Categorized | Reviews

The 56th Venice Biennial (Part 1): All of the World’s Futures

At the 56th Venice Biennale, curator Okwui Enwezor promises an exhibition that confronts a world characterized by, among other things,“violent turmoil, panicked by specters of economic crisis and viral pandemonium." Above: Manfred Kieinhofer "Guardians of Time." 

 

Like the early-arriving tourists cascading down the steps of the Santa Lucia train station, written commentary about the Venice Biennial usually comes in waves. The first of these is to be found in shopping guides and airline magazines, and these never rise above being illustrated rewrites of the many press releases that spew from the event’s media-relations office. Then come the snarky blog writers, who fall over each other to post the first petulant tweet about the exhibition, all perfectly self-righteous in their unsupported opinions about the rightness and/or wrongness of anything or everything about the event. And then, a few weeks after the many parties and receptions of the opening week have folded their event tents, and when hordes of undulate tourists flood the Giardini to pummel each other with their selfie sticks, longer and presumably more considered ruminations find their way into the world, that being the same world that has already grown tired of hearing about the event that everyone else (besides you!) has been to and has done with. For this reason, some amount of anti-climax is always baked into the cake of the Venice Biennial, although once in a while, other ingredients manage to shape its flavors in the direction of provocative memorability.

Expo Milano, a World's Fair-like event, asks: Can a free market feed the planet? Above: UK exhibit traces a bee's path, from meadow to hive.

The 56th iteration of the curated portion of the Venice Biennial is not one of those occasions. There are many reasons for this, some existing far beyond the event. One of these is the hoopla surrounding the nearby Expo Milano, dedicated to the explicit theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” (and the implicit theme of new investment opportunities emerging from these tasks). Events of this kind once were called World’s Fairs, and as such, they were always much bigger deals than any art exhibition could hope to be. Expo Milano follows suit. Like the Expositions Universale of yore, it is an orgy of spectacularized happy talk about the ways by which the “free market” can solve the most intractable of the world’s problems, that being a projected increase in the world’s human population of 50% by the year 2050, requiring a 60% increase in food production capability. 

At Expo Milano, folk dancing was everywhere on view, only to be interrupted by the unveiling of a world-record setting 1400 square meter pizza. There were dozens of architecturally imaginative pavilions that housed sophisticated multi-media displays of attesting to the myriad ways that beloved monarchs care about the food security of their people, or in another vein, proudly representing their corporate and/or nation state sponsors with propaganda worthy of a dystopian science fiction film.

Expo Milano: Korea showcases its culinary practices

Much more can be said about Expo Milano, but suffice to say here that, in terms of sheer scale and media attention, Expo Milano stole most of the popular limelight that is usually reserved for any Venice Biennial. Add to this the fact that this year’s Venice Biennial is but two years prior to that greatly anticipated once every-decade alignment of stars called Documenta, The Munster Sculpture Project and the (next) Venice Biennial, making it tempting for any artworld globetrotter to fast-forward their plans and travel budgets toward the summer of 2017 (Newsflash! Adam Szymczyk, Polish-German director of Kunsthalle, Basel has been selected to direct Documenta 14 in 2017. Beat to quarters!). Lodged in a spatial disadvantage to Expo Milano and a temporal disadvantage to the grand tour of 2017, Biennial 56 was overshadowed at the jump. 

But apart from these circumstantial factors, Biennial 56 was anticlimactic for other reasons pertaining to its own self-organization, seeming like a collection of more-or-less pious relics of theoretical positions suffused with rote nostalgia and dead intellectual ritual, lightly seasoned by a counter narrative consisting of a few works by a some artists who work far from the centers of artworld debate. Those outré offerings tend to look particularly good in the context of an exhibition that otherwise seemed like an obstinate defense of that moment during the 1970s when state capitalism was momentarily ascendant, when pseudo-avant-garde art for government bureaucracy’s sake seemed to be the intellectually honorable alternative to the corruptions of the art marketplace. The curated portion of the 56th Venice Biennial was organized by Okwui Enwezor, and was titled All Of The World’s Futures (hereafter ATWF). While the title reminds us of an unpublished Ian Fleming manuscript, there is no James Bond adventure here. Dour was the mood dejour, and at some junctures it seemed forthrightly pouty, as if to say that having fun was tantamount to giving in the enemy of false consciousness. Enwezor’s exhibition thesis portended a confrontation with a world characterized by
 
Adel Abdessemed, "Nympheas" (foreground); Bruce Nauman, "Human Nature / Life Death / Knows Doesn’t Know" (background)
 
violent turmoil, panicked by specters of economic crisis and viral pandemonium, secessionist politics and a humanitarian catastrophe on the high seas, deserts, and borderlands, as immigrants, refugees, and desperate peoples seek refuge in seemingly calmer and prosperous lands. Everywhere one turns, new crisis, uncertainty, and deepening insecurity across all regions of the world seem to leap into view." But very little of the work included in the exhibition was explicitly connected with these kinds of topicality. Rather, it was born of Harold Szeemann’s landmark 1969 exhibition titled When Attitudes Become Form larded with many back issues of October magazine, not to mention Enwezor’s previous curatorial efforts such as the 11th Documenta from 2002 or the Paris Triennial of 2012. It is worth noting here that many of the artists included in ATWF were also included in one or more of those previous exhibitions, suggesting a curatorial practice that operates much in the same way as that of some film directors who repeatedly use a stock company of actors with whom they are comfortable.  
 
Monica Bonvicini, "Latent Combustion"

Enwezor’s organizing thesis also invoked the idea of  “a parliament of forms,” and even though any large international biennial could make the same claim, the Chinese menu of artistic possibilities was somewhat more inclusive here (although other recent biennials such as those in Gwangju and Havana have come a long way to close the inclusivity gap). The main topic of parliamentary debate that was staged within ATWF pertained to the tension between “histories and counter-histories,” which might signal something like “negation” or “resistance” to some, but could more vividly be seen as a self-neutralizing proposition that relinquishes the historical field to an opportunistic erasure of history that would be (and is) exercised by power at the expense of truth. In turn, this creates a vacuum that gives a free pass to the unfettered exercise of financially motivated propaganda of the type that was so loudly broadcast at Expo Milano.

And so, the real question prompted by the aggregate experience of ATWF is whether or not (and how) we should still assume that “dour” should be equated with rigor and seriousness, rather than a mere waxing pious about a dated if not out rightly nugatory notion of “radical artistic gesture” derived from the late sixties heyday of minimalist, post-minimalist and conceptualist practices that now do little beyond keeping up appearances and the positions of entitlement that continue to appertain. This is not to say that ATWF the exhibition was not complex, richly textured and possessed of enough surprising inclusions and juxtapositions to keep the inquisitive viewer on his or her toes. And certainly, the installation was for most part impeccably designed. But there were far too many instances of déjà vu questionings about “the status of the art object,” and too few that highlighted the artistic possibilities of the present in terms that were fresh, timely and/or sufficiently urgent to live up to the challenges of the cataclysmic world picture invoked by Enwezor’s curatorial statement. To cut to the chase, I would say that the case for an continued affirmative connection between the dour and the rigorous was not made, perhaps because it no longer can be made—this owing to how the global political emergency called runaway neo-liberalism has both changed guises and redefined the nature of its own demands for loyal opponents. 

Katharina Grosse’s "Untitled Trumpet"
 
Enwezor’s curatorial statement pointed to three intersecting filters that guided his organization of All Of The World’s Futures, those being Garden of Disorder, Liveliness: On Epic Duration and Reading Capital. At some junctures it seems clear that the works by 135 artists or artists groups assembled herein are specifically related to one of these three filters, while other works seem caught in the interstitial rip tides that flow between them. For example, in the first room of the Arsenale, we witnessed a canny pairing of the work of Bruce Nauman and Adel Abdessemed—the former being a quintet of neon works shining forth in the darkened room, while the latter was comprised of about 30 conical stacks of rusted machetes of varying lengths (called Nympheas [2014]). The disorderly point of the pairing was instantly clear: injunctive language has a frightening sharpness and a bite—made most clearly evident in two early pieces by Nauman—Eat Death (1972) and Raw War (1971)—the other works from the mid-1980s were more complex, but less pointed. Abdemessed was also represented by a 2008 film titled Also Sprach Allah, which featured the artist being bounced up to a ceiling where he slowly inscribed those very words on a piece of fabric, which was exhibited next to the film projection. Even more foreboding was an installation by Venetian-born and Berlin-based sculptor Monica Bonvicini, consisting of several clusters of chainsaws dangling above the viewer from the high ceiling (all dated 2015, all titled Latent Combustion), each covered with black plastinated rubber to look like slasher film production design from a bleak house of torture. 
 
Kay Hassan, "Untitled," paper construction

Further along was Katharina Grosse’s Untitled Trumpet (2015), which provided a welcome blast of color in the Arsenale portion of the show. It was an immersive installation featuring large swaths of tie-dyed sailcloth rising like a trio of phoenix birds out of piles of bright multi-colored rubble—with a smattering of grass peeking up to optimistically suggest a fragile new beginning emerging from what looks like the aftermath of an explosion in a paint factory. Such islands of chromaticism were few and far between in ATWF, but they were there. I was particularly impressed with the large painting titled Earth’s Creation (1994) by native Australian Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996), which seems like a pulsating cosmological diagram, and Kay Hassan’s casual portraits executed on layered billboard paper that used both additive and subtractive techniques to reveal the layers of experience etched in his subjects’ faces. I was also charmed and perplexed by the cluster of works by Brazilian artist Sonia Gomes, which consisted of clots of colorful rags and twine, oozing like viscera out of the cracks between the antique bricks of the Arsenale.  On the other hand, Maria Eichhorn’s collection of modesty scaled monochromes fell flat (pun intended), owing to an excess of emphasis on color-as-color, seeming like a minor variation on the old paint-chips writ-large gag. This was executed with a concomitant lack of emphasis on the performative aspects of chromatic display. If you are going to pay relevant homage to the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly, you had better look real hard at how he does what he does.

One distinctive feature of ATWF is its several presentations of small works on paper hung in clusters, providing moments of seduction that gave respite to other oft-times overbearing installations. The best of these was a series of manic proposals for absurd quasi-military inventions by Abu Bakarr Mansaray, fancifully drawn in in pastel and ink, featuring clusters of descriptive annotations to conjure a mad scientist’s pursuit of absurd invention.  Massinissa Selmani presented a series of delicately rendered works on paper that feature everyday people positioned next to random domestic objects set against blank negative spaces that emphasized the figures’ isolation and loneliness. In contrast, the work of Nigeria-based Karo Akpokiere’s work was bold, colorful and funny, looing like zany, over-the-top obsessive fantasies about the liberating power of westernization.  Marlene Dumas presented a cycle of thirty-six small oil-on-canvas paintings titled Skulls (2013-2015). Even though the subjects of these works was trite, their brilliant execution saved the day to make for a satisfying experience. One reason for this was the variety of painterly treatment that Dumas employed: even though their color was restrained, the series was much more about variations than it was about the restatement of themes. 
 
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, "Earth's Creation"
 
One way to understand any large curated exhibition like Biennial 56 is to see it as a site where cultural production auditions for a place in art history. Certainly, this was much more the case a few decades ago than it is today, not only because there are so many more Biennial exhibitions now than there were then, but also because art history itself has become a very hard thing to know. Now we have histories in the plural, each spawning its own counter history. Nonetheless, it is common in Biennials exhibitions to see historical works placed side-by-side with contemporary ones. There are good reasons for doing so. It allows viewers to see art historical chestnuts in newly relevant terms, and it reminds those viewers about lineages of artistic orientation. It also confers a kind of gravitas-by-association to the contemporary works located nearby. It was good to see the series of 30 Walker Evan’s photographs from 1936 titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, taking the lives of some (previously) obscure, depression-era tenant farmers as their subjects. Judged from the standards of traditional portraiture, these my be the best examples of photographic group portraits ever taken, each finding their way to the revelation of simple human dignity struggling amid misfortune. There was also a reprise of

Abu Bakarr Mansaray

Marcel Broodthaers’ Jardin d’ Hivre (1974) consisting of potted palm trees, enigmatic vitrines and a clutch of obtuse art prints, all seeming to wag the finger of forgotten precedent insofar as the cult of Robert Gober’s work is concerned. There is a room of early works by Robert Smithson, including a film that he and Nancy Holt made in titled Swamp (1971), the content of the film being their navigation through thick foliage complete with voice over that suggests the banter one might indulge when lost in the weeds—metaphorical or otherwise. The is a also a quartet of early drawings by Smithson, some referencing project proposals that never came to fruition, but one titled Island Project (1969) looking outrightly uncanny an early model for his subsequent Earthworks. The presentation also features Smithson’s first “non-site” work titled Dead Tree (originally 1969), it being a supine 40-foot tree strategically bisected by four 1×4 foot double-sided mirrors. Needles to say, this was a recent recreation of the earlier work, attested to by the fact that there was still sap left in the tree branches. As they say, it’s the idea that counts. 

Hans Haacke’s status as the progenitor of Institutional Critique was confirmed in a large room with several projects that establish the class and ethnic biases of visitors to various Artworld pilgrimage sites, including Documenta. Among these works was the famous MOMA Visitors Poll from 1969, displaying the results of a straw poll asking a question about the acceptability of then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s pro-Vietnam policy stance. Obliquely related to Haacke’s projects was another exercise in questionnaire response, that being a piece by Adrian Piper titled The Probable Trust Registry—The Rules of the Game #1, #2, #3 (all 2013). The game in question was played at one of three reception kiosks staffed by a gallery assistant, where visitors were encouraged to fill out a form so that they could be admitted to a secured social media network where they could communicate with each other. It is worth noting here that Piper received one of the two Golden Lion awards for her participation in the exhibition. I cannot imagine what the judges were thinking, unless they were somehow impressed with the presentation as an extension of Piper’s work as an analytic philosopher. 
 
Wangechi Mutu, "The End of Carrying All," 3-channel video
 
If I were handing out the award, I would have given it to Wangechi Mutu for her three-channel video projection titled The End of Carrying All (2015). Using computer animation software, Mutu had herself filmed carrying a weighted basket up a hill like an African Sisyphus, slowly traveling in front of what looked to be a silhouetted baobab tree. As she progressed upward, her burden grew larger and heavier, causing her body to buckle under the strain until she reached the right hand edge of the cinematic frame, whereupon she falls off of a cliff. At that moment, the cliff itself transforms into a malicious wave that double’s back toward the left, swallowing the entire landscape in its path. The message of the work had a special resonance in our post-Ferguson and current African immigrant crisis moment, marking it with clarity and pathos. 
 
All of the World’s Futures contains quite a few film projections, or installations that feature film projection. One of these was Tania Bruguera’s Untitled Havana (2000), which invites viewers to enter a long darkened room with gravel on the floor. Across the room was a flickering video monitor showing vintage footage of Fidel Castro, inviting the viewer to come closer. But something else was present—in the darkness stood at least two

Sonia Boyce’s" Exquisite Cacophony"

and maybe more naked men who slapped themselves in the invisible shadows as viewers stepped by. Another memorable projection was a three-channel work titled Vertigo Sea (2015) by John Akomfrah. It was a sober, not-quite-grandiose meditation of the cold power of the sea, interspersed with horrifying images of whale slaughter. On a lighter and more entertaining note, there was Sonia Boyce’s single channel work titled Exquisite Cacophony (2015), featuring complex call-and-response vocalizations exchanged between an African-American female and white male performer. 

Although Walead Beshty is better known for his photography-based work, his presentations at ATWF were sculpture (titled Aggregates, all 2015), those being amalgamations of ceramic fragments and other detritus covered with thick pourings of red and black paint, looking a bit too much like a reprise of French Nouvelle Realisme. Georg Baselitz was also represented by seven 2014 paintings, all of which return to the upside-down figure format upon which his late 1970s reputation rests. Since then, he has experimented with other forms, including sculpture, with mixed results. At first glance, I thought that these were typical late period works that show a senior practitioner engaged in a project of rote self-quotation. It was a good thing that I gave these works a second look, because it was then revealed that the 77-year old artist was slyly and very purposefully manipulating paint to evoke a synthesis of Pollock and de Kooning duking it out within his signature upside-down figures. Here, the installation was too tight, and had there been five rather than seven paintings displayed in the little mini-labyrinth, the point would have been better made. 
 
Georg Baselitz
 
One of the real treats in ATWF was the work of Japanese painter Tetsuya Ishida, who died in a train accident at the age of 31 in 2005.  Six of his works were included in ATWF, each closing the gap between Social Realism and Surrealism, all pointing to the way that Japan’s corporate culture humiliates and dehumanizes the younger males that make up its primary workforce. If you can imagine the work of George Tooker merged with that of Hokusai, you might get an idea of where these works were coming from, but they are more Kafkaesque than that. The spirit of Kafka was also found in the series of “unheroic” monuments made by the Raqs Media Collective that were deployed about the Giardini, obviously playing off of the many commemorative statues that one sees in various campos and piazzas throughout Venice. The catalog points to there being nine such works, but I was only able to find seven (collectively titled Coronation Park [2015]); nonetheless, the idea of these works was unmistakable. Each featured a dark seven-foot tall figure standing atop a six-foot plywood ziggurat painted white. The fiberglass figures looked as if they were made of dark wax

Tetsuya Ishida

that echoed the material and surface conventions of 19th century bronze statuary, but the figures also looked as if they were melting, or in some cases subjected to more aggressive disfigurement. The point of this became crystal clear when we read the caption medallions that were affixed to the ziggurats. I cannot retrieve an exact quote, but, more or less, they read something like, “You discover, at the moment of your triumph, that your only enemy was the emptiness inside of your heart.” The actual dedications were better than that, but the anti-colonialist point did ask a needle-sharp question about the more pathetic personal motives for conquest. 

The controversial centerpiece of All of the World’s Futures was a large 160- seat theater called The Arena positioned in the center of the Biennial Pavilion in the Giardini, complete with balcony and a projection booth, and taking up much more indoor floor space than any of the show’s other presentations. Designed by David Adjaye, The Arena hosted periodic showings of films (including Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film from 1925 titled Strike) as well as events that oscillated between the polarities defined by the ideas of symposium and performance. In this regard, Biennial 56 sees the containment and distributions of its own mechanisms of discourse as one of it missions—although the exhibition’s thick catalog was surprisingly free of lengthy discursive texts. And as it turned out, one such presentation of discourse in the Arena proved to be a

Raqs Media Collective, "Coronation Park"

lightening rod of controversy, and will most likely be the single element by which this 120-year anniversary of The Venice Biennial will be remembered in five years time. That element was the repeated staged reading of the three extant volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (first volume published in 1867—subsequent volumes edited by Friedrich Engels were published in 1881 and 1894). When I visited ATWF during the first week of June, two British actors with impeccable diction were reading from Volume One to an Arena that was populated only by myself and one other person checking her smart phone. As the actors went on about relations between production, capital, markets and profit, I found myself wondering about two things—the first rather obviously being how I was going to go about reviewing the whole extravaganza that is All of the World’s Futures. The second was prompted by a memory of a sentence written by Walter Benjamin in 1935: “when Marx undertook his critique of the capitalistic mode of production, this mode was in its infancy.”

Eighty years after Benjamin’s remark was made, we have to wonder how much both Capitalism and its critique have matured, and at what differing rates of speed said maturations might be traveling. For five full decades, academic Marxists have been proffering the term “late capitalism” as a wishful incantation implying faith in an imminent and inevitable collapse, leading to the much desired withering of the nation state as a primary modality of social organization.  But now that nation states have become subordinated to banking networks, I would suggest that this particular term be banished for a while, because as sad as the world has become, and as likely as it is that it will become even sadder, there is one blind spot in Marx’s analysis (presumably taken up in his unpublished fourth volume) that points to a counter-narrative to his prognostications of inevitable collapse. I characterize this blind spot of argumentation as being  “algebraic” as a way of contrasting it from Marx’s mere “arithmetical” understanding of how the operations of capital functioned prior to the advent of cybernetic communications technology, which has served to exponentialize
 
"The Arena,” designed by David Adjaye, during the reading of “Das Kapital”
 
the way that capitalism now operates. Arithmetical Marxism fails to account for the mechanics of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism” in reference to the many ways that Capitalism has learned to manipulate, exploit and profit from its own moments of putative collapse, always consolidating its resources prior to rising again in new forms and new places. The past 15 years have brought us a cavalcade of vivid examples of this very phenomenon, and understanding how the strategic orchestration of global disaster serves to actually advance the cause of neo-liberalism is work that is still undone, even as it also suggests future political work that may be undoable.  Indeed, inevitable collapse may eventually be in the cards, but global ecological catastrophe seems much closer on the horizon, and at that point, the multitudes will be in no position to force the issue. If truth be told, they are already absent from that position, simply because they have been coaxed into deferring it.

Karo Akpokiere, Nigerian Visa Mystic Temple  

One of the many reasons for this deferral lies in how Capitalism– or Neo-liberalism as it is now called—is able pit logical allies against one another so as to divide and enfold their supposed opposition into the sub-categories of loyal opponent or ineffectual opponent–this by separating and subsidizing the oppositional intelligentsia away from its activist roots—in effect getting them to argue about who gets tenure rather than address questions about what needs to be done and how to go about doing it.  During the post-Breton Woods era, both academia and the artworld have become sites for the recruitment and display of just this kind of loyal opposition, and as the artworld has become “globalized” during the past 15 years, we can see an ever wider casting of the net for those would seek ways to legitimate their putative radicalism via participation in a pacification and distraction machine.

The story of how this has worked in the artworld is a long one, going at least as far back to the Rockefeller/ State Department–supported exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist painting held in Europe and Latin America during the 1950s. No doubt it also includes the timely inception of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1964, strategically configured as a recruitment engine for state-supported artists who found career benefit in making “advanced” institutional avant-garde art that, as it just so happened, had much to do with getting tenured positions in new university art departments, and little or nothing to do with galvanizing opposition to the Vietnam War. That the end of the first Cold War coincided so perfectly with the politically motivated transformation of the Endowment in 1994 is, no doubt, not merely a matter of coincidence; but the real point here is an obvious one: that for all intents and purposes, neoliberalism is engaged in another Cold War (or a Soft War, as my colleague Sharon Grace prefers to call it), this time against real and/or imaginary villains who are theologically motivated non-state actors functioning amid their own interconnected networks of information, deception and finance—networks that mock and mimic the many guises of neoliberal hegemony that have come and gone during the post-Breton Woods era, always a hegemony of interlocking directorates that redefines nation states as mere organization and distribution instruments. 
 
Robert Smithson, Dead Tree
 
A little over a decade ago, the rather euphemistic term globalism was circulated in the artworld, predicated on a wishful misunderstanding of its meaning as having to do with “cultural liberation” for those nation states that found themselves free of both colonial and neo-colonial rule at the end of the first Cold War. But let’s look carefully at another historical sequence.  First came colonialism, which was conquest and theft called by a friendlier name. Then, after the point where durable institutions could be established, colonialism evolved into neo-colonialism, using local puppet politicians to do the dirty work of subjugation and exploitation that old-school colonialists had relinquished in the wake of two World Wars. Then came the Cold War, which, at its hottest points also became wars of national liberation fought between proxy actors operating with the support of either the neo-liberal west or the Soviet Union led “east.” Some of these were successful—Vietnam’s successful revolution against French and American colonial rule, or Rhodesia’s transformation into Zimbabwe being cases in point. Others were not—witness post-Allende Chile. 
 
And then, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1994, something else happened. Nation states that once made-up those places that were once called “the Third World” fell into a different category of designation. Actually, there were several such designations, but the one that still seems to stick is “the global south,” which bespeaks an impoverished relation to the north. Recent events in Greece suggest that the use of the term ‘south” in this newer context may now have less to do with latitude than it does with having a Moody’s sovereign debt rating that is “south” of B+, but the important point lies in how it shows “globalism” for what it truly is—the programmatic opening up of natural resources, labor markets and most importantly, credit markets to the engines of neo-liberal exploitation, enforced only by the threat of financial apocalypse that might occur if credit worthiness is downgraded to the point of no return. Thus, we now see undeclared wars fought around the world that use banks instead of tanks to achieve their objectives. Seen in this light, the laudable expansions of artistic opportunity that have come forward since Jean Hubert Martin’s 1989 Magicians de le Terre exhibition also take on the subtly sinister aspect of being a cultivation of loyal opponents who could facilitate the aforementioned “openings up” by enjoying previously withheld “artistic recognition” that also creates buy-low and sell-high opportunities for outré production. It’s an old story: identify a potentially problematic group movement and cull out a few reigning stars as a way of neutralizing collective action. We saw it happen when the old NEA started giving awards to “performance artists” because it was too hard to figure out how to subsidize the people who were doing Happenings, which might have become dangerous if allowed to flourish. One can look at the current artworld emphasis on “issues of identity” and the Chinese menu curatorial strategies that stem from them in the same skeptical light.
 
The recently globalized artworld is a perfect arena to contain such strategic displays of loyal opposition, and the Capital readings at Biennial 56 represent a perfect example. After all, who can imagine what Karl Marx would think after finding out that his book was proclaimed to be “our Bible” in front of jet setting art viewers at an event underwritten by 20 corporations and banks? No doubt, while he was laboring on his manuscript under the gas lamps in the British Museum reading room during the time of Charles Dickens, he would ask who in reality is the “we” that would claim such ownership? If it is a reference to the majority of the artists included in ATWF, then I would say fine, but then I would wonder if any of them had read Marx’s text with the same care that it routinely gets in business schools.  If the “us” in question are those who dropped 29 Euros to gain admittance to the event after disembarking from their yachts and water taxis, then the religion in question would have to have a special sacrament for deaf ears.  Certainly, the idea of artistic revolution functioning as a political revolution enacted by other means is an old one that goes back to Gustave Courbet’s 1855 Pavilion of Realism, and there is much to be said for art that takes up this particular cause. However, if as Enwezor writes, ATWF is a “project devoted to an appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things,” then there is need to have a clear, up-to-date and purposeful idea of what that state truly is, because merely adopting the reified look of “politicalness,” by itself no longer cuts the cloth.
— MARK VAN PROYEN
 
 
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.

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