With the mix of the different curatorial voices of the various pavilions along with the curatorial intervention of the curator for the international exhibition taking place in the Central Pavilion at the Giardini, at the Arsenale, and some selected external areas, the Biennale in Venice creates a pluralistic situation. In addition to this, a large and growing number of collateral events take place in various palaces and rented spaces throughout the city. Celebrating the 120th anniversary of the first exhibition in 1895, the 56th Biennale includes 89 foreign participant countries, 44 Collateral Events, and Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor’s international exhibition which this year presents over 136 artists from 53 countries.
A Political Biennale Addressing a Large Number of Global Conflicts
A central focal point of the Biennale’s international exhibition titled ‘All The World’s Futures’ is Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, published in 1867. The entire text will be read throughout the duration of the Biennale. The architect David Adjaye has created an “Arena” within the central Pavilion in the Giardini. Artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien has directed trained actors to read “Das Kapital” as a dramatic text. The “Arena” will alternately be used as a space for continuous oral performances by artists associated with the exhibition. Works referencing Das Kapital, a critique of the market, its mechanisms, exchange value and money, and a critique of inequality can be spotted throughout the central exhibition. In a room-filling video installation by Wangechi Mutu (born in Kenya, in 1972) titled The End of Carrying It All a woman carrying a basket on her head is seen on a tripartite panoramic screen. The African landscape is soaked in a warm afterglow. The woman wades through the landscape. The air fills up with items that make it ever more difficult for her to move on. Meanwhile, the objects in her basket increase in number and weight. What are originally fruits become houses and vehicles. Eventually the woman collapses under the weight, sinks into the ground and returns as an earthquake.
Whether Marx matters to the people attending the Biennale is hard to discern, but the spirit of Marx is reflected in many art works and thus acts as a symbol in a world that is not equal. An amusing video by Mika Rottenberg (born in Argentina, in 1976) titled NoNoseKnows critically reflects on China’s supremacy of cultured pearls and the mechanism involved in producing them. Women, skilled in the delicate matter of seeding pearls, sit at a long table over live mussels with scalpels and tweezers. On hearing a tone from a bell, a small girl sets a crank in motion, which in turn sets a ventilator in motion, whose breeze whooshes through a flower bouquet. The flower’s pollen disperse towards a blond woman coming across as the overseer of the whole process (the performer calls herself Bunny Glamazon and appears regularly in Rottenberg’s productions). The woman’s nose not only gets redder and redder but longer and longer. Finally she manages to sneeze, whereupon a plate with Spaghetti, Pizza or Salad appears. She places it on top of a tower made up of already produced meals. And so the productive sneezing continuous. Not far away a documentary about Sergei Einstein’s relationship to Karl Marx by the German filmmaker Alexander Kluge can be spotted and Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs chart the immense dimensions of the global economy.
Okwui Enwezor wanted a political biennale; he has managed to pair work with almost every large conflict in the world. Vik Muniz fabricates a 13-metre-long boat and places it in the waters surrounding the latter part of the Arsenale. Although the vessel is made out of wood, it looks as if it is being folded out of newspapers. Lampedusa is the name of the boat, acting as a reminder of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, particularly along the coastline of Italy. Muniz has not been officially invited to participate in the Biennale – he sneaked his boat in, so to speak. Rikrit Tiravanija is exhibited with two sets of works. His one hundred Demonstration Drawings reflect on the many recent uprisings around the globe. Whether they refer to corporate greed, Palestine, unemployment, traditional marriage, Muslims rights in France or the boycott at the New York Guggenheim against the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, these graphite drawings present a panoramic view of a global population seemingly on its feet, demanding rights. His second contribution is a fully functional brick factory producing bricks with a Chinese inscription saying “Never Stop Working”. For ten euros, each visitor can take away a brick wrapped in paper. Also present with two sets of works is Huma Bhabha. Five of her large-scale sculptures – one made out of tire and the others made out of a variety of found materials – are installed in the central Pavilion in the Giardini, whereas in the Arsenale a series of mixed media works of paper is shown.
While the exhibition features old stars and canonical names, such as Harun Farocki – the entire corpus of his late films are on display – and Walker Evans – his Depression-era photographs are shown – alongside Bruce Nauman, Isa Genzken and Hans Haacke, Okwui Enwezor has indeed included a great number of artists from all continents, many of whom have not been shown here before.
Within this overwhelming exhibition of works of art, all of which try to leave an impression behind, it is often in the not-so-intrusive works of art that one finds the most pleasure and satisfaction. One such body of work is that of Mariam Suhail shown in the Arsenale, Birth of a New City/To Propose a Site for a New Capital City. Error in Grid (Graph Paper), and Erring Hippodamus are very much related to her growing up in the young capital city of Islamabad. She relates this experience to other such ventures, historical and contemporary, overlapping aspirations and failures. In this series of beautiful drawings on paper, inkjet prints, and printed books she delicately addresses the fact that obeying a set of rules won’t prevent failures.
Another quiet intervention, artistically and visually appealing, is Sara Sze’s The Last Garden (Landscapes of Events Suspended Indefinitely), an installation in the gardens behind the Arsenale. Using multi-coloured thin threads she has been able to create a peaceful and tranquil space – a suspended reality – much needed, after the overwhelming amount of art on display in ‘All The World’s Futures’.
At the far end of the Arsenale, Abounaddara, the anonymous collective of Syrian filmmakers working on “impromptu documentaries”, as described in the Biennale guide, screen a 52-minute film titled Syria: Snapshots of History in the Making, in which refugees, orphaned children, war survivors and ordinary Syrians tell heart-breaking stories about the ongoing conflict and the celebration of daily life within war-torn Syria.
Before trying to make sense of so much past and present, the National Pavilions should be visited. Located within the Giardini are the country pavilions, which have been there as early as 1907. The Belgian Pavilion presents the work of Belgian artist Vincent Meessen who has invited other international artists to participate and to reflect on colonial modernity in general and the Eurocentric idea of modernity in particular. It’s a great project but largely fails in terms of aesthetic and formalist presentation – a problem found in many research-based art projects. The German Pavilion hosts ‘The Pavilion as Factory’ with four artists – three German artists and one artist duo originally from Poland and Cyprus, but working out of Egypt – reflecting on notions of work, migration, and revolt. Olaf Nicolai uses the roof of the Pavilion, where boomerangs are produced and optimized throughout the entire duration of the Biennale: A reminder of the best possible way to fit into a system or simply a sly reminder of how art can be a symbol for opening up a vast space? Within the same pavilion Tobias Zielony addresses refugees and Hito Steyerl’s superb video installation Factory of the Sun confronts us with a world in turmoil and a world of images constantly in motion. Another great country contribution within the Giardini is that of Poland. Inspired by the megalomaniacal ambition of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo to stage an opera in the tropics, C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska set out to realize this plan. Very aware of this romanticized and colonial undertaking, they set out to a village in Haiti inhabited by descendants of Polish soldiers who once fought for Haitian independence. These Polish soldiers had been sent to the Caribbean by Napoleon in 1802-1803 to put down a slave rebellion, but the Poles decided to unite with the local insurgents. For the artists in the Polish Pavilion to decide to export a national opera to Haiti, they seemingly question their own undertaking as something that is perhaps nothing more than cultural colonization. However, the cinematic installation – very much recalling the format of a painted panorama – is a great visual pleasure. Whether it be in the Pavilions of Great Britain, hosting a solo exhibition of works by Sara Lucas, or in the US with works by Joan Jonas, as well as Canada and Spain, the principal seems to be that more is more. In this way, the Austrian Pavilion, with work by Heimo Zobernig, is a welcoming position. His formal response to the interior architectonics of the 1934 building by means of materiality, offer a space and a site to reflect on art’s presentational modes. Thus, this could also be read as a reflection on the challenges involved in large-scale exhibitions, such as the growing cost of renting a location in Venice or the mechanisms involved in deciding who should exhibit in a particular country’s pavilion.
However, heading into the city of Venice there is a lot more to be discovered. For the official national Pavilion of Iceland, the Swiss-born artist Chrisoph Büchel transformed the deconsecrated church of Santa Maria della Misericordia, which has not been used since 1967, into a mosque. This is meaningful given Venice’s trade history with the East and its Muslim population and the fact that to this day Venice does not have a mosque. The Pavilion of Iraq hosts ‘Invisible Beauty’, showcasing five artists living inside and outside Iraq, their works addressing beauty, memory, loss, and courage. The Iranian Pavilion this year has chosen to show a large selection of artists from Iran, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Central-Asian Republics, and the Kurdish Region. With some excellent works of art displayed, the curatorial concept of the show titled ‘The Great Game’ lacks a cohesive concept and presents most of the works rather poorly. The Republic of Azerbaijan presents two exhibitions, one of which is titled ‘Vita Vitale’, bringing together international artists who reflect on the planet’s ecosystem. (Khalil Chishtee’s work can be spotted in this exhibition). India and Pakistan for the first time share a collateral presentation. Organized by the Gujral Foundation, artists Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana have been chosen to reflect on “regional history…colonial modernity, and cosmopolitan present entangled in conflict.” While ‘My East is Your West’ the title of the exhibition, borrowed from an on-going work by Shilpa Gupta, brings together works by two well-known artists, there is little surprise in what is exhibited. Rana’s installation of one of the rooms of the 17th century Palazzo Benzon at Lahore’s Liberty Market points towards unsettling binaries that position the locality as a romanticised site of authenticity or even resistance to homogenising globalism and Gupta’s research-based project addresses some of the problems faced in the India-Bangladesh borderlands, thus highlighting migratory populations, their informal economies and the spirit of risk-taking involved.
Generally, one wishes that this great opportunity for both countries to show art under a single roof within the parameter of the Venice Biennale had been used to make a much more valid curatorial statement and include more artistic voices.
Given Marx’s dictum and Walter Benjamin’s reading of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus – overarching inspirations for Enwezor’s curatorial statement – one is only being re-assured about the many uncertainties representative of our current time.
The Venice Biennale runs until 22 November 2015.
Simone Wille is the author of Modern Art in Pakistan: History, Tradition, Place. Images courtesy Simone Wille.
Circling Venice: Preface to a Visit