Okwui Enwezor’s 56th Venice Biennale Is Morose, Joyless, and Ugly
Find out why “All The World’s Futures” is a profoundly backward looking show.
Okwui Enwezor pledged to reimagine the Venice Biennale, and his curated exhibition split between the Arsenale and Italian pavilion in the Giardini proves him to be a man of his word. He has delivered what can only be described as the most morose, joyless, and ugly biennale in living memory; a show that, in the name of global action and social change, beats the visitor up with political theory rather than giving us the pleasures and stimulation of great art. His vision of the world is bleak, angry, and depressing.
The Biennale is 120 years old and if it still has value as an exhibition then it is in the fact that it delivers, on an influential stage, successive and often conflicting perspectives on contemporary artistic practice and its relevance to the world in which we live. You might not agree with Enwezor’s vision of art and its utopian role in today’s world—I certainly don’t—but there is no denying the world today faces deep divisions and crises and an uncertain future. How those forces impact artists is worth exploring, I agree (see How to Best Navigate the Venice Biennale’s Political and Moral Contradictions).
You have to admire his focus, for this is possibly the most curatorially rigorous Biennale exhibition I’ve seen in 20 years of coming here. Dogma rules in a show which is pretty well devoid of beauty, aspiration, irony, or fun. There is also an attention to art that is dealing with or showing violence that to me is deeply disturbing. His personal preoccupations are equally front and center: he uses his authority as the first Biennale curator of African descent to validate artists from the world’s periphery, Africa especially, mustering 136 artists from 53 countries, 89 of them at the Biennale for the first time. This is good and admirable (see Venice Biennale Curator Okwui Enwezor On “All the World’s Futures,” Karl Marx, and The Havana Biennial Boycott).
Enwezor, of Nigerian origin, is known for his preoccupations with geographical diversity, political and social theory and a staunchly anti-capitalist approach to art. But his curatorial obsessions feed nagging doubts about the legitimacy of the exhibition theme, “All The World’s Futures” (which incidentally sounds like the meaningless title of a James Bond movie) and relevance of the kind of art he seeks to promote. We all know the market is a force in contemporary art-making and so to ignore the broader implications on art of this fact seems, well, unhelpful, perverse and naive (see Playing Politics: JJ Charlesworth on Why Art World Hypocrisy Stars at the 56th Venice Biennale). Meanwhile there is a big difference between making art about real world “issues” and actually doing something about them. The same goes for looking at political art, especially in a bastion of privilege like the Venice Biennale. Don’t confuse the gesture with instrumentality.
Enwezor intelligently seeks to tap into widespread art-world discontent over the current order of things. People aren’t happy with the art system and the way it perpetuates a real and in many ways destructive inequality of opportunity. His most controversial answer to this issue is to have a celebrity artist-architect David Adjaye build a stage in the Italian pavilion and then invite artists to commission readings of various political texts; For example, Isaac Julien’s contribution is a reading of all four volume’s of Karl Marx’s 1867 opus Das Kapital. It’s a silly political stunt bordering on kitsch given that Marx’s text has limited relevance to art or life in 2015 or an elitist art world event like the Venice Biennale. The gesture elicited an immediate response from artists who pasted derisive protest fliers around the show. The fliers poked fun at Okwui and Karl Marx, asking the question what these two have in common in the context of an international art exhibition.
The debate over the fetishization of the object as commodity found in the pages of Das Kapital is over, gone, for today the new commodity in our midst is information and the central question that we face is how we calculate and trade in it. The object itself has less value and identity these days; it’s more about the event, especially for art. It would have been more relevant to read, say, Thomas Piketty’s take on the social and political patterns underpinning today’s current economic inequality (an idea suggested to me by the curator Gianni Jetzer) or any number of books dealing with a dissolution of a distinction between information and knowledge.
It seems pointless, in a way, to argue further with the exhibition theme. This is Enwezor’s vision of the world today through the art he admires. I just don’t know why it has to be without compassion, love, beauty or hope and so relentlessly earnest and bleak that it excludes all aesthetic pleasure and fun, beginning, at the entry, with a selection of Bruce Nauman’s most depressing neon light word works denouncing American violence and hypocrisy. It feels a lot like the curator was seeking justification for his anti-capitalist, de-centered and deeply anti-American world view, which for me only further serves to marginalize the show from the real forces in today’s world.
From here “All the World’s Futures” quickly descends into a catalogue of all of the world’s misery. Ebola, civil war, human trafficking, natural disasters, labor exploitation, environmental destruction, inequality—it’s all here, in artwork so conceptually driven as to be in many, many cases annoyingly didactic. This is a moralizing show which paradoxically is arranged in such a way to feel less like a cohabitation of aligned artistic messages and more like a random collection of isolated artworks. Organizationally, the show is a real mess on account of the density of the hang. The muddling together of artists and work may have some deliberate purpose—once again, perhaps to deliberately unsettle and de-center viewers.
Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper, Steve McQueen, Chantal Akerman, Georg Baselitz, Chris Marker, Melvin Edwards, and Katharina Grosse are also on the curator’s exhibitor list, all with very good work that feels far more naturally aligned with the theme and relevant in today’s context. Theaster Gates has a new and moving video on display, for me a highlight in the Arsenale, along with, over at the Italian pavilion in the Giardini, Robert Smithson’s imposing and eerily profound “Dead Tree,” a natural sculpture from 1969.
Large black curtains hang from the exterior of the Italian pavilion, making the building look like there is a wake going on. Is the art world in mourning? Inside, in addition to the work of Robert Smithson, there is among other things a video by Christian Boltanski of a man vomiting blood, also from 1969, and a room of skull paintings by Marlene Dumas. You get the picture. Violence and death are everywhere here. Even when there is beauty and joy on display, such as in a painting by Australian desert Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye, “Earths Creation,” 1994, it is overshadowed by knowledge of the appalling conditions in which Aboriginal artists live. I usually go to CNN and BBC World to get my depressing world news, not the Venice Biennale.
For a show supposedly about the future, it is strange how so many of Enwezor’s intellectual reference points lie somewhere in the past. Even his art-historical heroes seem to be from a bygone age—Walker Evans, for instance, is an artist that he admires and is included in the show. In this sense, “All The World’s Futures” is profoundly backward-looking, the curator seeking in the past answers to art’s relevance as a way of finding new paths for the future. It is nostalgic and utopian, in a good way, believing in the idea that art and artists can change the world. But overall, as a visual experience, it is largely glum and upsetting.
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