When the current Venice Biennale compilation, All the World’s Futures, incited critics’ antipathy as “morality-based,” “provocative but also confining,” and “morose, joyless, and ugly,” I knew I had to see it. Those remarks recalled the retardataire lusts for “visual pleasure” following 1990s identity politics. Given all the world’s ills, it is important that art participate, not per Clement Greenberg’s declaration as an avant-garde to “keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion,” but to spur social and political dialogue. The conundrum is how to make art that both has absorbing alterity, materially and metaphorically, and generates a new collective ethos.
Organized by the politically engaged, globally networked Okwui Enwezor, this admirable Bienniale theme demonstrated the difficulty of that synthesis. Predominantly, works emphasized subject matter, often in physical messes symbolizing emotional duress, and operated as statements: Huma Bhabha’s floorbound bunch of loose strips tire treads called Atlas, as if flattened; Thomas Hirschhorn’s shambles, Roof Off;and Barthélémy Toguo’s (Parisian, born Cameroon) Urban Requiem, jumbles of huge wood blocks carved with text, their messages stamped on walls: “End Police Brutality,” “We are all in Exile,” and “Yes we Can.” But no, you can’t. It’s too late for the primality of Munch’s Scream. And activist art’s good intentions do not obviate the necessity of compelling artistry.(Whereas the exhibition ironically suggested an ambivalence about, if not a loss of faith in, the power of aesthetics as it has been articulated, for example, by Jacques Rancière: a “suspension with respect to the ordinary forms of sensory experience,” which can paradoxically influence “the question of the common”).
One of those who, adapting Rancière, not only had the “voice” as a Biennial presenter, but distinctive “speech,” was the Ghana-born Londoner John Akomfrah, with his film installation Vertigo Sea. His trio of large screens imaginatively connected whaling, slavery, and our relationship to the sea in a mesmerizing environmental cosmos that was at once sumptuous and horrifying. But the rarity of its fusion of ethics and aesthetics at the Biennial propelled me off-site, to Fortuny Museum’s perceptive spin of cross-historical exemplars of visual/mental Proportio. In it, Milanese artist Francesco Jodice’s film riposte Atlante circled a Hellenistic statue gripping a huge sphere on his contorted shoulders. The Farnese Atlas—like us, in our recognition of the anthropogenic basis of climate change, his whole world in his hands—is shot in melancholic blue-gray against sonorous percussive music. But not simplistically elegiac, Atlante intersperses montages that both parallel unsustainable imbalances and enact the distractions, allowing us, as a silent screen inter-title put it, to “really enjoy forgetting.” Among them are 1950s home movies of giddy birthday parties, World War I infantry fleeing battlefields, and 1970s TV of mindless consumption. The discerning selection from a social kaleidoscope pointedly quotes the dystopic video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution, “This is not the end of the world. But you can see it from here.” (Courtesy of Jodice, you can see Atlante online through December 2015 at youtu.be/pRhLd3K31PY.)
And from here—to bring it all back home—you can see a strong example of current environmentalist art thinking and facture at Wave Hill, Riverdale. In the exhibition Field Notes (through November 29), Matthew Friday’s mobile research station/camping platform, with an au courant library, desk, and easel, has monitored pollution in regional watersheds. From it, Friday produced both an informative brochure, freely distributed, and pigment from PCB-contaminated river sediment with which he covered a large rectangle incised with the Hudson River and its tributaries. His gleaming black/brown painting extends Malevich’s and Reinhardt’s contrarian squares into the verticality of not only a mapped river but a spine, human and otherwise. Friday’s installation Everything is Downstream—that is, everyone is both living off of and producing someone else’s runoff, we’re all in this together—is another rare example of art that successfully integrates environmental conscience, implicit social/political commentary, and sensitively created art.
SUZAAN BOETTGER, an art historian and critic in New York, is working on a book on environmentalist art.