The curated exhibition at the 58th Venice Biennale, entitled ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’, is a jam packed, sprawling show featuring work by 74 international artists. Curated by Ralph Rugoff, director of London’s Hayward Gallery, it is split across two sites at the Arsenale and Giardini, with each artist exhibiting work in both spaces.

Unsurprisingly, the two locations help to drive home the variety of the work. The Giardini space, housed amongst the 30 permanent national pavilion buildings, offers a more traditional, white cube exhibition setting. Its maze of rooms can be navigated via a variety of routes, with even its entrance and exit interchangeable.

The Arsenale is perhaps the more intriguing space, with the former naval armoury providing a large ‘L’ shape series of rooms that flow from one to the next. Although multiple white walls separate the spaces, a glance upwards reveals a high ceiling with wood beams. It is a vast, striking building that belies its history, providing a perfect platform for the work it houses.

Although considerably fewer than the 120 artists featured in Christine Macel’s 2017 exhibition, 74 artists is still a lot to fit into one show, albeit split across two sites. There is the obvious risk of ending up with a mixed bag of different narratives and media that don’t sit well together. However, the success of this show lies in Rugoff’s curation, which embraces a series of underlying themes that pin groups of work together.

A number of the artists explore issues relating to identity, impending environmental disaster and fake news, with much of the best work by women artists who place themselves at the centre of their art.

At the Giardini, the pattern is set from the outset. As you enter the first series of galleries, you are met with South African artist Zanele Muholi’s large photographic self-portraits. The importance of self-representation is at the centre of her gelatin print series Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, which references the performative and expressive language of theatre.

Muholi places great emphasis on her face, with the works exaggerating the darkness of her skin tone. In a statement placed on the wall next to the works, she says: “I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other.”

In the same room, we are presented with self-portraits by the Japanese artist Mari Katayama, who was born with a rare congenital disorder affecting her shin bones and hand.

Aged nine she chose to have her legs amputated, and this sense of taking ownership underlies the work. Photographs feature the artist surrounded by things she has made, including hand-sewn body doubles that replicate her unique physique.

As with Muholi’s images, the artist lays herself bare, with the viewer then placed in a position where they question their own sense of identity. It is powerful stuff.

Much of the work across the two sites deals with issues relating to perception. Painting by the LA-based Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby feature portraits of herself and family in domestic interiors. Areas of the works appear densely patterned, but a closer view reveals that the walls, floor and even people’s skin are covered in images.

Sourced from family photos, Nigerian lifestyle magazines and the internet, Akunyili describes the works as “a translucent space, a kind of no-man’s land”. The pair of paintings here initially look like they are from two different cultures – one Nigerian, the other Western. However, they actually feature the same interior viewed from two different perspectives.

Migration and borders are other recurring themes throughout the show, with Turkish artist Halil Altindere’s multi-media installation exploring the life of Muhammed Ahmed Faris, the first Syrian cosmonaut to travel to the Mir space station in 1987. The work follows Faris’ journey from well-known public figure to supporter of the opposition movement against Assad, and then his current life as a refugee in Turkey.

This intriguing piece, which almost resembles a sales convention stand, features a video where the cosmonaut talks to fellow refugees about the possibility of returning to their homeland, and if that proves impossible, instead building cities for them in space. NASA scientists, air and space law specialists then discuss how plausible this might be.

Others deal with the concept of borders in a far more dramatic way. Indian artist Shilpa Gupta’s installation features a large mechanical gate, swinging back and forth and crashing into the gallery wall aggressively, which then cracks and breaks.

The gate resembles the kind usually installed in front of private driveways for safety, but here the exaggerated spikes and protruding metal frame suggest something much more sinister.

The environment and impending ecological disaster is the focus of a number of artists’ works. Australian artists Christine and Margaret Wertheim’s beautiful crocheted Reefs, presented in a small side room at the Giardini, raises urgent questions of global warming and plastic waste.

They also show the power of collaboration, with the works part of a larger project where more than 10,000 participants have collectively crocheted over 40 Satellite Reefs in different cities and countries around the world.

Over at the Arsenale, Jimmie Durham – recipient of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievemen – presents a disturbing sculptural series ‘dedicated to the largest mammals in Europe – many of them on the verge of extinction’.

Each work is made from combinations of furniture parts, industrial materials and used clothes, with the results questioning our traditional ideas about the separation between humans and animals.

The sense of the world soon resembling something from a dystopian JG Ballard novel continues with German artist Alexandra Bircken’s installation ESKALATION, which is surprisingly one of the few pieces to make use of the Arsenale’s tall ceilings.

Presenting a view of what the end of humanity might look like, 40 figures, made from calico dipped in black latex, are suspended from ladders that extend down from the roof. The sheer verticality of the work is unnerving, invoking an upward struggle between polarities such as heaven and hell, success and failure, hope and despair.

One of the strangest exhibits in the show is Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself. Originally produced for the exhibition ‘Tales of Our Time’ at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York, the work features a massive industrial robot housed in a large industrial cage, like a creature captured and placed on display.

The robot turns and flexes restlessly having been programmed to ensure that a thick, deep red liquid stays away from the walls of the cage. As it oozes away, it triggers the robot’s sensors, prompting the machine to shovel it back into place.

It’s a strange experience watching this mechanical presence perform its functions, but even stranger witnessing people filming and taking selfies in front of the cage. The machine’s scale is undoubtedly intimidating and its violent jerks and shudders suggest a presence not entirely happy with its containment.

It reminded me of the scene in Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 sci-fi classic Robocop when the robot ED-209 breaks free of its commands and goes on a bloody rampage during an executive board meeting. Needless to say, I didn’t stand too close to the glass.

Like a lot of the work in this show, Yaun and Yu’s installation has an eerie sense of foreboding, that the potential for human apocalypse might be sooner than we think. We may live in interesting times – but things could be about to get much worse.

The Venice Biennale 2019 continues until 24 November 2019.

1. Mari Katayama, Various works, 2011-2017, mixed media. Photo: Italo Rondinella. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia
2. Zanele Muholi, Various works, 2014-2016, silver gelatin print. Photo: Francesco Galli. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia
3. Mari Katayama, Various works, 2012-2016, C-Print. Photo: Francesco Galli. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia
4. Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Various works. Photo: Jack Hutchinson
4. Halil Altindere, Space Refugee, 2016-2019, mixed media. Photo: Francesco Galli. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia
5. Shilpa Gupta, Untitled, 2009, MS Gate which swings side to side and breaks the walls. Photo: Francesco Galli. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia
6. Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim, Pod Worlds – Beaded, 2005-2016, embroidery beads, thread, sand, and rocks. Photo: Francesco Galli. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia
7. Jimmie Durham, Various works, 2017, mixed media. Photo: Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia
8. Alexandra Bircken, Various works, 2016-2019, mixed media. Photo: Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia
9. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Can’t Help Myself, 2016, mixed media. Photo: Francesco Galli. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

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