Given the racially fueled unrest making news in the United States, Israel and across Europe, Enwezor’s focus on black and African history was incredibly timely. Here the Central Pavilion is adorned with GLENN LIGON’s neon sign, referring to an episode of New York police brutality from 1964, and OSCAR MURILLO’s hanging black canvases. All photos by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific.

May 13 2015

FIELD TRIP: Venice Biennale 2015 – “All The World’s Futures”

by HG Masters

Last week, the 56th edition of the ever-expanding Venice Biennale opened at countless sites across the sinking medieval city. With a three-tiered system, the Biennale is comprised of a central curated exhibition, national pavilions commissioned by governments or domestic art organizations, and collateral exhibitions, which pay steep licensing fees to be recognized as part of the Biennale’s programming (and are often commercial in nature). This year’s central exhibition, curated by the Nigeria-born director of Münich’s Haus der Kunst, Okwui Enwezor, and split between the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, is the mood- and topic-defining event for the festival, which spins off into countless directions from there. (Two more slideshows in upcoming posts will look inside the national pavilions and then at the collateral exhibitions.)

Entitled “All the World’s Futures,” Enwezor’s central exhibition was dense, trenchant, often didactic but occasionally poignant—though joy or humor were in short supply. As such, it was an index of artists’ approaches to encountering, or countering, the world today and the rich varieties of global misery. The artworks Enwezor selected addressed radical disparities between populations—whether due to colonialism, the global neoliberal economic system or entrenched racism—and he conceived the exhibition to unfold over time and space, through a series of performances in a new space, the Arena, in the heart of the Central Pavilion. 

Located in the center of the Central Pavilion, the Arena is a theater space used throughout the day for performances, including an ongoing dramatic reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867), orchestrated by ISAAC JULIEN and occurring thrice daily, in 30-minute increments. Above, a scene from KHALIL JOREIGE and JOANA HADJITHOMAS’s Latent Images: Diary of a Photographer (2009–15), consisting of terse descriptions of each image in Lebanese photographer ABDALLAH FARAH’s archive of postwar Beirut.

A tree by ROBERT SMITHSON, a painting by DANIEL BOYD, and, inexplicably, a school group touring the Biennale during the second preview day.

Karl Marx’s visage is split open to reveal his inner light-bulb in a drawing by the Delhi-based filmmaker MADHUSUDHANAN, part of his “Logic of Disappearance: A Marx Archive” series (2014).

THOMAS HIRSCHHORN’s installation made it look like the roof of the Central Pavilion had collapsed, one of the many pieces in “All the World’s Futures” acting as a not-so-subtle metaphor.

HUMA BHABHA’s pre-historic, or post-apocalyptic, totemic figures, with a painting by Australian indigenous artist EMILY KAME KNGWARREYE on the wall behind it.

Surreal and morbid, paintings by the late TETSUYA ISHIDA (1973–2005) chronicle the defeated social psychology of Japan’s “lost decades.”

Nine statues by RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE in the Giardini grounds, entitled Coronation Park (2015), referred to British rule of the Indian subcontinent, with cryptic lines lifted from George Orwell’s essay Shooting an Elephant (1936), based on his time as a police officer in Burma under the British Raj.

Between the Giardini and the Arsenale is the local Communist social club, which received lots of attention from the art crowd for this unholy union of Jesus and the hammer-and-sickle visible outside of its doors. Perhaps it was Enwezor’s local inspiration for the biennale.

BRUCE NAUMAN’s neons are the first works in the Arsenale, one of several canonical postwar artists who anchored the exhibition at crucial junctures.

DANIEL BOYD’s paintings, like many other works, were among those hard to appreciate in the Arsenale during the packed opening days, as museum curators led large patron groups around, clogging up rooms in what was already a very densely packed exhibition.

HIWA K’s The Bell (2015) was fabricated from metal parts left behind by warring armies in Iraq, with videos on the walls depicting the scrap metal collectors who work in his native city, Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

TIFFANY CHUNG’s maps of Syria are like poetic infographics, visualizing the devastating civil war there, albeit from a removed distance.

ALA YOUNIS’s research project into the history of the “Plan for Greater Baghdad,” which in 1955 saw Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier courted by King Faisal II to create structures in the Iraqi capital. Only a gymnasium was built, in 1980.

KATHARINA GROSSE’s installation was one of several interludes of pure, intentionally dismal abstraction within the show.

A poster from the GULF LABOR collective, who are demanding better working conditions for laborers building outposts of the Louvre, Guggenheim and New York University in Abu Dhabi. During the opening, they held a protest at the Peggy Guggenheim museum and will also hold a conference during July and August.

A chapel-like room was designed for CHRIS OFILI’s paintings, with wall decorations by the artist himself.

The urbanists RUPALI GUPTE and PRASAD SHETTY, based in Mumbai, displayed pieces from their “Transactional Objects” series that gives an absurdist take on vernacular city forms.

KUTLUĞ ATAMAN’s The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci (2014), depicting the head of one of Turkey’s most powerful families, was a flying carpet of 10,000 small LCD screens, purportedly showing all the people who know him or were impacted by his family’s business and charity work. 

For ten euros, you could buy one of 14,086 bricks made by Chinese laborers hired by RIRKRIT TIRAVANIJA that come stamped with the Chinese characters for the Situationist credo, “Ne Travaillez Jamais” (“Never Work”). Easy for artists to say.

EMILY FLOYD’s colorful geometric forms in the Giardino delle Vergini spell out the words “Concrete Labor” and are meant to be “social sculptures.”

XU BING’s pair of Phoenix (2015), named Feng and Huang, were created from construction material and suspended in the Arsenale.

56th Venice Biennale is currently on view until November 22, 2015. 

HG Masters is editor at large at ArtAsiaPacific.