It’s massive: 130 artists, over 50 national pavilions and more than 40 collateral events across the city. It’s also largely irrelevant to the fate of Venice in a world of irresistible climate change.
Venice is in peril, its future grim; sea levels are rising, flood barriers are inadequate, giant cruise ships and billionaire super yachts cause unimaginable environmental damage; nobody is in charge, there is no plan and corruption rules.
On the other hand, the biennial does raise questions about the relationship between art and other human activities and experiences, even if issues of environmental concern are muted. After three days in late September, attempting to come to terms with what has been described as the most overtly political biennale for many years, a number of themes emerged from the central concept of the show, All the World’s Futures.
Whilst the environmental might have been the political key to the biennial two years ago, dominant this year were the issues of barriers and walls, and the growing impact of China around the world.
1. Biennale Miserabile: Of War and Walls
Like the fate of Venice, the art at the biennale is also a bit grim. To Alastair Souke, in the Daily Telegraph, the show was “hectoring and joyless” (“All the World’s Wounds rather than All the World’s Futures”) and “art hewn from horror and despair” for Gareth Harris in the Art Newspaper. Even the biennale’s curator, Okwui Enwezor, regarded the task of the biennale to examine “the state of things in a global landscape that again lies shattered and in disarray”, quoting the philosopher Walter Benjamin, on the angel in Paul Klee’s print, Angelus Novus, looking back at history in shock and disbelief as “one single catastrophe that keeps pilling wreckage upon wreckage”.
The Bell, the work of the Iraqi Kurd artist, Hiwa K, is emblematic of much that is in the show. It is made from bronze reclaimed from abandoned military hardware in Kurdistan. Motifs on the bell are based on artefacts stolen from the Mosul Museum by ISIS. It speaks of conflict and war, and rings with the desire for a Kurdish homeland and for peace.
There is further gloom in the main pavilion in the Giardini (which houses the core of the curated exhibition and is the first port of call for most visitors to the biennale). Around a central concourse, in which actors read verbatim the whole of Marx’s Das Kapital (to a largely empty auditorium, at least, when we were there) are art works on human rights issues, war and civil unrest, like Bruce Naumann’s neon signs proclaiming Peace, Death, War.
Further into the heart of the pavilion are works by Fabio Mauri, including The Wailing Wall, from 1993, a wall of suitcases evoking the collection of the possessions of the inmates of Auschwitz, and a ladder reaching up to the ceiling topped by a thin ledge inscribed with the words THE END.
A similarly existential cry comes from the American artist, Adrian Piper. Her blackboard installation carries the repeated sentence, like an ultimate punishment, “Everthing will be taken away” (Everything 2).
The misery goes on. No disaster or crime, now or in the past, is omitted from the range of individual works on show; from the plight of Australian aborigines, repression and war across the middle East and the denial of human rights to Palestinians, to videos on the recent Occupy movement in the west, in protest against the policies of globalisation. No “ism” is neglected.
The national pavilions, in the Giardini, the Arsenale and around the city, provide little relief. There is a good deal of attention to the negative and often dangerous role of boundaries and walls. Medecins Sans Frontieres and the so-called borderless age of information technology notwithstanding, lines on maps matter.
Whilst the combination of India and Pakistan in the same pavilion is encouraging (though it’s worth remembering that India’s border with Bangladesh, at 3360 kms, is the longest security border fence in the world) there is no solace in the pavilion of Georgia, with its Crawling Border installation, or in Kosovo’s Speculating on the Blue, South Africa’s examination of Trans-African Boundaries, or in Brazil’s exercise in unrelenting self-examination.
The Brazilian pavilion summarises much of what the curated exhibition was meant to stand for. The three artists, spanning three generations of protest in Brazil, consider the impact of walls within rather than between states, contrasting the gated communities of a utopian Brazilia with the dystopia of Rio’s favelas (Antonio Manuel); the (idealised) utopia of the Olympics with the dystopian life in an overcrowded and violent prison (Berna Reale); the fences, walls, ghettoised neighbourhoods and private security forces (Andre Komatsu) that give rise to a nation’s overwhelming “sense of shame” (Luiz Osorio, curator). Manuel’s installation, Occupations/discoveries, invites the viewer literally to walk through the damaged walls of some site of neglect or destruction.
Other national pavilions continue the task of covering all the world’s ills: New Zealand looks at the threatening power of the surveillance state; Ireland investigates the neo-liberal dangers of Adventure Capitalism; Greece, the consequences of austerity; and Belgium, predictably, navel gazes at its and other’s colonial past.
Those at the centre of current violence and war do not shy away from such conflicts whilst others revisit tragic events from the recent past. For Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries the focus is on the dashed hopes of an Arab spring; the art of Azerbaijan reflects the country’s repressive past under Soviet rule; The Poetics of Dissent, in the Chilean pavilion, references, through photographs and video installations, the overthrow of Allende, the imposition of military rule in 1973 and opposition to the dictatorship of Pinochet.
There are rare exceptions to the rule of the bleak and mirthless; the beauty of the Japanese pavilion, where the installation, The Key in the Hand, conveys ideas of trust and safety, or the rude fun of Sarah Lucas’ I Scream Daddio (pictured at top). Maybe they should provide the lasting image.
2.The Future’s Yellow: A New China Syndrome
When we got back from Venice there was a headline in the Independent Newspaper that caught our eye. The UK health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was urging his countrymen to “Work Like the Chinese”.
This, together with the controversial £2bn deal the UK has with China to build a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point — not to mention a branch of Legoland in Shanghai — and his charm offensive at the UN, with his pledge to give $1bn for peacekeeping and to support women’s rights (though not gay rights, if the recent UK TV programme on China’s Shock Therapy for gays is anything to go by) confirmed our impression from Venice that China was on the march, bidding for global domination in finance and industry but also in the arts, with the launch of what might be seen as a second Cultural Revolution, following Mao’s cultural purges in the 1960s — “Imperialism 2.0”.
Add to all this the opening of the major exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, of the work of the dissident Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, and one might be conspiratorially inclined to view the role of Ai as an unwitting Trojan Horse, opening up the west to yet further Chinese influence: Chinese money, Chinese goods and, now, Chinese art!
Whilst Ai is scarcely a presence at the biennale, his Gomleyesque ubiquity elsewhere in the world suggests that the artist, now based in Berlin, is seen by the Chinese leadership as an ambassador for Chinese culture, in the vanguard of a soft diplomacy offensive.
China’s pavilion at the end of the Venice Arsenale is vast, now cleared of the huge fuel storage tanks that previously formed an obstacle to any coherent curatorial strategy, a reflection of China’s former lowly status in the biennial pecking order.
In celebration of her newly liberated space, China has put together an exhibition of joyful exuberance, providing a welcome antidote to the relentless documentation of protest and misery of much of the rest of the biennial and, more significantly, a propaganda vehicle for the new China — no talk of human rights abuses here, nor in the industrial-sized, fabricated metal installations, Phoenixes, that hover over the waters of the old medieval dockyard.
It is left to other nations and artists to address the less savoury aspects of China’s role in the world. Her disputed claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea, the basis for a new maritime “silk road” to the west is the subject of Tie a String Around the World, in the pavilion of the Philippines. Installations, video and film record China’s interest in the island of Palawan, the gateway to the South China/West Philippine Sea, depending on your geo-political viewpoint.
Your East is My West, in the scarcely credible, joint India-Pakistan pavilion, focusses on the murder of Sabeen Mahmud, a Pakistani activist who led protests against China’s ambitions in Baluchistan, the route for a new overland silk road (and, incidentally, very much the reason for UK chancellor, George Osborne’s recent visit to China, where he was praised by the Chinese leadership for ignoring human rights).
Meanwhile, the official pavilion of Kenya was withdrawn from the biennale at the last minute. Kenyan artists objected to the fact that most of the artists selected to take part were Chinese. (You can still find images of the intended work on the internet.) Whilst it is difficult to know exactly how such bizarre choices were made, it is at least conceivable that the size of China’s economic involvement in East Africa, amounting to over $3bn, might have had something to do with it.
3. If it Quacks, it’s a Duck
Frieze, London, is an art fair. One-hundred-and-sixty four galleries from 27 countries hire expensive, tented real-estate in Regents Park for a weekend in October, to display and sell the work of their stable of artists. It quacks! It’s a duck!
The Biennale, Venice, is a cultural event. Over 50 states, 40 plus cultural organisations and more than 130 artists hire expensive real-estate in the Giardini, the Arsenale and in palaces, public buildings and even churches across the city and its canals, from May to November, to comment on the state of the world through contemporary art.
Is it a duck? It doesn’t seem to be quacking. Maybe it’s a swan or, more likely, an ugly duckling, a duck masquerading as a swan, with Venice really no more than a “wonderful place to do business”, in the words of Franklin Sirmans, of the Los Angeles Museum of Art, quoted in The Art Newspaper Biennale Guide. Cut out the artspeak, the Deleuzian jargon, curatorial casuistry and impenetrable prose and all that’s left is the hypocrisy of a high-end art market.
In an Art Newspaper article, Who’s Shoring Up Venice?, the authors examine the lack of transparency in biennale financing, much of which comes from dealers and collectors, and pose the question, Does money control the curatorial process?
The Canadian pavilion, with no apparent irony, revolves around an installation of a shop, with real and mock-up articles which, in turn, mock the system of consumer capitalism. None of the articles are for sale, unlike most of the works in the city. To exhibit in Venice adds value to the artist’s work.
More transparent is the role played by major sponsors, like Illy Coffee and Swatch Watches. If Christian Marclay’s twenty-four hour Clock (2010) had shown this year rather than in 2011, then it would probably have had all 12,000 clips emblazoned with the Swatch Watch logo, and a latter-day Andy Warhol would have painted Illy tins rather than Cambell’s Soup Cans.
Still, why can’t the commercial have aesthetic quality and authority and, maybe, the biennal is as much about concepts and the creative process as it is about commerce, “an incubator for ideas”. The evidence of Venice 2015, would suggest that is the case.
A Postscript: Walls, Frontiers, Razor Wire, and the Pathology of Borders
It’s mid October and we are at the other end of the Adriatic in Dubrovnik, South Croatia, sitting at a cafe inside the medieval walled city. Among the more traditional tourist offerings in our guide book is a temporary photographic exhibition, Homeland War, showing the bomb damage to Dubrovnik during the 1991-95 war against Serbia; a walking tour, The Story About the War, 1991-95; and War Photo Limited, a permanent exhibition of war photographs chronicling wars from Afghanistan to Dafur, the Congo to Iraq.
Looking up from our Illy coffees at the mountain range looming over the city, it’s just possible to visualise the threat from the Serbian and Montenegrin batteries positioned there during the the wars that followed the break-up of Tito’s communist state of Yugoslavia in 1990. Shell holes in the wall of a neighbouring building make the war that much more of a reality.
Yesterday we travelled across recently constructed frontiers to Montenegro and the walled city of Kotor, encased within a nine km barrier, still intact, that climbed up the town’s mountainous hinterland, then back down to the harbour below. The day before we were in Bosnia-Herzegovina at Mostar, on the river Neretva, the boundary or front line between Croat and Bosniak forces during the conflict that saw the deliberate demolition of the Old Bridge, Stari Most, by Croatian forces in 1993.
The bridge became a symbol around the world of cultural vandalism, like the destruction of the Buddhas of Babiyam by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan in 2001, or the more recent plundering and wrecking of ancient sites by Isis in Syria. At least the bridge was rebuilt in 2004 but it’s power to invoke its 427 year Ottoman past is diminished and its designation as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, has had the unintended consequence of reducing it to little more than a site of meaningless, tourist pilgrimage.
The architecture of the landscape along the south Dalmatian coast is dotted with walled cities, citadels built to keep out the enemy, in the case of the town of Ston, to defend its valuable salt pans from marauding Venetian pirates and Ottoman Turks.
In the pathology of frontiers, the writer and traveller, Ryszard Kapuscinski, summed up their contradictions. Frontiers and walls are both “a shield and a trap, a defence and a cage”. Unfortunately, lines on a map matter and often lie at the heart of many of the conflicts both inside and between states.
Back in our hotel room CNN News is pumping out a relentless stream of miserable narratives from, among other places, Croatia, but in the north of the country, some 600 Km away. Syrian refugees are flooding across the frontiers of Macedonia and Serbia, en route to Hungary and beyond. Razor-wire (the preferred material for some of the most potent work of the artist, Adel Abdessemed, currently on show in Venice) in Hungary then diverts the refugees west to Croatia and, with luck, into Slovenia and on to Austria and Germany.
The world, as well as our vacation, seems to have become afflicted with a need to construct ever more barriers. As our young guide in Dubrovnik succinctly explained it was Milosovich’s desire to move the lines on a map that caused all the trouble in the early years of her life. She was evacuated from Dubrovnik at the age of 4, in 1992.
And more walls were going up inside as well as between states. After a spate of seemingly random stabbings in Jerusalem, the Netanyahu government is now building walls between Arab and Jewish communities in the Israeli part of the city, adding to the already existing Green Line separating Palestinian East Jerusalem from Israel
And then there’s China? There seems no end to Britain’s desire to demean itself by becoming China’s new best friend with President Xi Jinping’s red-carpeted, 41-gun salute, state visit to the UK.
This is the same China that is attracting the military attention of the USA, with current and continuing US naval manoeuvres around artificial islands built by the Chinese in the disputed South China Sea and their proposed airstrip on the Fiery Cross Reef; and, despite her recent election to the International Publishers Association (further evidence of China’s cultural ambitions and the power and hypocrisy of the market) the same China that censors both internal media and even foreign literature, cutting the section from Paul Auster’s latest novel on Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese nobel peace laureate; and the China that occupies Tibet and oppresses minority ethnic and religious groups within its own territories.
Who says life doesn’t imitate art?