Why this Venice Biennale is so political

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by Rachel Heidenry

So far the 2015 Venice Biennale has received mixed reviews. Many critics and art enthusiasts have expressed their disappointment in the show’s curation, while others claim it is just too hard, too difficult. Nearly all celebrate the long roster of artists – over 136 representing 53 countries – but also question if that is the show’s downfall. And finally almost everyone has described the show by saying, “It’s a political one,” – which indeed it is – but most have not gotten to the heart of what that means.

As arguably the most important contemporary art event in the world, the Venice Biennale is incredibly symbolic. In some years, it succumbs to the pretentiousness of the art world with aesthetics ruling supreme. In others, the show becomes directly tied up in the historical moment, such as in 1968 when student protesters used it to demonstrate against the growing institutionalization of the art world. The Biennale has come to symbolize where art is today, what artists are thinking about, and what it means for the world. And while many contest its power or point out its inaccessibility for many, almost all would acknowledge that no reoccurring exhibition holds so much weight – both inside art history books and outside of them.

Indeed, at the core of the Biennale is the intent to pause, to look at the work being created today, from around the world, and to reflect. This year the Biennale’s governing body chose Okwui Enwezor as the head curator – a decision that, given Enwezor’s previous projects, immediately reveals an interest in the social and political thrust of contemporary art. Indeed, Biennale president Paolo Barrata writes in the exhibition’s introduction, “Our aim is to investigate how the tensions of the outside world act on the sensitivities and vital and expressive energies of artists.” Pointing out that “external forces loom large,” the governing body chose Enwezor directly because of his proven ability to balance politics and culture, war and beauty, art and power.

And so Enwezor – now based in Munich but of Nigerian origin – is clear in his intent. His exhibition, titled All the World’s Futures, is envisioned as a “Parliament of Forms,” a stage for dialogue, thought and investigation that probes the current state of things and the appearance of things. He also demands diversity, and, in doing so, brings together a grouping of artists that have so much to say that time to listen becomes the only thing standing in one’s way.

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The show has three core phases: Garden of Disorder, Liveness: On Epic Duration, and Reading Capital. These filters, as Enwezor explains them, offer lenses through which to interpret and explore the art on view. Central to these filters is the importance of labor. Each day, Marx’s Das Kapital is read aloud – footnotes included – by two actors in the Arena – a centralized place for live performance, readings and film screenings, complete with multi colored pillows for guests to rest on. While the success of the content presented in the Arena varies, the concept of reserving a space in the middle of the Biennale for spoken word is brilliant. It presents a physical place of reflection that mirrors the prerogative of the event and acknowledges a crucial component of art today – the public.

And while the epic reading of Das Kapital is often confusing and distracting for the viewer, what is important about presenting a text from 1867 as a framework for an exhibition in 2015 is the concept of building and unmaking. Enwezor stresses that building and unmaking from past Biennales, past words, past artists, and past movements are critical to building the future. Indeed, this concept gets to the heart of All the World’s Futures. Any notion of the future must include reflection on the past and on the present. As Paolo Baratta stated in his press conference, “The present demands to be understood through history – evoking the fragments of our past, which cannot and should not be forgotten.”

As such, throughout the Giardini and Arsenale, historical pieces are paired with the contemporary and contemporary works are paired with the historical. We contextualize Walker Evan’s photographs, Chris Marker’s films and Hans Haacke’s polls in relation to great contemporary works – Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige’s books, Tiffany Chung’s maps and Hiwa K’s bell. Memory and time are balanced in a way that remind us that contemporary art builds from ideas that came before, and that as much as we need art to tell us about the present, we must also look to the past to inform the future.

This gets to one reason why this Biennale is political – because it was time for it to be. Building off of the previous iterations, the Biennale has been growing toward a place that communicates the urgency present in so much contemporary art. Whether overt or subtle, socio-political realities are embedded in many artistic practices and it was time for the Biennale to explicitly reflect it. More important, it was time to demand the world to reflect on it.

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As many have already pointed out, to say that the Biennale is an enjoyable experience would not be a fair statement. Every medium is represented in multiple quantities. It is exhausting, nearly impossible to absorb in its entirety. Between the exhibition’s scale and content, frequent breaks are required. Just when you’ve sat through a 20-minute video installation, you turn the corner and find another. Indeed, for a viewer moving through the space, the show arguably fails. And yet, despite the necessity of pauses, to walk the entire Arsenale at one go is also an important experience. The feeling of moving from artwork to artwork, from theme to theme, brings one to a specific state of mind. It is too much – something we rarely acknowledge, let alone feel.

In an exhibition of this size, therefore, the names and pieces that linger long after you’ve left are the ones you know are most successful. For me, over one month later, the works I can’t stop thinking about include: Fatou Kandé Senghor’s 2014 documentary Giving Birth that follows the life of a Sengelese sculptor as she balances tradition with modernity; the intimate demonstration drawings by Rirkrit Tiravanija; and Walead Beshty’s fragile Mexican newspaper clippings blowing in Venice’s wind. It is that first gaze of the Giardini’s Central Pavilion in which Oscar Murillo’s heavy black fabric is draped between the central columns with Glenn Ligon’s text piece “Blues Blood Bruise” above. It is Adrian Piper’s “Everything will be taken away.” It is Emily Floyd’s Labor Gardens. It is Xu Bing’s Phoenixes.

Together, it is the chorus that was created by hundreds of artists from around the world reiterating the fact that art is so very urgent. Whether thematically focused on political or social upheaval, the environment, loss of tradition, memory, or transition every work of art is relevant. Nothing is purely there for the sake of aesthetics or gimmicks or the market. Rather, each artist contributes a consciousness – an intent to respond to some detail of the world in order to reveal something much larger. Even though Okwui may have failed to create an exhibition that fell into a perfectly synced experience for the viewer, he succeeded in creating his “Parliament of Forms” – a space for dialogue and debate – that, like its political inspiration, is often disorderly and confused.

So back to the core question – what does it mean to fill the Biennale with politically minded art and artists? What does it mean to exhibit works featuring an abundance of weapons, countless references to oppression, and overt displays of pain? What does it mean to bring 136 artists to Venice, to give them a forum to speak and then invite the entire world to listen?

It means, despite the glass cases, record-breaking sales and façade of exclusivity, art still matters – it reveals the world to us. For some, this statement may be obvious and, for others, it may not be. Regardless, artists show us, in myriad ways, what isn’t always obvious to the naked eye. They dissect what has already happened, what is happening, and present to the world images for the future. They change, inform and create history – often when they aren’t even trying to. And what is special about this Biennale, about this group of voices, is that Enwezor invited artists who want to be heard, who acknowledge their socio-political intent, and who believe you should listen.

All the World’s Futures is an exhibition that responds to and comments on the world – to our world, right now. It is about history and memory and us. Yes it is exhausting, and time-consuming and difficult – but so is contemporary life. And while not every work on view will grab you – indeed, not everything can – something undoubtedly will enable a moment of contemplation that makes you think beyond the context of the show and consider the state of things – or even the state of a thing. So if the Venice Biennale is indeed about pausing to acknowledge art worth experiencing today, then Okwui Enwezor reminds us that the political has and continues to have an important place in art, and that it is our responsibility – the world’s – to look, and listen, and try to understand.

All the World’s Futures is on view at the Venice Biennale until November 11, 2015. 

All photographs were taken by Rachel Heidenry.

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