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Foreigners Everywhere

60th Biennale di Venezia

Still from Listening All Night To The Rain by John Akomfrah_Listening All Night To The Rai

John Akomfrah, Still from Listening All Night To The Rain, 2024, commissioned by the British Council, All artworks are courtesy of Lisson gallery and Smoking Dogs Films © Smoking Dogs Films 


60th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia 2024

British and German Pavilions


by Floriana Piqué



Yael Bartana: Farewell, 2024 as part of Light To The Nations, 2022-2024, Video, 15.20 Minutes / Single channel Film still, German Pavilion 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia

The theme of this Biennale, Foreigners Everywhere, devised by its director, Adriano Pedrosa, most evidently resonates with the installation works of John Akomfrah in the British Pavilion and Ersan Mondtag in the German Pavilion.


Vivre avec l’autre, avec l’étranger, nous confronte à la possibilité ou non d’être un autre. Il ne s’agit pas simplement-humanistement-de notre aptitude à accepter l’autre; mais d’être à sa place, ce qui revient à se penser et à se faire autre à soi-même.


Living with the other, the stranger, confronts us with the question of whether or not we are other. This is not simply the humanistic question of our ability to accept the other, but of putting ourselves in their place, which amounts to thinking of oneself as the other and of making oneself into an other. ---Étrangers à nous-mêmes /Strangers to Ourselves by Julia Kristeva

John Akomfrah articulates his extensive, ambitious project in eight Canti, of which Canto I is on the façade and the other seven saturate the space of the two floors of the Pavilion. The intended references are to Ezra Pound’s Cantos, where the poems are layered with political, historical, and geographical narratives. Similarly, Akomfrah’s images and sounds combine with discourses of post-colonialism, climate change, forced migration, and discrimination.

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John Akomfrah, Canto VII, Listening All Night To The Rain, British Pavilion, 2024, Photo: Jack Hems

Listening All Night To The Rain, a title borrowed from Chinese poet Su Dongpo, is a pervasive installation of numerous screens where images, speech, and sounds merge and resurface, leaving the viewer mesmerized and overwhelmed. It’s a challenge to try to grasp all the implications and recognize all of the characters in this multi-screen video-documentary movie. Akomfrah’s entire project is about listening, ultimately listening to oneself.


The legacy of colonialism and its negative impact on climate, caused by extraction and pollution, appears in many Canti, but in different ways: in Canto I through voices and images of the Global South, in Canto II, water is the vehicle for the meaning. Delicate drawings of portraits by Holbein from the Tudor Court float in water and vanish, submerged, exuding a dream-like atmosphere. Water again is the vector connecting these drawings to images of floods in Bangladesh in the Eighties.

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John Akomfrah, Canto VIII, Listening All Night To The Rain, British Pavilion, 2024, Photo: Jack Hems

Akomfrah’s is a forthright revisitation of the history of Great Britain in the decolonization and independence process of countries like Kenya, Nigeria, and India in Canto VI. The discrimination in 1948 against Black and Caribbean migrants, the Windrush Generation, a forced migration aimed to replace a workforce depleted after the war, and a discrimination that recently reappeared in the legal status of these same people and their descendants, is the main subject of Canto VIII.


At the top of the staircase connecting the two floors of the Pavilion is Canto III, a huge, immersive sound installation of more than 400 audiophonic objects, which is a collaboration between John Akomfrah and Dubmorphology (Gary Stewart and Trevor Mathison), a London-based experimental art group. Akomfrah and Mathison had previously been founding members of the pioneering Black Audio Film Collective (1983-98). Handsworth Songs (1986), a seminal work for which the collective is well-known, is part of Disobedience Archive in the Adriano Pedrosa’s exhibition Foreigners Everywhere in the Arsenale.

All rooms of the Pavilion are painted in Rothko’s colours. The subtle, smooth transition of hues induces a state of meditation, offering a break in the stream of multitudinous visual and acoustic stimuli. Akomfrah’s grandiose installation gives a huge variety of material to reflect on. The viewer is empowered to choose what he wants to bring back to himself.

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John Akomfrah, Canto V, Listening All Night To The Rain, British Pavilion, 2024, Photo: Jack Hems

Under the title of Thresholds, liminal spaces where past and future overlap, the German participation in this Biennale presents three groups of unrelated works. The aim of Ersan Mondtag with Monument eines unbekannten Menschen (Monument Of An Unknown Man)) is to recall a collective memory through the life of a foreigner, his grandfather, a migrant from Anatolia (Turkey) to Germany in the Sixties.

The artist, a theatre director, intentionally obstructs the entrance to the Pavilion with a mound of earth from his grandfather’s land, erasing the monumentality and linearity of this Pavilion’s architecture, built during the Nazi era. This theatrical, meaningful effect leads the viewer to a small side entrance.


The theatricality of Mondtag’s complex installation expands on three floors, connected by a spiral staircase, in a dilapidated, destructed suite of rooms, sparsely furnished with objects of ordinary life. A group of performers, impersonating the grandfather’s family animate the dusty, suffocating space.

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Ersan Mondtag, (Monument Of An Unknown Man)Monument eines unbekannten Menschen, 2024, Installation, German Pavilion, 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia  

Photo: Andrea Rossetti @andrea_rossetti_archive 

Dense haze evokes the deadly asbestos fumes at the Eternit cement company where the grandfather worked, the same asbestos that killed him. A video on the top floor shows an old man walking alone through a deserted, eerie landscape; a glimpse of the solitude of an old man, far and estranged from his homeland, getting even older and ill. The video was shot on Isola Certosa, a small, flat, and inhabited island of the Venetian lagoon, ten minutes’ journey by vaporetto from the Biennale Giardini, where this year, for the first time, the German Pavilion extends.


Leaving the vaporetto, walking the metal pier to the land, one is surprised by a voice coming up from the water. It is the voice of Louis Chude-Sokei, a Nigerian writer based in the US. The title of his work is Thresholds; it is his concept of the threshold that inspired and informed the entire Pavilion. Scattered along the island path we encounter the sound installation works of Robert Lippok, Feld (Field); Jan St. Werner, Volumes Inverted; and Michael Akstaller, Scattered by the Trees. The sounds and noises of these works melt into the voices and sounds of nature and the sudden noises of ships and planes flying by. Nicole L’Huillier’s Encuentros (Encounters) is an acoustic and visual composition where a translucent membrane, like a skin, hangs from a tree, vibrating in the wind: a sculpture that most perfectly embodies the interweaving of nature and technology.

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Nicole L’Huillier, Encuentros, 2024, German Pavilion

 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, Installation View La Certosa, Photo: Andrea Rossetti @andrea_rossetti_archive

Yael Bartana’s Light to the Nations is the installation we encounter in the central hall of the Pavilion and three other rooms. The Israeli artist, who lives and works in Amsterdam and Berlin, presents a work deeply imbued in and influenced by Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah. The starting point, which is not represented in the installation, but preexists it, is the artist’s assumption that Humanity and the World have now reached an irreversible, irreparable point of no return. The only way out for Bartana is to leave the planet and hope that, with the passing of time, the earth can heal and thrive again.


On the high, semicircular wall of the central hall is projected Farewell, a new choreography of dancers dressed in white tunics, dancing a ritual dance, a prayer. A male dancer appears at times, bearing a beacon of hope. The video is completed by the image of a spaceship, which fulfills the invocation of hope and the possibility of a future. A model of a spaceship is materially present in one room and then in a 360-degree, two-dimensional projection upon a big dome in the other room, where viewers, in order to have a satisfactory experience, need to lie down on mattresses.


Yael Bartana, Farewell, 2024, as part of Light To The Nations, 2022-2024, Video, 15.20 Minutes, Single channel video, German Pavilion 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia

An entire wall of the last room is covered in drawings of esoteric symbols; on the opposite side, Doreet Levitte Harten lectures from a television screen on this new Ark, Bartana’s spaceship, with reference to mystical and kabalistic visions. This new Ark, a combination of Jewish mystical thoughts and technological utopia, opens many unanswered questions. The main one is: who and how many will be saved?  


60th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia,

Foreigners Everywhere, Venezia Giardini/Arsenale,

April 20 until November 24 2024


Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator originally from Turin (Torino). She lives and works in the UK.

Floriana Piqué

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