All the World's Futures: The 56th International Art Exhibition, Venice
by Randy Lee Cutler
All the World’s Futures, the 56th Venice Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor, focuses its energies on politics apparently founded in a belief that works of art have the power to address the global inequality of capital and opportunity. This vision is shaped by three filters, Liveness: On epic duration, Garden of Disorder, and Capital: A Live Reading. The theoretical and performative heart of this Biennale, located at the Giardini’s central pavilion, is an active space called ARENA designed by artist-architect David Adjaye. Among its diverse program of live events are film screenings, piano performances, choral pieces and a seven-month durational reading of Karl Marx’s three-volume Das Kapital, directed by English artist Isaac Julien. Ironically, a new film installation by Julien, in collaboration with Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, debuted during the opening week of the festival, highlighting perhaps the economic extremes that have come to represent biennales worldwide. All this leads me to wonder how the curatorial premise informs the ways in which the artists at the Biennale are implicated in the very systems that they critique; and if this calls the function of such critique into question?
As the Biennale’s first curator of African descent, Enwezor has brought together artists seldom represented on such an international scale, with Africans in particular taking centre stage. All the World’s Futures showcases 136 artists from 53 countries, 89 of them appearing at the Biennale for the first time. This of course is admirable and important, despite the fact that much of the exhibition feels repetitive due in part to the dominance of video, the density of work on display and the often didactic quality of Enwezor’s aesthetic choices. While some individual artists stand out, especially Taryn Simon, Mika Rottenberg, Hito Steyerl and Steve McQueen, this Biennale was not as engaging as Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 The Encyclopedic Palace, which highlighted a greater appreciation for visualizing knowledge and personal cosmologies in contrast to Enwezor’s curatorial reimagining under the aegis of global action and social change where political theory more often than not has replaced the material energy and aesthetic wonder of artistic practice.
In addition to the two large curated spaces, the Arsenale’s Corderia (rope factory), an extraordinary 316-metre–long building, and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini di Castello, an oasis of greenery laid out during the Napoleonic era, are 29 national pavilions, built in various periods by the participating countries themselves. Additionally, the many national pavilions set in palazzos around Venice and the 44 collateral events further expand the project. The Australian Pavilion housing Fiona Hall’s negotiation of money and labour and herman de vries’ exploration of natural processes at the Dutch Pavilion are memorable examples of accumulation and engagement with local histories. The Golden Lion for Best National Participation was awarded to the Republic of Armenia, whose exhibition involves a breathtaking 10-minute boat ride to the monastery on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where artwork by contemporary artists from the Armenian diaspora speaks predominantly to the now 100-old Armenian Genocide. Like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, cited in Enwezor’s curatorial statement, the future is behind us as we move with our backs towards it and all we see is the accumulating detritus of our collective past.
Within this larger framework, the Canadian Pavilion stands on the Giardini grounds, hosted by the National Gallery of Canada and guest-curated by Marie Fraser with an installation by the three-person artist-collective BGL (Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère and Nicolas Laverdière). The work begins with the augmented lettering on the outside of the building spelling out Canadassimo, a literal sign that the pavilion has been amplified, expanded and transformed into something much more than itself. The suffix -assimo is a common form of emphasis in Italian, adding a qualifier of remarkable extremes. In this case, the Canadian Pavilion, with the appearance of a site under perpetual construction due to its scaffolding and recycled materials, is an art world version of Canadiana and more specifically an ode to the architectural and cultural vernacular of la belle province de Québec.
The pavilion is accessed through the replica shopfront of a classic Québec dépanneur (or “dep”), a store that sells beer, canned food and other household convenience items. (Apparently the material for the installation was transferred by boat, filling three 12-metre-long shipping containers.) With its poor lighting, stained walls and seemingly out-of-date goods, the simulacrum is initially quite convincing. The artists have altered much of the packaging by blurring images and text, making for a drunken effect that evokes a midnight run to the local dep for emergency cigarettes and cheap wine. The aesthetic would have been more convincing had all the objects been transformed; instead, only some of the boxes of Kraft Dinner, cans of Habitant soup, et cetera have been treated with hallucinogenic alteration. Once through the beaded curtains of this anteroom, the viewer finds the living space of the proprietor-artist-_bricoleur_, though it can also be experienced as another promising, but unfinished concept: there are few signs of habitation. The next room, what BGL has dubbed “the studio,” is where our corner store entrepreneur reveals a hoarder’s sensibility with an endless display of objects and materials. The debris includes discarded sports equipment, recycled junk, tools and shelves of terracotta sculptures. These latter forms, perhaps effigies to different gods, allude to the fact that many dep owners are often immigrants who bring their own cultural interpretations to these popular Québec institutions. In the centre of this room, tin cans are covered with colourful drips of paint. BGL’s sensibility is playful yet unresolved especially when these overly aestheticized objects are juxtaposed with the more mundane, more real bric à brac surrounding them. The kaleidoscope of paint cans suggests the residue of some kind of labour, perhaps the decoration of the terracotta figurines and yet they remain in their raw, untreated state. Ultimately there are too many gaps to make the entire proposition convincing. Is Canadassimo one large and inconsistent artifice or the uneven narra- tive of an outsider artist holed up in the back rooms of his dépanneur?
Conceivably, an engagement with labour and value is made manifest in the last of these adjoining rooms where a staircase leads to a second-floor outdoor terrace built of scaffolding and recycled materials with an elaborate Plinko contraption. The viewer can drop change into a slot and watch the money roll down the transparent walls inside the pavilion. The accumulation of stuff, whether old consumer goods, multi-faith sculptures, cans of paint and now money falling from above, points to themes of value (and devaluation), accession and excess. Canadassimo offers a seemingly lighthearted reflection on the Biennale’s curatorial theme and the principal questions that it poses: “How can artists, thinkers, writers, composers, choreographers, singers, and musicians, through images, objects, words, movement, actions, lyrics, sound bring together publics in acts of looking, listening, responding, engaging, speaking in order to make sense of the current upheaval? What material, symbolic or aesthetic, political or social acts will be produced in this dialectical field of references to give shape to an exhibition which refuses confinement within the boundaries of conventional display models?”1
Merging with the larger questions posed by the Biennale, the notion of the shop as studio is an intriguing motif that echoes beyond Canadassimo. For example, Francesc Ruiz’s magazine concession at the Spanish pavilion sells queer erotic graphic novels in homage to Salvador Dali. While the focus is not on the vendor per se, the installation points to the dominant role of art as commodity. Meanwhile Greece welcomes the viewer to Why Look at Animals? AGRIMIKÁ. Here, artist Maria Papadimitriouís has transported all the effects of a real tannery shop from the port city of Volos to the pavilion. The work is simultaneously a commentary on how humans coexist with animals and an allegorical reflection on the state of democracy wherein rights do not apply equally for all living beings. The highlight of the installation is an unsentimental video portrait of an older man recounting his life experience in this trade. The camera’s focus on his weathered hands evokes the passage of time and the very leather produced from years of toil.
Across Venice, on the other side of the Accademia bridge, is the Newfoundland & Labrador exhibition hosted by the Terra Nova Art Foundation at the Galleria Ca’ Rezzonico on the Grand Canal. The exhibition titled Under the Surface and curated by Chris Clarke presents work by Jordan Bennett and Anne Troake. Bennett’s Ice Fishing comprises an installation of a fishing shack and multiple video projections. The intimate documentary account between the artist and his father offers insight into the role of ice fishing in cultural and daily sustenance. The piece, both charming and informative, includes a banal voice-over by the artist that devalues an otherwise poetic rendering of life on the eastern edge of Canada. Troake’s 3D video projection, OutSideIn, is a haptic exploration of two dancers crawling their way through earth, roots and tree branch structures. The portrayal of landscape as a formative space where local ecology ultimately transforms the self into a collective force is generated across the two works. This sensual engagement with the natural world is in sharp contrast to the Canadian Pavilion where hidden artistic ambitions meet vernacular entrepreneurship.
It is unclear whether and how the national pavilions are meant to take up the Biennale’s larger curatorial theme. Canadassimo, with its dramaturgical space, is a playful figuration of disorder, accumulation and excess though the execution of the concept has yet to be fully realized. The most intriguing reading of Capital is Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows installed at the Arsenale. Framed as yet another shopkeeper’s space where the product is raw pearls, the work’s focus is a looping and hallucinatory video projection of rows of Chinese women labouring in the manufacture of cultured pearls. (Rottenberg incorporates “real” documentary footage of the prodigious pearl-making facilities of Zhuji, south of Shanghai.) Above the production floor, and linked by a human-powered pulley that makes a fan spin, a large Caucasian woman sits in an office sniffing bouquets in an ill-fitting suit, and suffering from an allergic reaction to the flowers. As her nose becomes impossibly irritated and elongated she violently sneezes out plates of Chinese food and pasta, ostensibly for the women working below. In this surreal vision, everyone is enslaved in a haunting depiction of global commerce, women’s labour and the inhumanity of all the world’s futures.
Despite some inspiring work and a deserving curatorial premise, the Biennale continues to underscore the particularly troublesome, entangled relationship between international relations, the art market and capital. With its focus on the politics of labour, information and spectacle, Marx’s analysis of the fetishization of the object as commodity has been dialectically subsumed under the sign of art.