GLENN LIGONA Small Band, 2015. Neon lights and paint, 189 × 2,025 cm. Installation view on the facade of the Central Pavilion for “All the World’s Futures,” 56th Venice Biennale, Giardini, Venice, 2015. Photo by Alessandra Chemollo. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

All the World’s Futures

56th Venice Biennale

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

As artistic director of Documenta 11, Okwui Enwezor wrote his own criteria for the curatorial avant-garde in a 2002 essay entitled “The Black Box.” He asserted that “museums and large-scale exhibitions cannot on their own define the legitimacy of contemporary art today; rather, they are caught up in reshaping their own legitimacy as a consequence of their delayed recognition of the complex topos of the new global community.” With this critique in mind, Enwezor vowed that Documenta 11 would “never see its conclusion in the spectacular spaces filled with art projects that the exhibition offers to visitors to Kassel.” While he extended Documenta 11 across five continents and five years (1998–2002), 12 years and many positions later, Enwezor, as curator of the 56th Venice Biennale (a very different institution than Documenta), produced a far more geographically and temporally contained mega-exhibition, occurring over months rather than years at sites around Venice’s eastern end.

With its sweeping title, “All the World’s Futures,” and many metaphorical descriptions, Enwezor proposed to address “the state of things” through “dialectical fields of references,” in an exhibition that unfolded episodically like a stage, where the works were “like an orchestra” preoccupying “the time and thinking of the public,” with spaces constituting “what could be described as a ‘Parliament of Forms.’” He proposed to achieve these aims through three so-called Filters, entitled “Garden of Disorder,” “Liveness: On Epic Duration” and “Capital: A Live Reading”—a mismatching list roughly corresponding to a theme, an artistic approach and a prescription, respectively—that were “superimposed on the other, in a series of recensions.” 

In its actuality, there were three major, interrelated themes in “All the World’s Futures” that were evident among many newly produced artworks: a strong representation of contemporary African, black, African-American and Afro-Caribbean experiences (themselves each distinct but related in postcolonial terms); the legacies of colonialism, war and social conflict (again, often interrelated but also distinct); and works that are, or are vehicles for, critiques of global capitalism. In between were diverse experimental forays in abstraction, filmmaking and performance—the royal-red stage in the Central Pavilion, dubbed the Arena, was built expressly for this purpose—that were no less weighty in their intent. Perhaps inevitably then, in tone, “All the World’s Futures” was a somber, occasionally didactic, account of the violent afflictions that shape our miserable present day. 

Though it seems to have been downplayed in official Biennale communications, for reasons one can only speculate about, Enwezor showcased African and black artists’ diverse practices—letting shine the wealth of cultural and historical material that underlies them—across both the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale. The modernist colonnade of the Central Pavilion was draped with Oscar Murillo’s funereal strands of blackened, oil-soaked canvases, while the building’s frieze bore Glenn Ligon’s neon sign that reads “blues blood bruise,” referencing a 1964 account of New York police brutality—both timely gestures that should be remembered in the context of recent acts of police murder, which have revived attention to the entrenched racism and violence facing black communities around the world. Elsewhere, American painter Kerry James Marshall paired the poignant skewerings of American suburbia in his figurative works with parodies of art-historical canons in his new, Rorschach-style abstractions. Music-themed sculptures by the late Terry Adkins (1953–2014) were dedicated to pioneering African-American figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, while Samson Kambalu displayed his extensive research into the Situationist activist and writer Gianfranco Sanguinetti. Even among already prominent names, such as filmmaker Steve McQueen, painter Chris Ofili and conceptualist Adrian Piper, were new, great works: McQueen’s moving two-channel film Ashes (2014–15) about a young Grenadian fisherman who was murdered in 2010 after he found a stash of drugs on the beach; Ofili’s chapel-like installation of his alluring canvases; and Piper’s blackboards scrawled with the repeating phrase, “everything will be taken away,” which reflects histories of racially motivated expropriation of property and rights and punitive cultural assimilation, or perhaps suggests a demand for reparations. The significance of seeing so many black artists at this moment—evoking so many diverse histories—at the Venice Biennale (or anywhere else), cannot not be ignored or understated.

TERRY ADKINS, Installation view of (left) Matinee, 2007–13; (center) Plinth, 2004; (right) Shenandoah, 1998; at “All the World’s Futures,” 56th Venice Biennale, Giardini, Venice, 2015. Photo by Alessandra Chemollo. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

Many postcolonial histories, explored in other works on display, also addressed instances of war and conflict. In the Arsenale, for example, were autodidact Abu Bakarr Mansaray’s drawing series “The Massaka” (1997), made during the 11-year-long Sierra Leone civil war (1991–2002). Hiwa K’s The Bell (2007–15), made in the style of the United States’ iconic Liberty Bell using scrap metal melted down in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, was a stirring encapsulation of the promises of liberation delivered to Iraqis by successive waves of liberators-turned-oppressors. Tiffany Chung’s map drawings of Syria (2011– ) are derived from infographics that chart the country’s implosion and are purportedly imbued with her own traumas stemming from the American-led war in Vietnam; yet they are distant, somewhat decorative abstractions, best evoking our own incapacity to imagine the reality. The curatorial counterpoint to this, perhaps, were screenings by the Syrian “emergency filmmaking” collective Abounaddara, which released a weekly documentary about the civil war from the ground. (Abounaddara subsequently withdrew their videos from the program on May 11.)

Although it is hard to deny Enwezor’s suggestion that “capital is the great drama of our age. Today nothing looms larger in every sphere of experience,” the Biennale’s treatment of economic topics was oddly retrograde and often hackneyed. Emblematic of this dated perspective was a room featuring Andreas Gursky’s historical—almost quaint—photographs from 1998 depicting “big-box stores,” such as Toys“R”Us, in American strip malls (since decimated by online retailers) and the electronic trading desk of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (today hijacked by high-frequency traders). Similarly jejune was Im Heung-soon’s full-length, interview-centered documentary Factory Complex (2014), which traces the exploitation of female laborers by Korean manufacturers—stories that, no matter how shameful in reality, are widely familiar since at least the anti-Nike sweatshop protests of the 1990s.

ADRIAN PIPEREverything 21 (detail), 2010–13. Vintage wall blackboards in lacquered wood frames and white chalk, four pieces: 120 × 250 cm each. Photo by Alessandra Chemollo. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

Fortunately, interrupting these tedious returns to late-20th-century complaints about globalization were some welcome, truly weird aesthetic interludes, such as Katharina Grosse’s grotesque rainbow-painted piles of dirt; Ernesto Ballesteros flying his own lightweight miniature airplanes in the Arsenale; and Christian Boltanski’s live-streaming video of Japanese bells suspended on rods in the Chilean desert.

While it remains a mystery why, and how, a major international biennial could feel so out-of-date on such a central subject, perhaps the most glaring omission in “All the World’s Futures” was the lack of radical imagining of alternative economies, environments and subjectivities—perhaps reflecting a millenarian’s view that there is effectively no future for us. Certainly any understanding of the way forward has to be predicated on an honest reckoning of the past. There are, in fact, artistic responses out there already reflecting on 21st-century economic developments—the waves of desperate migrants reshaping every continent, the flat-lined growth that necessitates the “sharing economy,” “the internet of things,” in which people and their objects are tethered, activated and even constituted via a virtual realm, the collective acceptance of permanent environmental degradation—but these were largely unaddressed in “All the World’s Futures.” Curiously, or appropriately, for all its emphasis on Marx’s Das Kapital (there were thrice-daily, 30-minute dramatic readings of the book at the Biennale, courtesy of Isaac Julien), Enwezor’s exhibition dealt most poignantly with the world’s current suffering the further it evolved from that most belabored of 19th-century texts, and its 20th-century partisans, and the more it addressed the cultures of resistance that have endured despite the retrenched neoliberalism that was yesterday’s future.