Must-see pavilions at the 2024 Venice Biennale

For an event whose central theme this year is foreigners and strangers, there is a surprising homogeneity in the national pavilions at the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale. It feels like Adriano Pedrosa’s theme has been taken up in a similar way by artists and curators alike. After all, as one artist said to me, there is something old-fashioned about the concept of national pavilions. ‘Foreigners Everywhere’ seems like an invitation to question the very idea of ​​it.

In this light, it is not surprising that many curators have responded by exhibiting a group of artists rather than an individual. Not only curators think this way: in the Croatian pavilion, artist Vlatka Horvat invited every artist whose email address she owned to contribute a work to her exhibition. The national pavilion has thus become both an international showcase and an example of artistic reciprocity rather than grandeur.

For some countries, the fact that it is their first time appearing at the Biennale is enough to justify the traditional approach of one artist – even if there is nothing traditional about the work itself. East Timor is one of them: Maria Madeira’s exhibition ‘Kiss and Don’t Tell’ is sensational, not least because of the story it tells. The walls are covered with canvas recording the traces of Madeira, largely made with earth pigments to form columns – earth falls rather than waterfalls. At knee height, surrounding the canvas, are numerous prints of lips – some closed, others wide open – in various shades of lipstick. As Madeira explains in a video, the markings refer to a poignant moment in East Timor’s recent history. In the 1990s, Timorese women held in torture houses were forced by Indonesian soldiers to put on makeup and kiss the walls while the soldiers violated them. It’s a story of such precise horror that it’s hard to say whether the work lives up to it. But uncovering such a story is part of what an art project can do at an international biennial.

A detail from ‘Kiss and Don’t Tell’ (2024) by Maria Madeira in the East Timor Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale. Photo: Cristiano Corte; courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwarz Gallery, Australia; © the artist

There is something exquisitely German about the German pavilion. It is the duty for an artist in the German Pavilion to deconstruct the idea of ​​the pavilion to explore the German nation, and this year we have that in abundance. The pavilion contains the work of several artists, including Yael Bartana, Nicole L’Huillier and Jan St. Werner, but Ersan Mondtag’s central sculpture seems the most notable. A kind of three-story house, built of earth, with performers enacting some form of conflicted, dust-laden life, is so deeply committed that it’s hard to look away – even with a video of dancers wearing latex horse heads that are visible through the walls. Windows.

Installation view of Monument to an unknown person (2024) by Ersan Mondtag in the German Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale. Photo: Thomas Aurin; © the artist

The idea of ​​a list of ‘top pavilions’ seems old-fashioned, and the general atmosphere of inclusivity here makes it even more unfair to single out certain pavilions. So consider the following simply as recommendations. But don’t get too hung up on it: all tastes and people are welcome at the Biennale this year.

Romania pavilion: ‘What work is’

In the Romanian pavilion, Serban Savu, in collaboration with designers Nana Esi and Sophie Keij (of which Atelier Brenda is a part), presents a wall of artworks that initially resemble typical social realist paintings, but with slightly softer colors. These are not scenes of labor but of rest: men stand around a construction site; a guard in a quiet gallery takes a nap. It’s a strangely poignant portrayal of the disruption at work in everyday life. Some of these works have been translated into mosaics; you can see them being made in a pop-up workshop at the New Gallery of the Romanian Institute for Culture and Humanistic Research in Cannaregio.

Installation view of ‘What Work Is’ (2024) by Serban Savu in the Romanian Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale. Photo: Marius Poput; © the artist

United Arab Emirates Pavilion: ‘Abdullah Al Saadi: Places of Memory, Places of Amnesia’

Al Saadi’s seemingly simple paintings on scrolls, rocks or even the insides of what appear to be cookie jar lids appear at first glance to be a seductive kind of cartography. On closer inspection, they recall trips the artist has made, with or without a gramophone or a special pair of slippers. The landscapes he has crossed are selectively recreated, so that his work functions as both a map of his journey and a map of what he remembers of it. The stories of his travels are told in detail by two men at a desk in the center of the pavilion, where you can hear about, for example, the time Al Saadi accidentally crossed the UAE border into Oman on a bicycle and, despite all his carrying papers, could not return to the UAE through official entry points – a foreigner in his own country.

A painted rock from Abdullah Al Saadi’s exhibition ‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia’ at the United Arab Emirates Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2024. Photo: Ismail Noor/Seeing things; © the artist

Denmark Pavilion: ‘Rise of the Sunken Sun’

On the outside of this pavilion the word ‘Danmark’ is written over by ‘Kalaallit Nunaat’, the indigenous name of Greenland. In the pavilion, Inuit artist Inuuteq Storch presents a series of photographs that explore the presentation of Greenland. His own works are some of the first examples of photographs capturing island life from a Greenlandic perspective, although part of the exhibition also features digitized versions of the work of John Møller (1867–1935), the first professional Greenlandic photographer. Most of the photos are stripped back, without any gimmick or overt technique (although this is of course a version of technique). The color photos are not clear and do not seem attention seeking. They merely show a community at work, in love, living – a simple reckoning with where their subjects are in the world today.

A photo from the series Soon summer will be over (2023) by Inuuteq Storch. © the artist

Bulgaria pavilion: ‘Neighbours’
Cultural Center of Orione Artigianelli, Dorsoduro

A recreation of a Soviet-era apartment in Bulgaria, put together using found objects, provides the backdrop for this astonishing pavilion. While the creation of the world is flawless, including the dog-eared copy of Chekhov on the living room bookshelf and the cigarette in the ashtray, this somber installation is brought to life by a soundtrack of interviews with Soviet state prisoners locked up during childbirth. camps and prison camps. The interviews, collected over a period of twenty years, tell of life in the prisons and what it was like for the prisoners to be stared at or shunned by their community as they were transported from prison to prison and treated as foreigners by their own countrymen. treated. But as you get closer to the kitchen, where plates and a cylindrical grater sit frozen in the sink, there is a sense of silence about the installation. There are memories in it, but from whom exactly? The voices represent one set of memories, but there are more that may never be told.

Installation view of The neighbours (2022) by Krasimira Butseva, Lilia Topouzova and Julian Chehirian in the Bulgaria Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale. Photo: Krasimira Butseva; © the artist

United States Pavilion: ‘the space in which I can place myself’

Jeffrey Gibson’s exploration of gay and indigenous history may sound dignified and weighty—it tackles the theme of belonging through literature, constitutional amendments, and legislation—but that’s far from the case. This large, bright, bead-laden pavilion is a wild ride. Images of birds in rainbow colors jostle with texts written in a special alphabet. Versions of indigenous clothing speak proudly of freedom and the whole thing culminates in a thumping video of dance and celebration. It’s hard not to be convinced by such a joyful recasting of history, putting the outsider at the center of attention.

Exterior view of ‘the space in which I have to place’ (2024) by Jeffrey Gibson in the American Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale. Photo: Timothy Schenck; © the artist

The 60th Venice Biennale Arte will take place from April 20 to November 24. The central theme is ‘Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere’.