I generally find Venice an uplifting sort of place. When the hazy, watery sunlight bounces off the campanile in San Marco or the dome of San Giorgio, it’s hard not to feel filled with wonder that such structures – which have stood, more or less unchanged, since the 15th century – were built in a lagoon. The whole city is a testimony equally to ingenuity and folly, as well as to the benefits of international trade and the patronage of the mercantile classes. Venice is also sinking, slowly, at a rate that has, over recent decades, increased due to rising sea levels. This inevitability, just far off enough to be unimaginable, makes the city a particularly interesting setting for an exhibition titled ‘All the World’s Futures’. Curator Okwui Enwezor’s central exhibition for the 56th Venice Biennale considers how contemporary artists are responding to the crises and instability of the globalized present. The Biennale’s own history as a cultural event inaugurated to celebrate the recently united Italian state and its structure – which is still informed by global power relations of the early 20th century – also make it a highly charged setting for considering what ‘all the world’ has historically meant.
A first glance at the central pavilion along one of the Giardini’s tree-lined avenues is enough to ascertain that a consideration of all the world’s futures implies a re-evaluation – and maybe re-writing – of certain narratives of the past. At the top of the pavilion’s bright white facade, a neon work by Glenn Ligon spells out blues blood bruise – unlit, but forming firm dark lines in the bright sunlight. The work overwrites the words ‘La Biennale’, in parts seeming to blur with them, the forms becoming slightly unclear where letters overlap. Below, between the neo-classical columns that lead to the entrance, hang the 20 black canvas ‘flags’ of Oscar Murillo’s signalling devices now in bastard territory (2015). Both foreboding and theatrical, they create an ominous partition. My immediate reading of them is not as flags (without poles, without states) but as tarpaulins used for transport or concealment, or even as shrouds. They look sticky, dusty, heavy. I imagine suffocating beneath one.
Ligon’s piece is related to four large works on canvas that hang in their own room within the pavilion (‘Come Out #12 – 15’, 2015). Across them, the words ‘come out to show them’ are over-printed repeatedly in black – swarming and gathering to the point of being illegible in places, like thunder-cloud haze. They seem to thrum, these canvases: you can almost hear the words as they stumble into one another, an indistinguishable chorus in some parts, a clear voice in others. Both the ‘Come Out’ works and ‘blue blood bruise’ quote from the testimony on Daniel Hamm, one of the Harlem Six, six young black men sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1965 on the grounds of forced confessions taken whilst in police custody. Hamm’s description of police brutality, recorded 50 years ago, feels devastatingly relevant against a backdrop of ongoing ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray whilst in police custody: the latest in a horrible succession of injustices that reflect the strained nature of the relationship between police forces and communities – and race relations more broadly – across the United States. A future of history repeating itself is a sombre prospect, which sets the tone for the entire show.
The rest of the exhibition, however, can’t quite sustain the clout of this initial punch. It is a truism to say that an exhibition on this scale – including a whopping 136 artists – will necessarily be uneven. In this case, the breadth of the theme – to reflect all of the world’s crises and injustice – means that the varied responses end up almost cancelling one another out. Specific horrors like the Holocaust, referenced in Fabio Mauri’s The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall (1993), a stacked wall of suitcases that is the first sculpture visitors come across in the space, and forgotten histories (such as that of the revolutionary left in Bangladesh, which is the subject of Naeem Mohaiemen’s film Last Man in Dhaka Central [The Young Man Was, Part 3], 2015) sit alongside more speculative references (the barren earth suggested by Robert Smithson’s Dead Tree, 1969/2015) and works that gesture more broadly towards death or suffering (Marlene Dumas’s beautiful series of ‘Skulls’, 2013–15). The effect is overwhelming – which I’m sure is part of Enwezor’s intention – but also flattening. The result, for me at least, is a sense of helplessness and paralysis, rather than politicization or engagement.
There are some powerful moments here – such as the inspired pairing of photographs from Walker Evans’s iconic images of Great Depression-era rural Americans (‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’, first published in 1941) with Isa Genzken’s architectural maquettes for ‘Realized and Unrealized Outdoor Projects’. Painted ghostly white, with some proposals as simple as running Two Lines between the roofs of high-rise housing blocks to form a barely visible umbilical connection, these are timeless potential monuments. Read against Evans’s photographs, they speak of loss, frailty and resistance – and the idea that sometimes the most quotidian of objects and gestures are the ones worth commemorating. (A pair of monumental white orchids that stand quietly on the opposite side of the Giardini, Two Orchids (2015) are Genzken’s fully materialized testimony to these ideas.) John Akomfrah’s magisterial Vertigo Sea (2015) is another highlight. Shown over three vast screens, its dense, roiling montage combines archival footage of the hunting and butchering of whales with underwater marine landscapes, aerial shots of birds flocking and dispersing like beads across the surface of the sea, and black and white photographic portraits. The work is hypnotically beautiful yet oblique enough to hold all of the multiple and contradictory significances of the ocean – as freedom and the passage to enslavement, as environmental battleground, as provider and waste dump.
The show in the Arsenale is more heavy-handed and didactic from the get-go, opening with a blackened room containing neons by Bruce Nauman flashing words and phrases including Eat Death (1972) and Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain (1983) and Adel Abdessemed’s Nympheas (2015) – clusters of knives pointing up from the ground, like deadly flowers. The whole thing feels simultaneously too literal and too general to be thought-provoking. Weapons recur – down the hall in a black cannon by Pino Pascali (Cannone Semovente, 1965), which detonates the forceful symbolism of Melvin Edwards’s tortured but contained ‘Lynch Fragments’ (1963–ongoing), buckled and twisted assemblages of scrap metal, hung from the wall like machinic stags’ heads. Alone these are quietly powerful works; amongst the cacophony of Terry Adkins’s aggressive music-machines and Monica Bonvicini’s black, rubber-clad chainsaws (Latent Combustion, 2015), their meaning feels over-determined. Moments of lightness – such as Ernesto Ballesteros’s wire and balsa wood planes that float like feathers to the floor, travelling no distance at all, the distance of a breath (Indoor Flights, 2015), and Mika Rottenberg’s film installation, which takes a wonderfully weird view of bodily functions and workplace productivity – are few and far between. And the most poignant encounters are those that take you by surprise – for instance, coming across Lorna Simpson’s dreamily delineated painted figures next to Goncalo Mabunda’s The Knowledge Throne (2014), made from decommissioned machine guns.
The through-line that seemingly underlies the various economic, social and environmental issues that different works address is capitalism – the ceaseless drive to produce wealth through the exploitation of resources, both human and environmental. This is placed literally centre stage (in an ‘Arena’ designed by architect David Adjaye) through an epic series of readings of the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (1861, 1885, 1894) staged by Isaac Julien. Enwezor has called capital ‘the great drama of our age’ and, in so far as it determines almost every aspect of our lives, this may well be true. But Capital is not a dramatic text; it’s a rigorous and complex economic analysis, which gains little in either impact or understanding from being read aloud. As a reminder of the omnipresence and power of money, it is hardly necessary – far starker, unavoidable examples are to be found moored in the lagoon, flanking the route to the Giardini.
I do, however, like the idea that the human voice will be heard throughout this exhibition. I saw performances in the arena by Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, which sample, loop and re-imagine traditional workers’ or chain-gang songs, and a capella renditions of Jeremy Deller’s collection of broadsides – songsheets sold in the streets in industrial Britain, some of which are reproduced close by. These daily performances are reminders of the social, embodied reality of labour. Work is, after all, not only a source of pain but also of pride, ambition and self-realization, and the sense of community and solidarity that these songs evoke is a necessary complement and counterpoint to Marx’s abstract theorizations.
‘All the World’s Futures’ is an ambitious show. The breadth of ‘the world’ that is represented is laudable – artists from 53 countries are included, fifteen more than the ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ in 2013, an overdue and important corrective to previous editions of the biennale. And many of the issues that it addresses are urgent and affect us all. However, for an exhibition whose title might suggest looking forward, much of the work is caught up in the past. The danger of including so many archival or documentary projects is that the whole show gets caught up in wider ethical questions about what it means to document: is to show alone ever enough? Can we just point to the world’s problems? What does that mean in terms of responsibility, in terms of solutions? These are enormous questions and art doesn’t have all the answers. But this show doesn’t appear to be looking for them, transfixed as it seems to be – like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, which is discussed by Enwezor in his introduction – by the rubble of the past that builds up at its feet.
One of the strongest works in the Arsenale is Chantal Akerman’s Now (2015). This five-screen projection combines roving camera footage of the desert with a composite soundtrack of shouts, engines and what sound like gunshots. It’s like speeding through an empty Western film set to the soundtrack of a The Fast and the Furious getaway sequence – disorientating, dizzying, anxiety-inducing. It brought to mind an only half-joking refrain that stayed with me as I walked back through the exhibition: ‘Stop the world, I want to get off.’
If exit polls are to be believed (and the recent UK elections have sadly shown they should be) the main show of this year’s 56th Venice Biennale is a flop. ‘Dreadful’, ‘dire’, ‘depressing’ are some of the more printable adjectives I’ve heard to describe it. ‘Venice is Bad’ was the insightful email header from a supposedly serious art news source.
Call it the typical grumbles of footsore, spritz-lite art tourists but an easy show to digest ‘All the World’s Futures’ ain’t. The Okwui Enwezor-curated exhibition is a dense, theory-crammed, historically-ridden conceptual disquisition. If you like your exhibitions with light and shade and a generous guiding hand, you won’t find it here. Enwezor’s title ‘All the World’s Futures’ exemplifies his tendecy to invert common logic, as he sees no contradiction in taking this as free license to mine the past for his curatorial inspiration. He summons the spectre of Marx in programming the reading of all four volumes of Das Kapital – explicitly an analysis of historical and 19th century labour and market conditions that, some economists would argue (c.f. Thomas Piketty), no longer apply to today’s intrisically networked structures of global capital – and in the show’s accompanying statement, Enwezor invokes Walter Benjamin’s hallucinatory description of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, a painting Benjamin owned, as justification for his historical methodology as well as the lever to illuminate ‘both the current “state of things” and the “appearance of things”’. As well as the reading of Marx throughout the Biennale’s duration in the ‘Arena’, a theatre designed by David Adjaye in the heart of the Central Pavilion, work by Fabio Mauri and Bruce Nauman open the Central Pavilion and Arsenale respectively, and ‘anthologies’ of Terry Adkins, Hans Haacke, Harun Farocki, Walker Evans and Chris Marker can also be found scattered throughout this dense show featuring works, and often groupings of works, by 136 artists.
It’s a fair gambit, learning from history to shape the future, but what the historical positions in this year’s exhibition tell us about ‘a project devoted to a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things,’ as Enwezor describes the show in his accompanying statement, is unclear. Moreover a narrative that would guide us through the admirably diverse yet fractured groupings of artists, a way of positioning their often rewarding work into a coherent structure, was lacking. Perhaps that’s the key missing ingredient here, legibility. In its desire for fulsomeness, this show has overcompensated. (For a far more detailed and thoughtful analysis of Enwezor’s show read Amy Sherlock’s blog here and see the forthcoming Summer issues of frieze and frieze d/e for in-depth reviews on the Biennale and pavilions.)
‘We need knowledge of future-futures not past-futures’, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell. If Enwezor’s focus was on the past, two Berlin-based artists outside of his curatorial remit focused on the contemporary issues which Enwezor presumably had in mind; with a charm, wit and attention to storytelling missing from Enwezor’s overwrought exposition.
Hito Steyerl’s film Factory of the Sun (2015) was screened in the large dark ‘basement ‘ of the reconfigured German Pavilion – a high up mezzanine which led down to three ground-floor chambers – with grids of blue LEDs created a Tron-like environment where viewers could lounge in deckchairs. Steyerl’s fractious, digitally-buzzing film follows the creation of a spoof video game that discusses, amongst many other things, the shooting down of a Deutsche bank drone that has targeted an innocent bystander. We the viewers are supposedly implicated, by watching from the ‘studio’ the game was created in – the characters one can choose in the game, wearing lycra bodysuits, intermittently breakout and dance to techno. We hear the backstory of one of the female characters, her Russian grandparents sold all their possessions to buy a car and leave the country, only for the borders to change and find themselves back in the USSR; a disembodied bust of Stalin floats in soupy digital waters (a dig at Enwezor’s raising of Marx?). One scene shows our tough-looking protagonist firing a gun at a practice range. In the specification drop table that appears on screen, the gun is classed as ‘tested at Ferguson’. The visuals chop from video game footage, to its motion-capture making, to faux news channels lambasting a Deutsche Bank spokesperson for the company’s implication in the drone strike. (‘Super, so I’m supposed to be the German twat, right?’) It’s irreverent, silly stuff but also poignant and sadly pertinent. Implication in the systems of power to the point where the only form of resistance is complicity (the making of a video game) ultimately delivers a pessimistic payload that the humour can’t efface. But at least it speaks to a reality we recognize as today.
‘Is it Gameable?’ reads text on one of Simon Denny’s data farm-like installations in his show ‘Secret Power’ for the New Zealand pavilion. Housed in the opulently beautiful Bibliotheca Nazionale Marciana, this bastion of knowledge features some of the oldest surviving maps of the globe. This quote is taken from GCHQ files leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013, and the show as a whole takes as its star the former NSA Creative Director of Defence Intelligence, David Darchicourt, and his graphic designs revealed in the Snowden leaks. Starting with a 3D modelling of Darchicourt’s LinkedIn profile and ending with a Terminator 8000 skull, each terminus mimics the simplicity and legibility of information presentation that Darchicourt prized (shown somewhat ominously are reproductions of children’s games Darchicourt also designed). But Darchicourt is not the bad guy here, more an unwitting pawn to a faceless, borderless system of organizations – the overarching target is the ‘Five Eyes‘ intelligence agencies of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Where Denny plays brilliantly is in that weird lacuna that arises in the fact that a secret service employs a designer to make their work more legible.
Are Steyerl and Denny’s takes too funny, too cutely ‘accurate’? Are they too implicit in the horrors they describe? ‘Give us critique not comedy!’ we might pompously demand. Now, as Snowden has shown, disruption comes from within, not from a retrograde spirit of ’68, ‘man the barricades!’ nostalgia. Fighting intelligence requires intelligence and tactics that match. Close studies of the past are important and the needed revisioning of historically-skewed narratives and forgotten positions are welcome, but any depository of knowledge relies on that information’s accessibility. Speaking to the Guardian recently about the content of the Snowden leaks and his Venice exhibition, Denny put it like this: ‘These images contain a lot of cultural information that we just haven’t been able to unpack. The attempt with this exhibition is to give people the tools to do that.’ It wasn’t just the water that was cloudy in Venice this year.
Venice Biennale 2015
56th Venice Biennale review – more of a glum trudge than an exhilarating adventure
There’s an awful lot of fretting about the state of the world in the Biennale’s 88 national pavilions, but little power, wit or bravado
The Key in the Hand by Chiharu Shiota
‘Irresistibly beautiful’: Chiharu Shiota’s The Key in the Hand at the Japanese pavilion. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Sunday 10 May 2015 02.00 EDT
There is a Rolls-Royce pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale – a gorgeous palazzo on the Grand Canal with a garden full of scented roses. Inside, British artist Isaac Julien is showing his equally fetching views of sparkling glacier caves in outermost Iceland. Visions of diamond-bright ice and cascading blue water flow across five film screens to the brimming-point of saturation, with the figure of the Spirit of Ecstasy cunningly worked into the swirl. These works could double as promos for the country as well as the luxury brand.
Down the canal, however, Julien is putting on a different front altogether in the official Giardini, staging a live reading of Das Kapital in its entirety in the Biennale’s new spoken-word venue, Arena. No doubt he can live with the preposterous contradictions involved. But the double act is emblematic of this 56th edition of the world’s grandest art event, which is nothing if not explicitly critical of capitalism, consumerism and filthy lucre while relying upon them all for its very lifeblood.
The big thematic show in the Italian pavilion, organised by the Biennale’s first African curator, Okwui Enwezor, is full of ladies in Louboutins picking their way nervously through an assault course of videos about global starvation, industrial pollution and the atrocious conditions of garment workers in developing countries. Whole galleries are given over to ecology and the arms trade. Coal sacks dangle like trade union banners from the walls to put us in mind of the decline in mining, and this year’s Golden Lion award goes to the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui for his sumptuous hangings – large enough to cover palazzo facades – made out of flattened bottle tops woven together with fine copper wire; consumption transformed into beauty.
Art can take you anywhere, but this year it is straight into the heart of darkness in many of the national pavilions – the prisons of Brazil, the gay brothels of Chile, the psychiatric hospitals of the former USSR. The predominant media are film and photography, with a preponderance of documents – newspaper cuttings, passport photographs, historic letters and even, in the case of the German pavilion, an entire edition of a Nigerian magazine reporting the recent election, every spread presented in glass cases as if this could possibly pass for art of any sort, let alone actual thought or imagination. You can read all this online.
Deep Cream Maradona by Sarah Lucas
Sarah Lucas’s Deep Cream Maradona at the British pavilion. Photograph: Domenico Stinellis/AP
In the British pavilion, Sarah Lucas stands out purely by virtue of having no political content whatsoever (pace the fake tabloid election coverage, as crass as it’s meant to be). Her custard-yellow rooms are full of cast versions of the stuffed-tight porn dollies of the past, reprised this time round as both male and female. She squeezes Dalí’s already much-reprised figure from Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) in a gigantic yellow sculpture with a balloon-dog head, dangling balls-cum-breasts and something that might be a phallus or a single finger raised to the art world. One in the eye for those saps who buy her lavs, fags and plaster pudenda.
It’s a laboured assault, all this eye-poking rudery, cigs shoved in here and there – the smoking ass, the Monica Lewinsky fanny. You wouldn’t think Lucas, at 52, could still summon the will to turn out these pervy one-liners. Still, we are coming to the end of the YBA revivals at Venice; time for another generation.
Party spoils and pink ladies: behind the scenes at the Venice Biennale
Next door’s French pavilion looks a little mimsy at first – empty of everything except a growing tree, and its roots, dug up and prettily installed indoors. But the sound of its rising sap is somehow continuously recorded, making a low and beautiful thrum. And then outside is another tree and another, and as you examine them, trying to discover the source of this inner music, so the trees start to move almost imperceptibly towards you, taking on a life of their own. Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane.
Finland has an enchanted forest by night – silver trees moving against black – that ages through whole centuries in moments on a spectral screen before you. Canada’s comic BGL collective fences a real lonesome pine, scattering rusting cans at the bottom to parody generations of compatriot campers. Australia’s marvellous Fiona Hall finds driftwood on the beach and in her sculptor’s hands turns it into a pageant of lithe creatures, bodied forth like three-dimensional cousins of the prehistoric cave drawings at Lascaux.
Hall’s pavilion is a condensed museum of wondrous objects – warrior masks knitted out of military fatigues; precious weaver-bird nests created out of shredded banknotes; strange new fish fashioned out of the unscrolled lids of sardine cans. Time ticks both forwards and backwards in her fantastical imagination: art makes the future look ancient.
Cate Blanchett with Fiona Hall sculptures.
Actor Cate Blanchett looks at driftwood sculptures by Fiona Hall on display at the Australian pavilion. Photograph: Domenico Stinellis/AP
While Julien’s actors are reciting Marx in the Arena space to an audience of practically no one, Hall is one of the few artists here to respond to the real and urgent political present instead of simply rehearsing the usual art-scene rhetoric. A map of the southern Mediterranean is strewn with tenderly formed figures representing the migrants who drowned between Africa and Italy last week; a miniature requiem.
But in general there is a flatness to the Giardiani this year. The American art crowd haven’t come because the timing conflicts with the Frieze art fair in New York, so there was no buzz over Joan Jonas’s US pavilion, in which children appear as naiads and dryads in double-exposure films of a certain dreamy gentleness. And there isn’t very much else to look at otherwise. So many of the pavilions feel like Commonwealth Institute lectures that the clear winner, by general consent, is the irresistibly beautiful installation of exquisite red nets in the Japanese pavilion, through which thousands of keys from all over the world cascade – some caught, others lost; a simple but concise meditation on memory.
It all powers up a little more in the Arsenale, which opens fittingly with an arsenal of weapons – chainsaws, cannons, fierce blades gathered into sheaves and titled Nymphéas by the Algerian artist Adel Abdemessed for their startlingly sinister resemblance to waterlilies. A wall devoted to the African American Melvin Edwards assembles many of his curious fetishes soldered out of cast iron hardware, manacles and hammerheads – a potent row of heavy metal knuckleheads – and Okwui Enwezor, purposefully featuring as many black artists as he can, includes strong mini-retrospectives by Ellen Gallagher, Lorna Simpson, Kerry James Marshall and Chris Ofili.
Irina Nakhova Venice Biennale exhibition
‘Devastatingly direct’: Irina Nakhova’s huge helmet confronts a visitor to the Russian pavilion. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Wandering through this mile of art, you learn about the pioneering feminists of the Swedish glove-makers’ union in 1898 and the history of the US airforce pilot who fell to earth in communist Albania. The artists of Georgia make you walk across shattered glass to understand what it’s like to live there now. The artists of Tuvalu make you walk across fragile bridges through which water seeps at every step – not so much alluding to the rising tides that threaten that tiny island as recreating them with a certain literal exactness.
And this is the odd thing about the latest Biennale. Most years, one would shy away from the question of what kind of art the world is making now for fear of running into absurd generalisations based on 90 pavilions (88 now that Kenya has pulled out over the very high ratio of Chinese to Kenyan artists selected by Italian curators, and Costa Rica has quit after the curators tried to charge its artists €5,000 to appear in Venice). But this time certain characteristics emerge.
These artists are worried about the state of the world, and their own nations, and many of them don’t care if what they produce is on the level of agitprop. If I saw one endangered plant species I saw 10; if I saw one symbolic skull I saw 20, and I lost count of the number of cankered trees and felled buildings. The vocabulary of Biennale art is diminishing. There are trashed flags and ticking clocks everywhere, along with a whole variety of shop installations – capitalism in microcosm. Which is slightly farcical, since so many of the pavilions have become shops themselves now, the shows paid for by the artists’ galleries and all of the work up for sale.
Ukrainian artists occupy Russian pavilion at Venice Biennale
Of course there are exceptions, not least among the many collateral events such as Catalan sculptor Jaume Plensa’s monumental fine-mesh head appearing in the dusk of San Giorgio Maggiore like a disembodied soul; and a fine show of Peter Doig’s latest paintings, full of jauntily piratical lions and strange new characters to add to his mythological dramatis personae, at the Palazzetto Tito.
But I can’t recall a Biennale with so little visual power, originality, wit or bravado. It feels more like a glum trudge than the usual exhilarating adventure. Art worlders mutter that the soul has gone out of the event as the money pours in, and certain pavilions seem exemplary in this respect. Azerbaijan, for instance, has not one but two, paid for by super-rich plutocrats whose oil wells have not yet run dry. One of them, small and sidelined, contains work by local artists; the other is an ostentatious affair on the Grand Canal stuffed with big names, including the mandatory Warhol – not so much a pavilion as a display of bluechip investments.
At the very end of the Arsenale, their tails rippling in the marine breeze of the docks, are two colossal dragon-like creatures hovering above the water. They are the work of Xu Bing, a Chinese artist hired to make a sculpture for the World Financial Centre in Beijing. Appalled by the primitive conditions of the migrant workers, he used the worn-out tools of their trade – pliers, shovels, jackhammers – to commemorate their labour and make something magnificent from the debris. These creatures are unarguably symbolic, and so, perhaps, is their positioning as a coda to the whole show: a pair of phoenixes rising from the ashes.
Venice 2015: the 5 best pavilions
Russia A black helmet the size of a room confronts visitors to Irina Nakhova’s haunting pavilion. Sinister and funereal, this surrogate head appears both blind and dead until it suddenly blinks into life and the artist’s own eyes appear trapped inside on a film-screen. The political history of this piece is complex – the artist was one of the suppressed Moscow conceptualists – but its impact is devastatingly direct. At 60, Nakhova is the first woman to represent Russia.
Japan This exquisite installation by Chiharu Shiota was the immediate popular hit of the Biennale. Thousands of keys shower down from the ceiling into tangled nets of crimson thread, some slipping through, others caught in wooden boats straight out of Hokusai. An accompanying video of children trying to summon their earliest memories completes the metaphor of this beautifully simple work, with its intensely meditative atmosphere.
Armando Lulaj’s‘terrific tragicomedy of cold war Albania’.
Armando Lulaj’s‘terrific tragicomedy of cold war Albania’. Photograph: PR
Albania A sperm whale mistaken for a submarine, a mythical mountain and an US airforce plane that fell to earth in 1956, its bewildered pilot forced to apologise for spying, the craft itself installed on the roof of a medieval castle in Enver Hoxha’s birthplace: just a few of the interwoven elements of Armando Lulaj’s terrific tragicomedy of cold war Albania told in sculptures, videos and original film footage.
United States At 79, Joan Jonas is the veteran star of the Biennale and her multimedia installation is both eerie and elegiac. Children appear on double-exposed screens as the spectral spirits of beehives, forests and rivers while disembodied voices attempt to describe ghostly phenomena seen in nature. Mirrors and windows draw the real Giardini into the plot of what becomes a peculiarly poetic visual narrative.
Australia Fiona Hall’s wunderkammer of glimmering objects in the brand new Australian pavilion, opened by Cate Blanchett, shows her extraordinary gift for juxtaposing ideas and materials – guns made out of bread, watercolours out of banknotes, a bestiary of imaginary critters woven from the grasses where they might live. Real insects weave cocoons around miniature monuments and mythical beasts emerge from the relics of the past in this futuristic natural history museum.
FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON
Okwui Enwezor curates an exhibition laced with commentaries on gender and geopolitics
©Nic Tenwiggenhorn/ Studio Grosse
Installation by Katharina Grosse, part of ‘All the World’s Futures’ at the 2015 Venice Biennale
enice Biennale visitors, be warned: this year’s edition may be unlike any you have seen for some time. This year’s curator, Okwui Enwezor, is a man with a profound conviction that art has a responsibility to civil society. The centrepiece of his exhibition, which is entitled All the World’s Futures and includes no fewer than 136 artists, will be a continuous performance of readings of Das Kapital. Given that even not-for-profit events like the biennale are sucked in by art’s symbiotic relationship with the market, Enwezor’s decision to challenge the system is bold.
“What I find incredibly [dispiriting] is the infantilisation of artists,” he tells me. Refuelled by the canapés provided by the Italian Cultural Institute in London where we meet, we have settled at a table in the library. Surrounded by books, the harmonious setting is of a piece with Enwezor himself; tall, languid and unselfconsciously handsome, he exudes a mood of calm yet switched-on self-possession.
He is appalled by art’s failure to speak truth to power. “We expect writers to ponder the big questions, and musicians and composers. But somehow in the current moment the things that are most celebrated in our field are devoid of position. They do their job; they don’t disturb. They don’t raise questions.” He pauses and then adds gloomily: “There is a lot of painting.”
Many of the artists he has invited to his biennale mine their work from a seam of political awareness. Some names are familiar, such as those of Marlene Dumas, Hans Haacke, Theaster Gates and Glenn Ligon. But others, such as the Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, reflect his determination to incorporate voices from beyond orthodox parameters.
Gulf Labor’s ‘Abu Dhabi 2014’ (2014)
At his exhibition’s core will be the Arena, a space for live art and film built by architect David Adjaye in the central pavilion. Here, as well as the readings of Das Kapital, performances will include Jason Moran’s assembly of prison songs; Olaf Nicolai’s synthesis of music by the left-wing composer Luigi Nono with poems by Pavese and Parisian graffiti; and Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s film of seminal works by the composer Julius Eastman.
Enwezor is particularly excited by the resurrection of Eastman. Extracting his phone from his pocket, he plays me a few minutes of his piece, “Evil Nigger”. A torrent of notes flooding from four pianos simultaneously, it gives me the shivers, even through YouTube’s feeble recording.
“Eastman’s been forgotten; his music is not performed. He was a gay African-American composer who defied the category of jazz and his own sexuality [in writing classical music], so to have a memorial for this kind of outsider . . . ” Enwezor’s voice trails off into a sigh.
Such retrievals mirror Enwezor’s own journey from margin to centre. Although the biennale will stamp him as one of the world’s most high-profile curators, his journey to prominence has not been orthodox. Born in Calabar, Nigeria, in 1963 to a “normal, bourgeois, postcolonial family”, he arrived in New York in the early 1980s to study political science.
Soon he had fallen into the city’s “incredible burgeoning arts scene”, and he found himself increasingly drawn to visual artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hammons and Xu Bing, the Chinese artist then living in New York. After a few small shows, in 1996 he curated what turned out to be a landmark exhibition of 30 African photographers, held at New York’s Guggenheim museum.
Today, he is the director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich and also holds a fellowship at the Whitney Museum in New York. Yet his place in the spotlight has, if anything, boosted his own determination to remain “not part of the art-world establishment”.
The Venice Biennale is not exempt from his critique. He points out that its inception, in 1895, may have been motivated by “enlightened ideals of art, and nation, and grandness” but that the “shadow histories” of many of its participants are less admirable.
As a result, this year’s catalogue will include “a small dossier” tracing changes made to the pavilions in the Giardini over the course of the 20th century. “The central pavilion was originally neoclassical, but in the 1930s it was given its fascist façade. Under Franco, Spain’s pavilion got its brick cladding and all the monarchical characteristics [were removed]. You have to look at the skin of the buildings [to uncover] renovations and concealments.” He is also ambivalent about the institution’s prolific expansion. “I wonder if the biennale is cannibalising its own success,” he murmurs, taking a sip of coffee. “We now have 60 pavilions in two settings. To what extent does it really contribute to the ability to enjoy the exhibition?”
Samira Alikhanzadeh’s ‘#16 Family Album’ (2008)
Given the fever of growth that is gripping today’s art world — larger works, bigger institutions, grander blockbusters, higher prices — is he not out of sync with the zeitgeist? Suddenly, his laid-back smile vanishes. “The art world may be awash with money but it’s also a moment when many institutions are deeply impoverished because of a lack of public support.”
Enwezor believes that intelligent development should not depend on grandiose new wings or crowd-pulling exhibitions. “The rampant expansion of museums is not for the public; it’s for the glorification of capital,” he continues, in a nod to the private interests — sponsors, galleries, auction houses — who all have a stake in institutional life. “Do we really need more exhibition space? More programming?” he continues. “We should be asking instead what it means to be a public institution.”
Installation of Xu Bing’s work at the biennale
He believes big museums should lead the way. “Instead of making stupid Björk exhibitions,” he growls, in a swipe at MoMA’s critically-panned retrospective of the Icelandic singer, “they could have made a really interesting show about [for example] MTV as a cultural phenomenon which saw gender and racial barriers broken.”
He pauses, and then observes the difficulty of raising money for a biennale which, though 15 per cent of its financing comes from the Italian Ministry of Culture, is chiefly sustained by sponsorship. “There are people who come for a few hours and pay £50,000 to dock their yachts. They have no idea what it takes to set up this exhibition.”
As we say goodbye I wonder whether secretly he would like to send the yachties to the guillotine. Or is he merely hoping that they drop a few of their millions at the biennale’s door? Whatever the answer, those Das Kapital readings could send them scuttling back to their expensive moorings.
Venice Biennale, May 9-November 22. labiennale.org
Photographs: Nic Tenwiggenhorn/ Studio Grosse; GLC; Alice Whitby; Alessandra Chemollo