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Venice Biennale: Foreigners Everywhere!

“Foreigners Everywhere” Xenophobia, paranoid gossip, mere statement of fact, or perhaps an expression of solidarity? Adriano Pedrosa’s international exhibition at the 60th Venice Art Biennale plays intentionally with the possible political interpretations of its ambiguous and unsettling title.

“Firstly, wherever you go and wherever you are, you always meet foreigners – they/we are everywhere. Secondly, wherever you find yourself, deep down you are always truly and inherently a foreigner,” Pedrosa explains. In Venice – a city flooded annually by 30 million (!) tourists – and during one of the busiest months of the year, when participants and fans of the art world arrive from all over the globe, this sentence is further shaded with multi-layered irony. The exhibition features exactly 332 artists’ works, and while the display may be chaotic and cumbersome because of this, it perhaps offers an intriguing mirror to the viewer, reflecting what it means today to exist as an outsider or to create art.

Pedrosa’s exhibition title comes from a work by the artist Claire Fontaine, which is also part of the exhibition. The piece, created in 2004, exists in various versions and numerous languages, as it consists of a series of neon signs depicting the word “foreigner,” but never in English. At the Biennale, it is displayed above the water, under the arches of the Arsenale, creating beautiful optical effects with the water’s reflection. Fontaine’s work pays homage to the Turin-based collective Stranieri Ovunque, which campaigned against racism and xenophobia in Italy during the 2000s, raising the question of whether it would have been worth showcasing their work in the exhibition as well.

The theme of foreignness, migration, exile, and alienation is one of the most pressing issues in today’s globalized world. Pedrosa explores the concept of foreignness in the art world by predominantly featuring “self-taught” artists, many of whom have never exhibited at the Venice Biennale. Many of these artists come from the Latin American region, where Pedrosa works as the artistic director of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP). Thus, many new and old works are appearing in an institutional setting in Europe for the first time.

For instance, at the Arsenale, the Argentine artist duo Claudia Alarcón and Silät created new, large-scale textiles using fibers from the chaguar plant native to the region, employing the traditional “yica” stitching technique. The vivid geometries and colors tell the stories and dreams of the community’s older members, and contain coded warnings about the threatening forces of nature. The exhibition, in fact, showcases a significant number of textile works. Alongside Alarcón and Silät, the Arpilleristas, a (nearly) unknown group of Chilean artists, present their works, which consist of embroidered, appliqued, and crocheted fabrics depicting scenes of everyday rural life with astonishing detail. These textile works became popular in Chile during the regime of General Augusto Pinochet – they were made collectively by women, often weaving in their concerns about their place in society. From the same Chilean period comes the enormous work of Las Bordadoras de Isla Negra. The textile was stolen in September 1973 after Pinochet took over the UN headquarters in Santiago, for which it was made – and it only resurfaced a few years ago, in 2019.

Although “Foreigners Everywhere” showcases the unknown art of many countries and offers several interesting background stories, what is missing is that it doesn’t quite match the contemporary spirit, relying too heavily on historical works and traditional, often outdated mediums. There are very few examples of photography, video, and film, and digital art in general. This is not only frustrating because the Biennale is supposed to present contemporary art, but also because these are ultimately the mediums capable of transcending physical boundaries.