BY frieze in Critic's Guides | 23 APR 24

The Six Best Exhibitions to See in Venice

From Yuko Mohri’s delicate musical sculptures to Kapwani Kiwanga’s brilliant beadwork which acts as a meditation on the history of global trade

BY frieze in Critic's Guides | 23 APR 24

Julien Creuzet | Giardini, French pavilion | 20 April – 24 November 

Julien Creuzet, ‘Attila cataract your source at the feet of the green peaks will end up in the great sea blue abyss we drowned in the tidal tears of the moon’, 2024
Julien Creuzet, ‘Attila cataract your source at the feet of the green peaks will end up in the great sea blue abyss we drowned in the tidal tears of the moon’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

Arguably one of the better presentations in the Giardini was Julien Creuzet’s multimedia installation at the French pavilion, ‘Attila cataract your source at the feet of the green peaks will end up in the great sea blue abyss we drowned in the tidal tears of the moon’. I was quite sceptical of what his exhibition would offer, having been underwhelmed by his presentation of wiry, abstract sculptures at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 2021, for which he was shortlisted for the prestigious Marcel Duchamp Prize. Here, however, I was blown away by Creuzet’s sculptural masterpieces, from his familiar sinewy, hanging objects wrapped in spools of colourful thread to his new bronze-cast, four-legged vessels filled with water and lavender, emanating a delightful, near-intoxicating aroma. The installation also comprises sound and video, with large screens throughout, including a massive one outside that wraps around the entryway. The imagery is frenetic, nautical-themed and fanciful – a musing on the artist’s Caribbean identity as an outre-mer (overseas) citizen of France in Martinique and a deafening proclamation of otherness as superpower. Feeling more mature than in previous years, Creuzet’s brand of formalism reveals an artist achieving great range and subtlety. – Terence Trouillot

Yuko Mohri | Giardini, Japanese pavilion | 20 April – 24 November 

Yuko Mohri, ‘Compose', 2024
Yuko Mohri, ‘Compose', 2024, installation view. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

At the Japanese pavilion, Yuko Mohri mounted the biennial-stealing ‘Compose’, for which she created sculptures that generate music using rotting fruit. This immersive exhibition was wonderfully distracting as I wandered around the various objects and contraptions Mohri has constructed from wires, plastics, found furniture and decayed organic matter. I kept overstepping the demarcations meant to protect her sculpture from its viewers. I needed to get closer, even as I was politely told that I couldn’t; much of the work is so fragile, you can imagine even the gentlest nudge could send it crashing to the floor. Often, at events like these, in pavilions where the art barely hangs together, you can’t move on quick enough. Yet here, among Mohri’s atonal melodies, I wanted to linger a little longer and listen to a music so exactly right for this moment. Andrew Durbin

Yoo Youngkuk | Fondazione Querini Stampalia | 20 April – 24 November

Yoo Youngkuk, ‘A Journey to the Infinite’, 2024
Yoo Youngkuk, ‘A Journey to the Infinite’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: © Yoo Youngkuk Art Foundation; photograph: Lorenzo Palmieri

Amidst this strong showing of group presentations, two monographic exhibitions do stand out [...] The second successful solo show is Korean artist Yoo Youngkuk’s long-overdue first European survey at Fondazione Querini Stampalia. Working in relative isolation during his lifetime, convinced that his paintings would never sell, Youngkuk responded with deep emotion to the world around him by combining traditional Korean aesthetics with ideas of surrealism. His canvases convey the beauty of Korea’s often-mountainous terrain through the repeated motif of triangular forms that demonstrate his Mark Rothko-esque ability to blend oil paint into beautiful gradients of deep blue, bold orange and rich red. The third floor of the exhibition, which focuses on Youngkuk at the height of his output during the 1960s and ’70s after a hiatus of more than a decade during the Pacific and Korean wars, is a near-perfect presentation by curator Kim Inhye. Here, the paintings – many of which are titled Work – are feats of geometric precision and skill, the artist experimenting with perspective and colour theory to beautiful effect. While his work may not be explicitly political, the conditions in which he made work over his lifetime, from the start of the 20th century to the turn of the 21st spans decades of change, and the fact his rich output only gained traction internationally after his death (he once became a fisherman to make money during his retreat  from making art) left me feeling somber and wistful for what else might have been possible during his lifetime. – Vanessa Peterson

Kapwani Kiwanga | Giardini, Canadian pavilion | 20 April – 24 November 

Kapwani Kiwanga, 'Trinket', 2024
Kapwani Kiwanga, 'Trinket', 2024, installation view. Courtesy: © Kapwani Kiwanga / AdagpParis / CARCC Ottawa 2024; photograph: Valentina Mori

What gladly met my expectations, was Kapwani Kiwanga’s exquisite presentation at the Canadian pavilion, ‘Trinket’. Upon entering the space, visitors are greeted by a giant veil of blue beads cascading over the entrance, while lining the walls is a dazzling array of colourful beads carefully hung to create a wonderous display of crystalline light and luscious gradients of hues as you move throughout. As with many of the artist’s works, however, the installation’s luminous beauty is complicated by a troubled past. The beads that hang on the walls are conterie, made on the nearby Venetian Island of Murano and loaded with cross-cultural significance. Considered to be one of the ‘most important Venetian exports in African, Asian and North American markets’, according to the show’s accompanying literature, the beads were used as a form of currency ‘to buy African commodities, such as ivory, gold and precious wood’, as well as to purchase enslaved people in West Africa. In this brilliant meditation on the history of global trade and how hegemony and extractive capitalism leads certain objects to be valued above human lives, Kiwanga underscores just how easily and quickly such problematic histories can be erased by the seductive gleam of a tiny glass bead. – Terence Trouillot

Wael Shawky | Giardini, Egyptian pavilion | 20 April – 24 November 

Wael Shawky, Drama 1882
Wael Shawky, Drama 1882, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Lisson Gallery, Lia Rumma and Barakat Contemporary

When straight-to-gallery artist films too often resemble student video art projects, it’s refreshing to encounter a consummate creative whose aesthetic vision is razor-sharp, as is his ability to execute it. Drama 1882, Wael Shawky’s eight-part operatic film, spans the entire right-hand wall of the dimly lit Egyptian pavilion. The atmosphere here is distinctly different from the buzz outside; visitors calmly squeeze past each other to sit, cross-legged, in front of the screen like schoolchildren who have skipped class to catch a matinee. Anticipation builds. The velvet red curtains are pulleyed back out of shot to reveal the first scene. The cinematic event of the biennale is about to begin.

Shawky, who usually employs puppets or children to star in his elaborate theatre productions, has chosen professional actors to portray the events leading up to Egypt’s anti-colonial revolt, which was ultimately quashed by the British in 1882. Performed in classical Arabic, languorous heroic couplets weave across scenes with a sultry grace. Replete with swaying cast, whimsical lopsided sets, and a mise-en-scène that often pushes the abstract into the surreal, Drama 1882 uses its mythic qualities to question the veracity of the history books. – Angel Lambo

Manal AlDowayan | Arsenale | 20 April – 24 November 

Manal AlDowayan, Shifting Sands: A Battle Song, 2024
Manal AlDowayan, Shifting Sands: A Battle Song, 2024, installation view, Tussar silk, ink, acrylic paint. Courtesy: the Visual Arts Commission and the Commissioner for the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia

AlDowayan and her team recorded the hum in the Rub’ al Khali – or Empty Quarter – the world’s largest continuous sand desert and one of the few places where this hum exists. It forms a part of her multimedia pavilion titled ‘Shifting Sands: A Battle Song’, which explores visibility and representation. Alongside the dune tune, the show includes desert roses made of silk and a cacophony of typical terms used by Western media to describe Saudi women in seven languages. Another layer of sound includes the hum of the sand dune and synchronous chants, a work that was developed with 1,000 Saudi women and girls during three participatory workshops.

She says the piece fits well with the spirit of this year’s Biennale, Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere, which elicits questions around identity and marginalization. ‘The biggest thing that we are observing today in my country is the emergence of women [into public society],’ AlDowayan says. The permanence of a sand dune – despite constant shifts and external attempts to build over it – speaks to this process. ‘And with the song, I wanted to create something that is new and contemporary, a battle cry for women to prepare for this next phase of history.’ – Gouri Sharma

Main image: Kapwani Kiwanga, 'Trinket', 2024, installation view. Courtesy: © Kapwani Kiwanga / AdagpParis / CARCC Ottawa 2024; photograph: Valentina Mori

Contemporary Art and Culture