While reducing waste remains among the best practices for lowering the carbon footprint, recycling is almost as honorable and can become a bonified resource. At the 58th Biennale d’Arte in Venice, curated by Ralph Rugoff, the American-born director of the Hayward Gallery in London, there is an underlying desire to do the right thing through creative recycling. It begins with the choice of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement, awarded to the relatively obscure Jimmie Durham, a sublime recycler. Durham, born in Houston, has been an activist in defense of Native American rights, claiming to be of Cherokee origin. He describes himself as “a homeless person in the world” and composes fetishes made from castaway refuse. For the Biennale he presented “The Largest Mammals in Europe,” a series of skeletal structures made from plumbing, iron rebars, and old furniture, often draped with rags to appear like full bodies, to which he attached the blanched skulls
of real animals, alluding to their probable extinction. In a second venue Durham offered a more formal work, deconstructing architecture as a form of oppression. He set his “Serpentinite” piece, a two-meter-long slab of beautiful, dark gray marble, laced with white veins and set in a sturdy black frame. Next to it a text reports on the primordial origins of the stone near Kolkata, the impoverished workers who quarried it, another, slightly better-paid group that sliced it, its transport to Mumbai, then shipment by container through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, out the straights of Gibraltar to the Baltic port of Hamburg, where it was put on a train to Berlin. There he acquired the stone, had a welder make the frame to hold its 600 kilos and then dispatched it by truck to Mestre where it was transferred by barge to the Biennale. Thus, even if he did not make anything by himself, the Serpentinite became a product of his personal method of paleontology, not to say a paragon of globalization.
Although Rugoff did not impose a theme on the Biennale, he purposefully chose the artists and many responded with a sort of Durhamesque “rag and bone” aesthetic seasoned with latent--and sometimes not so latent—political undertones. At the entry to the Arsenale, George Condo’s “The Two Elvis’s” greets you with its immense graffiti-esque surfaces showing two grotesque stick figures holding beer cans (Condo, as the craftsman of Andy Warhol’s original “Two Elvis’s”, must be allowed such slack). It is flanked by a series of dark photographs of an Indian subculture by Scham Gupta, and, on the other side, the cataclysmic visions of contemporary urban ruins in Los Angeles by Anthony Hernandez. These sinister images frame a dark room (one of many in the show) housing Christian Marclay’s astounding video collage “48 War Movies”, in which that number of films are embedded in successively smaller frames with their overlapping soundtracks, resulting in an incomprehensible kaleidoscope of violence. The room concludes at the threshold to the next space with Zanele Muholi’s colossal photographic self-portraits, which intermittently reappear like black guardian angels throughout the 700-meter path of the exhibition. This combination of the disasters of war, the subaltern problems of the poor, the dignity of sexual and racial minorities, and the raw side of development capture much of the radical spirit of the Biennale. Rugoff attempts to dissimulate when he states that “art does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics,” yet cannot deny that his artists “think politically”.
In a discussion with one of the gate-keepers about the politicizing of the Biennale I was reminded that in this very exclusive arena of art, which may include a few starving artists but in general caters to a bourgeois audience dominated by billionaires bidding for rare Monet’s, there is the risk of fetishizing the political. One work in particular, a small fishing boat, perched on the banks of the Arsenal as if waiting for repairs, was installed as a ready-made by Christoph Büchel, with the title “Barca Nostra.” It should be received as an archaeology of shame, as it was the fateful craft carrying over 700 immigrants that sank in the straights of Sicily on April 15, 2015, losing almost all of its passengers. The proper response of rage, compassion, and frustration, however, might actually be compromised by liberal feelings of pride for displaying such a trophy. Teresa Margolles, who was awarded a special mentioned from the jury, produced a similar icon of iniquity, a decrepit cinder block wall rifled with bullet holes and capped with barbed wire, transported from Ciudad Juarez where narco-traffickers have terrorized the women and schoolchildren, producing hundreds of victims during the past 30 years. Such relics of injustice, pain, and public impotence may indeed function like Milagros, the votive works in a church.
The title of Rugoff’s Biennale “May you live in interesting times” refers to the story of a Chinese curse made popular by the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who was voted out of power on the eve of World War II after his failure at negotiating appeasement with the Nazis. That there is an analogy in our own times considering the fragile political moment of a dissolving European Union, the continuing discrimination against women and people of color, and even worse the international failure to arrest climate change, qualify these as “interesting times” indeed. Homages to Durham’s fetish-making appear throughout the show, such as Cameron Jamie’s hideous masks on wooden pokes prepared for the Krampas festival, Jesse Darling’s fractured furniture, or Yin Xiuzhen’s enormous rag-covered creatures. The Polish national pavilion prepared a small jet turned inside out, reminiscent of the one that crashed in 2010 with the president on board.
Some may note the predominance of American artists in the show, but look again and you will discover that they are almost all women or non-white. The Golden Lion went to Arthur Jafa, an African-American film maker, whose “White Album” catalogues through scraps of clips the enduring blackphobia in the US, something that is currently becoming part of a nascent European racism. Other African Americans include Joseph Kahill, whose video “BlkNws” proves an even more powerful expression of black empowerment. Henry Taylor paints in the crude mode of Joan Brown, always addressing specifically black scenes. The US pavilion by the African-American sculptor Martin Puryear, who works mostly in exquisitely crafted wood, never really betrays his ethnic origins, except in one piece dedicated to Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave-mistress. The best-selling artist in the show, Julie Mehretu, whose works sell for 7 figures, is an American citizen born in Ethopia, who pursues solely abstract compositions.
Since Picasso’s encounter with African sculpture at the beginning of the 20th century, the world of high art has never been the same and in many ways this Biennale is a tribute not to indigenous African art but to Africans who have made it in the art market. The Ghana pavilion, designed by Sir David Adjaye, a recently knighted lord whose parents came from Ghyana, includes an installation by the much-in-vogue Ibrahim Mahama and three tapestries by El Anatsui, winner of the Golden Lion lifetime achievement award in 2015. Kenya-born Michael Armitage and Nigerian-born Njideka Akunyili Crosby proved to be the strongest and most original painters in the entire show, and even if they addressed certain racial and sexual injustices, their styles and techniques transcended any political message, yielding the aesthetic satisfaction one expects from a work of art. A special mention of the jury went to the accomplished painter Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria,
who like most successful African artists resides outside of Africa, closer to the galleries.
Videos and films prevailed throughout the main show and in the 90 national pavilions, including Japan, France, Switzerland, and Australia. Spain was no exception featuring the sculptor Sergio Prego, who much in the mode of recycling, fabricated temporary fountains from plastic garbage bags in the rear garden, while his colleague, the relational artist Itzia Okariz, included three videos demonstrating how spatial atmospheres change when people come into contact with works of sculpture. She also included a droll feminist detour about women urinating in a standing position. The Danish pavilion by Palestinian-born Larissa Sansour captured more than any other work the haunting sense of melancholy in these times in her “Heirloom” project. Using split screen projections in black and white, a beautifully performed dialogue ensues between two women, one a moribund survivor of an ecological catastrophe, who desperately holds on to memories of her native Bethlehem, and the other a clone, born in the underground they now inhabit, who resists all forms of nostalgia as counterproductive to survival. In the process, they struggle with identity politics, responsibility, community, and consciousness, creating a kind of philosophical treatise. The artist also filled the room next door with a colossal black sphere, seen in the film, while repaving the causeway between the two spaces with tiles taken from Bethlehem, also seen in the film, capturing both memory and its absence.
Tomàs Saraceno, the most ecologically astute participant, created a spiderweb pavilion for witnessing insect art, while setting the scene to defend invertebrate rights. Ecology also emerged in the winning national pavilion of Lithuania. The team composed of a filmmaker, a poet, and an artist/composer created a complex performance piece, “Sun & Sea (Marina),” involving a cast of two dozen. The characters, dressed in bathing gear, at first seem to be enjoying an artificial beachinstalled in an abandoned warehouse of the Marina Militare. As they frolick in the sand they startsinging first of their minor tribulations and then of the greater questions of angst, waiting forextinction as the sea around them seems “like lava.” They are waiting on the terminal beach ofGlobal Warming. Quite “interesting” to say the least.
Credits © Richard Ingersoll for "Arquitectura Viva"