The Doge’s Palace, Ruskin wrote in 1851, was the “central building of the world,” because it reconciled Arabic, Byzantine, and Romanesque elements in “exactly equal proportions.” Though Ruskin did not see the Great Exhibition, that other central building of the Victorian world, Karl Marx did visit the steel and glass shrine to capital in Hyde Park: the first of the global trade fairs and the progenitor of the Venice Biennale. Marx’s review of the Exhibition contains the founding critique of what we call globalization, as well as the theories of the “commodity fetish” and “false consciousness.”
“With this exhibition,” Marx grumbled, “the bourgeoisie of the world has erected in the modern Rome its Pantheon where, with self-satisfied pride, it exhibits the gods which it has made for itself.” Capital created “a world after its own image.” The “concentrated power of industry” was “demolishing national barriers” and “blurring local peculiarities”; the national pavilion was a shop window. “For the first time in the history of the world, a national museum is formed in which a whole nation is inside a building.”
Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the fifty-sixth Biennale’s central exhibition, agrees.1 In our “global landscape,” he tells us, national pavilions are “the most anachronistic of exhibition models.” Still, the old bourgeois hegemony enforces its “unquestionable allure,” and Enwezor, denouncing as he goes, is happy to polish it. This year, the thirty national pavilions of the Giardini are accompanied by twenty-three national displays in the halls of the Arsenale shipyard, each accompanied by a massive exhibition curated by Enwezor.
A further thirty-five nations slum it in rented accommodation elsewhere in the city. New Zealand is at the airport, Iran is isolated near the Ghetto, and Armenia licks its wounds at a monastery. Croatia is up a canal near the Rialto because Serbia refuses to share the old Yugoslavian pavilion. Costa Rica pulled out because the organizers tried to extort 5,000 Euros from it. A Syrian collective camps migrant-style in the Giardino delle Vergini. The Kurds are otherwise engaged, with a portable exhibition of installations in the Syrian desert. There are also forty-four “Collateral Events” in Venice. Some are group shows sponsored by private foundations. Others are one-person shows by big cheeses like Jenny Holzer and Sean Scully, or collective efforts by small potatoes, the nations who lack a nation state: Catalunya, Newfoundland, Hong Kong, Scotland, Los Angeles.
“The world before us exhibits deep divisions and wounds, pronounced inequalities and uncertainties as to the future,” Biennale President Paolo Baratta pronounces with Ruskinian angst, as the oligarchs moor their yachts on the Riva. “Despite the great progress made in knowledge and technology, we are currently negotiating an ‘Age of Anxiety.’ ” How, Baratta wonders, do the “tensions of the outside world” act on the “sensitivities and the vital and expressive energies of artists, on their desires and their inner song”?
Baratta believes that Okwui Enwezor, the first non-white director of the Biennale and an emigrant from Nigeria to New York, has a “special sensitivity” to that melody. This is clearly not the case. Enwezor’s inner song is the tired, tone-deaf melody of aesthetic Marxism, potent like cheap music, but without the fun. His delivery is special in the way of a Soviet housing development and as sensitive as forced re-education.
The centerpiece of his Biennale, the International Exhibition, is a long march through the Marxist apocalypse. The portals are draped in Oscar Murillo’s funereal black flags. The interior lays out the corpse. Video installations of a hooded man vomiting blood and the desert seen from a speeding truck are soundtracked by the detonation of bombs and shells. Civil wars in Africa: shoddy drawings of choice armaments from Sierra Leone and a pair of thrones assembled from decommissioned weapons from Mozambique. Sheaves of swords sprout from the ground like obscene lilies. Bunches of chainsaws hang from the ceiling, coated in tar.
The visual vocabulary is deliberately impoverished, shrunken by the subordination of the visual to the verbal, the verbal to the political. But the script is delivered with impeccable, straight-faced sanctimony, here and in many of the national exhibits. Bits of military-industrial debris, preferably non-serviceable, the better to illustrate the tardiness of Late Capitalism. Astroturf, to remind us of the falsity of our consciousness, and the wickedness of our desire for private property. Toilets from the company of Duchamp et Fils, celebrating its centenary by reissuing its first and only model. Piles of bricks, daringly arrayed or disarrayed by the firm of Carl Andre. Glass vitrines containing fictional catalogs and dead birds, to expose the rationalizing “project” of Orientalist imperialism. Paradoxical slogans, usually in flashing neon, to remind us of our intellectual servitude. Claustrophobic walk-throughs and low humming noises, to remind us that we, the global plebs, are worker drones. News footage, explosions, and broken glass to remind us that we feast while the world suffers.
Here, an honorable mention is due to the Republic of Georgia. In Crawling Border, Nia Mgaloblishvili’s team created a walk-through border post with broken glass, explosions, news footage, and, daringly, the placement of multiple toilets on Astroturf. Yet, despite its familiar elements, this was an effective and affecting piece of work. The reason is that Georgia, like many post-totalitarian societies, has wandered off the historical script. After 1989, the iron laws of dialectical materialism dissolved. The conceits of ideology lost their precedence over what Marx would have called “actually existing” experiences, such as the separatist war with Nagorno-Karabakh, and Georgia’s struggle to reconnect to European civilization. The artist is no longer bullied by the thought police: the intellectual dogma cedes to physical, and even visual, experience. This change in historical circumstances revivifies the vocabulary of the installation.
For an exhibition purporting to reflect “the current state of things,” the International Exhibition of “All the World’s Futures” is palpably nostalgic. There are laments for the demise of that shotgun marriage of Seventies radicalism, the avant-garde and the workers’ collective. Totems of the failed revolution are lovingly dusted off: factory ballads from Victorian England, Walker Evans’s photographs of the Depression, the quaintly pre-digital neons of Bruce Naumann’s American Violence (1981–82). There are ritual invocations of St. Walter of Benjamin, the patron saint of all who study media in private institutions, and Stuart Hall, the naked emperor of the barren field of Cultural Studies. As in the Sixties and Seventies, the embourgeoisement of the Western working class leads to the conscription of the wretched of the post-colonial earth: South African miners and Afghan carpet-knotters suffer before the lens. It is like sitting through a long and tedious teach-in, a period piece as kitsch as a Baader-Meinhof mustache or the entire works of Frantz Fanon. The Golden Lion for the International Exhibition went to Adrian Piper (b. 1948).
This is not “all the world’s futures.” It is some of the West’s recent past, a selective and falsified vision in which ideology creates a world after its own image: the decay of Western Marxism from politics to aesthetics to a modern Scholasticism, cultishly divorced from reality. The conceptual “linchpin” of Enwezor’s apocalypse is a daily reading of Das Kapital, regurgitated as a “dramatic text” by “trained actors,” presumably because trained economists would give up. Marxism is metaphysical grievance masquerading as political economy; Enwezor was “inspired” to stage his daft epic when he saw the staged reading of a pair of sacred texts: the Akhand Path of the Sikhs, and Althusser and Balibar’s Reading Capital, with its obeisance to Stalin and the “workers’ movement which is our only hope and destiny.” Those were the days.
Nearby, the director of this pious farce, the filmmaker Isaac Julien, appears on film, in dialectical mutual massage with David Harvey and Stuart Hall. Meanwhile at a palazzo on the Grand Canal, Julien moonlights in a private commission from Rolls-Royce. He has tweaked his footage of glacier caves in Iceland so that the Spirit of Ecstasy floats in their glassy refractions. As Marx said, capitalism degrades the quality of the artisan’s product, along with his morals.
Enwezor too is awash in the “contradictions of capitalism.” He has curated an exhibition at the Guggenheim. He holds a fellowship at the Whitney, directs the Haus der Kunst in Munich, and is known for his collections of bespoke suits and air miles. Yet he says he is “not part of the art-world establishment.” This is the plaint of a sausage maker who, jamming offal and sawdust into the contraption and cranking its handle, blames his vendors when his products lack texture and taste.
Interviewed by the Guardian, Enwezor claimed that Das Kapital has “contemporary relevance,” and that it “speaks to the situation we are in.” He then admitted to not having read it. His charlatan ignorance would be comical, were it not for the historical tragedy that it denies. “His programme was to use capitalism to achieve social equality,” Enwezor explained. “I don’t think that Marx, had he lived, would have wanted capitalism to end.”
I think that Marx, had he lived and parked his yacht at the Arsenale, would have been surprised by the endurance of local peculiarities. The French are intellectually complex, but caught in their myth: the mobile trees of Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s rêvolutions, their movements dictated by the rise and fall of their sap, were inspired by the follies and formal gardens of the Ancien Régime. The British are aggressively anti-intellectual, awkward about sex, and defensively yobbish when abroad: Sarah Lucas’s banana-yellow bodies, with cigarettes protruding from their orifices, are contrived art-school hooliganism. The Germans are technologically superb and prone to exculpatory handwringing about the liabilities of technological superbia: their exhibits about exploited workers in Cairo and asylum seekers in Germany are eclipsed by Hito Steyerl’s mock computer game, Factory of the Sun.
Steyerl’s forty-minute film, one of the popular hits of this Biennale, blends bad memories from the twentieth century and post-Snowden paranoia about surveillance with a dystopian intimation of life in the post-carbon economy. The players begin as forced laborers in an energy gulag, wearing golden sequined bodysuits. Their every movement is “harvested” for its light photons; the players’ challenge is to break out. Writhing and sparkling in their daft costumes, their lack of irony is as heroic as their impulse to freedom. In the end, one rubber-limbed servant of Terpsichore escapes. He celebrates his inalienable Freiheit by executing disco moves on the Teufelsberg, the “Devil’s Mountain” west of Berlin, a hill contrived from the bombed rubble of the city, topped by a crumbling American surveillance station from the Cold War.
Factory in the Sun is shown on a giant screen, and we view it reclining on deck chairs: a dialectic of history and leisure, memory and hedonism. Dancing on the ruins, we are returned into history after the long dream of totalitarian ideology and its half-waking coda, the suspended states of the Cold War. Enwezor’s theme raises a question that his ideology cannot answer; capitalism, not Kapital, was the revolution. But, just as the Renaissance fed on the decay of Scholasticism, so the best of the Biennale’s exhibits express how the emerging perspectives of the twenty-first century create fresh views of the past.
Out in a Mekharist monastery on the island of San Lazarro degli Armeni, where Byron worked with the monks on an English–Armenian dictionary, eighteen diasporic Armenian artists preserve the centennial memory of their low-tech genocide and describe the cost of remembrance. In Hrair Sarkissian’s Unexposed (2012), the descendants of Armenians who were forced to convert to Islam are photographed in dark interiors, like prisoners unable to leave their cells when the doors are open. Inextricably bound by the past, the Turkish-Armenian artist Sarkis appears in both Armenian and Turkish shows. In Gorky, a life in three acts, Aram Jibilian photographs his friends and family wearing masks derived from Arshile Gorky’s The Artist and his Mother (1935–36). Modern Californians are overwritten with sacred memory, the inheritors depersonalized by the duty of remembrance.
Boosted by the centenary of the genocide, the Armenian show, curated by Adelina Cüberyan von Fürstenberg, won the Golden Lion for best national pavilion. But the South African show could easily have won instead. Again, a society confronts the persistence of life amid the exhaustion of ideology and the shadow of an unbearable past: the exhibition’s title is “What remains is tomorrow.” Gerald Machona’s Ndiri Afronaut (2012) wears a space suit coated in worthless Zimbabwean dollar bills, with gold trimmings like the taps in a dictator’s bathroom. The Afronaut’s suit is exhibited like those of the Americans and Russians who went to the moon and back; a film shows him stumbling through the alien planet of affluent white suburbs, planting a fictional flag on a sand dune, and dying like postcolonial Zimbabwe.
The photographs of Mark Lewis’s Wake Up, This is Joburg (2014) show that the end of the world is endless. In a dying city, “waste reclaimers” dress in tinfoil scraps, butchers hack up cows’ heads in a disused parking garage, and illegal miners dig themselves into their graves. In Brett Murray’s dual-channel digital installation Triumph (2015), two demagogues, one black, the other white, deliver identical assertions of racial supremacy. The eclipse of ideology reveals the absurdity and viciousness of its impositions; what remains is embodied experience and the echo of catastrophe. In Conversation: At the Beginning of Forever, Nandipha Mntambo fixes cow hide with resin: the ghost of a Greek statue emerges from the folds of skin. There may be Truth and Reconciliation, but there is no justice, and little hope.
Romania, another survivor of a monstrous historical experiment, presents a similarly articulate pavilion. Darwin’s Room is devoted entirely to the paintings and drawings of Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977). In portraits of Darwin at various points in his life, the irrationalities of Darwinian politics break out like mold or acid burns on his face. Larger canvases capture the mutations of ideas into politics, and images into icons. In Duchamp’s Funeral (2009), the artist is laid out in his open coffin like Lenin, pickled by reverence. In the extraordinary Darwin and the Satyr (2014), the prophet of evolution, torso twisted like Masaccio’s Adam, flees from the Eden of irrational pleasure. As in the Kandinsky-esque The Storm (2015), and the book-burning Opernplatz (2014), the paint seems to melt from the canvas, as though scorched by history.
After these candid engagements, Joan Jonas’s mixture of video, flags, and driftwood in the American Pavilion seems as dull and tasteful as an Eileen Fisher dress. In the films of They Come to Us without a Word, the photogenic children of Jonas’s friends mill about awkwardly in white like lead-footed fairies: an adult’s idea of childish innocence, a Victorian tea party, reshot as a Gap advertisement. My companion, an eight-year-old girl who has never come to me without a word, objected that children do not behave in this way and that it was wrong of Jonas to manipulate her subjects. She was right. Joan Jonas received a Golden Lion for this bland assertion of ideology over life.
Three Collateral shows deserve a Golden mention. Uninvited like Banquo’s ghost, Hong Kong and Macau have set up shop on the Biennale’s doorstep. In The Unbearable Nothing, Hong Kong’s Tsang Kin-Wah has installed a Nietzschean sensorium in a derelict workshop. No other medium could not only illustrate the entanglement of William Morris, the Allegory of the Cave, the Death of God, and a Neo-Buddhist response to the flogging of a nearly dead horse, but also create a physical impression of the dissolutions and reunions of Eternal Recurrence.
Next door, Hong Kong’s ex–Portuguese cousin, Macau, is represented by Mio Pang Fei’s Path and Adventure. We climb a staircase, past The Special Era (2015), an installation of relics from the Cultural Revolution: military uniforms, food stamps, and propaganda comics. Upstairs, Mio relates his “secret quest” for Western art in a dictatorship, and his lifetime struggle to express himself freely. Born in Shanghai in 1936, he painted in pastel, because his works would be easier to destroy if the police came. His paintings from the Sixties and Seventies are all lost: we see only their photographs. He was finally able to travel to Europe in the early Eighties. The exhibit is dominated by Mio’s work from the Nineties, densely worked abstract canvases on the medieval literary epic Shiu Hu Zhuan (The Water Margin), hung amid scrolls, hanging flags, and altars. Calligraphy emerges from thick oils like a half-recovered tradition, damaged by fire and burial.
Over at the crumbling and usually closed Palazzo Barbaro, where Zorn painted Isabella Stewart Gardner and Henry James sensed that “old ghosts seemed to pass on tip-toe on the marble floors,” the Azerbaijani non-profit Yarat has created another superb meditation, also interweaving the physical fabric of Venice with the immaterial cords of memory. Curated by Suad Garayeva, The Union of Fire and Water restores the old links between the two ancient port cities, fostered in 1474 by Giosofat Barbaro, the Venetian ambassador to Shah Uzun Hassan of Persia. Venice revived as a tourist site, Baku in the post-Soviet oil rush. Almagul Menlibayeva’s films and Rashad Alakbarov’s installations are superimposed upon Venetian spaces, but framed within the Gothic rooms where the Barbaro family once lived, and where the Curtis family once hosted James, Sargent, and Whistler.
Menlibeyeva’s films are an impressionistic biography of an early twentieth-century Baku tycoon, the oil magnate Murtuza Mukhtarov, who built a Venetian-style palace for his wife and refused to bow to Stalin. Images of Baku’s pre-1917 oil boom entwine with images of its second post-1989 boom, sepia portraits and smashed pomegranates with the flaming fury of the modern refinery, and the garish glow of Baku at night. In Alakbarov’s I Was Here (2015), an arrangement of mirrors and lamps conjures an unworldly assertion of presence, as though the perennial graffito has been written by a ghost. In Do Not Fear (2015), a single light source, shone through a sheaf of swords, projects its injunction onto another mirror.
Aida Mahmudova, the founder of Yarat, also appears in the official Azerbaijani effort. This is a two-part affair, in two locations. Beyond the Line is a historical retrospective, a tribute to the dissident Azeri modernists of the Fifties and Sixties. When painters like Ashraf Murad and Tofik Jabadur (both b. 1925) eschewed socialist realism, they knew they would be persecuted by the Soviets, and forced into obscurity. The Cubist variations of Murad’s Sportswoman (1979) are a rebuke not just to the art commissars of the Soviet Union, but also to Murad’s Western contemporaries, who jettisoned the figurative and painterly as bourgeois and claimed that installation art was an esoteric kind of socialist realism: the sort of strategy that the Soviets called “careerist.” Bourgeois deviationism takes many forms.
Vita Vitale, 56th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, Photo by Sara Sagui, Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia
The second half of the Azerbaijani show, Vita Vitale, is thoroughly international. A motley of exhibits are strung along the theme of “vital life.” A few posit the end of the planet—The Promised Land by Gordon Cheung (b. 1975), a luminously overwrought swamp, radiating a nuclear glow—but most eschew the Marxist eschatology of crisis and apocalypse. The photographs of Noémie Goudal (b. 1984) merge waterfalls inside the pillars of a palazzo. Laura Ford (b. 1961) has planted a group of anthropomorphic penguins in a side room, shuffling their shoed feet as they search for an iceberg or a Bellini. Mahmudova’s contribution, On My Way Back Home to the Sea (2015) is a massive canvas in oil and acrylic. The Caspian Sea surges with life, but it is mutating: ice-like resin blocks float on the floor beneath the painting.
In 1851, while Ruskin was working on The Stones of Venice and Marx complaining about the Great Exhibition, Thoreau was revising his Walden notebooks. “The universe,” he wrote, “constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us. Let us spend our lives in conceiving then.” Melchiorri’s jeweled and shimmering leaf, a world after our own image, waits in its glass case like the rarest of flowers.
1 “All the World’s Futures: The 56th International Art Exhibition” opened at the Giardini della Biennale and at the Arsenale, Venice, on May 9 and remains on view through November 22, 2015.