For the First Time, the Venice Biennale Is Launching a Performance Art Program to Bring Art Outside the Arsenale

The Delfina Foundation is co-producing the innovative project.

Paul Make, Seeking After the Fully Grown Dancer *deep within* (2016-2018). Performance. Photo by Sandino Scheidegger.

Ralph Rugoff, the artistic director of this year’s Venice Biennale, has already shown he is not afraid to break with tradition by announcing he will only include living artists in the event’s central exhibition. Now, Rugoff has revealed that will be taking his focus on the now even further with special program devoted to live art. For the first time, the biennale will host a dynamic performance program alongside the main exhibition, which is titled “May You Live in Interesting Times.” 

The program, co-produced by the biennale and the London-based nonprofit Delfina Foundation, will bring 14 live works to Venice that bridge music, movement, and visual art. The project will run for a limited time: during the preview week in May and the closing weekend in November. (Asked why it cannot run for longer—only press and VIPs tend to make it to opening week—Rugoff said the cost of such an endeavor was prohibitive.)

Performances will be held in the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, but will also bleed out into the venue’s gardens and galleries, sneaking up on unsuspecting visitors.

The eclectic mix of performers, who Rugoff says bring “significant, strong, and utterly unique voices” to the biennale, will expand on the main exhibition’s theme, which urges viewers to consider art as it exists in between accepted categories and genres. Aaron Cezar, the Delfina Foundation’s director, adds that performance can help audiences “process the current urgencies that we face at home and abroad.”

The focus on performance comes on the heels of the runaway success of Anne Imhof’s Faust, which stole the show in Venice in 2017 and earned the German artist a Golden Lion. The program, titled “Meetings on Art,” also offers the biennale an opportunity to showcase less familiar names than the ones headlining national pavilions or the main exhibition.  

The performances will be heavy on works that examine intersecting identities, from race to class to gender. Opening week (May 8 through May 12) will feature performances by Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, Paul Maheke & Nkisi, Florence Peake & Eve Stainton, and Victoria Sin.

The performance artist known as boychild will also reprise a work that debuted at Carlos/Ishikawa gallery during Condo London in January, which explores the way hands perform class and gender. Meanwhile, Canadian artist Zadie Xa will present a reworking of a 2016 performance at London’s Serpentine Gallery.

Boychild, Untitled hand dance (2019). Performance, Carlos:Ishikawa, London.

The final weekend of the Venice Biennale (November 23 through 24) will see more lengthy performances by the art duo Cooking Sections, Vivian Caccuri, Vivien Sansour, and Bo Zheng at a time when Rugoff says visitors will have a greater attention span than during the frenzied preview week.

Rugoff, who is the director of London’s Hayward Gallery, has secured funding for the innovative program from Arts Council England, the organization chaired by Nicholas Serota, the former director of the Tate. ACE is keener than ever to champion international artists with links to Britain at the prestigious event in Venice, not least as a counterbalance to Brexit-induced isolationism. 

“The selected artists reflect the vibrancy and diversity of a performance art scene in England, which is truly international in its outlook,” said a spokesman for ACE. 

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