‘We Can All Be in Different Worlds’: Ralph Rugoff’s Venice Biennale Will Respond to the Rise of Fake News

The artistic director of the Venice Biennale announces his show will be titled "May You Live in Interesting Times."

Ralph Rugoff and Paolo Baratta, Photo by Andrea Avezzu, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.

Ralph Rugoff, the artistic director of the 58th Venice Biennale, has revealed the title for his marquee exhibition due to open next May: “May You Live in Interesting Times.” The phrase, which has been referenced by Western politicians and rhetoricians for more than 100 years, is in fact based on a misunderstanding. Although it was originally believed to be an ancient Chinese curse, it is actually a Western invention.

The way in which misunderstandings, translation mishaps, and fake news can have real-world ramifications for decades to come is the jumping-off point for Rugoff’s highly anticipated exhibition. Speaking to artnet News after a press conference in Venice on Monday morning, the curator said: “I hope it is less of a curse and more of a challenge and that art may be a way to help us” as the world faces crises and changes “that can cause anxiety, despair, and frustration.” Plus, he added, “[‘May You Live in Interesting Times’] was a phrase I thought was ambiguous enough to be interesting.”

Rugoff’s comments in Venice offer a taste of his overall philosophy and mindset as he prepares to organize one of the world’s most important international art exhibitions at a time of unprecedented geopolitical turmoil. “Art cannot stem the rise of nationalist movements and authoritarian governments in different parts of the world…nor can it alleviate the tragic fate of displaced peoples across the globe,” he said. Nevertheless, “in an indirect fashion, perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times.’”

The journalist turned curator and museum director told artnet News that heavily didactic and agitprop works might be thin on the ground in Venice come May 2019. “I don’t think art should be a form of journalism,” he said, “but I think it can give us some tools that allow us to develop more nuanced way of thinking about things and the ability to hold different perspectives in our heads at the same time.” Indeed, in his official statement announcing the biennale’s title, Rugoff underscores his interest in art that embraces both “pleasure and critical thinking.”

Carsten Höller's Two Roaming Beds (Grey) Photo: David Levene via Hayward Gallery

Carsten Höller’s Two Roaming Beds (Grey). Photo by David Levene, courtesy of the Hayward Gallery.

The director of London’s Hayward Gallery has never been afraid of organizing shows that manage to explore challenging, topical issues with a healthy dose of humor and fun. He has organized several shows, including the 2008 exhibition “Laughing in a Foreign Language” at the Hayward, that dissect the role of humor in contemporary art. Then, in 2015, he offered visitors the chance to choose between leaving the building via one of two slides designed by the artist Carsten Höller.

Similarly, “May You Live in Interesting Times” will include “a series of encounters that are essentially playful, taking into account that it is when we play that we are most fully ‘human,’” Rugoff said in his statement. Nevertheless, don’t expect to see the Giardini full of Höller-type slides. “Hopefully there will be lots of things that result in a feeling of pleasure but they may not be so physical,” he told artnet News.

Rugoff has spoken in the past about the impact of Instagram on the way viewers consume art, and he plans to explore this issue, at least indirectly, in Venice as well. “I think there will be moments [in the exhibition] that will hopefully reflect back to the visitor that maybe question what that activity means and if it really is the best way to go around an exhibition taking pictures on your phone to post on social media,” he said. The specific projects and artists he is considering remain tightly under wraps for now, however.

The entrance of the Venice Biennale in 2017. Photo by La Biennale di Venezia, via Instagram.

Rugoff also seems intent on bucking the trend of presenting rediscovered or previously overlooked artists—also known as “emerging dead artists”—which has become a popular focus for biennial curators in recent years, including the 2017 Venice Biennale exhibition organized by Christine Macel.

“I think the biennial should reflect the times we live in,” Rugoff says. “If there is an overlooked artist whose work seems suddenly to cast a very interesting point of view on these times, then I think that would make sense. I don’t want to put them in because I’m trying to re-write art history.”

Looking ahead, Rugoff is preparing to balance an increasingly busy travel schedule with his day job running the Hayward. Before jetting off to Venice for today’s announcement, he was spotted at the Liverpool Biennial over the weekend and is due back in London tomorrow. Next up, he will begin traveling the globe to meet artists before he hunkers down in Venice to install the show next spring.

Some have joked that there must be a Rugoff look-alike, he seems so omnipresent. “Funnily enough, the doppelganger idea will be part of this exhibition, because in this fake news world we live in, we can all be in two different worlds,” the curator told artnet News. “We can be living in a different world from the people walking on the same side of the street.”

The preview for “May You Live in Interesting Times” will be held from May 8 to May 10, 2019. The show is open to the public from May 11 to November 24 at the Arsenale and Giardini in Venice.

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