Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 18, 2016
Okwui Enwezor, ed. La Biennale di Venezia. 56th International Art Exhibition: All the World’s Futures Exh. cat. 2 volumes. Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2015. 1054 pp. Paper $130.00 (978883172128)
Exhibition schedule: Venice, May 9—November 22, 2015
Glenn Ligon, A Small Band, and Oscar Murillo, signaling devices now in bastard territory. Installation view. 56th Venice Biennale. 2015.

Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 edition of la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, opened with a somber installation on the facade of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. At its summit, the striking words of Glenn Ligon’s neon marquee—“blues blood bruise”—announced themes of violence, suffering, death, and sorrow, as well as the role of music as a medium of collective resistance and power. Just below this sign, viewers confronted the Colombian artist Oscar Murillo’s series of black, patched canvases, hung as if they were curtains across the pavilion’s arcade, turning it into a monumental proscenium stage. Passing through the curtains, one encountered a small, copper-framed application for work, signed in 1982 by the young Belisario Caicedo-Florez, Murillo’s father. Seen in concert with the facade as a whole, the image testified to one of the central issues taken up by Enwezor’s exhibition: to render visible (and audible) the conditions of exploited, displaced, or unemployed laborers in a global context. What one encountered within the pavilion (as well as in the Arsenale) was the most politically charged biennale since 1968.

Enwezor conceived the exhibition along several intersecting lines: as a stage for continuous live performance; as a forum for the recovery of the critical potential of the avant-gardes of the late sixties and early seventies; as an activated archive of the works of key figures who have recently passed away, including the entire cinematic corpus of Harun Farocki and of Chris Marker, as well as a substantial representation of Terry Adkins’s sculpture; as a platform for debate on the contemporary relevance of Marxist theory (once a fellow traveler of the historical avant-gardes but now often deemed superseded with the penetration of neo-liberalism into all parts of the globe); and as a site for the projection of revolutionary aims. Within this matrix of concerns, Enwezor decentered the traditional focus on artists of white, European descent, giving ample space to artists from the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Australia.

The exhibition put the works of 136 artists from 53 countries on view; 89 of these artists appeared in the biennale for the first time. It also displayed 159 works realized specifically for the biennale. In addition, All the World’s Futures included some less familiar projects by canonical artists of the late sixties, including Robert Smithson, Christian Boltanski, Hans Haacke, and Adrian Piper. At the pavilion’s core, Enwezor situated the Arena, a large, three-sided theatrical platform, designed by the Ghanian/British architect David Adjaye, for an ambitious program comprising live performances, readings, film screenings, conversations, and music. Most importantly, it was within this newly constituted public space that Isaac Julien staged a daily “oratorio” of all three volumes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in half-hour installments. It was also in the Arena that one could hear jazz artist Jason Moran’s exploration of the tempo of work songs from prisons, plantation fields, and elsewhere, performed to stunning effect by Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, as well as by other singers.

Although Enwezor’s biennale has been criticized for its sharp focus on gritty themes such as labor, war, the plight of migrants, political repression, and environmental ruin at the expense of aesthetic pleasure, I found the selection of works and the installation thought provoking, full of surprises, and often beautiful. The juxtaposition of works within individual rooms, and the passage from one room to another, were orchestrated with a view to both conceptual and visual links along with the occasionally startling rupture; there was also a play of quasi-musical repetitions in the chance-determined rhythms of Philippe Parreno’s 56 Flickering Lights (2013), a series of white, vertical marquees that punctuated the viewers’ movement through the galleries at the Arsenale.

One of the great discoveries of the exhibition was the Jewish-Italian artist Fabio Mauri, nearly unknown outside certain circles in Italy and largely excluded from shows of Arte Povera, a movement with which he was tangentially affiliated. His work appeared in the Central Pavilion’s first room, a large sepulcher-like atrium with an octagonal dome decorated with frescoes. Here one encountered the artist’s still resonant Il Muro Occidentale o del Pianto (The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall) (1993), a construction built of old suitcases, some bearing addresses for destinations never reached. This wall of abandoned luggage, a monument to refugees and to the victims of the Nazi camps, includes a set of drawers, a live plant growing out of the sediment between its crevices, and an image from Mauri’s 1971 performance Ebrea (Jewess). Hung on the encircling walls were a series of Mauri’s paintings simulating rectangular film or television screens, each inscribed with the words “The End” or “La fine,” a terse statement also legible on the top step of a giant construction ladder (Machine to Fix Watercolors (2007)). A memorial to Mauri’s work with film director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini appeared against one wall in the form of an enlarged, plastic-covered photograph of the two men at a rehearsal for the performance Che cosa è il fascismo (What Is Fascism), originally staged in 1971, with the poet’s voice reading his long poem “La Guinea” emanating from a recording device.

Seen as an ensemble, Mauri’s works have lost none of their aesthetic power or political relevance. They continue to direct attention to the refugee crisis unfolding in the present, to question the roles of ordinary citizens in promoting the Fascist “final solution” (enacted by participants in the performance What Is Fascism), and to examine the postwar rise of screen media and the possibility of art after the camps—after “The End”—an art that Pasolini’s “La Guinea” invokes as still holding the potential for change. Yet the audible soundtrack of a short film projected in the adjacent room interrupts Pasolini’s sonorous, uplifting voice with the disturbing sounds of a man relentlessly choking and vomiting, staged by Christian Boltanski’s L’homme qui tousse (The man who coughs) of 1969. This collision of voices and images intensifies the visitors’ perceptions: Is the man expressionistically coughing up what he cannot otherwise digest or work through? Or does the piece, as presented in its current setting, stage a visceral disgust with modes of aesthetic contemplation (what he vomits looks like paint), including the biennale itself as a form of cultural spectacle and amusement park? This film could not provide a more vivid introduction to the conceptual, land, text, and film works of Smithson and Nancy Holt, and the updated viewer surveys of Haacke to follow. This progression of works brings Enwezor’s revival of the activist art of the late sixties, and its critique of the institutional frame of the museum and gallery, fully into view. It also reveals Enwezor’s double focus on seemingly opposed conceptual and expressionist modes of practice.

Enwezor’s sensitive sequencing of rooms was evident throughout the exhibition. An installation of early Smithson drawings, the Smithson/Holt film Swamp (1971)—featuring Holt maneuvering her Bolex camera relentlessly into some brambles rather than seek a truth-revealing “clearing”—along with Smithson’s toppled Dead Tree (1969, destroyed) with its double-sided mirrors opened onto Elena Damiani’s exploration of the myths, materials, and colonial history of her native Peru. Inspired by Smithson’s work, Damiani fuses ancient, historical, and contemporary temporalities through invocations of geological strata, minimalist design, and entropic processes. Her Rude Rocks (2015) enacts the fusion of natural resources, including rocks and highly polished metals, via a warped modernist geometry that adapts Smithson’s mirror displacements to the present.

A similar echoing of concerns structured the juxtaposition of Melvin Edwards’s wall reliefs, made of guns, knives, and other weapons, and Monica Bonvicini’s low-hung, black chandeliers composed of chains and chainsaws cast in concrete and covered with black liquid rubber (so that they look like they might have been dredged up from a nearby canal). Both series evince a post-apocalyptic vision of contemporary symbols of masculine power and violence. Further down the same central hallway in the Arsenale, Pino Pascali’s Cannone semovente (Self-propelled gun) of 1965, a non-functional replica made of auto parts and found elements, pointed back toward Adkins’s Muffled Drums (2003), a tall, striving tower constructed of silenced musical drums, raising questions about the history of racial violence, war, and children’s play. This constellation of works culminated in the Vietnamese and American Propeller Group’s project: a gel block displaying the fusion of two bullets, one from a Russian AK-47 and the other from an American M16 assault rifle, accompanied by a film of the firing at one another of the two symbolically charged weapons.

In the medium of painting, the works of Marlene Dumas and Kerry James Marshall, exhibited in adjoining rooms, stood out. If Dumas’s powerfully expressive series of lifeless, grinning, and uncannily staring skulls painted on small, unframed canvases capture a range of images of death, Marshall’s works evoke erotic pleasure and the generation of life. In contrast, Georg Baselitz’s narcissistic images of the tormented male artist, naked and upside-down, struck a false chord.

Mention should also be made of a few other especially impressive—historically critical and beautiful—works: John Akomfrah’s epic, three-channel film Vertigo Sea (2015) addresses the power, violence, and beauty of the sea; Steve McQueen’s Ashes (2014), two films simultaneously projected on a double-sided screen, captures the life and burial of a Grenadian young man named Ashes who had stumbled upon some drug money; Cao Fei’s film La Town (2014), set inside war-torn diorama landscapes, echoes Alain Resnais’s film Last Year at Marienbad (1961); and Xu Bing’s colossal pair of winged assemblages titled Phoenix (2010–), sited in the canal at the far reaches of the Arsenale, imagines the power of life to spring forth from the ruined shards of the present. These and other works invited reflection on what Enwezor calls the “disordered garden” of the current state of things, and the power of suppressed collectivities to envision different futures.

Christine Poggi
Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania