BY Sean Burns in Critic's Guides | 13 MAY 19

Sexual Outlaws in a Venetian Prison

The collateral exhibitions at the 58th Venice Biennale tackle social issues from class to surveillance

BY Sean Burns in Critic's Guides | 13 MAY 19


Sexual outlaws in a Venetian prison, free school dinners at the convent and a bizarre baroque ball at the hospital. While the 58th Venice Biennale spans two main exhibition venues, the Giardini and Arsenale, around the city there are other presentations in churches, conservatoires, municipal buildings and dockyards. These collateral events are organized by national and international non-profit bodies. In many ways, the historical context and function of the different spaces have informed the works within.

Issues of surveillance are coming to the forefront as governments and corporations increasingly gather data from mobile phones and social media. In the Palazzo delle Prigioni, the Taiwanese artist Shu Lea Cheang has installed 3x3x6, comprised of an installation and ten video works, which attempts to address the implication of mass surveillance on the construction of identity. She is an early exponent of net art and her video works, parties and installations often combine queer sex, political dissent and technology. Cheang has transformed four of the former prison chambers into a panopticon based on Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century design. In a panopticon prison, the guards can see each inmate from a single central position that the cells surround. It is a familiar motif in artworks, communicating the anxiety caused by continuous observation. Michel Foucault wrote extensively on the subject in Discipline and Punish (1975) and he appears in several video works, portrayed by the young actor Félix Maritaud.

Shu Lea Cheang, MW X, 4K, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist

3x3x6 goes some way towards simulating a feeling of being observed, as a searchlight circles around a tower of cameras and a notice informs us that two 3D scanners are stealing our likenesses. I don’t feel any more watched in the installation than I do in the outside world, where data is taken often without notice. In the ten video works arranged at ankle level in two adjoining rooms, the artist focuses on stories of contemporary and historic figures arrested for sexual or gender-related crimes.

Each video takes us to a fantasy prison cell where inmates perform unusual routines. Chinese dissident L X repeatedly leaps out of bed and carries out a military-style exercise drill; FOUCAULT X receives a brutal, army-standard wet shave; while three women arrested for allegedly harvesting and selling male semen cavort with a giant green cucumber. The videos adopt a ‘trans-punk’ aesthetic synonymous with the artist’s work: titles reminiscent of the early web, saturated colours and retro-futuristic, computer-generated sets.

Shu Lea Cheang, Foucault X, 4K, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Cheang is one of few artists with the ability to create queer environments where the relationships between bodies, objects and images are brought into question. 3x3x6 is a stark reminder of how forms of imprisonment can strip people of their personal and political agency. Curated by Paul B. Preciado, Cheang’s installation is an ambitious attempt at developing the discourse of prison abolition and creating new subjectivities in relation to technology.

In the grand, historic surroundings of the Venice Biennale, art-world privilege is emphatically apparent. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see beyond the immediate displays of status, delusion and money. At the former church and school of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice is an installation by the Welsh artist Sean Edwards. ‘Undo Things Done’ is informed by the artist’s working-class upbringing on the Llanedeyrn Estate in the outskirts of Cardiff. Considering the sparseness of the space, it’s perhaps fitting that he describes the overall theme as ‘not expecting much’. Inside, there’s a video, several sculptures, three handmade quilts and a sign reading ‘FREE SCHOOL DINNERS’. The guide states: ‘The venue and the exhibition sit quietly together.’ I take quietness to mean that the works don’t immediately reveal their secrets. in parallel with the past i–iv (2019) is a steel frame containing hundreds of upright wooden poles. On the surface of the wood, Edwards has printed abstracted references relating to his childhood: handwritten betting slips, childhood photos and patterns from football shirts. It can feel coded in a way that doesn’t seem generous – but perhaps this is the point. ‘Not expecting much’ isn’t very generous; it’s about knowing to limit your ambition, to stay in your lane and to accommodate other people’s entitlement.

Sean Edwards, Undo Things Done, 2019, installation view, Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist and © Jamie Woodley

At the heart of ‘Undo Things Done’ is a moving, 25-minute radio play called Refrain (2019). Every day, at 14:00, the artist’s mother reads the script in a live broadcast from her council flat in Cardiff. Refrain feels like a compassionate instance of her commitment to her son. Her Northern Irish accent reverberating around the space brings the exhibition together. It’s refreshing to see an artist using the opportunity to speak to a working-class experience. Edwards has described Refrain as an ‘antidote to the privilege of the Biennale’, and with ‘Undo Things Done’ he sensitively introduces a subject position not often heard in the art world.

Pablo Bronstein, Carousel, 2019, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and OGR Torino

Both Edwards’s and Cheang’s exhibitions make critical comments on important social issues that interest me: economic class in the arts and mass surveillance. Where the collateral shows are most successful is in collaboration with the overwhelming context of the city, bringing history and architecture into the mix. Charlotte Prodger’s intelligent film SaF05 (2019) for the Scotland + Venice partnership at the Arsenale Docks is another notable mention, as is Pablo Bronstein’s surreal, baroque ball, Carousel (2019), for OGR Torino at the Sala della Musica della Complesso dell'Ospedaletto, and Mitra Farahani’s video David and Goliath (2014) in ‘THE SPARK IS YOU: Parasol unit in Venice’ at the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello.

Main image: Shu Lea Cheang, Casanova, X, 4K, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and assistant editor of frieze based in London, UK. His book Death (2023) is out now from Tate Publishing.