The Venice Biennale of 1990 was the first of many—every Biennale since, to be precise—that I’ve written about, and I was prompted to look back after returning from the 2015 edition. The retrospective impulse had nothing to do with sentiment and everything to do with the fact that 1990 is widely accepted today as a serviceable starting point for discussions of the “contemporary,” a period inaugurated by a concatenation of heterogeneous events from 1989 – 90: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square protests, the circulation of proposals for a shared information system that eventually became the World Wide Web, and the ignition of sustained challenges to the hegemonic Western view of culture sparked by the Paris exhibition Magiciens de la Terre.
The Venice Biennale of 2015, then, stands as an imposing marker of twenty-five years of contemporary art. These are very likely to have been just the first twenty-five years. The contemporary is a ceaselessly unspooling ever-now, a digitally enabled current, swift yet congested, which conveys art to our attention and sweeps it away. To paraphrase Heraclitus, you cannot step into the same contemporary twice. But it is precisely in the contemporary that we appear to be staying—at least for now.
One manifestation of the contemporary has been the proliferation of art biennials around the world and the concurrent emergence of an international corps of mobile curators who successively and jointly shepherd these events. The visual art exhibition per se has become only the most popularly attended and avidly reported feature of these recurring exhibitions, which now unfold over weeks and months with elaborate schedules of performances, films, lectures, education programs, and conferences, among which you’re likely to find a panel of art professionals discussing the nature of the recurring exhibition. There may be no individual more emblematic of and responsible for the conceptual and structural transformation of the recurring international exhibition than Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of the 2015 Venice Biennale.
But first, briefly, how does the 1990 Biennale look as a portal to the first quarter-century of the contemporary? Not altogether promising. The Eastern bloc didn’t disintegrate instantly. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the USSR were still in possession of national pavilions in the Giardini. The German pavilion would remain divided between East and West until 1993, when Hans Haacke smashed the pavement, installed a photograph of Hitler visiting the pavilion during the 1934 Biennale, and reminded the unification celebrants of just how German nationalism had last looked.
The identities highlighted in 1990 were primarily European. Scotland, already restive within the United Kingdom, was making a second separate appearance in Venice outside its legally recognized home, the pavilion of Great Britain. Walloons and Flemings had been alternating presences in the Belgian pavilion, but in 1990, a Walloon year, Belgium sponsored a concurrent Flemish exhibition at the Palazzo Sagredo. Among the tiny handful of satellite shows (as they were called prior to becoming “collateral”) was Ambiente Berlin. Giovanni Carandente, the last of the old-school Italian curators to head the Biennale, had projected the show a year before the Wall fell as a way to spotlight West Berlin as a cosmopolitan hub of free culture. By the time the Biennale opened in 1990, Ambiente Berlin had come to signify the “reappropriation of the centrality of European art.”
As for acknowledging a non-Western Other, in his catalogue essay Carandente pointed to the presentation of Aboriginal art in the Australian pavilion and to an exhibition of five artists from Nigeria and Zimbabwe. He praised the Africans for being progressive and “not the ‘Magiciens de la terre’, therefore, but the authors of a ‘bridge’ between primitive civilisations and the modern world, which is increasingly leading to an Esperanto of a new universal language of forms.” Carandente, who turned seventy during the run of the Biennale, looked ahead to “the future ‘greater’ Europe” and saluted younger participants by titling the 1990 Venice Biennale Future Dimension.1 If there was a sharp-toothed serpent lurking in Carandente’s Paradise of Esperanto, it was Stephen Prina. In the “Aperto” section of young artists, Prina exhibited selected panels from his polyglot series Upon the Occasion of Receivership: Language (1989). He withheld panels in which the title phrase had been translated into a language represented by artists in the Biennale (French, German, Dutch, Hebrew, Portuguese, Arabic, etc.) and displayed only panels printed in unrepresented languages (Bengali, Burmese, Khmer, Pashto, Punjabi, and so on).
Future Dimension in 1990 was the last unabashedly (can one say “innocently?”) Eurocentric Biennale. Twenty-five years on, the word “future” returns in the Biennale title chosen by the Nigerian-born Enwezor: All the World’s Futures. There are a few ambiguities nested in the choice, not the least of which is the use of the singular “world”—the one world evoked by Coca-Cola ads and environmentalists alike. It’s been paired with the plural “futures,” which may connote indeterminacy, or potential, or a perpetuation of inequity. The exhibition tilts sharply toward a downbeat reading. Referring to the “miserable circumstances” of the world’s inhabitants in his catalogue introduction, Enwezor states, “My interest in the 56th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia is to summon the imaginative and critical agendas of artists and thinkers to reflect on the current state of things.”2
A then-and-now look at the work of one artist, Rirkrit Tiravanija, reveals a great deal about agendas. For this year’s Biennale, Tiravanija installed 14,086 unfired bricks in the Arsenale, neatly stacked, as if at a construction site. Donate ten Euros to ISCOS—an NGO that supports the human rights of workers and their families—and you can take away a souvenir brick. The bricks are heavy, unwieldy, not anything you care to tote through the remainder of your day and hardly carry-on-friendly when you depart Venice. Yet one brick can barely suggest or even symbolize the burden borne by the abused workers for whose welfare ISCOS fights. In the 1993 Biennale, Tiravanija served free cups of instant noodles to weary viewers in the Arsenale. Shedding the gentle solicitude of his early relational practice, Tiravanija today chastens the Biennale visitor while raising funds for real-world activism by an organization few are likely to have heard of before.
The current state of things, as portrayed by most of the artists in Venice, is a dire morass of environmental degradation, labor exploitation, poverty, displacement, violence, racism, injustice, and greed, with some countervailing instances of resistance, analysis, empathy, and forbearance. A receptive viewer may be less inclined to pursue the academic inquiry “when will the contemporary end?” than to implore “if this is the present, when will the future begin?” Little in the visual arts exhibition suggests an answer to either question. Perhaps the task of projecting some possible futures has been assigned to the nearly seven-months-long program of the Biennale, which includes the convening of the Creative Time Summit (held in Stockholm last year) and a series of panels organized by the Gulf Labor Coalition, an organization that exposes the abysmal circumstances of workers who are constructing buildings in Abu Dhabi for the Guggenheim and the Louvre.
In choosing artists to reflect on the current state of things, Enwezor seems to have favored those who share his interest in origins and histories. The archive and the documentary are prevalent forms throughout the show. Enwezor begins his introductory essay with a consideration of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) and the often-cited interpretation of the image by its then owner, Walter Benjamin, as a portrayal of “the angel of history,” a figure whose stricken eyes survey the accumulating debris of the catastrophic past as he is propelled by violent forces into a future on which his back is turned. In Benjamin’s formulation, it’s the past—not the contemporary—that never ends, and the future that cannot be (fore)seen. Klee’s appalled angel is an apt logo for Enwezor’s exhibition, which may be, albeit for significantly different reasons, as Eurocentric a Biennale as its distant predecessors. To call the show Eurocentric is not to discount the diversity of the participants or the numerous works that bring the concerns, experiences, and insights of non-Europeans to the fore. Rather it is to see that the catastrophes addressed by Enwezor and the artists are variously and persuasively presented as the toxic legacy of Western colonialism and capitalism.
Interviewed about the Biennale in the May 2015 issue of Artforum, Enwezor characterizes the present as a period of “post-Westernism.” It seems that post-Westernism, like postmodernism, can’t help but exhume the undead authority from which it would be liberated. A post-Western post-mortem is enacted in the Raqs Media Collective’s Coronation Park (2015), a series of fiberglass sculptures that are based on fragments of statues from the British Raj that were gathered in a New Delhi park after India won its independence. Likewise marked by the history of the Raj is K. M. Madhusudhanan’s Penal Colony (2014 – 15), a suite of 35 charcoal drawings that detail the death by suffocation of 67 Muslim prisoners who had been forced into a train car by British soldiers after a 1921 uprising in Kerala, the artist’s home state. For the “global” artist who comes from elsewhere to work in the West, the relationship between “then” and “now” may become one of “here” and “there.” The point is driven home by Karo Akpokiere, a Nigerian artist working in Germany, in the fifty drawings of his Zwischen Lagos und Berlin (2015). Amid summary renderings of objects and people encountered in the two cities, Akpokiere inserts a bitingly facetious letter from “Europa” to “Dear Africa.” The epistle mentions a bout with self-absorption and depression, proposes a visit so that Europa might learn to be open and community-minded, and explains that the guest must depart once the host has what is needed, because “I unfortunately need my space and my time.”
That many works in Venice are preoccupied with the West and its legacy is consistent with Enwezor’s conviction that the content of a recurring international exhibition should engage the local impetus behind the exhibition itself. In The Politics of Spectacle, a talk presented in May 2008 at the New Museum, Enwezor described the genesis of three such exhibitions that he has directed: Documenta, the Johannesburg Biennale, and the Gwangju Biennale. The inauguration of these shows amounted to, respectively, West Germany’s declaration of readiness for reintegration into postwar European civil society, South Africa’s emergence from the disgrace of apartheid, and the triumph of the South Korean pro-democracy movement after years of martial law.3
In Venice, the curatorial intention to acknowledge local historical circumstances is announced in the first room of each major venue. The entrance rotunda of the Central Pavilion is dominated by Fabio Mauri’s The Western or the Wailing Wall (1993), a towering construction of trunks and suitcases that originated as a remembrance of Holocaust victims but is newly pertinent today as millions are displaced by conflicts around the world. The Arsenale opens with a group of Bruce Nauman’s neon works from 1970 to 1983 that collectively spell out LIFE, DEATH, LOVE, HATE, PLEASURE, PAIN, WAR, EAT, AMERICAN VIOLENCE, HUMAN NATURE. Sprouting from the floor of the darkened room are Adel Abdessemed’s Nymphéas (2015), “water lilies” made of long knives that are blossoming in this season of beheadings and other atrocities. Crimes against humanity; the war in Southeast Asia; the post-colonial invention and subsequent disintegration of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria—these artworks summon up an ugly history and call the West to account.
Enwezor discovered his theme in the history of the show entrusted to him: he looked at the founding of the Venice Biennale. The art exhibition was launched in 1895 in emulation of the great European commercial expositions, competitive showcases for the imperial powers whose mining and manufacturing wealth was built on the exploitation of colonies abroad and labor at home. This year’s Biennale catalogue features a detailed chronology of the national pavilions, the earliest of which were built by those very imperial powers. An exhibition that began as a municipal initiative to raise a dormant city’s profile is pegged, in Enwezor’s view, as the quintessential intersection of capitalism, colonialism, and culture. This reading of history lies behind the signature feature of Enwezor’s Biennale: the first-to-last-page reading aloud of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in the Arena, a new multi-tiered meeting hall that has been carved out at the core of the Central Pavilion by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye.
The reading of Das Kapital is no ancillary gesture in a Biennale that aims to illuminate centuries of Western predation. It is a piece of theater, performed by pairs of actors and directed by Isaac Julien. The reading is ongoing, and visitors enter and leave the Arena as they please, not likely to have learned much in the process. Enwezor attributes the performance structure to the example of the Akhand Path, which is a recitation of the Sikh holy book by a series of readers over several days. That reference is a rare acknowledgment of religious practice anywhere in the exhibition, which does not seem to count sectarian conflict among the significant miseries of the present. In this respect Enwezor is as confirmed a materialist as Marx.4
A different, Western inspiration for the choice of Das Kapital was also shared by Enwezor. He points to the opening paragraphs of Reading Capital by Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, a publication that originated in Althusser’s 1965 Paris seminar of that name. Althusser calls for repeated close readings of Marx’s original text. The passage suggests a sort of unmediated, Reformation-style encounter with a holy book, so that each reader will discover “new-born [born again?] the experience of a reading.” That the reading in Venice is not wholly Althusserian may be inferred from “How to Read Marx’s Capital,” an essay by Althusser that was first published in L’Humanité in 1969. Here he explicitly advises against reading Das Kapital from start to finish. He reassures workers that they are the true exegetes of Das Kapital, because it explains the very circumstances of exploitation in which they live. The book, wrote Althusser, is “their class bible.”
Marx is by no means the only European intellectual invoked in the exhibition. Dora Garcia’s The Sinthome Score (2014 – 15) is a periodic reading aloud of Lacan’s writings. Sanguinetti Breakout Area (2015), an archive-based installation by the Malawi-born, London-based Samson Kambalu, examines the vitriolic condemnation by writer and translator Bill Brown of Gianfranco Sanguinetti, a member of the Situationist International and sometime collaborator of Guy Debord, when Sanguinetti sold his papers to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Nevertheless, the prominence of Das Kapital as the central, lengthiest performance of the Biennale (and as the subject of a 2013 film by Julien which is also on view in Venice) alerts us that labor is a principal theme and text a primary medium. A table-top installation by the Australian Marco Fusinato, From the Horde to the Bee (2015), was initially rimmed by 10,000 copies of a self-published book reproducing documents from the Archivio Primo Moroni in Milan, which houses literature from anarchist and far-left labor movements. Toss your bank notes into the center of the table and carry off a book.
Jeremy Deller is showing a Cattelan-esque, wall-mounted, disembodied arm that wears the electronic wrist device used by Amazon to track worker productivity in its warehouses. Deller also unearthed a 19th century photographic survey of female ironworkers, an “anthropological” study that cold-bloodedly freezes the submissive women with the camera’s unfamiliar attention. Conversely, photography signifies feminist power in Petra Bauer’s archive of posters and pictures of Swedish women’s Socialist organizations from the late 19th century to the 1920s. The artist explains that what might appear to us as conventional group portraits were, in their day, a salvo in the struggle to establish women’s visibility and unity.
The connection between labor, racism, and incarceration is made visible in Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick’s ongoing photographic series Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex, which documents the exploitation of prisoners in the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. Andreas Gursky’s Nha Trang (2004) shows digitally multiplied registers of innumerable women weaving baskets and chairs in a Vietnamese factory located in a town better known as a beach resort for foreign tourists. Almost discordant, though the humor is barbed, is Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows (2015), in which exhausted Chinese women toil in a pearl factory while a Western woman, with the purposeful air and private office of an overseer, is nearly as helpless in her job of sneezing out the workers’ lunches from her ever-lengthening nose. Also on view in a shadowy alcove is Rottenberg’s winsome early work, Time and a Half (2003). Set at a Chinese take-out stand, a young woman loses herself in tropical daydreams, palm trees painted on her counter-clicking nails, long hair afloat in the breeze of an electric fan. Daydreaming is no option for the Southeast Asian women interviewed by Im Heung-soon in Factory Complex (2014). After describing the physical toll exacted by hard work and long hours, one Cambodian woman briefly considers if she might have had a different life and then dismisses the thought: this is the one she has.
Although music and performance are represented generously throughout the program, this Biennale is largely propelled by the spoken and printed word, from narration and testimonials in films to programmed readings, archive-based installations, explanatory wall texts, and elements in the works of Akpokiere, Haacke, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Glenn Ligon, Nauman, Adrian Piper, Gary Simmons, and others. The primacy of the word extends to the unconventional contents of the catalogue as well.
Enwezor has made an archive of the Biennale catalogue, to which he is the only contemporary contributor. Beyond the requisite lists of artists and photographs of works, there is the aforementioned chronology of national pavilions, reproductions of vintage photographs of the grounds, and a sequence of historical floor plans of the Central Pavilion, now emphatically altered by Adjaye’s Arena. A sizeable section of the catalogue is allotted to reproducing pages of the Biennale’s 1975 annual report, which details the dedication of the 1974 art exhibition to the people of Chile, whose democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, had been overthrown by a U.S.-backed military coup. Also reproduced are pages from Das Kapital, from the first German edition of 1867 to later foreign-language editions, and typewritten notes by Althusser and Balibar for the 1965 seminar. And there are pages from two fundamental writings by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the titles of which are enough to explain their pertinence to Marx and to Enwezor: Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1755) and Of the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (1762). 5 To encounter Rousseau and Marx in the catalogue—and to be reminded of a moment when the Biennale administration roused itself to express solidarity with those whose rights were being denied—is to see how the West’s betrayal of its own ideals has spurred the anger that is palpable throughout the Biennale.
The final essay in the catalogue is Enwezor’s “Iconoclasm, Iconophobia, Iconophilia: On Charlie Hebdo.” Without minimizing the tragedy, Enwezor points to the inescapable paradoxes of the principle of free expression, a right so inconsistently protected in the West that, following the slaughter of the Charlie Hebdo staff, French authorities were moved to arrest individuals who expressed the contrarian sentiment “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie.” In a discussion of the West’s chronic post-9/11 fear of Islam, Enwezor refers to the BBC Reith Lectures of 2004, which were presented by Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel Laureate in Literature, under the title Climate of Fear. Enwezor’s analysis of the lectures is brief, but the citation alone is electric in this context: an intellectual from Nigeria—a British colony for more than a century and a half—speaks to audiences in Britain and the United States on the subjects of power, violence, terror, and dignity, all in a BBC-sponsored series founded in 1948, the year the Venice Biennale was relaunched as a postwar celebration of open cultural expression in a Europe already riven by the Cold War.
This year’s Venice Biennale may be too severe for many visitors, “more of a glum trudge than an exhilarating adventure,” as the writer for the Guardian online complained.6 If this is not a Biennale for everyone, it is certainly a necessary Biennale. It isn’t the “anti-market” Biennale that some have perceived. Abdessemed, Georg Baselitz, Huma Bhabha, Marlene Dumas, Isa Genzken, Gursky, McQueen, Oscar Murillo, Nauman, Chris Ofili, Philippe Parreno, and Gedi Sibony are no strangers to the collecting class, and newcomers in the show surely were appraised by dealers and art advisors during the VIP preview. Still, there is no cadre of bad boys in Enwezor’s Biennale, no glamour kids, no tech for tech’s sake, no overt flattery of prevailing taste. Rather, the exhibition posits and addresses an audience that can look, see, read, think, worry, and—maybe—be moved to action, even if that audience represents only a fraction of the Biennale’s total attendance.
Looking back, and we will, Enwezor’s exhibition—urgent, sober, didactic, coherent, and undiluted by equivocation—may be recognized as having been the only Biennale that should have been presented in 2015. The long-ago promise of the Enlightenment, Marxist hopes for economic justice, and even Carandente’s vague 1990 vision of a “future ‘greater’ Europe” have all collapsed in the face of the widening gap between rich and poor nations, the growth of intolerance and right-wing political parties, and the continent’s inability to come to terms with its humanitarian obligations as migrants perish in the Mediterranean and, by mid-summer, in Calais. This year the art world—and perhaps the wide world beyond—got the Biennale it needed. Maybe we will earn and enjoy a less anguished Biennale at some point in all the world’s futures.
- Giovanni Carandente’s comments appear on pp. 15, 16, and 59 of La Biennale di Venezia. XLIV Esposizione internazionale d’arte. Catalogo generale 1990. Dimensione futuro. L’artista e lo spazio. Milan, 1990.
- Okwui Enwezor, “The State of Things.” All the World’s Futures: 56 International Art Exhibition. La Biennale di Venezia (Venice, 2015), 17-18.
- Presented as part of the New Museum’s “Night School” program, Enwezor’s talk can be accessed at http://www.unitednationsplaza.org/video/79/.
- Enwezor has been accused of doing little to prevent or to protest the May 22 closure by the city of Venice of Iceland’s national participation in the Biennale, which was a functioning mosque established by the artist Christoph Büchel in concert with Muslim communities in Venice and Iceland.
- Inspired by the annual reports of the 1970s, and in another expression of archiving, Enwezor has promised to record the activities of the full Biennale program and to publish, at the show’s conclusion, a “day-to-day” account to be called All the World’s Futures: The State of Things. Enwezor, it should be recalled, curated the 2008 exhibition “Archive Fever” at the International Center of Photography in New York.
- Laura Cumming’s review, posted on the Guardian website on May 10, 2015, can be accessed at www.theguardian.com
ContributorMarcia E. Vetrocq
Marcia E. Vetrocq is a writer, editor, and educator based in New York.