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The title is undoubtedly imposing, it leaves an impression. It might even seem slightly pretentious. The 56th Venice Biennale, curated by the Nigerian, Okwui Enwezor, is called All the world’s futures. Even the phrase is overwhelming; one begins to imagine futures, many futures, all sorts of futures; my future, yours, the neighbour’s, that of my country, your continent, that of others, those from above, from below, the future of humans, animals, plants, the planets, all the world’s futures. All at once. These five words alone are enough to cloud one’s thoughts. They leave the visitor off kilter, incapable of establishing a solid or coherent base with which to begin the visit.
If there’s an adjective that defines Enwezor’s biennale it’s simply “overwhelming”. By way of an intense montage, that on occasions leaves little room between one work and another for digestion, the spectator is subjected to an avalanche of discourses, ideas, devices, works, performances, discussions, encounters and workshops that propitiate a sensation of impotency in the face of the intractable nature of the situation. The intention of the curator, fully aware of the actual history of the biennale and the relations established during this time, the different historic landmarks, seems to be for his project to mirror, reflect, examine and dialogue with the state of the question (The State of Things); with the issues, urgencies and difficulties blighting the world in our time.
It’s admittedly by no means a minor endeavour. The Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, or rather the reading Walter Benjamin made of this painting, functions as a precedent, an essence that permeates all the project’s intentions. Benjamin read apocalyptic overtones into the Angelus, in a Europe just before the Second World War, another period of brutal crisis. Enwezor recoups it to place it in the current moment, in which once again we face systemic ruptures, reminiscent of previous catastrophes in every corner of the globe.
Unlike the classical thesis exhibition, where works orbit around a clear subject, illustrating the discourse, this biennale consciously undertakes a project based on different discursive lines or Filters as the curator himself calls them. These interweave and superimpose, creating an amalgam of complex meanings that at first glance are hard to understand (just as it’s hard to understand the complexity of the world at a first glance).
One of the filters in play relates to the notion of disorder, (Garden of disorder). Disorder in global geopolitics, the environment and the economy. Present throughout the exhibition, scrambled together and stirred in with the other filters, it is perhaps in the Arsenale that this idea is most explicit. Moving through the entangled installation, with no clear or suggested order, the visitor discovers a structure that is repeated throughout the different rooms, divided into different corridors, lateral and central spaces, through which one has to pass and double back, slowly moving forward while taking care not to miss anything. The entrance is imposing, a large room where on the walls a series of neon signs by Bruce Nauman (produced between 1972 and 1980) dialogue with a disturbing new installation, by the Algerian Abdel Abdessemed, with knives of different types and sizes planted in the ground. Having traversed this room, the route through becomes increasingly dense and only the installation of Flickering Lights by Philippe Parreno, that expands throughout the space, offers a few pointers, encouraging us to carry on, to discover in this tortuous journey the magnificent series of drawings by Abu Bakarr Mansaray, a delirious vision of the memories of Sierra Leone, the war, the armament industry or the dictatorship of technology; the installation Balad of the lady who lives behind the trees, by the Palestinian Jumana Emil Abboud, which brings together notes, drawings and paintings with an exquisite spatial rhythm; or the hermetic installation New Reproduction by the Croatian David Maljkovic.
In the Central Pavilion of the Giardini the rhythm isn’t so chaotic, although the space is modified by a wall at the entrance which disrupts the beginning of the exhibition. Big names from art history, such as Robert Smithson, Hans Hacke, or Marcel Broodthaers are related to pieces by Runo Lugomarsino, Elena Damiani, and Munira Al Solh. Worthy of a special mention is the section of three rooms, with the paintings by Kerry James Marshall, the magnificent series of skulls by Marlene Dumas and the film by Rosa Barba. As well as the last room by Jeremy Deller about 0 hour contracts in the UK
Another of the filters is to do with experimentation, with extensive temporalities and distinct speeds (Liveness: On epic curation). Heeding this logic, throughout the length and breadth of the exhibition we find distinct performances, actions, reading sessions and a programme of events that unfold both spatially and over time, as a continuous, never ending live event. Some of the proposals are scattered throughout the exhibition, like The Sinthome Score, the project by the Spaniard Dora García, a transcription of the 23rd seminar by Jacques Lacan; or the subtle performative installation Indoor flights, by the Argentine Ernesto Ballesteros, a sort of workshop in which the artist is to be found constructing delicate and ultra-light planes tha fly around the space.
But without any doubt, the endeavour to work with this temporality has its epicentre in the ARENA, a wager to generate a meeting place for distinct live events, where the public can sit, meet up and attend the different proposals. Located in the rotunda of the central pavilion, it generates a strange sense of rupture in the exhibition route, while also enabling a distinct reading and a temporality different from what we are accustomed to in the middle of an exhibition (and even more so in a biennale). The proposals run from actions or presentations by some of the participating artists, specific invitations, to a series of readings of the three volumes of Das Kapital by Marx.
This is precisely the third of the filters (Capital: A Live Reading). Directed by Isaac Julien, the reading investigates the nature of the book through fiction and reality, proposing an exploration of its aura, effects and spectres. If bringing Marx to Venice can seem a somewhat vacuous or even frivolous gesture, it’s not entirely trivial to reposition Das Kapital (yes, once again) at the centre of the debate, and why not, to enable new approximations through very diverse formats in a performative scenario, one of choral dialogue.
Besides the special presentations of consecrated artists such as Nauman, Smithson, Haacke, Dumas, the once again vast film atlas by Harun Farocki, or the works of Adrian Piper (this year’s Golden Lion), this biennale houses a series of special projects that spill out beyond the exhibition space, generating once again other types of reading and rhythm. Supercommunity, a collaboration with e-flux journal, for example, develops an editorial project through a series of daily essays, by participants in the biennale and other guests, published online and distributed free. Some of them are read and commented on in the ARENA. There are other collaborations, such as a three day workshop in August with Creative Time Summit; the sessions with Gulf Labor Coalition dedicated to working conditions in the Persian Gulf and South Asia; the presentation of a work in progress throughout the Biennale, The Invisible Borders Trans-African Project; or that of the anonymous Syrian collective Abounddara, that works around the notion of “emergency film”. In addition a final publication will compile an archive, documentation and reflections on the daily process of the events in the biennale.
Obscure and hard to digest, the biennale offers a complex and blurry panorama regarding those futures, if any can be intuited. Enwezor seeks to escape the traditional display to propose materials, references, symbolic and aesthetic acts that can generate a different scenario for communication. While the intention is consequent with the discourse, and even necessary in a place like Venice, at time it gives the impression of having got stuck halfway. On the other hand, given the characteristics of the project, one would also have to monitor the whole biennale closely to be capable of assimilating the concerns of the curator and appreciate them in all their breadth and complexity.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)