Set across two main sites, the Arsenale and Giardini on the eastern tip of Venice, the 56th Venice Biennial was flagged, when I arrived, by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s mega-yacht moored metres from the vaporetto stop. Curated in 2015 by Okwui Enwezor, it brought forth three interrelated ‘filters’ over one over-arching theme: Garden of Disorder, Liveness: on Epic Duration and Reading Capital. The third ‘filter’ took centre stage – literally.
In addition to the two main sites and their permanent pavilions, Enwezor’s exhibition – All the World’s Futures – was split across both venues. It involved over 136 artists, 89 of whom were participating for the first time, not including a film programme and the 44 ‘collateral events’ (exhibitions, unofficial pavilions and artworks) scattered across the city. Even with the three full days I spent there, the space in which to think and reflect on works seen quickly dissolves into an act of consumption all too well reflected in the problematic pairing of making art with the art market.
Setting this aside, Enwezor and some of the artists who chose to redefine their nation state’s pavilions injected a great deal of relevancy and urgency to the oldest, and in many ways, most troubling biennial. These include Belgium’s confrontation with King Leopold’s colonialist reign via artist Vincent Meessen, and Iran’s decision to work across perennially contested and shifting territory lines.
What solicited opinions from all commentators, and could hardly be ignored, was Enwezor’s decision to centre one filter on Karl Marx’s magnum opus, Das Kapital. Situated in the central arena – designed by architect David Adjaye – Enwezor’s Das Kapital Oratorio daily readings for the duration of the exhibition programmed by artist Isaac Julien were claimed to be expanded by ‘recitals of work songs, librettos, readings of scripts, discussions, penuries, and film screenings’.
Many critics based their reviews around the hypocrisy of the presence of the world’s billionaires, the anachronistic choice of Marx, or the downright lamenting of art being too close to politics (please, give us something happy and escapist to look at). Enwezor’s curatorial intervention at least acknowledged that, for the majority across the globe, violence and instability is part of their daily fabric – a fabric that cannot be exorcised from one’s work in order to reach the high plain of transcendental aesthetics.
It matters little that Enwezor is not an expert in Marx, because the majority of us are not studiously attending to the three volumes day in, day out. What is interesting is the political, economic, social and cultural force such writing and thinking created, how its effects are still felt, indeed still panning-out. Whether the biennial was the right stage from which to address it is another matter. Rather than make Marx feel relevant, it had a tendency to, entomb his work in a mausoleum.
Films such as Julien’s Kapital (2013), a public interview with Marxist theorist David Harvey, positioned centrally and openly in a room with terrible acoustics and surrounded by Rirkrit Tiravanija’s commissioned drawings of ‘protest’, could not help but induce cynicism even in those sympathetic to Enwezor’s curation. If you were able to strain and hear the lengthy discussion you have caught the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall breath fire into the debate, which is, sadly, not dealt with adequately by Harvey. Again, like Das Kapital itself (Marx, too, was included with all the other ‘artists’ in the biennial’s guide), Julien’s recording of an event, which in itself looks of great interest, is perhaps not best approached in exhibition format.
This is in great contrast with John Akomfrah’s epic Vertigo Sea, where a narrow viewing passage induced a claustrophobic confrontation with three huge screens that appeared to take their conceptual and historical lead from Paul Gilroy’s notion of the ‘black Atlantic’, along with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’s Whale Nation (1988). Archival footage from the National Geographic, early dramas on slave trading and present-day stage sets immersed the viewer in a world in which the oceans have for centuries operated as bloody battle grounds for both ‘man and beast’. Paradoxically, as quickly as abundant blood is split it is dissolved and absolved by the watery depths. The relevance of this work is keenly felt in the headline news of today.
In the German pavilion, which held three artists’ work, Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun accosted us again in an immersive environ that had the feel of a matrix-like beach. As visitors sat in deckchairs looking up at the large screen, layer upon layer was formulated, weaving deadpan humour into a dystopian regime that felt only two steps removed from our present. Steyerl staged the inner workings of a recognisable newsroom, where a representative from a German multinational took political spin to new ends via the mediation of the ubiquitous real-time feed. All this pulsated through dancing Japanese anime ‘protest bots’, wherein every bodily move marked an extraction of value ripe for cultivation and profit – for what exactly is naturally obscured from view. The film felt like an attempt to fictionalise the emergent dynamics of capital.
Other works included those by Fatou Kandé Senghor, Theaster Gates, Mika Rottenberg and Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc. Aboundeneera, a Syrian film collective, offered what they termed ‘emergency cinema’. Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty’s ‘transactional objects’, sculptures informed by the ingenious ways street vendors re-purpose furniture and architectural space, also deserve mention.
It is true that the biennial as a whole is a form of cultural window dressing. It performs a kind of microcosmic notion of statehood, rightly unable to ignore the processes of decolonisation and legacies of colonialist violence. While ‘Gran Bretagne’s’ pavilion looms large atop the hill, filled in 2015 with Sarah Lucas’s playfully grotesque forms, it is no surprise that Venice’s historical prominence in commerce and trade plays host to this culturally loaded ideological weapon.
It feels apt then to end on the inclusion of Hans Haacke’s institutional critique in which, using sociological methods, he famously profiled the gallery goer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Brought up to date by the ubiquitous iPads for his 2015 World Poll, scrolling on the screen, as people rushed to participate we saw a profile emerge where over 57% of the audience have postgraduate qualifications and over 1% had spent over 10 million euros purchasing art: a very particular audience indeed.