The 60th Venice Art Biennale Celebrates The Concepts of “Foreignness” and “Difference”

Emma Hodgson   |   03-05-2024

One of the world’s most prolific art fairs – the Venice Biennale – is celebrating its 60th edition this year. The internationally recognised event has been held approximately every two years since 1895, making it one of the oldest and most established art gatherings in the world. Every two years, the festival offers a curated programme that explores themes of politics and contemporary cultural and social issues through performances, sculptures and installations. 

Organisers for the current edition are currently preparing to launch later this month, on the 20th of April in Italy’s famed canal city, for a six-month stint which will last until the 24th of November. Leading the 60th edition of the fair is Adriano Pedrosa, a Brazilian curator who holds the prestigious title of the artistic director of the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP). Pedrosa’s work often focuses on a particular community or identity, something which came to the forefront when deciding the theme for the 2024 Biennale. 

The title chosen for the show is “Foreigners Everywhere,” a phrase which in its native Italian, has many meanings, says Pedrosa. “The expression Stranieri Ovunque (foreigners everywhere) has several meanings,” the curator explains. “First of all, wherever you go and wherever you are you will always encounter foreigners – they/we are everywhere. Secondly, that no matter where you find yourself, you are always truly, and deep down inside, a foreigner,” he continues.

In a hyper-connected world, the theme could arguably not be more prevalent, and interestingly the theme was originally inspired by works by Parisan-born artist Claire Fontaine. In a series of works created in neon sculptures, the artist uses several languages to portray the phrase  “Foreigners Everywhere”, across her works.  The phrase comes, in turn, from the name of a Turin collective that fought racism and xenophobia in Italy in the early 2000s.

Exploring the local art scene

This year marks the eighth year that the UAE has participated in the prestigious Vencian art fair, and for this year’s event, the country has selected Sharjah-based conceptual artist Abdullah Al-Saadi to represent the emirates.

Responding to the theme for this year’s event, the artist, along with this year’s UAE curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh have put forward a collection called  “Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia”. The artist, whose career reaches back over nearly 45 years, is a key figure in the modern art movement in the country. His work ranges across a multitude of disciplines ( the artist is known for everything from painting, drawing, sculpture, performance and photography to collecting and cataloguing found objects, and the creation of new alphabets).

Reflecting on the themes for this year’s fair and discussing his latest show at the Arsenale – Sale d’Armi in Venice, within the city’s Biennale, the artist explained: “I draw inspiration from my environment during my various journeys. I always like to travel alone, with the company of a specific book, music, animal friends, or means of transportation. The presence of these travel companions has a significant impact on my artworks, as they accompany me during my exploration of the land and humankind’s place in it.” 

The sense of travel, or movement has been something that is intrinsic to Al Saadi’s wider body of work. One of his most prominent installations is called “Stone Slippers” (2013). A work which includes a collection of slippers made out of stone accompanied by drawings. Something that the artist explains is symbolic for travellers, who are constantly moving through life – in search of something they ardently long for, and which remains elusive.

“Abdullah’s practice has been, over the last forty years, a continuous engagement with changing environments as well as personal and cultural histories, creating points where they meet and interweave,” explains the exhibit’s curator, Tarek Abou El Fetouh. “In his rich and diverse artistic practice, whether drawings, maps, diaries, or objects, Abdullah’s visual language remains recognisable through his passionate longing for immersion in nature; he constructs a unique relationship with landscapes, which goes beyond the familiar.”

International shows at the Biennale 

Amongst this theme, there are plenty of worthy exhibitions to visit across the fair. International highlights include Belgian contemporary artist Arne Quinze who has collaborated with the American music producer Swizz Beatz. The immersive show taking place in the historic 16th-century church, San Francesco della Vigna is under the theme “Are We The Aliens_.” The title – which is a clear rift off the Biennale’s main theme – deliberately incorporates an underscore in the title, a reference to computer code – and a different sphere of otherness presented by our dichotomy with technology. Another key show to watch at this year’s fair is by the spectacular artist, Federico Solmi at Palazzo Donà dalle Rose. The artist has created an exhibit tied to the theme called “Ship of Fools,” which explores power structures, colonialism, history, culture, and entertainment. 

Regardless of where you pick to explore at this year’s event, it is difficult to go wrong. As the curator of the Venice Biennale explains, the festival is rich with talent, and one in which the person on the margins – the foreigner – will no longer be left out of the conversation.