9 May – 22 November 2015
by NATASHA KURCHANOVA
“All the World’s Futures” is an appropriately broad title for this year’s Venice Biennale. It covers a wide variety of creative practices, styles and ways of being that came to be known as “art.” It is also sweeping enough to embrace representations and references to painful colonial pasts, controversial presents and anxiety before uncertain futures. Chief curator Okwui Enwezor referred to the exhibition in poetic terms by evoking Walter Benjamin’s famous description of Paul Klee’s print Angelus Novus as being hurled against his will toward a frightful future by the wind of history. To outline the biennale’s structure, the curator turned to irony, playing with the word “Giardini,” “park” in Italian, the location of the principal venue of the exhibition. He called this venue “a garden of disorder”, the sign of a disorganised world, reflected in the extreme diversity of art on display, heterogeneity bordering on a free-for-all havoc. From this point of view, Giardini became “the ultimate site of a disordered world, of national conflicts, as well as territorial and political disfigurations”. It is understood that focus on form saves art from sinking into chaos in reflecting the messy and muddled world. Apart from the Giardini, the exhibition spreads to the Arsenale, a former shipyard and armory complex, as well as multiple offsite pavilions and collateral events. Although other venues comprise contained units and, as a result, are more unified in their curatorial conceptions, overall the biennale fits Enwezor’s vision of a miscellany of ideas, creative styles and communicative choices. As a part of the international curatorial team, Enwezor is joined by Massimiliano Gioni, a curator from the New Museum in New York, and Bice Curiger, the artistic director of the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles in France.
Much art displayed in the Giardini deals with politics operating on local, national and international levels. The Central Pavilion introduces the subject by featuring at the entrance Fabio Mauri, a powerful but somewhat obscured presence in the Italian postwar avant garde. With multiple drawings referring to cinema and other media outlets and works such as The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall (1993), Mauri puts historical memory, the Holocaust, trauma, death and survival squarely at the centre of the biennale’s mission. Videos such as Christian Boltanski’s L’Homme qui Tousse(1969) and Naeem Mohaiemen’s Last Man in Dhaka Central (2015), as well as Mohaiemen’s 2014 graphic works about Bangladeshi violent military history in the mid-1970s, develop these themes further. As we walk through the pavilion, evocative sculptures by Walead Beshty, stirring videos by Chris Marker, a probing installation by Jeremy Deller, and stark black-and-white charcoal drawings by KM Madhusudhanan open up a world of suffering and strife, in which the most impressive element of the content is the human capacity to endure perennial violence and exploitation.
Apart from man’s fight against his fellow human beings, his fight against nature is another prominent theme running through the biennale’s Central Pavilion. It is manifested by such canonical works as Robert Smithson’s Dead Tree (1969), and the lesser-known cartographic explorations by Elena Damiani in The Victory Atlas (2012-13). John Akomfrah’s film Vertigo Sea (2015), played on three screens simultaneously, tells us about the crimes of the whale industry and the ruthless exploitation of the oceans. Apart from political subjects, the Central Pavilion devotes much space to painting, which is extensively represented by artists from Africa and Australia, including Inji Efflatoun, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Daniel Boyd. There is also a strong contingent of painters from the US, such as Kerry James Marshall, Wangechi Mutu, Ellen Gallagher, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson. A US-born artist, Adrian Piper, won the Golden Lion, the biennale’s highest award, for her installation Everything Will Be Taken Away, a poignant series of works on paper and objects that refer to the active erasure and manipulation of memory by today’s media and the educational system.
In their drive to accommodate a multitude of ways of thinking and stylistic choices by introducing new interpretations without forgetting history, the biennale’s curatorial team also invited such well-known names as Thomas Hirschhorn, who presents one of his destructive installations, transforming an exhibition space into a pile of debris. Isa Genzken shows a roomful of small architectural models, mostly white and mounted on pedestals. Hans Haacke exhibits his work from the mid- and late 1960s, including a striking Blue Sail (1964-65), a piece of gauze stretched loosely over a blowing fan, transformed into a living and breathing thing by a moving bubble of air. As far as video is concerned, Mika Rottenberg’s Time and a Half (2003) – and especially her NoNoseKnows (2015) – impress by formal invention and a remarkable ability to capture and hold the viewers’ attention from the moment their eyes hit the screen. Rottenberg’s taste for the grotesque combined with her colourful, exaggerated and somewhat surreal imagery enable her to tell an engaging story in purely visual terms, without the need for speech. NoNoseKnows, at the Arsenale, is displayed as an installation by construction of a special entrance leading into the theatre. Because the film is about the pearl-making industry and the hard work involved in making luxury items for the rich and privileged, the entrance hall is fashioned as a pearl shop, with strands of expensive merchandise carefully laid out on the counter and piles of loose pearls sorted in bags and other containers strewn about the place. The sense of connection between the installation and the film is made tangible by such details as powerful overhead lamps, which, similarly to those seen in the film, are hung above the counter.
Other notable artists at the Arsenale include the Cuban-born Ricardo Brey and Olga Chernysheva from Russia. Brey makes installations focusing on familiar, but not ordinary, objects and their potential for transformation and acquisition of new meanings. At the biennale, he installed 13 large stands, each with a range of objects whose titles described not only what they were, but also their potential for change – for example, Black Box (2009), Vienna (2012), Pan (Bread) (2010), Gabriel (2012) and El Temple Vacio (The Empty Temple) (2009). The titles are important for Brey’s work because each object recalls its form and at the same time opens up ways for other associations and transformative possibilities, engaging our gaze in exploration by provoking our imagination. Chernysheva showed a series of charmingly whimsical drawings of everyday scenes in charcoal pencil on paper.
National pavilions in the Giardini and in other locations accord with Enwezor’s description of the venue as a “garden of disorder”. Organised around a single artist, a group or a subject, each is a statement of a particular country’s political, social or aesthetic concerns, depending on the nation’s culture and social climate. The US, for example, was represented by a 1960s avant-garde icon, Joan Jonas, who showed multiple recent videos of children, and sometimes herself, performing in front of her filmed backdrops. She also decorated some pavilion rooms with glass beads, drawings and hand-made objects. The overall message is not of intermingling of life and art, but of their parallel and rather independent existence. The Russian pavilion, designed by Irina Nakhova, an artist of the 1970s generation of Moscow conceptualists, is a symbolic reminder of Russia’s political perils beginning with a huge spooky helmeted head greeting visitors at the entrance; a black cube of the central room with periodically closing skylight; and a room covered with red-and-green abstract patterns painted in the manner of military camouflage. At the opening, a number of people in authentically coloured green-and-black camouflage jackets entered the pavilion. Apparently, they belonged to a group of Ukrainian activists, and their action was in protest at Russia’s undeclared war with their country. However, since the activists did not explain the meaning of their action or engage in any activities that might have clarified their attitudes and intentions, the protest was muted. The Ukrainians make a far more forceful statement in their own pavilion, in which artists are holding hunger strikes while continuously watching the surrounding screens showing real-time videos of homes in Donbass in eastern Ukraine from which soldiers left to fight. Every time a soldier returns from the front, one of the artists ends their strike and is replaced by another.
Among less politically charged pavilions, those from Uruguay, Canada, and Poland are impressive for the originality of their message and unity of presentation. Marco Maggi’s installation at Uruguay’s pavilion consists of barely visible drawings on the stark white walls of the exhibition hall. Because the space is filled with bright light, visitors have to stand flush against the wall and strain their eyes to see thinly drawn circuit boards, fantastical architectural plans and improbable constructions covering the expanse of the wall. On closer examination, it becomes clear that Maggi drew these images on paper and pasted them to the walls, because the surface of the drawings is not flat, but wavy and rumpled, creating a likeness of a monochrome lunarscape with minuscule craters and hills. The title of the project, Global Myopia II, reflects the artist’s idea that perspectival vision is superfluous – one has to come close to see things clearly. At once referring to, and reacting against, the discoveries of such foundational avant-garde figures as Kazimir Malevich, Maggi has created an entrancing universe of global myopic vision.
BGL, a Canadian art collective, presents Canadissimo, a hilarious four-partite interactive installation, which culminates in a giant pinball game construction where the ball is replaced by a coin. Visitors enter a large scaffolding structure through a small convenience store, stocked with merchandise in packaging that looks and feels uncanny, because the lettering and images, though familiar, have been slightly altered by the artists to look fuzzy. Straining their eyes, the visitors may miss the actual cause of their unease. If they notice, it makes them appreciate the artists’ inventiveness and wit. From the store, the visitor proceeds to a sparsely decorated living room and then to a studio crowded with paints and abundant bric-a-brac crammed into every available inch of space. After the studio, the path leads upstairs to a scaffolding pinball structure, on top of which they are handed one-euro coins to throw into long and twisting gutters, which eventually fall between two panes of glass, forming a predetermined pattern. Taken as a whole, the work is fun and witty, engaging visitors from the start in an investigative journey through an environment that looks familiar, but also strange, ending up with us being drawn into a fun, non-speculative money game. Switching gears completely from the emphasis on perception through alteration of, or a play with, familiar environment, the Poles take on a seemingly more profound subject of exportation of national identity. They have accorded the honour of representing their country to the film Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01” (2015) by CT Jasper and Joanna Malinowska. Staged in a Haitian village, the film documents the preparation and performance of a 19th-century Polish national opera about a poor peasant girl rejected by her landlord. The work is well-made and enticing, and the odd fact of pitting two cultures raises pertinent questions about people’s and culture’s ability to accept outsiders into their midst.
Stepping out of the fold of our western art history and into a broader landscape of world traditions, Asian nations – Japan, Korea and Indonesia – demonstrated captivating and attractive pavilions. For Japan, Chiharu Shiota strung out what looks like millions of red yarn threads leading in each and every direction of the pavilion and leaving barely enough space for people to walk through. A key is tied to each strand of yarn, and two boats are placed underneath the entangled swarm, so it looks like the red clouds are rising from the boats like scarlet mist. There is a story behind the installation, connected to our memory of familiar things, such as keys. A visitor unaware of the underlying narrative still gets carried away by powerful mythical atmosphere created by Shiota. The pavilion of Korea, located next to that of Japan in the Giardini, plays a 10 minute 20 second loop of the film The Ways of Folding Space and Flying by Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho on two screens placed perpendicular to each other. The film is about a young humanoid living in a white, sterile, technologically created and managed environment. It is difficult to guess the age or gender of this being, since s/he resembles an automaton more than someone who is alive in the way s/he follows her daily routine of exercise, drinking water (this must be a post-food stage of human development), and moving about her pristine tech surroundings. At one point s/he encounters a large ball of water, which stays put together by some unknown gravitational force. Fascinated, the cyborg plunges her hands and then head into the ball, which makes ripples on the ball’s surface. Then s/he comes back, s/he resumes her routine. The film mesmerises by its repetitive seamlessness and fascinates by its depiction of a vision of a future lifestyle for later evolutionary of human types.
The Indonesian pavilion, located in the Arsenale, showcases Voyage – Trokomod by Heri Dono, an installation that proposes an entertaining reversal of western and eastern stereotypes. Dono, who has a background in animation, cartoons and Javanese puppet theatre, filled the space of the pavilion with roughly hewn constructions. Made out of metal and wood, the central object resembles a hybrid of a Trojan horse and a Komodo dragon, an object that looks like a hand-made armoured personnel carrier more than anything else. It is possible to go inside the belly of this stately beast and look into the periscope. There is not much to see there except the walls of the pavilion, but it also allows us to see the other’s perspective on traditional western symbols of military power, revealing them as being no more than stage props. Similarly whimsical hybrids between militarised boats, aeroplanes and winged spirits with dragon’s heads are hung around the room.
The Armenian Pavilion, which took the Golden Lion award for the best national pavilion, is distinguished first of all by its location. Situated in an ancient monastery founded by an Armenian monk in the early-18th century on San Lazzaro, a small island in the Venetian lagoon, it features the works of 18 artists who are of Armenian descent but are now scattered throughout the world. Among notable works, there is the beautifully crafted Hastayım Yaşıyorum (I am sick, but I am alive)by Haig Aivazian,a box-like object resembling a sarcophagus, and Hera Büyüktaşciyan’s Letters from Lost Paradise, which features letters from the Armenian alphabet. Most of the works are about the effects of the historical memory of the genocide, the first in the 20th century, which perpetuated the diaspora, and the spirit of survival that keeps the Armenian culture alive through personal histories and representations. The jury of the biennale, composed of four internationally acclaimed curators and a museum director, issued a statement explaining that the award was given to the “Republic of Armenia for forming a pavilion based on a people in diaspora, each artist engaging their specific locality as well as their heritage. The pavilion took the form of a palimpsest, with contemporary positions inserted into a site of historic preservation. In a year that witnesses a significant milestone for the Armenian people, this pavilion marks the resilience of transcultural confluence and exchanges.” As this statement makes clear, the international art community supports the preservation of diversity and cultural identity in its diasporic dimension, eschewing nationalism and life-or-death struggles of realpolitik. On the whole, the curatorial team of the 56th Venice Biennale has succeeded in mounting a diverse and culturally inclusive exhibition in which artistic quality is an obligatory attribute. The “garden of disorder” is also the garden of riches, in which the best works have a chance to be noticed.