Pretentious and Inconsistent, Venice Biennale Falls Short

The ‘All the World’s Futures’ exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale features artworks that fail to deliver their ostensibly political message.

Galia Yahav
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Venice Biennale.
Venice Biennale.Credit: AP
Galia Yahav

VENICE – The road to the world’s futures is paved with good intentions. This is the feeling generated by “All the World’s Futures” curated by Okwui Enwezor at the Venice Biennale. Much has been written about Enwezor’s pretension. He has been interviewed and has emphasized the political dimension, and even stirred controversy by stating that were Karl Marx alive today he would not want capitalism to end. The results? Bafflement and consternation.

Beyond some excellent works here and there – nearly a statistical inevitability with respect to an exhibition with the participation of about 140 artists from 54 countries, among them new works commissioned especially for the show alongside homages to historical artists and works – the level of the exhibition is not balanced. And in fact, it is not exactly clear what it is saying.

Except for a general conceptual infrastructure that is “political,” the show is neither makes a point nor has any connection to its title. Anyone looking for even the slightest or most indirect concern with futurism or some sort of vision concerning the future of art will be disappointed.

Moreover, there are times when the event is experienced as a mega-homage to moments of political awareness in art. In this way it offers a kind of heartbreaking lexicon of struggles that have already been determined, a compendium for which a suitable title might be “all the world’s defeats.”

Writing in ARTnews online, critic Andrew Russeth has noted that it “lapses at intervals into a didactic and activist mode that can feel condescending, pedantic, or just scattershot.”

The entrance to the Giardini pavilions is impressive. At the top of the building there is a work by Glenn Ligon from 2014, a neon sign declaring “blues blood bruise,” taken from the incident of the Harlem Six in 1964: Black youths were accused of killing a white security guard and were beaten brutally under arrest. One of them, Daniel Hamm, described in his testimony how he opened the bruises to let the blood flow so he would be taken for medical treatment. However, he got mixed up and instead of saying “bruise” he said “blues” – let the blues appear.

The British Pavillion with work of artist Sarah Lucas for the 56 Venice Biennale 2015. Photo by Getty Images

Beneath the sign, still in the foyer, are black flags by Oscar Murillo, huge patchworks hanging between the neo-classical columns of the façade and alongside them his father’s work certificate from 1982, engraved in copper. Working conditions and living conditions of blacks – the two major subjects of the exhibition – appear in a number of works and a number of ways, with immediate directness or roundabout implication, as explicit themes and as a suggestive presence.

From this gate a number of paths diverge. One path the curator took is of a re-display of historical works, some of them legendary, like Bruce Nauman’s 1972 neon “Eat Death,” and some of them are strokes of brilliance like the installation in homage to Fabio Mauri or Christian Boltanski’s surprising video work from 1969 that shows a figure contorting and vomiting on itself.

Completing this route are other works that either relate to historic political events or are of a fundamentally critical nature. Steve McQueen’s 2014 film “Ashes” shows a half-naked youth sunning himself on a boat, filmed incidentally during the making of a different movie. It turned out that the youngster was cruelly murdered afterwards because he had found a cache of drugs on the beach.

Hiwa K has cast a bell from remains of ammunition found in Iraq after the war, as a reference to church bells that were molten to be turned into weapons. Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick photographed work by prisoners that is not far from slavery. Barthélémy Toguo is showing “Urban Requiem,” a large, carved sculptural installation in wood upon which are written familiar revolutionary slogans from around the world. Rirkrit Tiravanija is showing 100 drawings of demonstrations from around the world that have been “translated” from news photos and drawn for him by young Thai artists and students.

Jeremy Deller is showing “Motorola Solution” – an arm emerging from the wall in a straight-arm salute and wearing a glove that is an electrical gadget for employees at the Amazon storerooms, which times their steps and issues a warning when they slow down. Next to it is a series of archival photos under the heading “The Shit Old Days.” It shows a female worker from the 19th century next to a phonograph that viewers can cause to play a selection of machine noises.

'The Green Mirror' by British artist Chris Ofili on display with 'Bending Over Backwards for Justice and Peace', left, by the same author, the 56 Venice Biennale 2015. Photo by AP

Adrian Piper, who won the Golden Lion award for best artist in the international exhibition, shows corporate-style service counters where spectators are invited to sign a contract agreeing to statements like “I will always be too expensive to buy” or “I will always do what I say I am going to do.”

Cooperative motivation

Especially impressive is Im Heung-Soon’s “Factory Complex,” which shows a historical view of horrendous working conditions of Asian women in the neoliberal economy. It begins with demonstrations in Seoul in the 1970s and 1980s, goes on to strikes that were broken when minions of the management smeared excrement on the strikers and arrives in the present, when female workers at the bottom of the corporate ladder are coming down with respiratory diseases and cancer. This is a film of testimonies by mothers and daughter about the prices of economic growth.

Also impressive is Petra Bauer’s project “What Women Want,” also from 2014, a photographed archive of Socialist women’s movements in Sweden between 1907 and 1920.

A second route is a display of art with activist or cooperative motivation, or art that offers transformations of implements of war and industry into art.

Yet another route, very different sociologically, is the presentation by young artists from the Middle East, Asia and in particular Africa and its diasporas, among them Samson Kambalu of Malawi, Fatou Kande Senghor of Senegal, Mounira Al Solh of Lebanon, Inji Efflatoun of Egypt, Abu Bakarr Mansaray of Sierra Leone and Karo Akpokiere of Nigeria.

The reliance here is more on expanding the representation of “others” (on the assumption that there is indeed a trajectory of acceptance in which others are brought in and they, in their entirety and just the way they are, simply come) and less on the real agenda with which the Third World is confronting the First World.

Albanian born artist Helidon Xhixha poses for photographers as his work ' Iceberg in Venice', the 56 Venice Biennale 2015. Photo by AP

And there are also weak works by excellent artists, whose participation arouses a political aroma because of past glory even though this is not very striking in the works on display. Under this rubric, for example, are works by Marlene Dumas, Lorna Simpson, Kerry James Marshall, Olga Chernysheva, Thomas Hirschorn and others.

How are all the curatorial routes connected? What is the link between works from the 1970s that are imbued with the fighting spirit of radical experiment and the new, more sensual works, silenced by sophistication with the emphasis on the aesthetic language? Enwezor doesn’t really let us know. The only successful case is the juxtaposition of Walker Evans, who documented Alabaman farmers during the Great Depression in his series “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” from 1936, and Isa Genzken, who is showing “Realized and Unrealized Outdoor Projects” – architectural models of real and fantasized buildings.

Self-righteous, superficial and annoying

And of course, in the middle of all this is the bizarre reading of “Das Kapital.” Around it are lectures and discussions, some of them in the presence of an imitator of Marx, an actor with a bushy beard who sits there and writes while scholars discuss his theory.

Enwezor claims that this is “a book that nobody has read and yet everyone hates or quotes from,” and included Marx in the lists of artists in the catalogue. However, most art critics have panned this choice. Adrian Searle of The Guardian has called it a “monument to possibility and its failure.” Indeed it looks like an unwitting self-parody of academic discussion or a Monty Python sketch. All in all, the exhibition is not just heavy – it is really self-righteous and suffers a bit from being superficial and annoying.

The treatment of capitalism hanging over the exhibition is accomplished mainly through artistic “case studies” of working conditions. The fact that the art itself is a commodity in the grip of production relations and forces is the blind spot. In this sense the exhibition, which does not focus on the institutions of art and its mechanisms, suffers somewhat from 20th-century-style humanism, loaded in a political/activist way in memes like fists raised in protest, a model whereby art is a mouthpiece, a mirror held up to the world and not a symptom of it.

Stopping where Michael Moore began

By means of the extensive treatment of work relations and conditions of production in the Third World, and the relation between them, Enwezor and his artists take us back to fields and factories, labor unions and strikes. This creates a strong civil resonance, which is hardly suited to the current state of affairs. What was supposed to have shone forth from all this is a distinct working class, but this is not something that can happen in the framework of the Biennale.

Therefore the art critics’ frequent sarcastic mentions of the sponsors of the biennale and its audience of yachtsmen are not just empty mockery. They touch upon the heart of the matter and the way the role of art is understood and constructed, as well as what it is able to do and the way in which it creates (mass?) audiences and crystallizes consciousness.

A view of American artist Adrian Piper's installation ' The Probable Trust Registry: The rules of the Game #1–3. ' at the 56 Venice Biennale 2015. Photo by AP

Enwezor focuses on manifestations of manual labor of a certain kind, which are identified with the Industrial Revolution. The dominant concept of exploitation in the exhibition is in fact quite limited and is not a vehicle for developing a convincing identity of a current proletariat. As for the means of artistic expression, the exhibition is almost entirely devoid of new media, animation and technological spectacle. The art is not computerized but rather presages a return to sensual sculpture and modern materialism in relation to art and drawing.

It seems that with respect to ideas Enwezor stopped where Michael Moore began. Precisely the examples of organized labor strikes, demonstrations and critical momentum are very interesting and effective, leaving the spectator wanting more. There is a sneaking sense that had he curated an exhibition consisting entirely of a lexicon of workers’ struggles, including art workers’ struggles, a rich and coherent exhibition would have come together.

Alternatively, had he confined himself to an exhibition of contemporary African artists along the lines of “they are coming to Venice in droves,” that would have been more than sufficiently political and anti-colonialist and would have offered a kind of vision of the world’s futures. However the combining of the two methods weakens the whole.

In the four crowded days of the pre-exhibition for the professional audience, there was little tolerance in evidence for the self-righteous and academic Marxism. We came to Venice to enjoy ourselves, not to get taught a lesson. At moments it looked like a human zoo – the uppermost crust of international art wheeler-dealers gazing at exhibits of a struggling and suffering proletariat, of horrifying exploitation and oppression, on their way to Champagne and yachts and walking quickly past the auditorium where the heavy book was being read.

At a global supermarket of this sort it is possible to provide many and varied pleasures, but not deep thought and the contemplative atmosphere needed for profundity. There is no doubt that the political potential of Marxist discussion and thought in the midst of the circus called the Biennale is like an attempt to unite the workers of the world on the red carpet in Cannes. To put it plainly – for the Biennale audience capitalism is not in any way bad, whereas the subjects of the works cannot afford to see them.

Perhaps during the seven months of the exhibition (which will be on until November 22), facing different audiences (students, study and discussion groups, artists), the reading of “Das Kapital” will have a cumulative effect and gain new attention. And perhaps what will be remembered in the end is the broadening of the geographical range of the biennale artists, and that is sufficient.

Nor has the audience of writers and critics been spared the dead end built into political art. Before the opening, many of them were impressed by the awareness in the exhibition showing blacks and its current relevance in relation to the riots in Baltimore. After the opening, when it emerged that the current relevance of the exhibition was not to its benefit because of the sinking of the boatload of immigrants knocking on Europe’s gates, the critics said it was arrogant and hypocritical.

“Desperate outsiders trying to get into the land of plenty,” wrote J.J. Charlesworth in Artnet News. “If the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the southern Mediterranean wasn’t so horrific, we might be tempted to use it as a metaphor for the Biennale itself.”

At the exit, questions remain – is Ewenzor creating an open model or a muddle full of contradictions? And does the exhibition establish a class? That is, does it intend to change the power relations between a First World and a Third World and create the diffusion of a new proletariat, at an event in which the supply precedes the demand and in fact creates it? It is possible to put it even more crudely: Will the exhibition succeed in creating a new workers’ movement, and if so, how?

Since the answer is definitely in the negative, the discussion of it is being conducted outside of its language and in a symbolic universe of “let’s pretend,” in the language of political correctness. The exhibition supposedly coheres within a Marxist discourse but all of it, from the outset, is a ghost of itself, an echo of an exhibition that could have existed in a different world, in different conditions. Therefore, it is possible to talk about it only terms of its inevitable failure. It will change neither the world not the world of art and its circumstances.

There is no need to be alarmed by this failure – it is a failure that from the intellectual perspective is glorious and gripping. This is the way art should fail, by crashing on the important thing and not by getting hung up on trivia. Why does an exhibition fail in such an interesting and fundamental way? Because it puts all kind of worlds of content and aesthetics on the same unifying and flattening platform, a biennale that swallows everything, an event of cosmopolitan cannibalism.

Moreover, it puts together the exploiters and the exploited as though they were granted an equal right to speak and as though they were acting in the same conditions and speaking the same language. It is impossible to get out of this – not because Ewenzor doesn’t know how to get out of it, but rather because it has no outside.