The 59th Venice Biennale Review: National Pavilions Part 1

In the first of our two part round-up, Terence Trouillot reviews the best pavilions across the Giardini

BY Terence Trouillot in Critic's Guides | 20 APR 22

After a three-year hiatus, the Venice Biennale is back! As exciting as it is to be here during the opening week of the famed international art exhibition, however, it also necessitates a frenzied dash to see as many things as you possibly can in a short period of time. Being tasked to review the national pavilions ahead of the opening – when some are not yet fully installed – makes for an even more hastened and tumultuous viewing experience. And that’s okay. The Venice Biennale is all about discovery, the pure enjoyment of art and, for this critic, meaningful dialogue (ideally over an occasional spritz). 

I have always thought of the national pavilions as ancillary to the main exhibition and, like many others, I see their sustained use as extremely outmoded and obstinately nationalistic. But, as Jennifer Higgie so eloquently put it in her recent essay on the topic for frieze: ‘National pavilions are only bricks and mortar […] At best, they complicate the idea of what it means to come from somewhere.’ This idea rings true of Jonathas de Andrade’s exhibition, ‘Com o coração saindo pela boca’ (With the Heart Coming Out of the Mouth), at the Brazilian Pavilion. Curated by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, the show presents a playful installation that, in many ways, albeit surreptitiously, criticizes the country’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro. 

Installation views of Stan Douglas: 2011 ≠ 1848 at the Canada Pavilion at the 59 th Internati onal Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 23 April – 27 November 2022 Photo: Jack Hems Courtesy of the artist, the National Gallery of Canada, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner
Stan Douglas, ‘2011 ≠ 1848’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, the National Gallery of Canada, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner; photograph: Jack Hems

De Andrade takes everyday idioms and translates these often opaque metaphors into visual indices – sculptures and photographs – that present an allegory of the current political situation in Brazil. For instance, in a somewhat veiled reference to the country’s voting booths, the idiom dedo podre (the rotten finger) – meaning one who makes poor choices – is pictured as a large festering digit pressing on a green button of what vaguely appears to be an electronic ballot box. This careful ruse, to avoid scrutiny from the Brazilian government, is an unfortunate consequence of the national pavilion concept, one that De Andrade and Visconti approach with great subtlety. Such caution is cast off in the artist’s contribution to ‘Penumbra’, a group exhibition at the Fondazione In Between Art Film, located at the Complesso dell’Ospedaletto. Olho da Rua (Out Loud, 2022) is a video work that showcases a group of homeless people from Recife. Presenting a series of performative acts – one of which explicitly admonishes Bolsonaro – these beautiful misfits stare straight back at the camera, advocating for their own humanity.  

Simone Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, Conspiracy, 2022. Video (black-and-white, sound; 24:00 minutes), dimensions variable. Courtesy the artists and Matthew Marks Gallery. © Simone Leigh
Simone Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, Conspiracy, 2022, film still, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artists and Matthew Marks Gallery

At the Canadian Pavilion, Stan Douglas presents ‘2011 ≠ 1848’, an exhibition that builds further on this notion of performative protest. Drawing a through line between the global social and political unrest of 2011 (e.g. the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, etc.) and the working-class upheaval that took place in 1848 across continental Europe, Douglas exhibits a suite of works that demonstrate how social movements are so often predicated on the news disseminated via mass media. The artist’s photographic series ‘2011 ≠ 1848’ (2022) comprises four large CG plates of high fidelity re-enactments of four specific events: the gathering of people praying on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis on 12 January 2011; the Vancouver Canucks Stanley Cup riot on 15 June 2011; a scuffle between a group of youths and police in Hackney during the London riots on 9 August 2011; and Occupy Wall Street protesters demonstrating on Brooklyn Bridge on 1 October 2011. The images look almost too real to be true, as if their slick, high-resolution finish belies their spurious nature. Although these works are impressive on their own, the main attraction is off-site at Magazzini del Sale – an extension of this year’s Canadian Pavilion. There you’ll see ISDN (2022), a two-channel video presenting a fictionalized rap dialogue or call and response between two groups of Grime and Mahraganat rappers. Here, the exchange of beats and musical ideas imagines a genesis story depicting how these musical genres became the soundtrack of revolt in London and Cairo respectively. 

Jonathas de Andrade, Olho da Rua (Out Loud), 2022. Single-channel video, colour, stereo sound, 26’. Courtesy of the artist, Galleria Continua, Galeria Nara Roesler, and Fondazione In Between Art Film
Jonathas de Andrade, Olho da Rua (Out Loud), 2022, single-channel video, colour, stereo sound, 26 inches. Courtesy: the artist, Galleria Continua, Galeria Nara Roesler and Fondazione In Between Art Film

Zineb Sedira’s immersive installation ‘Dreams Have No Titles’ at the French Pavilion, which looks at Algerian culture through the lens of film, is undoubtedly a crowd favourite. Yet, perhaps out of some unconscious sense of national pride, Simone Leigh’s ‘Sovereignty’ at the US Pavilion seemed to me the biggest tour de force of the pavilions. Although there is little live performance at this year’s Biennale, Leigh’s new body of work, much like that of De Andrade and Douglas, relies on performance as well as fiction-making – or what African-American scholar Saidiya Hartman defined in Venus in Two Acts (2008) as ‘critical fabulation’ – as a form of resistance and truth-seeking. The exhibition starts with Façade (2022), a complete transformation of William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich’s 1930 neoclassical pavilion, with the addition of a thatch roof and wood columns – hallmarks of West African vernacular architecture. In part inspired by the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, which saw the controversial recreation of the Khmer temple Angkor Wat, the work disrupts our understanding of modernist architecture, creating a more hybrid and fluid history of the site’s building. 

Installation v iews of Stan Douglas: 2011 ≠ 1848 at the Magazzini del Sale N o. 5 at the 59 th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 23 April – 27 November 2022 Photo: Jack Hems Courtesy of the artist, the National Gallery of Canada, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner
Stan Douglas, ISDN, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, the National Gallery of Canada, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner; photograph: Jack Hems

As you enter the pavilion, you are greeted by a selection of large-scale glazed stoneware works and bronze sculptures, including Jug (2022), a massive white vessel fashioned with large, sculpted cowrie shells; and Sentinel (2022), an elongated power-object sitting at the centre of the pavilion with its parabola-shaped head reaching the ceiling. The exhibition also features a 20-minute black and white film titled Conspiracy (2022). Made collaboratively with the filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, Conspiracy is a lyrical film showcasing Leigh and her assistants at work in the studio – a choreographed dance of performing labour. This work is quite strange and beautiful, but ends on a sombre, meditative note. Leigh and her assistants cart off one of her sculptures to a beach and set it on fire. Leigh and artist Lorraine O’Grady stare pensively at the piece as it slowly is engulfed in flames, until all that is left is its armature – a solemn, or perhaps cleansing, ritual.

For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main image: Simone Leigh, Façade, 2022, thatch, steel and wood, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery; photograph: Timothy Schenck


Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.