The Venice Biennale is often described as the Olympics of the art world, and like that bloated, ponderous paean to physical virtuosity, the grand dame of international art fairs has gorged itself on both popular and commercial interest, expanding beyond the grounds of the original exhibition venue and spilling out into the city beyond.
The 56th Venice Biennale, which opened to the public the last weekend on May 9th and will continue until November 22nd, comprises 89 national pavilions, 44 official supplementary events, and countless unofficial exhibitions curated in conjunction with the art world’s most significant bi-annual assemblage of global talent (mostly white) and international tourists (mostly wealthy). This year, the task of uniting both official and unofficial exhibitions designed to engage a diverse audience of art-world elites, casual explorers, and commercial heavyweights fell to Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor.
The 56th International Art Exhibition, titled All The World’s Futures, was explicitly dedicated to a conceptual and political exploration of the global periphery all-too-often ignored by the art market. Enwezor’s Biennale was destined to be both aggressively political and intimately personal, an invitation to engage with the present and contemplate what’s to come alongside artists of extraordinary skill and no shortage of ambition.
Unfortunately, in crafting his own exhibitions at the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion of the Giardini, Enwezor seemed almost incapable of escaping a mordant, myopic preoccupation with violence, conflict, and degradation. Although Enwezor’s complex, often chaotic, curation offered moments of delicate meditation and a few sweet, soaring suggestions of possibility (primarily in the form of Xu Bing’s triumphant installation and Iza Gengken’s quirky, conceptual architectural models), darkness, torment, and the foul, lingering stench of oppression permeated the primary exhibitions.
The harrowing immediacy of Christian Boltanski’s “L’Homme qui tousse” in which a seated man violently spasms blood from the floor of a dingy, darkened room, virtually assaults audiences with a violent, visceral return to the primacy of the body, while the luminous, leering presence of Bruce Nauman’s “Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain” signifies a lingering preoccupation with a distinctly conceptual approach. Taken together these two disparate works encapsulate Enwezor’s simultaneously searing and stultifying contribution to the Biennale —a savage and unrelenting exploration of a world on fire that is both urgently in need of reprieve and painfully dull to contemplate; a purgatory of ciphers in a pool of blood.
Beyond the shrouded edifice of the Italian Pavilion (courtesy of Oscar Murillo’s oil-soaked black textile installation) the remaining national pavilions offered a welcome respite from the darkness of Enwezor’s domain. The playful, immersive “Canadassimo”conjured up by BGL for the Canadian Pavilion transports audiences to a Quebecois convenience store, replete with all the shabby trappings of an exhausted consumerism.
Visitors enter the dépanneur hesitantly, stricken by the verisimilitude, uncertain of their place in this newfound environment, until it becomes clear that the objects themselves are not clear —the packaging is blurry, the perspective is skewed. The viewer is knocked off balance by aesthetic dislocation and then invited through a doorway into a new environment where the perspective shifts once again. Within what seems to be a workshop inhabited by invisible elves on an acid trip, BGL delivers another devilish blow to the customs of capitalism through a playful re-imagination of the site of cultural production. Pyramids of paint cans dripping with rainbow pigment cover every surface, while trinkets, tools, and odd ephemera line the walls.
In stark contrast to the grungy, sprawling, scrap-heap installations of the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion, BGL’s chaotic constellation of conspicuous capitalism radiates warmth and wonder, a casual tongue-in-cheek exclamation in the face of an ever-expanding consumer culture that has overtaken not only the art world, but also, perhaps, civilization itself.
Civilization —the nature of it, the future of it, and the ever-increasing technological mediation of it motivates many of the National Pavilions’more monumental installations, some more successfully than others. Germany’s immersive pitch-black and neon-blue lit “Motion Capture Studio” offers up a hypnotizing 23-minute video projection in which a female narrator navigates audiences through a corporate-controlled future in which workers for the “Factory of the Sun”render their service as slave laborers in a motion capture studio. Sardonic, subtle, and structurally complex, Hito Steyerl’s creation utilizes the narrative structure of the video game, the promotional video, and the live-stream to negotiate questions about the place of the individual body and the meaning of freedom in a digital future.
Drawing on similar themes and aesthetic constructs, the South Korean Pavilion features the work of Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho. Projecting brilliant white digital video onto the external facade of pavilion itself, the installation invites audiences to participate in the imagination of a mutable environment in which objects and architecture conform to the will and desire of the individual. Unfortunately, the multi-channel installation that attempts to incite viewers to an archaeological or even an anthropological contemplation of contemporary civilization suffers from a slavish devotion to production value and ends up reading more like a Nike commercial or a Wong Kar-wai film than an avant-garde aesthetic exploration.
At the opposite end of the technological spectrum, the Finnish duo IC-98 renders a unique artistic vision in clear, mesmerizing, decidedly hand-drawn strokes. “Hours, Years, Aeons” – http://www.digicult.it/news/ic-98-hours-years-aeons-finnish-pavilion-at-the-venice-biennale/ – is a drawing turned digital animation projected quietly onto the wall at a pictorial scale and surrounded in the close, warm darkness of the intimate pavilion by sloping heaps of charcoal and a rich, evocative soundscape. Questioning the complex legacy of Finland’s primeval forests, “Hours, Years, Aeons”moves in deep time, transforming an arboreal hollow from the minute to the meta, locating the viewer immediately in the present moment and makes way for a grander environmental narrative all at the same time.
In addressing the broader question of a place for space, the Hungarian and the Swiss Pavilions offer installation-based inquiries both prosaic and profound. Szilárd Cseke’s “Sustainable Identities” for the Hungarian Pavilion attempts to make manifest the cognitive processes of identity construction through an elevated installation of inflated tubes through which delicate balls propelled by fans travel seemingly at random. Quiet, conceptual, and utterly captivating, Cseke’s unusual take on the question of the world’s future and the place for identity construction within that context is entirely original.
Taking her environmental cues from theatre and film, Pamela Rosenkranz bathes the walls of the Swiss Pavilion in soft green light, a skillful homage to the environment at large that pairs perfectly with the bubbling pink liquid filling the center of the space. Calling to mind the organic, the bacterial, and the inherently human, the sensuous sickliness of Rosenkranz’s aesthetic ooze pairs perfectly with the cool, crisp green of the light-soaked structure.
Subtly sci-fi and supremely formal in its inquiry, the contrast between these two colors, textures, sounds, and smells induces a hallucinatory re-imagination of the biosphere.
Beyond the biosphere of the Giardini, a maze of collateral events coordinated officially and unofficially with the Biennale broaden the scope of the inquiry to great effect.
The narrow focus of exhibitions like the CYLAND’s “On My Way” (for which, full disclaimer, I coordinate press and marketing) allow for a depth of insight into investigations beyond the scope of the mainstream, while innovative experiments like Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf — a fully operational mini golf course with individual holes designed by nine exceptional artists — bring welcome respite to the weary visitor while simultaneously probing important questions about the commodification of leisure – http://em15venice.co.uk.
Whether it be during a round of artistically inspired mini golf or settled in the hush of a darkened screening room, Okwui Enwezor’s Biennale does somehow manage, almost despite itself, to offer some glimpse at our collective future, even if only by bringing us together for a shared, sumptuous (occasionally torturous) aesthetic experience.