immersive show called “Monte di Pietà” that explores the themes of debt and finance. (The show is named after a centuries-old money lender that used to operate in the same building.) In addition to a room showing CCTV footage seemingly from active war zones in Gaza and Kyiv, a collection of lab-grown diamonds and a stripper pole, the sprawling exhibition includes a fictitious bankrupt pawnshop.

In his show “The Space in Which to Place Me,” the New York-based painter and sculptor Jeffrey Gibson, representing the United States, draws on themes of identity and Indigenous histories that he’s explored for much of his three-decade-long career. Included in the pavilion are sculptures, works on paper, videos and multimedia paintings that celebrate the artist’s Mississippi Choctaw and Cherokee heritage. There’s also a dance program featuring members of the Colorado Inter-Tribal Dancers and Oklahoma Fancy Dancers. Gibson is the first Native American to represent the United States with a solo show at the Biennale.

For his exhibition “Kith and Kin,” the Aboriginal artist Archie Moore has covered the walls of the Australia Pavilion with a meticulous chalk drawing of a First Nation family tree that calls upon some 65,000 years of the artist’s family history. In the center of the room, floating in a moat of water, are stacks of government documents that detail the deaths of Indigenous Australians in police custody. The work won the Golden Lion, the prize for the best national participation at the Biennale.

The Paris-based, Canadian-born artist Kapwani Kiwanga, who makes intricate installations concerned with the African diaspora and questioning the traditional canon, used small glass spheres called conterie, or Venetian seed beads, as the primary material for her installation “Trinket” at the Canada Pavilion. She strung together thousands of them, in a variety of colors, to create a dramatic, cumulative effect, turning the seemingly insignificant objects into something vast and dramatic.

At the 18th-century Palazzo Grassi, also the site of a retrospective by the painter Julie Mehretu, the multimedia artist Ryan Gander has installed an animatronic work subtle enough to miss if you aren’t paying close attention. Positioned just above the floor, it comprises a moving life-size model of a mouse, which seems to poke through the wall of the Venetian Classical-style building and philosophize about the inevitability of death and the struggle to find meaning in life.

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