Off-Site Exhibitions Review: Responses to Political Instability

The most successful off-site Biennale projects this year respond to the spirit and politics of our current moment

BY Vanessa Peterson in Critic's Guides | 19 APR 24

Given the vast array of national pavilions, group exhibitions, solo shows, interventions and ad-hoc street performances on offer, it is advisable to accept from the outset that you will never get to see everything you want to during the opening week of the Venice Biennale. From this lingering feeling of frustration, however, emerges a new way forward: of coincidences, of stumbling upon things that unexpectedly move you. Never is this sensation keener than when you are navigating the city in search of collateral exhibitions – 30 of which were selected by biennale curator Adriano Pedrosa, with many more dotted across the islands – often housed in rented palazzos.

Underlying these infinite distractions and detours, however, is a sense of disillusionment: at the global inaction in the face of suffering, death and loss in the Israel-Gaza war and in Sudan; at the regressive laws currently endangering the lives of LGBTQ+ people in countries such as Ghana and Uganda. As writer and filmmaker Gary Zhexi Zhang remarks in a forthcoming text for this magazine: ‘We now seem to be witnessing cosmopolitanism at its basest, where belonging to the world means only to be at its mercy.’ This sentiment reveals itself across many of the offsite projects I visited in Venice, where artists attempt to respond to the conditions in which we find ourselves today.

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme,Until we became fire and fire us, 2023–ongoing, ‘Nebula’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Fondazione In Between Art Film; photograph: Lorenzo Palmieri

Nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘Nebula’ (Cloud), a show of eight artist videos, commissioned by Fondazione In Between Art Film and thoughtfully installed in response to the haunting architecture of a former hospital, the Complesso dell’Ospedaletto. Standout works include Basir Mahmood’s Brown Bodies in an Open Landscape Are often Migrating (2024), a three-screen production that teases the notion of veracity in documentary filmmaking, as well as the reality of migration today. Working with a film crew from Lahore, Mahmood creates a meta-narrative in which crew members re-enact scenes from found footage filmed by migrants travelling to Europe. Screened in the hospital chapel, the film’s day-to-night sequence is mirrored by the lighting within the space, which gradually dims as the narrative unfolds. I was also particularly moved by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s Until We Became Fire and Fire Us (2023–ongoing), which turns a corridor of this former hospital for the sick and needy into an intimate site of memory excavation. Personal narratives of death and loss are set against a wider backdrop of political resistance and collective togetherness, with the artists using found footage of dancers in Iraq, Palestine and Syria to moving effect. Taken as a whole, ‘Nebula’ feels like a rare curatorial beacon in the dark.

Basir Mahmood, Brown Bodies in an Open Landscape are Often Migrating, 2024, ‘Nebula’, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Fondazione In Between Art Film

This focus on the elements continues at the Nigerian pavilion – only the country’s second showing in Venice – with Precious Okoyomon’s Pre Sky / Emit Light: Yes Like That (2024), a radio tower structure that uses the metaphor of wind to explore the way sound and information travels in waves. Okoyomon skilfully unites the voices of various Nigerian artists, poets and writers, which are transmitted through the tower and broadcast both within the palazzo and beyond, carried on the breeze to neighbouring streets and further afield via online-accessible recordings. This pavilion takes the restrictive notion of ‘representation’ – a tired and often-exhausting exercise in trying to prove one’s worth – and warps its potential limitations with one of the most exciting presentations of the biennale.

Here, artists including Yinka Shonibare reckon with key touchpoints in Nigerian history, such as the punitive Benin Expedition of 1897, in which 1,200 British soldiers, led by Sir Harry Rawson, looted the city and stole innumerable precious objects, including the Benin Bronzes, which now sit in institutions like the British Museum despite increasingly louder calls for restitution. Skilfully replicating in clay 150 of these stolen artefacts – including ceremonial masks, musical instruments, swords and commemorative heads – Shonibare’s Monument to the Restitution of the Mind and Soul (2023) acknowledges the impossibility of depicting the sheer scale of loss. Within the piece, which feels like a subtle critique of western museological display, sits a fabric bust of Rawson covered in Shonibare’s trademark medium of Dutch wax cloth. Meanwhile, Tunji Adeniyi-Jones experimented with Venetian architecture with a smart installation of Celestial Gathering (2024). The painting, filled with the artist’s trademark figures in orange and yellow hues which he noted was a reference to west African clay landscapes,  is fixed to the ceiling like an original fresco in the palazzo. His work rewards slow looking, which isn’t always the way visitors navigate the Biennale. Blink, or pace through the room quickly onto the next installation, and you might miss it.

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Monument to the Restitution of the Mind and Soul, 2023, ‘Nigeria Imaginary’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: Museum of West African Art (MOWAA); photograph: Marco Cappelleti Studio

Amidst this strong showing of group presentations, two monographic exhibitions do stand out. The first is ‘Peter Hujar: Portraits in Life and Death’, which brings together 41 photographs from the only book the artist published during his lifetime. Here, we see Hujar’s skill and artistry in full force: monochrome images of skulls in the Palermo catacombs reveal the sheer tonal range of black and white, playing skilfully with light and shadow, life and death. Dating from 1976, the publication, which includes an introduction from Hujar’s friend, the theorist Susan Sontag, has been long out of print and has become a cult classic. ‘Portraits in Life and Death’ takes the spirit of the original photobook, which reckons with our mortality, into the physical gallery space to moving effect.

Peter Hujar, Susan Sontag, 1975. Courtesy: © The Peter Hujar Archive/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

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.

Julie Mehretu, TRANSpaintings, 2023–24, ‘Ensemble’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, White Cube, © Palazzo Grassi, Pinault Collection; photograph: Marco Cappelletti

In ‘Ensemble’ at Palazzo Grassi, Julie Mehretu breaks the model of the institutional solo exhibition by extending the invitation to her peers, including poet and author Robin Coste Lewis, as well as artists Huma Bhabha, Tacita Dean and Nairy Baghramian. The show successfully insists that artistic practice is nearly always influenced by the work of others, with Dean’s moving films of Mehretu in her studio indicating a relationship full of admiration and respect. Highlighting an artist at the peak of her craft and skill, ‘Ensemble’ encompasses Mehretu’s keen study of the politics of our current moment, influenced by recent protests such as the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter, as well as the importance of key African American writers and theorists, including Toni Morrison and bell hooks. Large-scale canvases occupy entire walls of the gallery: the remarkable Black City (2007), for instance – filled with curved lines, shapes and dashes of colour – feels equal parts dizzying and intoxicating.

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

For me, the most successful of this year’s off-site projects – whether solo presentations or group shows – were also the most moving. Embedded within the spirit and politics of our current tumult, these are exhibitions in which many of the participating artists look outside of themselves in an attempt to make sense of the world in a time of political turmoil and dissonance.

Main image: Precious Okoyomon, Pre-Sky/ Emit Light: Yes Like That, 2024, ‘Nigeria Imaginary’, installation view. Courtesy: Museum of West African Art (MOWAA); photograph: Marco Cappelleti Studio

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK.