That the south keeps moving north, there is no doubt. And this year’s Biennale in Venice provides a significant example, with the director, Onwui Enwezor, originating from Nigeria, and about half of the artists from countries once categorized as Third World. Just as the Biennale of 2013 directed by Massimiliano Gioni put to test whether one could distinguish between the “outsider art” by mental patients and that of “legitimate” artists, the current Biennale makes it impossible to discriminate between Western and non-Western art. While Enwezor has set up several themes in his show, his underlying message promotes the disappearance of the Third World, at least within the privileged realm of the art world. The Golden Lion career award went to the well-known assemblage artist from Ghana, El Anatasui, whose marvelous tapestries made of recycled bottle caps and other throwaway materials, unfortunately were not put on display. The only works in Enwezor’s show that might be mistaken for the sort of fetish-based art that one often associates with non-Western artists came from the German neo-primitive Georg Baselitz, who exhibited 8 colossal paintings of upturned male nudes, icons that evoke Paleolithic associations.
Current events have set up a sort of readiness for Enwezor’s central theme. On the one hand there is the ongoing tragic cycle of poverty for the bottom billion, and on the other the phenomenal accruing of non-productive wealth by a select group of billionaires, who often invest in art. Just a few weeks before the opening of the Biennale there were three horrific shipwrecks of overloaded barges carrying illegal migrants from the beaches of Libya, Turkey, and Tunisia toward European destinations. In one case nearly 1000 perished. During the same period, Christie’s auction house yielded approximately $700 million in sales, including, Picasso’s 1955 “Women of Algiers,” which went for a record-breaking $179 million, and Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture “Pointing Man,” which fetched $141 million, prices that approach the GNP of some of the countries from which the drowned people originated. Such contrasting value systems, where human lives seem absolutely worthless compared to art works, gnaws at the moral core of international art shows, and has led Enwezor to produce one of the strangest events in the history of performance art, the recitation of Karl Marx’s three-volume Das Kapital during the entire 8-month period of the Biennale.
Arena by David Adaje for the Das Kapital Oratorio
Enwezor, a poet-critic, educated in the US, came to his curatorial job in Venice with a full curriculum, previously directing the Biennale of Johannesburg in 1996, Documenta 11 in Kassel in 2002, the Bienal of Sevilla in 2007, the 7th Gwangiu Biennale in South Korea in 2008, the Triennal of Paris in 2012, and currently holds the directorship of Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Thus for the last two decades he has found a comfortable niche in the center of the art world while maintaining a polemical role as an African, by definition an outsider. Enwezor’s stroke of genius for this year’s Biennale was to use the central pavilion in the Giardini as a theater for the Das Kapital Oratorio. If Marx brought the world’s attention to the fundamental contradictions of capitalism in the 19th century, surely the current crisis of capitalism corresponds to many of his condemning predictions. At designated moments during each day of the Biennale, until its closing in November a group of English-speaking actors directed by Isaac Julien will recite passages from Marx’s 3-volume text, with the intention of doing what hardly anyone ever has—reading the entire opus! While visitors will probably not come away feeling indoctrinated about how exchange values have overwhelmed use values, or other reductions of Marxism, they may receive a new sense of the immensity and the current relevance of Marx’s project. The performance carefully avoids nostalgia for the struggle to achieve communism while establishing a cool distance from moralizations on the disasters accomplished in the name of Marx during the previous century. The Oratorio is foregrounded by an excellent video featuring the neo-Marxist geographer David Harvey, which puts the performance into a contemporary theoretical perspective--if the distracted visitor indeed has the time to stop and listen. The Ghana-born British architect David Adjaye, in some ways Enwezor’s equivalent in the world of architecture, created a theater in the round for the Oratorio, red (of course), and quite comfortable. The play space successfully restructures the awkward Central Pavilion of the Giardini, giving it a more logical order. Adjaye removed an entire wall of the attic exhibition space (usually a dead end) into an open gallery for looking down on the stage.
With Marx in mind one surveys the hundreds of works for political intimations: the most obvious the combination of Depression era photographs by Walker Evans and Andreas Gursky’s shots of today’s Stock Exchanges. Other video and photographic works deal with ecological catastrophes, starvation, the exploitation of garment workers, and the nefarious dealings of the arms trade. The revival of Italian conceptual artist Fabio Mauri’s reflections on Pier Paolo Pasolini, with whom he made significant collaborations in the 1960s, includes videos, a colossal wall made of luggage, and endless reminders of “the end.” The Golden Lion award went to the African-American conceptual artist Adrian Piper, who prepared an interactive performance, “The Probable Trust Registry” with three corporate-looking desks at which visitors must commit themselves to contracts on one of three pledges: “I will always be too expensive to buy;” “I will always mean what I say;” and “I will always say what I am going to do.” While such propositions may cause a few ethical difficulties for some capitalists, their ideological presumptions remain untouched. Her other installation, a series of photographs of people whose faces have been erased and written over with the inscription “Everything will be taken away” gets much closer to the political mood of today.
Andrea Gursky, “Stock Exchange”
Adrian Piper “Everything will be taken away”
While the Biennale’s content will probably not change the inequitable systems governing the world and inflating the art market, on the opening day an ironic sort of justice occurred when Miuccia Prada was leading an elite group into Ca Corner della Regina, where her foundation has one of its current exhibitions on the practice of ancient copying (the other part is in the new Prada Foundation in Milan). As they were disembarking from a boat, the dock collapsed, sending these well-dressed scions of fashion and finance into the viscous waters of the Grand Canal, briefly bringing them in touch with the plight of the boat people of the Mediterranean.
The Boat People at Fondazione Prada
The length and heaviness of Das Kapital, however, seems to have posed limits in terms of what the audience for art can endure, and although many of the works in the central pavilion and in the Arsenal dutifully correspond to Enwezor’s political provocation, the overall Biennale has been softened with the less threatening title of “All the World’s Futures.” This allows Marx to coexist with two other so-called “filters” to categorize the show: “liveness: on epic duration” and “the garden of disorder” neither of which evokes Marx nor is necessarily incompatible with Das Kapital. Thus in the central pavilion one finds a wonderful retrospective of Robert Smithson’s “mirror displacements” from the late 1960s, reconstructed by his widow Nancy Holt, as a garden of disorder. In terms of liveness, one finds an abundance of video materials throughout the Biennale, an ephemeral technique which creates the most elegant way to avoid the production of a commodity fetish.
Robert Smithson, Mirror Displacements, 1968. French Pavilion Kinetic Tree
The American artist Joan Jonas, who was given special mention in the awards ceremony, filled the spaces of the US pavilion with a series of videos that explore a personal mythology with animals and nature. The political perspective of this year’s show may explain why the Golden Lion prize for national pavilions went to Armenia, isolated on the island of San Lazzaro and witnessed by few. The Spanish pavilion, curated by Martí Manen, featured three installations inspired by the surrealist legacy of Salvador Dali, including video sequences by Helena Cabello and Ana Carceller, fictitious newspaper kiosk in which all of the news is reduced to crossword puzzles by Francesc Ruiz, and a cabinet of pop ingredients by Pepo Salazar, featuring several kilos of chitos junk food and a rotating scaffold with two live microphones perpetually dragged on the floor inscribing circles on the pavement while emitting horrible noises. The Japanese pavilion by Chiharu Shiota remains the most photographed and enjoyable work of the Biennale, linking thousands of keys suspended from red threads over a series of dinghy boats. The French artist Celeste Boursier-Mougeuot offered three uprooted kinectic trees wired to react to human presence by moving and emitting sounds.
Swiss Pavilion, Pamela Rosenkrantz
As with other recent art biennales, one senses a blurring with architecture. For instance the Austrian pavilion removed most of its walls to reveal the splendors of its rear garden. The wondrous Nordic pavilion designed by Sverre Fehn was enclosed with simulations of its windows dismembered, as if blown out by the sound installation inside; the Swiss pavilion by Pamela Rosenkranz was the most evocative, presenting an empty space in green tones filled with floral scents and another room in orange tones, filled up to eye-height with water. The modest Uruguay pavilion hinges on a fantastic surprise: Marco Maggi’s “Global Myopia” seems at first sight an empty white room but on further inspection is encrusted with miniscule 3-D pencil drawings of urban-like settings reminiscent of views of Earth from outer space.
Uruguay Pavilion, Marco Maggi’s, Global Myopia
Enwezor’s Biennale has a bit of the hangover of Koolhaas’s architecture Biennale from 2014 on “Fundamentals,” and most people have trouble finding the art through the well-intentioned didactics. In other words it is long on preaching and short on transcendence. Only one project, which can no longer be experienced due to a court injunction to close it, really touches the open nerve of the contemporary situation. Iceland, a country which does not have a national pavilion, nor a large Muslim population, commissioned the Swiss installation artist Christoph Büchel to create a simulation of a mosque inside of a deconsecrated church of Santa Maria dell’Abazia della Misericordia, a stone’s throw from the historic Jewish Ghetto. Currently there is no place for muslim gatherings in Venice, a city that historically had strong contacts with Islam. The pseudo mosque covered with carpets, supplied with a stone mihrab niche and given a beautiful ring of lamps like the great mosques in Istanbul, was accepted by the Muslim community as a place of prayer and until its closing was used for religious functions. This brought out some local hard feelings against immigrants, along with bigoted expressions against Islam, yet the official reason for closing the pavilion came from procedural questions of inadequate permissions from the Superintendant of historic patrimony. It remains a telling allegory of the “world’s futures.”
Iceland Pavilion, The Mosque in the decommissioned church of Santa Maria della Misericordia