May 14, 2015

Art Bashing at the Venice Biennial 2015

Central Pavilion, Giardini

There was quite some art bashing going on at the opening of the Venice Biennial - a Biennial that promised, under the artistic direction of Okwui Enwezor, to present art with content and meaning - especially political meaning. There was no promise of a rose garden in All The World’s Futures, but one didn’t expect to be offered so little hope and practically no way out. Is it legitimate for an exhibition to do that? Should it always give at least the feeling that the art on display can and will change something? I prefer so, but it’s not necessary, I guess, and maybe such an apocalyptical show has its benefits at the moment. 

But many took the occasion to do some art hating. First attacking Enwezor, who is always elegantly dressed and obviously likes “the good life” - therefore, so it was reasoned, it is hypocritical of him to put Das Kapital at the centre of his exhibition. Such a critique is, in my opinion, based on the idea that money defines everything and is a capitalist way of thinking: to criticise capitalism you should have a poor life style, be dressed in ugly cheap clothes, and never drink a coke. But the main critique was that with regard to the political upheaval worldwide, the Biennial made clear that art proves itself to be powerless and an event as the Biennial is pure luxury extravaganza. This critique is supporting the neo-liberal capitalist thinking that art has no use for society and consequently its budget needs to be cut drastically. It is the conviction that whatever has no direct effect and result, is not worth being. 

Robert Smithson, Dead Tree, 1969, Central Pavilion

I’m a big believer that art can change society, that it can be “avant-garde”. Writer Gertrude Stein said that being avant-garde doesn’t mean one is running ahead of society (as Dieter Roth said: one shouldn't be running away from the matter), but being avant-garde is to have insight in what is happening in society at the moment. And Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition does manage to reveal its current composition. His exhibition is like a culmination point. Because it's true that Enwezor took “meaning” in art literally, as something that is heavily expressed with diaries, archives, trees, suitcases - in short: with material. The exhibition is a Materialschlacht - an overload of art works - a Katharina Grosse over-dosis - a Harun Farocki’s life work packed in a small space together with his diaries (after his death there is this whole movement going on, trying to make Farocki holier than holy - as a friend said: liking Farocki is always a safe choice: you know you’re on the right political side (which is boring the hell out of me)). 

Katharina Grosse, Arsenale
The diaries of Harun Farocki

To make a prognosis about the 21st century, I would say that this Biennial is the last surge of the 20th century’s obsession with material (artificial material, etc.). It reveals our times of political uncertainty and economic crisis, trying to find meaning (stability) in something that is material instead of the immaterial (which we can’t grasp). At the Central Pavilion Enwezor starts with stapled suitcases, in the Arsenale those are replaced by drums put on top of each other. There are so many antiquated projectors in this show, there is so much archival material, so many ruins. It’s a culmination point at the beginning of the 21st century in which art will become more immaterial - which is, in the long run, the consequence when there is less money - materialistic culture looses its status. What will take its place? I would like to call it rhythm. Musicologist Susan McClary says that the rhythm of the 20th century operates on the basis of cyclic repetition, not only in rap and dance genres of popular culture, but also in minimalism: “What kind of needs to these patterns satisfy?” I would like to suggest this question as the start for further investigation in the 21st century and to leave the material behind as much as possible. 

Runo Lagomarsino, Central Pavilion

Rosa Barba, Central Pavilion

Also: Okwui Enwezor’s show was much more diverse and much less white as previous Biennials. Its audience at the press preview was, however, very white. I also wonder about the excitement about Tobias Zielony in the German Pavilion: a white, male (straight) artist who travels around the world to make photos of outsider groups (easy recipe for success in a white art world). And everybody was so excited about the Belgian pavilion that exhibited “Vincent Meessen and guests” - the “guests” were artists from Congo. I found it paternalistic. And to finish it off - my favorite artists at the Bienniale were Sarah Lucas, Sonia Boyce, Cao Fei, Mika Rottenberg, Olga Chernysheva and as a feminist I’m kind of happy to say that they’re all women artists.

Sarah Lucas, UK Pavilion

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