I've been to every edition of the Venice Biennale for the last few years, and yet, this time, it felt surreal in ways I never thought it could. Three years after the last time I visited Giardini’s pavilions, here I am, eagerly waiting to find out how the art world will describe these last few years of our existence.
Looking back now, the title of the Biennale’s previous edition, May You Live In Interesting Times, seemed like an omen of what we were about to experience on a global level. The three years that separate the previous and the current Venice Biennale showed us the fragility of the façade the previous edition was focused on: a reality where truth is malleable, liquid, and often unreal.
Today, when visiting one of the most important art exhibitions in the world, I do so knowing that what I thought was a real sense of safety was, in fact, an illusion and that issues that seemed so far away from me are just behind the corner.
How does art translate this feeling of impermanence? This is the question that this year’s Biennale, entitled The Milk of Dreams, tries to answer. It does so by exploring the connection between the human being and its surroundings, be it nature, technology, or the constantly evolving sense of self.
Sound is the essence of our surroundings. It defines the concept of here and now and permeates each moment of our lives with a soundtrack that magnifies our senses. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a sound is worth a thousand pictures: the way a soundscape can describe the present resonates deeply with us because it’s a medium that gives room to the imagination and allows it to fill the gaps left by the lack of visuals.
Walking around national pavilions this year, I sensed a new creative urgency. Artists can show us how to escape the visual bombardment of our digital lives by creating soundscapes that force us to look within ourselves, at the core of what’s left after over two years of a global pandemic.
Today I’ll describe some of the sounds you can hear at the Venice Biennale this year. Some of these installations push the boundaries of sound art and show the new ways we interact with our environments: a soundtrack for the new world we live in.
(Editor’s note: Bear in mind the descriptions below are mostly based on my personal feelings when experiencing the installations, which sometimes are not in line with the message the artists wanted to convey.)
Latifa Echakhch - The Concert (Switzerland)
The Swiss pavilion presents an art installation that focuses on the value of soundscape, using silence as an echo chamber to magnify the sonic surroundings. The beauty of this installation lies in its ability to balance the power of the senses perfectly. We are surrounded by abstract, ethereal objects, bathed in an orange light that symbolises twilight.
The Concert questions whether the core of music is actually sound by offering an installation that aims to recreate the visual aftermath of a music event. By walking around the Swiss pavilion, the feeling that something happened just before our arrival is palpable, and the silence surrounding each room gradually becomes a sound installation in its own right.
The light composition in the central room is an incredible experience where sound is replaced by flashing lights. By the time I got to the central room, I was so absorbed by the atmosphere of the installation that I could “sense” the music rather than hear it. A compelling demonstration of the power of the human mind.
Marco Fusinato - Desastres (Australia)
The hallucinatory experience provided by Marco Fusinato’s installation is a representation of our modern existence. Constantly surrounded by sensorial attractions that disconnect us from the physical world, the boundary between life and non-life seems more feeble than ever.
With his 200-day performance, Marco Fusinato shows us that a boundary does exist, and the limitations of our perceptions can still be reached. The artist seems to ask: is the path towards an increasingly digital existence the answer to the needs of contemporary men and women?
The sonic disorientation caused by Desastres highlights the value we give to the images we see every day but transforms them into a dystopic, unhuman sensory experience: too fast for us to absorb the meaning of what we see. Yet, the sound anchors the glimpses of images and carves them into our minds.
Andrius Arutiunian - Gharīb (Armenia)
Lithuanian-Armenian artist Andrius Arutiunian explores the concepts of individuality and cultural detachment with Gharīb (meaning strange, or pilgrim). In this installation, cultural differences are exposed through sounds rather than visuals, with a soundtrack that emerges and gives voice to the people who are generally unheard and neglected.
The power of Arutiunian’s installation lies in its ability to evoke social and political turmoil by using sounds associated with different cultures. Investigating what differentiates people, whether it’s the music style or a political faction, becomes the evidence of what our beliefs are based on.
A bridge between cultures, Armenia shows the cultural balance it’s experienced over the centuries and its unquestionable frailty.
Aisha Stoby - Destined Imaginaries (Oman)
The first national pavilion by Oman at the Venice Biennale features the work of five artists across all disciplines. It’s a fascinating demonstration of the country’s creative landscape, represented by an imaginary world where humans do not exist anymore.
“What would life look like without us?” The question asked by Biennale’s artistic director Cecilia Alemani puts us in front of our impermanence and challenges artists to bring to life a creative microsystem where humans are out of the equation.
These five Omani artists, Anwar Sonya, Radhika Khimji, Hassan Meer, Budoor Al Riyami, and Raiya Al Rawahi, created a world within a world made of post-human artefacts and remnants of civilisations, emphasising the strong cultural roots and folklore of their country while imagining future scenarios devoid of humans.
Here you’ll have the chance to experience the last work of the late Raiya Al Rawahi, a talented sound artist who died in 2017 of cancer at the age of 30.
Dixit Algorizmi: Garden of Knowledge (Uzbekistan)
The Garden of Knowledge draws inspiration from the story of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the Uzbek scientist and mathematician who invented the algorithm, to investigate the direction of modern culture and technology acceleration.
Reflecting the complexity of cultural definition and Westernisation, the Garden of Knowledge is a multi-disciplinary experience into the intricacies of modern-day life, defined by the constant evolution of the technology around us and the digital transcendence we all seem to be aiming at.
In this pavilion, Abror Zufarov and Charli Tapp created a constantly evolving garden that aims to represent the fluidity of modern life, with an enveloping sound installation that enhances the Uzbeki cultural history and takes a primary role in this multi-sensorial experience.
Here, history and technology are entangled: a seamless unicum that transcends time and amplifies the cultural impact and folklore of nations. In this context, the sound installation becomes the only perpetual medium: evolving, yes, but at a speed that resonates with the human perception.
The best sound installation is Venice Itself
A city with no cars, surrounded by the sea; the beauty and timelessness of Venice are even more magnified by the sounds propagating within its streets. If you find yourself walking aimlessly from one canal to another, you'll soon realise why Venice has inspired artists for centuries.
Everything about Venice is music. From the flying seagulls to the soothing sound of water to the noisy fish markets. Life within this enigmatic city is devoid of traffic or industries, leaving only the sound of life to absorb all the frequencies that human ears can perceive.
Field recordist Enrico Coniglio perhaps described the environmental narrative of the Venice lagoon better than anyone else. In Coniglio’s soundscapes, silence becomes an enveloping sonic element that defines the nature of the surroundings. Just like in Concert, the absence of sound is, in itself, sound.
While Venice’s appearance may seem perpetual, the sounds that define city life are constantly evolving. In this context, sounds become a crucial element to indicate the passage of time: just like the art installations in the national pavilions, the sound of Venice itself becomes the manifesto of these unique, unpredictable times.
Cover Credit: Dimitry Anikin / Unsplash
All Images: Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.