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#Hashtags: The Political Biennale

#nationalism #institutions #power #access #globalization #protest #labor #capital

The 56th Venice Biennale, “All the World’s Futures,” has been hailed as the “political” Biennale both by its curator Okwui Enwezor and by the international art press. That designation has come in for significant criticism from some who feel that contemporary art either can not or should not address political concerns, given the commodity status of art objects within a capitalist framework. The Biennale is supported by a consortium of state, corporate, and individual interests, none of which can be assumed to represent progressive values or the rights of the disenfranchised. Rather, it functions as a bazaar in which established and emerging national interests jockey for influence, applying “soft” cultural power as well as “hard” economic power. How, then, to reconcile the Biennale’s nature with the “deeply reflective, deeply political”[1] objectives that Enwezor has laid out?

Padiglione Centrale  Giardini, Venezia  2015. 56th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo. Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia.

56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, Padiglione Centrale, Giardini, Venezia, 2015. Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo.

Enwezor declares that his exhibition, the centerpiece of an international festival presenting pavilions from eighty-seven nations,[2] addresses “the ruptures that surround and abound around every corner of the global landscape today.” He draws legitimacy for the geopolitical framework of his project from history, describing how “One hundred years after the first shots of the First World War were fired in 1914, and seventy-five years after the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the global landscape again lies shattered and in disarray, scarred by violent turmoil, panicked by specters of economic crisis and viral pandemonium, secessionist politics, and a humanitarian catastrophe on the high seas, deserts, and borderlands, as immigrants, refugees, and desperate peoples seek refuge in seemingly calmer and prosperous lands.”[3]

Critics such as Artnet’s JJ Charlesworth have accused Enwezor of trivializing serious global crises by engaging them through the lens of art. “Underneath all the political posturing,” Charlesworth objects, “what it really represents is a bad case of disavowal–of not wanting to admit that you’re part of a system that is the problem, not the solution.”[4] Readers of this column will know that the art world’s complicity with oligarchic and hegemonic systems is a favorite subject of mine. Nonetheless, I find Charlesworth’s declaration that “the real point for all these countries and non-countries is to be part of the new machinery of the global economic world order” to be factually accurate but ethically disingenuous. This may be the motivation for government support of national pavilions, but it is not the motivation for artists who choose to engage political and historical narratives in their work.

Charlesworth dismisses the point that for those born outside the halls of influence established in the colonial era, engaging with the machinery of power remains the only way to attain visibility as a representative of the global underclass. Yet he and other art critics are themselves complicit in a system that refuses attention to artists who exist outside of it, whether by choice or by exclusion. If “the art itself changes absolutely nothing,” as Charlesworth claims, this is not because political art is inherently futile, but because postcolonial reality is one of sublimated, rather than reformed, structural oppressions. No longer can cultural or political exclusion be articulated purely in terms of race or national origin; rather, the same structures of exclusion are applied across geopolitical boundaries on the basis of class, educational access, and entrenched tribalism. This is as true in the art world as anywhere else.

Katharina Grosse. Untitled Trumpet, 2015. 56th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo. Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia.

Katharina Grosse. Untitled Trumpet, 2015; 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo.

Despite the proliferation of international art festivals and fairs, the center of cultural discourse is still located in the Western hemisphere, as demonstrated by the clamor of developing nations to be included at Venice. Enwezor himself was not anointed as an elite curator through his organizing of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, but by his appointment as curator of Documenta 11 in 2002. No doubt, his high profile has been sustained by adherence to the protocols of art-world exclusivity—obtuse academic speak, globetrotting, glitzy compadres—but to suggest that this negates his exhibition’s political engagement, particularly while lauding previous iterations such as Massimiliano Gioni’s 55th Biennale, amounts to hating the player, not the game. No curator at the level of visibility required for the appointment to curate at Venice is free of such baggage. The difference is Enwezor is black and African, and the white critical establishment is all too quick to suggest that as a representative of communities they have worked hard to exclude, he is personally responsible for correcting wrongs that cultural insiders are permitted to ignore.

GLUKLYA/ Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya. Clothes for the demonstration against false election of Vladimir Putin, 2011-2015. 56th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Photo by Alessandra Chemollo. Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia.

GLUKLYA/Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya. Clothes for the demonstration against false election of Vladimir Putin, 2011-2015; 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo.

What, then, of the politics at play within the exhibition? Modes of engagement run the gamut, from aesthetic gestures such as Adel Abdessemed’s bouquets of inverted knives and Melvin Edwards’ assemblages made from tools and shackles, to more prescriptive manifestations such as Gulf Labor Coalition’s enormous banner outlining labor abuses at global museum construction sites on Saadiyat Island in the UAE. The strongest works are those that negotiate between these poles, such as the collection of anti-Putin protest garments assembled by Russian artist GLUKLYA (Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya), of collective Chto Delat?, which fluctuate between social operation in the sphere of protest and aesthetic function in the space of installation. Arguably the most powerful work in this massive exhibition is the film Vertigo Sea (2015) by Ghanaian–British filmmaker John Akomfrah, a meditation on the ocean’s many uses, from ecology to migration to commerce, which masterfully dances between breathtaking beauty and equally gasp-inducing horror.

Enwezor is correct when he promises that “Everywhere one turns, new crisis, uncertainty, and deepening insecurity across all regions of the world seem to leap into view.” Despite this, there is beauty expressed through sound and vision throughout the exhibition, for example in the bright color sprays of Katharina Grosse’s Untitled Trumpet (2015) and the haunting harmonies of Lili Reynaud Dewar’s My Epidemic (Small Bad Blood Opera) (2015). Rather than get hung up on Isaac Julien’s recitations of Das Kapital (which even Enwezor admits is “a book that nobody has read and yet everyone hates or quotes from,”[5]) a more engaged viewer might see these readings as part of a larger program of live performance[6] that periodically animates the installation, both in David Adjaye’s massive red “Arena” and throughout both exhibition venues, with musical compositions arranged by artists including Charles Gaines, Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, Jeremy Deller, and Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla.

For some, the only question to be answered by political art remains, does it change anything? This is not my chief concern, as I staunchly support the right of art to serve no greater purpose than to provoke discourse and thought within its viewership. However, let us consider what efficacy might be sought from projects like Vik MunizLampedusa (2015), a “paper” boat that traverses Venice’s canals adorned with headlines from Italian news coverage of a 2013 tragedy in which hundreds of Libyan migrants drowned off the coast of Italy. Will Muniz prevent another migrant tragedy through his artwork? Unlikely. Will his work promote awareness of this abysmal tragedy to an audience of oligarchs and tourists vacationing along the Canal? Questionable. Does this work, therefore, “trivialize” the incident? Only if one believes that artistic commentary is implicitly less serious than journalism or policy, both frameworks that have thus far failed to provoke sufficient outrage at the conditions that lead to recurring tragedies of this kind. The expectation that art, with far fewer resources than government[7], should accomplish a greater result or abandon social engagement altogether serves as a backhanded means of silencing artists who stray from market-friendly, upbeat narratives in their work.

Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC). Stendardo al Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (5 novembre 2014). 56th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Photo by Alessandra Chemollo. Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia.

Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC). Who is Building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi? 2015. 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo.

Meanwhile, invited artists Gulf Labor Coalition made actual protest their contribution, staging an action on May 8 that shut down the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and forced the museum’s director Richard Armstrong to agree to a meeting about labor abuses at the Saadiyat Island construction site of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Given that Gulf Labor activists including Walid Raad and Ashok Sukamaran have recently been refused entry to the UAE to speak about labor issues, present their art, and document conditions under which migrant laborers live, the international territory of the Biennale becomes a fruitful alternative site for their interventions. When the attention of the world’s powerful is focused on a single location, it is not pointless or hypocritical, but in fact it is necessary to raise issues of inequality and marginalization. To reject the potential of such gestures is to justify the inaction of the status quo.

56th Venice Biennale: All the World’s Futures is on view through November 22, 2015.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.

 

[1] Charlotte Higgins, “Das Kapital at the Arsenale: How Okwui Enwezor Invited Marx to the Biennale,” The Guardian, May 7, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/07/das-kapital-at-venice-biennale-okwui-enwezor-karl-marx

[2] Two pavilions, Kenya and Costa Rica, were withdrawn shortly before opening, illustrating the contradictions of the Biennale’s geopolitics. Kenya withdrew following controversy over its inclusion of Italian and Chinese artists at the expense of Kenyans, while Costa Rica withdrew when artists protested its pay-to-play model. In both cases, the state’s desire to benefit from the Biennale’s visibility was shown not to be commensurate with that state’s support for its artists.

[3] Okwui Enwezor, “All the World’s Futures,” Curatorial statement for the 56th Venice Biennale, http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/exhibition/enwezor/

[4] JJ Charlesworth, “Playing Politics: JJ Charlesworth on Why Art World Hypocrisy Stars at the 56th Venice Biennale,” Artnet, May 7, 2015, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/56th-venice-biennale-politics-jj-charlesworth-295350

[5] Higgins, Op. cit.

[6] A sharper critique of the live art program would address the hierarchical and remote, theatrical nature of the performances in an era when interactivity and participation hold sway. This will be the subject of my next #Hashtags column in June.

[7] Despite the enormous sums of money at play in the art world, working artists still receive very little investment. Numerous participants in the Biennale have described to me the financial burden they personally took on to participate.

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