The preview week for the 2015 Venice Biennale has ended, and the smartly dressed, stunningly attractive cavalcade of art professionals, journalists, and cultivated elites has been swept off the island to the four winds, hard-won tote bags in tow. So, what is there to say about this year’s marquee exhibition, curated by the global-art brahmin Okwui Enwezor?
For one thing this is a show aimed at the conscience, not at the heart. The core of the exhibition can be found in the overcrowded, cerebellum-like central pavilion in the Giardini, where a continuous reading of Marx’s Das Kapital provides the Biennale’s ruminating leitmotif, a modulating expression of nostalgia, regret, pain, indignation, dashed hopes, and rage. The viewer is situated squarely in a world where the revolutions of the past have either failed or been co-opted and the noble left is in extremis and retreat.
This jolly atmosphere is hammered home at the outset of both exhibition sites: at the Giardini, the late Fabio Mauri’s towering sculpture of the suitcases of the dispossessed is ringed by elegant paintings and works on paper that declare “Fine,” or "the end," and is followed by a horrifying Christian Boltanski video from 1969 of a what seems to be a disfigured dying man coughing without stop; in the Arsenale, Bruce Nauman’s neons (one alternating “Death” and “Eat,” another blaring “American Violence”) surround plantlike clusters of machetes by Adel Abdessemed, given the ghoulishly ironic title “Nymphéas” as a sad nod to Monet. Around the corner, Terry Atkins’s tower of drums, an icon of resistance and voice-raising, is positioned in the crosshairs of a dead-eyed cannon down the aisle by Pino Pascali, as if oppression is primed to blow it apart. Don’t expect this to be fun, Enwezor is saying.
Here, a caveat is necessary. This is a very, very difficult exhibition, and intentionally so—it seemed tailored to elude the grasp of the people who hoped to consume it during a few days of the preview week. There is no wall text! With so much art flying in from so many diverse and often very foreign cultures (from a Western point of view), a viewer has to rely on guesswork and what Keats called “negative capability… when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, with our any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Either that or buy and read one of the expensive bulging catalogues during the week, and good luck doing so. There’s also a lot of video, including the feature-length (!) video by Im Heung-soon all the way at the end of the Arsenale (!) that won this edition’s Silver Lion for most promising new artist.
This is all to say that, while the exigencies of online art publishing demand fast and timely coverage, a reader should take any sweeping review of the show published during the first week with many grains of salt, particularly one that reductively dismisses this show as ugly or bad. It’s not either. In fact, it could be a sleeper masterpiece, if the artists, curators, and writers who come to see the Biennale over the next half year internalize its message about an engaged artistic discourse. We need much more of that in our staggeringly venal art world, at a time when people around the world are rising up against injustice and need inspiration and direction. Anyway, what follows here is a series of impressions rather than a review per se.
Let’s return to the fact that, despite its intellectual preoccupations, this is not an ugly show. There is such a thing as moral beauty, and that is present in spades. And there are passages of surpassing visual beauty, particularly in the Arsenale where Katharina Gross’s installation Untitled Trumpet fills a room with debris and hanging tarps all painted the symphonic, tie-dyed colors of rainbow sorbet and occasioning a glut of selfies to rival one of Kusama’s Mirrored Rooms. The coup de grace of optical pizzazz occurs further in, where a room of new rhapsodic paintings by Chris Ofili leads visitors into a chamber bedecked with the gorgeously colored woven organ-like sculptures of Sônia Gomes, the bravura figural collages of Lavar Munroe, ravishing aluminum quasi-abstractions by Gedi Sibony, lyrically ghostly paintings by Lorna Simpson, and a stage set of rapturous, gleaming gold by Jason Moran.
Also, while several prominent dealers have been complaining about the show’s impenetrability (read non-commerciality), the market will find several artists to love in this show. Those Sibony, Ofili, and Simpson paintings are all 2015, all push in a new direction for the artists (with Ofili further exploring the themes of his New Museum show), and are all eminently salable. The Croatian artist David Maljković has contributed what is perhaps his most market-friendly body of work, his 2013-2015 series of attractive constructed photographs on sculptural, wafer-like layers of powder-covered aluminum and MDF.
And who knew that Wangechi Mutu made such extraordinary sculptures, like the deep-black piece of a woman wearing a deconstructed dress of what looks like raven feathers lying down to contemplate a wax-covered disco-ball globe? The Peruvian artist Elena Damani’s sculptures of hand-carved and polished travertine, copper, and stainless steel are also impossibly elegant in a way that makes you want to take them home with you (whatever they’re about), as are her works on paper.
But, really, this is a show about activist art. Do its artists successfully engage the viewer’s attention, sympathies, and admiration? Yes and no. Two pieces succeed mightily by actively drawing in the viewer’s participation. Adrian Piper, who won this year’s Golden Lion for best artist in the show, has set up three stations where visitors can sign one or more “declarations”—“I will always do what I say I am going to do,” “I will always be too expensive to buy,” and “I will always mean what I say”—with the names of the signatories circulated in a mass list to the others who participated as a way of encouraging fidelity to the pledge.
Then, Hans Haacke has one of his famous opinion polls set up on iPads, so that people can fill out demographic information about nationality and income, etc. and answer questions like “In spite of differences on particular issues, do you generally agree with the pursuit of the United States’s policies in the world?” and “Aside from making expensive exhibitions projects feasible, do you think sponsorship by banks/corporations has an effect on the kind of exhibitions museum present and what is included and omitted.” At the end one sees the way others answered and their demographic breakdowns, and surrounding the iPads are the results of previous polls held in various places, such as the John Weber Gallery in 1972.
With these two works, you feel as if you have voted in some non-governmental way, and that your voice is both powerful and part of a collective. Other pieces also draw you into a stance, such as Gulf Labor’s massive banner calling attention to the way the Saadiyat Island museum complex’s construction is built upon labor conditions that require sharp recruitment fees and limit collective bargaining, and Taryn Simon’s extraordinary series of photographs of floral arrangements from the signing ceremonies of economic treaties (often smarmy ones) that she painstakingly recreated in her studio and then pressed into books that are displayed in vitrines.
Elsewhere, a room of photos and documents by Malawi’s Samson Kambalu called “Sanguinetti Breakout Area” thrills with its evident ardor for the politics of the radical Situationist International, as led by Guy Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti, providing photos and documents sourced from Yale’s Beinecke Library—although what, exactly, is going on there is decidedly unclear thanks to the absence of any explanatory gloss.
Elsewhere there are misfires, and some can be a bit silly. A room of videos by Chris Marker silently observing and exalting the activities of those who might be called ordinary workers—a farmer, a factory laborer, a museum attendant—is borderline parodic. And Oscar Murillo's project of placing canvases in classrooms around the world and allowing students to doodle on them in the name of art seems uplifting until you think about it too much.
Happily there are some breakout stars this year. Among them are Lili Reynaud-Dewar, whose memorable and vibrant video-and-song installation shows her dancing through old-world settings, and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, whose riotously colorful Aboriginal painting is one of the most lavishly eye-pleasing works in the show. Time, as always, will tell what else this Biennale adds to the artistic conversation.