Venice Biennale Curator Okwui Enwezor on ‘All the World’s Futures,’ Karl Marx, and the Havana Biennial Boycott

The definitive interview.

Okwui Enwezor, curator of the 56th International Art Exhibition "All The World's Futures." Courtesy of Giorgio Zucchiatti.

During the London presentation of the 56th Venice Biennale, “All the World’s Futures,” curator Okwui Enwezor talked a lot about the past. The theoretical past as discussed by Walter Benjamin, the biennale’s own former associations with imperial powers, and its little-known 1974 edition conceived as a collective response to Pinochet’s Coup in Chile.

It’s in this past and the many parallel “shadow histories,” to borrow Enwezor’s terminology, that the curator and some of the 136 artists he’s invited find inspiration: the foundation from which to talk about the world we live in, and the one to come (see The 2015 Venice Biennale List of Artists Is Out).

Following a logic suggested by his predecessor Massimiliano Gioni and his “Encyclopedic Palace” in 2013, Enwezor has forgone the temptation of an overarching theme, favoring instead three sub-chapters or so-called “filters”: “Liveness: On epic duration,” “Garden of Disorder,” and “Capital: A Live Reading” (see Theme and Title of the Next Venice Biennale Announced).

A David Adjaye-designed Arena will host, among many other things, a live reading of the three books of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital directed by Isaac Julien, which will act as a linchpin for the exhibition.

Opening with a dramatic new neon piece by Glenn Ligon that spells out the words “bruise, blood, blues” on the façade of the international pavilion, the show will be built on a back-and-forth between past and future, with a flurry of new works (179 in total, by the likes of Marlene Dumas, Isa Genzken, and Oscar Murillo) and substantial presentations of art historical heavyweights: these will include a survey of Hans Haacke’s poll pieces, neon works by Bruce Nauman, and Harun Farocki’s entire film output (see Harun Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire).

“All the World’s Futures” is the culmination of Enwezor’s stellar curatorial career. The curator, writer, and academic, who is currently serving as director at Haus der Kunst in Munich (see Haus der Kunst Faces Funding Crisis), has more than one biennial under his belt, and many more exhibitions. Widely credited for opening up a Western-centric art world to post-colonial concerns, he was behind the Johannesburg Biennale (1998), Documenta (2002), the Seville Biennial (2007), the Gwangju Biennial (2008), and most recently, Paris’s Triennale in 2012.

In your introductory text, you describe your contribution to the 56th Venice biennale as a “project devoted to a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things.” Are there any specific events that have particularly shaped your thinking for the exhibition?

There’s not one single event, but it’s an accumulation of events. A key reference is Walter Benjamin’s reading of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920). In that picture, there isn’t a catastrophe that you can see, it’s more like a mental picture that Klee was constructing for us in terms of how one can think about history, and about the relationship between contemporary events and history, especially the history of progress, which is also accompanied by destruction.

Benjamin talks about this accumulation of debris that piles up at the feet of the Angel, being blown to the future with his back turned to the future but facing the past. If I were to read the period between the last biennale and mine, I think it’s been a terrible two years. It’s been a terrible two years of accumulation, of escalation, of dissonance in every imaginable way and our inability to come to terms with the shape of the global transition has come to a point of intense conflict. There isn’t a singular thing that I can say that has shaped it, but really looking at what’s going on around us today.

Benjamin and the Angel of History, the biennale’s own shadow history, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital … your show is very openly anchored in the past. Can you tell me something of this past you are addressing in the show in relation to the “futures” you are referring to in your title?

The past and the future are deeply entangled in this sense. That’s why I also used the term “residue,” because those residues can be smoldering ambers from the past. The wreckage itself is still fresh, it’s not spent ashes as it were, but something that is really real and alive to us: the conflicts in the Middle East, the conflict in Nigeria, the conflicts in South Asia and Bangladesh.

I recall the kind of correspondence I had with artists. Naeem Mohaiemen one morning sent me an email about the hacking to death of a Bangladeshi writer [Avijit Roy, on February 26] in Dhaka. Then there was Raqs Media Collective sending me a note in response to my prompt, talking about what they call “the insomnia of the rulers” and the “vigil of the protestors,” so there are all these different resonances. These shadow histories have to do with the way in which we are living at the moment, with many, many histories of the past. I think the biennale represents a point of departure—metaphorically, not literally—it’s a way to look at this collision of forces that are keeping us awake, that will not really let us stop our vigil.

Does your decision not to have a theme, but to work with a series of filters, respond to this “cacophony” of events? 

That’s partly the case. In 1974, the Venice Biennale launched its program Per Una Manifestazione Culturale. It wanted to inaugurate the idea of a cultural manifestation. The idea that one can take this big expansive space of the biennial and say “it’s only for things to look at” was antithetical to the program of 1974. It was really a collision of voices, in the most productive, impactful, interesting way. So for me in “All the World’s Futures,” by using the filters, I wanted to see if the different techniques, the so-called “Parliament of Forms,” can be brought together to form one stage of meaning, one stage of enunciation, one stage of articulation. So from a formal and curatorial standpoint, that’s what the filters stand for: not to impose a standardized narrative within the biennale, but look at the tectonic plates of the shape of the exhibition, through voices, through instruments, though visuals, through pre-visual categories and weave them together to look at something that hopefully could be comprehensible and enjoyable.

You’ve invited Tania Bruguera to show a performance piece featuring footage of Fidel Castro [Untitled (Havana, 2000)]. She’s currently charged with disrupting public order in Cuba (see Why Is the Havana Biennial Afraid of Tania Bruguera). Gustavo Buntinx turned down an invitation, effectively boycotting the upcoming Havana biennial to protest against these charges (see Art Historian Gustavo Buntinx Boycotts Havana Biennial Over Ludicrous Charges Against Tania Bruguera). Do you think a boycott of the Havana biennial is called for given the circumstances?

Each boycott has to be seen from the point of view of the individual. There are times when they are necessary. It’s an act of conscience, it’s something that is courageous and that one can undertake, and if other people see the point of this boycott they can certainly join. I’m not advocating for a universal boycott of the biennial, but an artist can make the choice, in solidarity with another artist.

But we must remember what the Havana biennial, as an organization, also represents, or represented in the 1980s. It was a counter-political exhibition that really opened up debates in the field of biennials that had become a little too homogenized and monocultural. It was a biennial that was from its inception, self-consciously post-colonial, self-consciously post-Empire, and I think there is a value to that. We must not forget the great work of people like Gerardo Mosquera and all of those who have contributed to building this space of impressive critical dissent. So we have to look at both sides of things.

Tania is an artist I admire very much, and I’ve worked with her for almost twenty years now. I invited her last year, before all of this happened, and when I invited her, I was thinking explicitly about this performance, I wanted to bring it back to life.

In Venice, the Arena is a major new addition to the biennale, and it’s very much responding to the zeitgeist. We’ve all seen performative artworks increasingly gaining visibility in major exhibitions and even art fairs. But I was wondering if this wasn’t also linked to your personal history, as I understand you used to do performative readings in your early years in New York?

I don’t know if it’s linked to my history, per se, but I’m really deeply affected by the weight of words, and the way words sound, the emotional power of the human voice telling you something. That leaves its own residue on your imagination, on your psyche, and your skin. I’m literally moved by some of those things, and I think the Arena represents a space for a common work. Many of my past exhibitions have had many of these elements going back twenty years, so it’s something I have been deeply invested in. I wanted to see if we can do something that is substantial and substantive in the Arena, and I thought that the human voice as a carrier of some of these ideas and ideals could be a perfect foil for looking at performance in general and duration in the exhibition.

Putting Das Kapital at the center of the biennial has direct political implications, particularly at a time when it has been criticized for being increasingly commercial.

The biennial is not commercial.

It’s an open secret that works are sold during the biennial.

That’s not true. I don’t want to hold brief for the biennial, but we have to be careful of the way gossip floats around the art world, because we are all participants. The biennial is an exhibition, and as you well know the art world is a complex ecology. I did not inject Das Kapital into the exhibition in order to talk only about money.

Das Kapital is not only about money but the theory of exchange value, use value, the working day, the concept of money, and time and all of that, it’s a much more complex book and cannot be reduced to “works selling.” Das Kapital is a strict and rigorous economic analysis and the social implication of that—looking, for example, at the Industrial Revolution in England at a particular point when workers were unprotected, and looking at the depredations of the financial industry—so all these things really play into what Marx was doing.

If you read Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851-2) it could be what is going on today: the counter-revolution of the high bourgeoisie and the high financial capitalists in the world. So I think the implications of putting this text in the middle of the exhibition is really to enable us to examine the complexity of what Marx was trying to propose, which other experts have returned to, from Thomas Piketty to David Harvey, to Emmanuel Saez and so on. The story in the biennial is not about gallerists, that I would definitely say to you.

What are the main challenges of doing the Venice Biennale?

Not really feeling like you have time off to re-examine before going forward. You have to plunge headlong into it.

You are a serial biennial curator. How do you keep your curatorial approach fresh?

I have an active career as a writer and many things interest me, I have also a very active life as a teacher, and those are really important for me: being in a classroom with students, of course I led a college [Enwezor was Dean of Academic Affairs and Senior Vice President of the San Francisco Art Institute from 2005 to 2009]. I’m a not thinking about curating 24/7. I can have a more elastic mental space in which to work.

Could you see yourself curating another biennial after Venice?

How can you do another biennial after Venice? You have to end in the right way. This is it.

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