• Ideas
  • May 08, 2019

58th Venice Biennale, Part 1: “May You Live in Interesting Times”

Exterior of the Central Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, with barely perceptible wisps of fog by LARA FAVARETTO as part of her multi-part project Thinking Head

The title of the 58th Venice Biennale, “May You Live in Interesting Times”—aside from being an apocryphal Chinese curse, often repeated in 20th century Anglophone political discourse—brings other connotations to bear. It inevitably points to what is meant by “interesting” and will draw comparisons to Sianne Ngai’s definition in her 2008 essay “Merely Interesting,” in which the American cultural critic dissects what makes something “interesting” as “bound up with the perception of novelty (against a backdrop of the expected and familiar).” For many viewers of the Venice Biennale in 2019, that may be the curator’s intended outcome—to show works from emergent subject-identity positions that diverge from the assumed (perhaps problematically) stance of a white-Euro-American-cisgendered-heteronormative audience. But in trying to reflect the times we live in too closely through specific artists, Rugoff’s Biennale appears, on first viewing, to be perfectly expected and already quite familiar—that is, quite uninteresting in comparison to our turbulent, transitional times.