Venice through Tinted Spectacles

56th Venice Biennial



In search of a novel vocabulary to express his curatorial vision for the 56th Venice Biennial, Okwui Enwezor proposed to organise the central exhibitions according to ‘Filters’, which he cast as the Garden of Disorder, Liveness: On Epic Duration, and Reading Capital. Agreeing on the necessity to filter through the abundance of competing artistic positions in the main exhibition, national pavilions and collateral events, we decided to focus our review also along three axes: East European representations, Marx and epic commercialisation, and the spectre of the anthropocene.

To arrive at these positions entails putting on tinted spectacles and passing through the bright red of the Japanese pavilion, the glow of primary yellow in the British, a Swiss pavilion bathed in the pink-green pastels of the cosmetics industry, the deep green of the Russian pavilion and Kosovo’s electric blue. While reverting to a basic appeal to the qualities of pigment was one branding strategy visible in the national pavilions of the Giardini, others opted for the equally painterly predilection for greyscale, with the Australian pavilion re-clad in black, and the Austrians, Czechs, Croatians, Finns and Hungarians all going for a black and white ambience.

By rebaptising the Russian Pavilion as the ‘Green Pavilion’ and literally returning the building to its original green hue, Irina Nakhova, the first woman artist to represent Russia in Venice ever, triggered a range of associations around the politicised use of colour by artists in Eastern Europe. She referred back to fellow Moscow Conceptualist Ilya Kabakov’s famous counter-institutional Red Pavilion of 1993, but also to the specific colour code of Russian political tradition, in which green was a symbol for the socio-political transformation of Perestroika, displacing the ideological certainties of Bolshevik red. The slowly moving eyes behind the giant fighter pilot’s mask inside the pavilion are suggestive of shared fears for the future, although what remains unaddressed, or is perhaps unwittingly disguised in the pavilion, is the political colour of Putin’s neo-authoritarian rule.

The fast-moving geopolitical actuality of national representations at this year’s Venice was also underlined by the twitter-led action #OnVacation, in which dozens of volunteers in camouflage jackets briefly occupied the Green Pavilion in protest against the takeover of Crimea by ‘vacationing’ Russian soldiers the previous year.

The Ukrainian Pavilion itself was strategically located on the Riva between the Giardini and Arsenale, at the spot where previously Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and his wife Dasha Zhukova, founder of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, have moored their mega yacht in a similar act of symbolic power. The Ukrainian exhibition, which is notable more for the statement it makes about the nature and visibility of the current conflict than for the works on show, is poignantly called Hope, and decked in the national colours of yellow and blue.

Among the other East European presentations, the Serbian Pavilion also commented on the fluidity of national borders and bloody mess of history by commemorating lost states, from Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union to Czechoslovakia, which existed at some time during the life of the Venice Biennale, through piles of mangled flags on the pavilion floor. Jiří David in the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic Pavilion questioned identity by tackling Slavic mythology in historical painting and its monochrome reflection on the visitors. The Hungarian Pavilion laughed nervously about identity through the camouflage of sustainability, while the Austrian Pavilion attempted to rise above the identitarian fray by presenting a sleek, clean, architectural intervention into the tectonics of the pavilion. The Polish Pavilion took the narrative in a new direction by relocating the national identity question to the other hemisphere and setting Polish historic opera in the Haitian village of Cazale, a place whose inhabitants can trace an ancestry going back to Polish soldiers who changed sides and stayed on after the Napoleonic Wars.

Among the trends that dominated the East European exhibitions was the tendency to invite foreign curators, including German curator Nicolaus Schafhausen for Kosovo, Italian curator Marco Scotini at the Albanian Pavilion, Turkish curator Basak Senova with the Macedonian Pavilion, and young French curator Marc Bembekoff for Croatia. Another aspect of Venice 2015, which was also noticeable in the East European pavilions, was the steady privatisation of national representations. For instance, while in the 2013 edition the Romanian Pavilion made world headlines with its dematerialised performances, this year’s Romanian presentation was far more tangible. Large canvases were displayed in a Giardini pavilion that had been transformed into the white cube of a commercial gallery for the solo presentation of Cluj School star, Adrian Ghenie, handily curated by the artist’s gallerist.

The problem of commercialisation was also the Achilles Heel of the central exhibitions of Okwui Enwezor, in which Karl Marx is listed as a participating artist. Billed as the work of ‘the most incisive critic of capitalism to have ever lived’ in the official guide to All the World’s Futures, Marx’s Das Kapital is set to be read aloud daily in the central arena of the Italian Pavilion for the seven-month duration of the biennial. Scripted by Marx but conceived by British artist Isaac Julien, the Oratorio is, to put it politely, in dialectical tension with the product placement artists that are in abundance in the main show.

The inclusion of the likes of Marlene Dumas, Andreas Gursky, Georg Baselitz, Bruce Nauman, or for that matter Theaster Gates, David Maljković and Victor Mann, plays smoothly alongside the smattering of less-commercial formations such as the Gulf Labour Coalition or Elena Damiani, or the complex positions of the likes of Jeremy Deller, whose work here includes an anti-zero hour contracts proclamation stating ‘Hello, today you have a day off.’

The question remains whether actions like Reading Marx can really offset the overwhelming presence of blue chip artists in the biennial? How independent can a curator ultimately be in light of the systemic dependence on the unambiguous interests of private galleries and foundations, at a time when making exhibitions seems only possible through their support?

A number of works in the main exhibition as well as in national pavilions and collateral events took on the challenge to imagine the ‘world’s futures’ by placing planetary issues at the centre. In the French Pavilion a choreography of unearthed trees artificially moving to the sound of rising sap, described in the catalogue as ‘machine-nature hybrids’ and ‘transhuman creatures liberated from their rootedness to ground,’ trod a fine line between serious engagement with ecological thought and sheer ridiculousness. In the American Pavilion, on the other hand, the conceptual pioneer Joan Jonas explored theories about the spiritual dimension of nature, highlighting the fragility of the natural world in a series of interlocking installations that are closely in tune with contemporary concerns around species. The Netherlands also opted for a senior artist dealing with nature, however the display there is focused on gathering, ordering and displaying natural objects, remaining firmly on the material side of the appearance of nature. The gloomy and uncanny pavilion of Australia features Wunderkammer-style display of the connections between global politics, world finances and their effects on the environment, with hundreds of clocks ticking away towards ecological doom.

The exhibition that took ecology to the extreme was presented in one of the three Azerbaijani pavilions. The show Vita Vitale was commissioned from a UK-based curatorial firm that usually works on the collections and artistic rebranding of companies from airlines and car makers to hotels and churches, and which in this case rose to the challenge of designing an internationally-relevant presentation of environmental art for a oil-rich Central Asian regime. The result is that you can watch a digital timer count down the destruction of finite natural resources or sit for an hour mesmerised by visual imagery of water exploitation, but ultimately it comes to nothing when you realise that the pavilion you’re sitting in is financed by extractivism and dedicated to the artwashing of a dictatorship. It is clearly impossible to talk meaningfully about ecology without addressing the social and environmental position from which you’re speaking, and the Azerbaijani Pavilion contained no discussion of the politics of ecological issues back home.

A much more conceptually-rigorous and locally-based exploration of the changing relationship with the natural world can be found in the Singapore Pavilion, were Charles Lim Yi Yong investigates the complex relationship between the sea and the state of Singapore. The work, entitled Seastate, goes into various dimensions of dependence on the sea, from mapping the underwater terrain to an archival study of the historical representation of the waterways around Singapore, and from examining the scars left on the seafloor by the petrochemical industry to presentation of the technological methods adopted by the authorities to defend against rising sea levels. By making visible the anxiety of a small nation state in the age of globalisation and climate change, the project also provides a subtle entry point into understanding the psychic disturbances affecting individuals and communities worldwide in the anthropocene.