“He’s very political.” This is what I heard, more than once, about Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian-born curator of the 56th Venice Biennale, which goes by the suitably airy title: All the World’s Futures. This need not imply revolutionary credentials because “political” is a word with both macro and micro applications. Put three people in a room – or an office – and you have politics.
“Rather than one overarching theme,” writes Enwezor, “All the World’s Futures is informed by a layer of intersecting Filters, these Filters are a constellation of parameters that circumscribe multiple ideas, which will be touched upon to both imagine and realize a diversity of practices.”
If this wasn’t sufficient to evoke the usual Biennale menu of everything-and-nothing, the curator outlines three separate sub-themes: “Liveness: On epic duration, Garden of Disorder, and Capital: A Live Reading”. I won’t attempt to explain these headings, which allow room for a lot of very dreary art while giving the impression of crucial relevance.
There may be two kinds of politics but there are also two Biennales occupying the same space-time zone. The first is the monumental art fest that fills the Giardini, the cavernous halls of the Arsenale, and every spare palazzo in town. This is the show experienced by the general public and the majority of the press. There is so much to see it’s almost impossible to devote adequate time and attention to specific installations. It is one great fog of art with a few vague orientation points.
The second Biennale is the one seen by insiders, such as the multicultural committee of five art bureaucrats that decide the awards. The event from this perspective is a much leaner affair. Most of the participating artists are discarded in the first sweeping overview, leaving only those with the correct political profile.
The insiders take a reverential view of works that may seem slight, inane, or just plain boring to the uninitiated. For instance the Golden Lion for the best artist in the International Exhibition went to American conceptualist, Adrian Piper, who asked viewers to sign contracts with themselves, agreeing to one of three statements, such as: “I always do what I say I’m going to do.”
The judges were mightily impressed with these pieces, which supposedly “invite us to engage in a lifelong performance of personal responsibility.”
Aside from the fact that we break contracts with ourselves on a daily basis, it’s possible to imagine statements such as: “I’m going to bomb the World Trade Centre” or “I’m going to shoot a room full of students.” Where is the “personal responsibility” in this?
The Golden Lion for the Best National Participation went to Armenia for a group exhibition dealing with the infamous genocide of 1915, still hotly denied by the Turks. It would be hard to imagine a more politically loaded choice, or a less accessible show – as it is being held at an Armenian Monastery on the island of San Lazzaro that requires a special boat trip.
In addition there were honorable mentions for an installation by the late Harun Farocki, whose life’s work of more than 90 experimental films was shown on miniscule screens in a single room; for the Abounaddara collective of Syria – an anonymous group of political filmmakers; and for the small, neat drawings of Massinissa Selmani of Algeria. An extra accolade was handed to Joan Jonas in the American pavilion as “an artist of significant oeuvre and influence.”
These artists were all politically motivated, although I’m still trying to figure out what Joan Jonas was doing with videos of children in fancy dress, acting out scenes that suggested “the spiritual aspects of nature”. It looked more like a rehearsal for Romper Room.
For the casual viewer, confronted with hundreds of competing choices, it is virtually unthinkable that one might stand for hours watching dozens of grainy black-and-white films by Farocki. Neither does it seem likely that many people would spend long with the Abounaddara films; or rate Selmani’s neat little drawings as an exhibition highlight, regardless of their ironies and oblique political comments.
The public Biennale is a spectacle on a grand scale, but this is almost a source of shame to the insiders. To the judging committee the very idea of spectacle seemed taboo, as if it were appalling to indulge in mere visual pleasures in a world with so many pressing political issues.
And yet, isn’t it slightly hypocritical for a group of privileged arts professionals to pose as political activists? It could be argued that politics is a fashion on the art circuit that comes and goes. Don’t be surprised if the next Biennale is all about beauty.
In the best of all possible worlds one would hope to find works of art that are both visually engaging and layered with meaning. Of 136 artists or groups of artists featured in the International exhibitions very few made me pause. One of them was Russia’s Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya Gluklya, who contributed a suite of clothes and placards for an anti-Putin demonstration, with many surreal, startling touches. Considering the treatment dished out to the band, Pussy Riot, Gluklya’s work was as politically edgy as anything in the show, but also witty and inventive.
There were so many Australians in the Biennale shows and collateral exhibitions I hesitate to list them. Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s huge canvas, Earth’s Creation, was an eye-catching inclusion in the International Pavilion in the Giardini, partly because it was one of the few substantial paintings on display, but also because of its energy and spontaneity. The only other painters seemed to be drawn from the ranks of current international superstars such as Georg Baselitz, Chris Ofili and Marlene Dumas. It appears the highly political Enwezor is also a respecter of the art world’s dubious star system.
Daniel Boyd might be on the way to stardom, with work included in both the main pavilion and the Arsenale. Nevertheless it’s hard to be passionate about his black-and-grey dot paintings with appropriated imagery, which come across as dry and calculated.
The big push was reserved for Fiona Hall in the impressive new Australian pavilion designed by Denton Corker Marshall. Hall’s Wrong Way Time felt like a 30-year retrospective crammed into a single room. This is understandable for an artist who should have represented her country more than 20 years ago, and has stoically endured the neglect. The Australia Council might say they were keeping her in reserve for a better pavilion.
Like everything Hall does it was an amazing, fastidious performance. There were altered sardine cans, knitted masks dangling from the ceiling, painted clocks, collages of bank notes decorated with delicate watercolours, miniature houses made from bread, shredded US dollar bills, biomorphic tree roots, and dozens of small animals produced in collaboration with the Tjanpi weavers of Central Australia.
This was one of the few occasions since 1988 when I haven’t felt embarrassed by the art in the Australian pavilion. It was intelligent, it was imaginative, and it was completely over-the-top – which is probably why the prize-hungry Aussies missed out again.
If anyone tried to take Enwezor’s themes seriously they would have found that Hall ticked every box. Yet with any Biennale there are simply too many agendas that must be satisfied. Most participants ignore the themes and do whatever they like. The classic this year was Heimo Zobernig in the Australian pavilion, who installed a false black ceiling and left the rest of the building empty. It doesn’t get much more rarefied.
The French also pleased themselves, with motorised trees by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot that prowled around in front of the pavilion. Meanwhile, the Brits demonstrated their perennial taste for vulgarity, painting the walls bright yellow and showing plaster casts by Sarah Lucas in which cigarettes protruded from arses and vaginas.
It was refreshing to find some painting in the Giardini, although Adrian Ghenie in the Romanian pavilion was shrewd enough to also provide a conceptual rationale for his show, Darwin’s Room.
The one exhibition everyone seemed to like was Chiharu Shiota’s sprawling installation in the Japanese pavilion. There was a poetic dimension to Shiota’s work – made from masses of bright red thread and countless tiny keys – that stood out in a year of prosaic statements. It could have been a metaphor for the Biennale itself: thousands of keys but not a lock in sight.
The 56th Venice Biennale: All the World’s Futures
Until 22 November.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 16th May, 2015