Sometimes it seems the official pastime of the art world is to slam ambitious, large exhibitions. But for those who can’t find something to like in Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures, the International Exhibition of the 56th Venice Biennale, well, they’re just not trying hard enough.
As widely reported, the Biennale organisers were keen to address the sum of human development and technology in what they term the resultant age of anxiety. Enwezor meets this mission and then some, moving past the acknowledgment of global hostility and finding potential — even hope — in the unrelenting phenomenon of human evolution. After all, this mortal coil began by walking on all fours and eventually learned to control fire.
Bruce Nauman, Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain. All the World’s Futures, Venice Biennale
The Arsenale portion of the show gets off to a strong start with neon works by art star favorite Bruce Nauman paired with clusters of knives by Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed. The juxtaposition of highly recognisable, slick work with the rustic output of a newer practitioner gives viewers a taste of what’s to come — but all arrogance should be checked at the door lest anyone believe than can call it before some serious looking.
Following the tone of aggression set by the first room, a forceful drumming heightens the visceral level, and viewers are hit with an onslaught of visually tough works from the constructions of blackened scrap metal by Mel Edwards (the first African American sculptor to show solo at the Whitney Museum of American Art) and Chinese Zhijie Qiu’s crammed JingLing Chronicle Theater Project installation to Iranian Raha Raissnia’s Longing, 2014, a gritty 16mm film of the grim indignities faced by marginalised communities. The cacophony of the assembled works, however, successfully results in the curatorial trick of displacing the viewer, providing the necessary attitude adjustment to enter Enwezor’s world. Of course, a significant part of the rigour of these initial selections is the artists’ aptitude for using visual appeal to command viewer attention.
Qui Zhijie, Jinling Chronicle Theatre Project. All the World’s Futures, Venice Biennale
Katharina Grosse’s fittingly titled Untitled Trumpet, 2015, a room installation of multicolored mountains of pigment, heralds the way like a rainbow Armageddon. It’s at this point Enwezor starts to bring works inspired by social and political consciousness of a somewhat didactic nature into the mix. Moscow-based Olga Chernysheva’s Untitled Escalations series of drawings is punctuated with wall text reading, ‘I would like to change places with you for a while to look at the world through your eyes’, while a 2013 work by Adrian Piper posits the contract of civility as a game — three kiosks feature women promising to behave as advertised by the wall text behind them: ‘I will mean everything I say’, ‘I will do everything I say I will do’, and ‘I will always be too expensive to buy’.
Passing videos alluding to disgruntled personal relationships, the show’s aural element morphs into more melodic sounds. The track of Carsten Höller’s video of a political hip-hop band is no less than joyous.
Chantal Akerman, NOW. All the World’s Futures, Venice Biennale
A pause is created by Chris Ofili’s installation of large-scale painting, which nearly demands the belief not only in the healing power of art, but of painting as its god-king. A point reiterated by new large-scale canvases by Lorna Simpson, best known for her identity politics photography. With these, along with other large-scale works by Georg Baselitz, Enwezor proves himself to be a true believer, a bona fide member of the art club, all of whom eventually come to conclude that painting is the high mark of human achievement.
But the curator is a fan, to be sure, of all mediums and the employment of beauty to draw the gaze. Although Iñigo Manglano Ovalle made nearly identical work in the 1990s, the Propeller Group’s bullets shot through a block of clear gel mesmerises. It’s a lush precursor to Chantal Akerman’s speed junkie reverie in a black box, featuring five stagnated screens flaunting imagery from a camera speeding past a mountain landscape tracked by a melange of explosions, bird sounds, clomping horses, screams, falling bombs, sirens, Native American songs, and bullet fire. On the floor at the room’s back are kinetic, illuminated dioramas as if the world’s inhabitants are a bit too eager to leave the beauty of the natural world in favour of sickly-sweet synthetic simulacra.
Melvin Edwards, Dakar. All the World’s Futures, Venice Biennale
Similarly, the room pairing Turkish artist Kutluğ Ataman’s 2014 The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci, a glowing wave of some 9,000 LCD panels of changing head shots suspended from the ceiling and Chris Marker’s Passengers, 2011, snapshots of French train commuters comment on whether moving through digital space or actual space is more real.
In the face of such alienation comes another clever curatorial turn: Enwezor’s penchant for performance and its inclusion as a component of many of the works on view. Amid the experience of individual contemplation, the presence of a live other requesting an audience seldom fails to command glancing attention, at the very least. We are a social species, after all. Drawn in, we’re forced to believe that answers to our ills just might lie in human connection.
Main image: Curator of the 56th International Art Exhibition, Okwui Enwezor
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