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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.