BY Sean Burns in Critic's Guides | 18 APR 24

Central Pavilion Review: A Celebration of ‘Outsiders’ That Lacks a Punch

Adriano Pedrosa’s biennial raises essential questions about representation in the art world, but unfortunately, it feels disjointed

BY Sean Burns in Critic's Guides | 18 APR 24

Venice during the biennial is a squeeze. The event’s unique ability to inflect the pleasure of viewing art with an overwhelming sense of panic – so much to see, so little time – makes me want to avoid everyone, even people I like. I’ve quickly darted – much like the gremlin at the end of Nicolas Roeg’s filmic masterpiece Don’t Look Now (1973) – down alleyways and along canal towpaths to escape avid curators and eager gallery directors. The biennial, for me, is a rollercoaster of emotion.

Claire Fontaine, Foreigners Everywhere (Self-portrait), Stranieri Ovunque (Autoritratto), 2024, double-sided, wall or window mounted neon, framework, transformers, cables and fittings, dimensions and colours variable. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Matteo de Mayda

My task: to write on the central pavilion, the segment of the main exhibition located in the Giardini. It’s a tricky job because Adriano Pedrosa’s show is, at best, awkward. For starters, its title, ‘Foreigners Everywhere’, has proved contentious, with the artist Anish Kapoor accusing the curator of ‘echo[ing] the language of national neo-fascism’ (The Art Newspaper, 16 April). Personally, however, I find this accusation a little extreme. I’ve been yearning for something more provocative-sounding since Ralph Rugoff’s bland and woolly ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ in 2019.

Taken on its own, the Brazilian curator’s central pavilion reads like a pretty good – if slightly disjointed – museum show. Pedrosa seems to have seized the opportunity to celebrate meticulously crafted drawing, painting and archive practices, making the biennial feel well-intentioned and thoughtfully curated. Yet, nothing here, for me, prompts that ta-dah! moment of excitement I was hoping for. Earnestness can make a point effectively but, when used excessively, can leave you wanting a little chaos.

Aloïse, L’Angleterre – Trône de Dehli, 1951-60, coloured pencils on two sheets of paper sewn together, 70 × 98 cm, 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere', 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Matteo de Mayda

The principal shortcoming of ‘Foreigners Everywhere’ is that it aims to unite a set of unique experiences under the rubric of ‘outsider’, as though artists who are queer, indigenous, self-taught and/or from the Global South are somehow all the same. That said, the show features some fascinating works. Personal highlights include a dimly-lit room containing the enthralling drawings of untrained artist Aloïse Corbaz, and a marriage made in gay heaven – or the sweaty vestibule of a porn cinema – between photographers Dean Sameshima and Miguel Ángel Rojas.

Until leaving Switzerland for Germany in 1911, Corbaz wanted to be a singer. Thankfully, she never succeeded in that ambition. Instead, her oil pastel-on-paper works, such as Cléopâtre Pape – Was Bitten Gold (1960–63), present a fantastical world of vibrant kings, queens and figures with voluptuous hats and blank blue eyes. Her offerings feel like delicate papery treasures that have travelled through time and are still unravelling their elaborate riches. A similar exalted quality exudes from Madge Gill’s monumental ten-meter ink-on-calico drawing Crucifixion of the Soul (1936), with its mishmash of monochrome faces.

Madge Gill, Crucifixion of the Soul (detail), 1934, coloured inks on calico, 1.5 × 10.6 m, 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere', 2024. Courtesy: London Borough of Newham, Heritage and Archives, La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Matteo de Mayda

In a discreet corridor of the pavilion, I stumble upon the complimentary pairing of two monochrome photographic series: Sameshima’s intriguing images of Berlin porn cinemas, ‘being alone’ (2022), and Rojas’s ‘El Emperador’ (1973–80), which depicts the historical equivalent of those venues photographed in Bogotá 50 years earlier. Pedrosa’s seemingly witty installation sees both series tucked away in a corner like erotic contraband, reflecting the sense of removal and obfuscation that are components of the queer experience.

Rojas and Sameshima both deal in wilful abstraction, a language picked up to different ends throughout ‘Foreigners Everywhere’. Indeed, the parlance between their shadowy deployment doesn’t quite translate in the next room, which contains a small survey of historical abstraction from beyond the Western canon. My personal standout here is Rubem Valentim, whose graphic tempera-on-canvas works, such as Pintura 2 (Painting 2, 1964), contain detailed building blocks and towers arranged in layers like the cross-section of a biological drawing.

Dean Sameshima, 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere', 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Matteo de Mayda

There is a pervasive sense of containment throughout the show, which has a tendency to come across as didactic. It’s rare to look at anything other than a rectangle on a wall. And, occasionally, I want to experience something more dynamic than a sedate, albeit beautiful, ceramic work such as Nedda Guidi’s Scultura Oggetto V (Sculpture Object V, 1965–66). If you’d landed at this year’s biennial from outer space, you’d think the internet had never been invented, and even the few video works on display feel a little demonstrative.

Two rooms of over 100 painted portraits by 20th-century artists in Africa, Asia and Latin America emerge as a jewel in the pavilion’s centre. There are stunning works, including Barrington Watson’s Conversation (1981) and Lai Foong Moi's Labourer (Lunch Break) (1965). Pedrosa flexes his knowledge about the passage of modernism beyond Europe to this selection, arranged salon-style across the grey/blue walls. He has risen to the challenge of the biennial: his conceit and execution are both thorough and well-intentioned. However, I find myself wanting a bit more messiness, rage, fracture, performance, and more immersive and evocative manifestations of otherness. I did encounter it briefly in Manauara Clandestina’s digital film collage Building (2021–24), which aesthetically speaks to the role of the internet in constructing and communicating the self.  

Nedda Guidi, 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere', 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Matteo de Mayda

Nothing in ‘Foreigners Everywhere’ feels intent on blowing your socks off. Rather – beneath the immediate bluster of the wealthy, attention-seeking art world – Pedrosa creates an atmosphere of quiet contemplation to invite a reckoning with historical injustices and abuses. Nowhere is this more evident than in Pablo Delano’s The Museum of the Old Colony (2015–ongoing), an archive of photos and objects related to Puerto Rico’s struggle for autonomy, first from the Spanish and then the US. Seeing such works is a powerful reminder that many of the show’s participating artists operated under and survived comparable oppression.

In treating his invitation to curate this year’s biennial as an opportunity to redress an imbalance in the art-historical canon by presenting a shift away from Western, heteronormative and, indeed, contemporary art, Pedrosa takes a similar tack to Cecilia Alemani, whose 2022 show, ‘The Milk of Dreams’, sought to reappraise the practices of neglected female surrealists by combining historical work with pugnacious installations by leading contemporary artists. Both exhibitions are ambitious – Pedrosa’s showcases 331 artists and collectives from 80 countries – but not without their shortcomings. Arguably, Alemani pulled off a better balance.

Pablo Delano, The Museum of the Old Colony, 2024, installation view, dimensions variable. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Matteo de Mayda

Much like the crumbling city of Venice itself, the biennial model feels structurally and ecologically unsound. But an investment in the continuation of the show is a belief that what happens here can impact the discourse and actions of curators, institutions and galleries throughout the world. In that respect, ‘Foreigners Everywhere’ is significant, its takeaway being that its visitors must continue to ask some crucial questions: Who is not at the table? Who is not part of the conversation? Who never was? But the true return lies in asking: Who gets to raise those questions in the first place?

Main image: Pablo Delano, The Museum of the Old Colony (detail), 2024, installation view, dimensions variable. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Matteo de Mayda

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.