Plugging in and Moving on: Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures
Report from… Venice
Okwui Enwezor’s two main presentations of the present and future of visual culture, at the Arsenale and at the Giardini’s Central Pavilion, are difficult, provocative and unwieldy, as intended. The work shown at the Arsenale is like a full course meal from soup to coffee, the Central Pavilion at the Giardini is more like a cafeteria style serving of a range of dishes you can choose yourself. They each have their advantages. One starts, in Room 1, with the American artist Bruce Nauman’s well-known neon antinomies such as Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know (1983), which annoyingly and persistently flash their contradictory assertions at you from the darkened walls. They share this space with the 2015 work of Algerian/Parisian artist Adel Abdessemed, whose swords and machetes are clustered, sticking up from the floor, and titled Nympheas or water lilies. The works of these two artists, in their darkened room, as a prologue to what follows, don’t so much re-enforce each other or dialogue, as present two contrasting manners of plugging into the culture around them, Nauman as signage of pop-culture aphorisms, and Abdessemed as a relevant yet straining op-ed page metaphor. The viewer is put in a mode of plugging in, connecting to the work, extracting fragmented meanings and pleasures, and moving on. The implied point is not so much to seek unified understanding or unifying judgments of value and resonance, but to seek rhapsodic impressions, maybe snatches of fact and opinion, and continue to the next.
Toward the end of the Arsenale, in Room 11, at another terminus of this cultural multiplicity, is a room containing among other works, Rikrit Tiravanija’s Untitled 2015 of 14,086 unfired clay bricks with the Chinese characters which one can take for a donation of 10 Euros. The money goes to an organization supporting Chinese worker’s rights. Also in this room is Maria Eichhorn’s presentation of works created on site by volunteers on blank canvases painted with a single color (Toile/Pinceau/Peinture, 2015. So here audience and viewer are invited to participation and engagement, undermining and subverting passivity and viewing. One enters the workshop and can assume a living role in relation to works in the states of production and distribution. In this room is also a continuous performance by two people of Dora Garcia’s The Sinthome Score (2014 – 2015). One performer reads and one assumes assigned choreographed postures related to the text based on a Jacques Lacan seminar, and they alternate roles periodically. The viewers are left to interact as they wish with the performers. Works like these that once seemed to grate more strongly against prevailing norms, now seem largely unmoored and single-minded. While the future always holds the possibility of forging more connections to these works, the connections offered seem weak in the present. The actual final room of the Arsenal, Room 12, extends these ideas in the works of Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera.
Enwezor proposes three filters for the exhibit, and possibly for a view on contemporary culture and the art world at large: the filters of liveness and epic duration, the garden of disorder, and reading capital. And presumably Enwezor’s filters should be seen in relation to culture and art in states of permanent transition with unfixed goals and concepts, as he has previously described the art world. Enwezor’s title for the whole mass of works is “All the World’s Futures.” The ambition Enwezor presumably sees in the works and their being brought together is admirable for embracing both the anxieties and hopefulness implied. In the end, in my opinion, its value is supported not only by the Marxian evaluations of value, work and effort but also by a Kantian critique of experiential engagement, implied in numerous echoes in Enwezor’s essay on the shows filters.
Between Rooms 1 and 11 are the works of roughly 90 to 100 artists and collaborative groups that cover a range of contemporary visual art, performances, videos, sculptures, films, installations, objects, images, and paintings. They follow a range of concepts and impressions that resist unification, fixation and rigidity of thought and experience, and they serve to extend in various manners the ideas of 19th, 20th, and 21st-century observers ranging from Marx, to Kristeva, and Jacques LaPlanche to Enwezor himself. Likewise they extend the ideas and works of various artists extending from Romare Bearden and Gerhard Richter to Rauschenberg, Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson and Joan Jonas – the last two represented in the Arsenale and the US Pavilion respectively.
One further focus or group of ideas to access these works is provided by the judgments of the jury in awarding Adrian Piper, Massinissa Selmani and Harun Farocki, respectively, the Golden Lion, Silver Lion and Honorable Mention. While Piper moves closer to the concerns of Room 11 and Garica and Tiravanija than perhaps Nauman and Abdessemed, it is important to notice that her work offers multiple connections to contemporary culture, if mainly through social and artworld institutions and their critique. Her primary work in Room 5 is The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game # 1-3 (2013). Three performers/recorders sit at three circular desks with three aphorisms – or brandings – in gold on the wall behind them. Viewers are invited to register into a system where contact information is eventually shared with other registrants and contact is made, which is recorded and kept as part of an ongoing archive of contacts. Even viewers not registering are made aware of a system of which they are not part, going on around them, paralleling everyday experience of social, political and commercial exchange. Piper continues to highlight the inclusions and exclusions that go on around us and provoke our knowledge of them. While clearly conceptual in its premises, Piper’s work offers several parallels to the culture of the art world and the culture of everyday life that locates it and gives it more than a single focus.
The Czech German filmmaker of a mixed German and Indian family, Farocki who died last summer at the age of 70, is presented through a section of Room 8 which shows an atlas of his films on small screens in a matrix around the walls. I am not sure if this is the best way to either be introduced to his works or to sum up his works. But the films themselves are careful observations of everyday life through short, often found, footage. Again, like Piper’s works, his offer multiple intersections to the world of art and the world of every day life, including his re-working of ideas of, among others, Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard.
Farocki’s inclusion, like that of Terry Adkin and Chris Marker, remind us of recently deceased artists whose works continue to make their impact on ideas of other artists; Farocki and Marker in the mode of film and photography and Adkin in the installation of sculptures with African American and musical references and sources.
Massinissa Selmani was born in Algeria and studied in France. His works, such as the drawing series A-t-on besoin des ombres pour se souvenir? [Do we need shadows to remember?] (2013-2014), are sparse, almost illustrational, drawings of news events and photos, which document both the quotidian nature and the bizarreness of reported news. Selmani has also worked in short projected animations and photo collages to report on actual events and planned utopian social structures. Like other artists showing at this Biennale, his works record and diagram present moments and idealized plans. Like Selmani, the artists Joachim Schonfeldt and Madhusudhanan, use drawing as an end in image making in order to portray and report on how the world is simplified and reimagined through our observations and experiences of it. In the works of these artists which serve to represent both deadpan and dreamlike image making, recording the present moment is more prevalent than presenting structures and images that break down or pull apart our sense of the world to move us into the future. Rather than rebellion of the present moment as a precondition for future development, the respect for present moments becomes a prerequisite for modeling future thoughts. Selmani and Schonfeldt use drawing as just one of their media, exploring similar connections to political and social events through photography, and film. They both are using fixed image media in ways that parallel Farocki’s use of short films, which is to say as a media for creating essays on current events and for reflecting opinions about these events.
The stated curatorial premises of the Biennale, in dialogue with the works themselves, yield an interesting emphasis on works that stress the present as a model for engaging the future. These works are strongest when they offer more than one connection to the current art world and the culture at large.
But not all the works fit neatly inside the narrowest confines of the promise of the curatorial concepts. The widest readings of liveness, disorder and value lead in some other directions. Some works stretch across a wide range of cultural concerns including those from recent, if not contemporary, art history. As Amanda Sarroff discuses in her comments on Gedi Sibony’s paintings in the Short Guide to the Biennale. His works touch on concerns of Arte Povera, Minimalism, and Rauschenberg’s combines. Sibony paints on and over aluminum sheets often printed with other images from their previous uses as sides of trucks. In works such as The Shake (2015) and One Foot to Shoe On (2015), he manages to engage, almost as collaged elements, shapes and partial images from commercial messages as abstract elements in large abstract images of three or four colors and a similar number of shapes. In a way that seems to move back and forth from a magnification of small scales to a shrinking of immense scales, Sibony creates a virtual world of image and light that seems recognizable from both the physical and the digital worlds of structure and space, and from art works of the past and the present.
Some of the most moving works in Venice, among a host of notable works that there is not room to mention here, go beyond the curatorial issues of the exhibitions. And yet they carry out the promise of Enwezor’s curatorial premises. Jenny Holzer’s installation from her “War Paintings” Series at the Correr Musuem make moving visual statements. Holzer’s works are large printed canvases of the redacted statements of the United States military and intelligence reports concerning interrogation of those held in the Iraq War. They are shown among the paintings and artifacts at the Correr Museum of Venice’s past glories and accomplishments. They run the risk of exploitation of the topic and people involved, and yet they can be defended both as acts of journalism and art. They quote the words of those interviewed as represented in the documents released by the freedom of information act. They stand as un-easy records of words and acts classified as “interrogation,” but clearly of actual inhumane and cruel treatment of the interrogated.
Many of the works at the Biennale embody the Enwezor’s focuses of a Garden of Disorder and Reading Capitol in relation to the world at large. Good examples are Helen Sear’s “. . . the rest is smoke,” and the Invisible Borders: Trans-African Project, a collaboration initiated by the Nigerian artist Emeka Okereke. Sear and the Trans-African Project both show a series of projections and photographs, which address the place of humanity in relation to the natural world, our use of the natural world as a source of economic value and desired goods, and our reliance on our environment and political structures. At this point we could call this a presentation of imaginative reporting and engaged looking, which is maybe the same thing. They offer us a vision not of a road map for the future, but of a cautionary tale of future choices. If our use of images and art is to bring to life shared stories about our world that both report on its condition, and also allow further considerations in our own thought, then Sear’s and the Trans_African Project’s series of projection and photographs stand as one clear example of how to accomplish this.
“Slip of the Tongue” at the Punta della Dogana curated by Danh Vo provides a contrast to the Biennale that tells a different related curatorial story of contemporary works. If the Biennale provides an example of the strengths of curating contemporary works in an attempt to place them so they both tell their own stories and offer interesting dialogues with each other, this show – also huge in its scope with 50 artists or more spanning eight or so centuries – shows some strengths and some weaknesses of curating works from a single and more impassioned point of view. The sharpness of Vo’s viewpoint is evident in both how he separates the works, and how he brings them together. In short, some of the works exude a passion and breadth of thought that allows them to play brilliantly and at times subtly off each other, and sometimes they become shallow and more desultory. At times one feels Vo wants us desperately to relate to the works as he does, but we can’t locate our history and connection to them.
In both “All the World’s Futures” and “Slip of the Tongue” there are examples of curatorial intelligence in allowing works separate spaces to speak for themselves: for example in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini, the three works of Wangechi Mutu, and at the Punta della Dogana the Cri du Coeur (2005) and “Codex Artaud” series (1971 – 1972) of Nancy Spero. But also there are places in each when the works are placed to allow the voices of the artists to be heard in concert or in contrast to each other, such as Nauman and Abdessemed mentioned above, and at the Giardini, the works of Huma Bhabha and Ellen Gallagher. At Punta della Dogana there are several examples of dialogues attempted and provoked. The oddly at once subtle and jarring sculptural juxtapositions of Jean-Luc Moulene’s La Toupie (2015) yields a set of difficult but interesting comparisons with the awkward but material directness of Sadamasa Montonaga’s Work 1961. Likewise, Moulene’s work contrasts but enriches aspects of Vo’s pieces, also close by. Both curatorial objectivity, like Enwezor, and curatorial passion and conceptual pointedness, like Vo’s, can have advantages and disadvantages.