May You Live in Interesting Times - Venice Biennale 2019 Theme Revealed

July 17, 2018

As of the July 16 press conference held at the Ca’ Giustinian on the Grand Canal, we now have the official theme and direction of the 58th Venice Biennale, to be held in 2019.

The exhibition’s president Paolo Baratta, accompanied by the curator Ralph Rugoff, announced the title May You Live in Interesting Times, an allusion to periods of crisis, uncertainty and turmoil.

What’s interesting is that this phrase seems to be combining the past and the present in a quite interesting manner, following past edition’s name Viva Arte Viva.

May You Live in Interesting Times

As explained by Baratta and Rugoff, May You Live in Interesting Times was taken from a speech in the late 1930s given by Austen Chamberlain, a member of the British parliament - he had wrongly used it as an ancient Chinese curse.

Rugoff commented:

In this case it turns out that there never was any such ‘ancient Chinese curse,’ despite the fact that Western politicians have made reference to it in speeches for over a hundred years. It is an ersatz cultural relic, another Occidental ‘Orientalism,’ and yet for all its fictional status it has had real rhetorical effects in significant public exchanges.

The saying, however, will relate to contemporary times through the concept of false information dispersed from and to today’s society.

At a moment when the digital dissemination of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ is corroding political discourse and the trust on which it depends, it is worth pausing whenever possible to reassess our terms of reference.

Venice Biennale 2019

Although this was announced as the theme of next year’s Venice Biennale, the curator explained that the show will not have one per se, but will ”highlight a general approach to making art and a view of art’s social function as embracing both pleasure and critical thinking.”

Artists who think in this manner offer alternatives to the meaning of so-called facts by suggesting other ways of connecting and contextualizing them.

The press conference also revealed a possible exhibition structure change in order to de-emphasize the art object and feature forms of playfulness. Rugoff explained that the exhibition wants to welcome its public to an expansive experience of the deep involvement, absorption and creative learning that makes art possible.

An exhibition should open people’s eyes to previously unconsidered ways of being in the world and thus change their view of that world.

The 58th Venice Biennale will be held from 11 May to 24 November 2019.

Featured image: Ralph Rugoff (left), the artistic director of the 2019 Venice Biennale, with the institution's president, Paolo Baratta Andrea Avezzù; courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.