Foreigners Everywhere: Thoughts on the 2024 Venice Biennale

by Jorge Misium June 3, 2024
Colorful facade of the main pavilion of the Venice Biennale

Façade of the 2024 Venice Biennale, “Foreigners Everywhere.”

The Venice Biennale, documenta, and Art Basel are the trifecta of the European art world. This year, the theme of the main exhibition of the Venice Biennale, Foreigners Everywhere, accomplishes two objectives. First, it focuses on the candent social issue of immigration. Second, it simplifies the overwhelming curatorial task of selecting the “best” contemporary artists, because they must be “foreigners.” Paradoxically, the official list of artists is an expansive 330 names. 

I recall biennales from the 2000s which featured suites of Gerhard Richter paintings, or artist Michelangelo Pistoletto smashing mirrors with a sledgehammer. No doubt, those days had good alignment between top auction house prices and the biennale, which resulted in a bunch of established white male artists showing their work. By 2007, we were all shaken when El Anatsui hung his mesmerizing bottle cap tapestries not only as part of the biennale curated by Robert Storr — and that work is now at the Met — but also covering the façade of Palazzo Fortuny (serendipity triggered a timely coda on my way to Venice when I ran into El Anatsui’s enormous work occupying the Turbine Hall at the Tate in London). In 2015, the late Okwui Enwezor shed new perspectives on what contemporary art could achieve with his All the World’s Futures exhibit. 2017 brought about Viva Arte Viva, where Christine Macel curated an ambitious exhibition with known and unknown artists, who took turns at leading weekly luncheons where we delighted in exchanging perspectives. This memorable effort was nevertheless dismissed with criticisms such as “too many fiber works.” Curators seem to have settled down on an apparently narrow scope to avoid the inevitable punishment of being ambitious. The last Biennale was at last one of women. This one is for foreigners: not only multiple passport holders, but also “outsiders,” indigenous, folk, and queer artists.

I went to the show bent on avoiding focusing on single artworks, instead looking for communities of works. Some images of what forced me into contemplation of intentional and unintentional synergies follow.

Installation view of large scale sculptures at the Arsenalle at the Vencie Biennale

At the Arsenale, few works hummed well together. The ancient space was a hindrance to outsider art.

Installation view of work at the Arsenale in the Venice Bienale

Another installation view of the Arsenale.

Installation view of work at the Giardini at the Venice Bienale

At the Giardini, works created communities effortlessly. The white cube spaces worked well for this exhibit.

Installation view of work on view at the Giardini at the Venice Bienale

Another installation view of the Giardini.

Spaces dedicated to individual artists often shone, too.

Installation view of a large scale work by Anna Maria Maiolino at the Vencie Bienale

Anna Maria Maiolino, “Indo & Vindo,” 2024

At the Arsenale, Anna Maria Maiolino (recipient of this Biennale’s award for career achievement) created one of her fresh and profound site-specific installations.

Installation view of a multi-channel video installation

Gabrielle Goliath, “Personal Accounts,” 2024

At the Giardini, Gabrielle Goliath displayed her outstanding ability to force us into caring for others.

The Biennale is also known as the “art Olympics” because countries curate their own pavilions, and multiple art institutions create collateral events, official or not. Fear of missing out creeps in with such an abundance of happenings. Messages fly about a designer’s rave/party, or how to get to the German party on a separate island. I decided to accept that I would miss some stuff during my one-week visit (I have lived and worked in Venice for about eight months three different times and kept discovering things anew even after seeing the same work a hundred times). I also gave myself a “must do” list: Visit the Ocean Space museum and the Pinault-funded venues before the preview days; chase the show’s curator, Adriano Pedrosa — the first Latin American ever to orchestrate a Biennale — and ask him about the concept of “foreigners everywhere”; go up and down the Arsenale and Giardini multiple times, even when the toes scream.

My list went on: Attend a few collateral events: The South West Bank exhibit and any other show that I run into; write this essay; and finally, go back and sense it all, including dropping by German sound installations (time has demonstrated that sound works stay with me for a surprisingly long time) and partying on the island of Certosa. Some images below, or the lack of them, convey how that went. If anything, the Pinault Collection’s exhibits in two sprawling historical spaces demonstrate vanity is contagious. Meanwhile, the unassuming South West Bank collective’s effort shows resilience is infectious too. From soil to people through olive trees and dilapidated cars, joy endures in a highly conflictive zone.

US Pavillion by Jeffrey Gibson on view at the Venice Bienale

Jeffrey Gibson, “the space in which to place me”

The U.S. pavilion rocks and rolls and gives much reason for hope. It is a magnificent transformation of a dreadful building into a vivid playground with meaningful works, where many people were smiling and quite a few were dancing.

Installation view of a large bird sculpture at the Venice Biennale

Jeffrey Gibson, “the space in which to place me”

Installation view of the US Pavillion at the Venice Biennale

Jeffrey Gibson, “the space in which to place me”

Installation of a mixed media bust

Jeffrey Gibson, “the space in which to place me”

Installation view of a woman sitting on black benches in a circle

Elisapeta Hinemoa Heta, “The Body of Wainuiātea”

The Body of Wainuiātea by Elisapeta Hinemoa Heta, via the presenters, is “a new installation embodying ritual and ceremony guided by the Māori concepts of kawa and tikanga from the artist’s ancestral lands of Aotearoa, New Zealand. […] Derived from the word tika, which means the right or correct way, tikanga is a definition of what is correct to maintain balance in our relationships to both human worlds and the environment. Visitors are invited to enter The Body of Wainuiātea in order to learn, share and reconnect to ancestral stories. […] The exhibition is commissioned by TBA21–Academy and Artspace, Sydney, and produced in partnership with OGR Torino, culture and innovation hub.”

Installation view of a pavilion of work in the Venice Biennale in a historical building in Venice

Installation view of “South West Bank – Landworks, Collective Action and Sound,” a show of works produced by artists, collectives and allies in and around the southern West Bank in Palestine

When I first heard the theme of this Biennale, I was disappointed because of how narrow it appeared to be, even if I am a dual-passport, multiple-residencies artist myself. But then it became clear that by singling out “foreigners” as outsiders (the word originates from the Latin “foris,” or outside), we could start seeing the entirety of humanity as foreigners. Adriano Pedrosa has said, “no matter where you find yourself, you are always truly, and deep down inside, a foreigner.”

Take those yelling “America First” who descend from native land squatters. Beyond politics, nationalities, and other cannibalizing cultural constructs the Biennale addresses, we are all foreigners because we have become irremediably removed from the land. Take the recent eclipse as an example, where private jets flew from all over the country to spots in Arkansas where forecasts called for cloudless skies during the event. This Biennale is both a precursor and a late cry. Having recognized that we are all foreigners polluting and trafficking everywhere, we can choose to shed our obsolete predatory ways and become protectors. Let’s sow intentions for the wild to prevail, for the grand arrangement of life to be the song of the land once again, and for magic to ensue. We have been outsiders to our planet long enough — about 5,000 years.

As it turned out, Pedrosa was easy to find. I told him my spiel above about our foreignness to the planet. He said, “That was not my idea, but you may say that.”


The 2024 Venice Biennale, Foreigners Everywhere, is on view through November 24, 2024.

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