Marx, Africa and the Serene Republic: A Dispatch from Venice
Like any Venice Biennale, this year’s is not merely a curator’s egg (good in parts, rotten in others) but a veritable battery farm of them, with more ill and excellent specimens gathered together than one might wish to contemplate, let alone summarize in a thousand words.
The good news is that the signature event — the main exhibition, convincingly curated by Okwui Enwezor, divided between the Padiglione Centrale, in the Giardini, and the Arsenale — is carefully structured, intellectually engaging, aesthetically rewarding and, for so vast an exhibition, unusually coherent. The bad news is that the majority of the national pavilions are pretty lousy, only a handful worth the effort or long queues. Venice is also enlivened, as always, by numerous satellite events, group exhibitions, solo shows, performances — several outstanding, many atrocious, all providing added incentive to survey La Serenissima before the fun ends in November.
Enwezor’s exhibition title, ”All the World’s Futures,” sounds like the sort of waffle cobbled together by a committee and hardly suits a show more about the past than the future. Unless, that is, Enwezor meant “futures” in the financial sense, for his stated intention is to bring a Marxist analysis to bear on the current context. This “return to Marx” might be compared to Lacan’s “return to Freud,” an extension and elaboration of the franchise unrecognizable to purists. Such commitment includes a full reading of Marx’s works, every single word recited in architect David Adjaye’s central performance space, which even features a bearded lookalike dressed as the great man. The paradoxical contrast between this Marxist rhetoric and the billionaire collectors and well-heeled gallerists swarming the opening events was a source of bitter mirth to local anarchist groups who continuously heckled and attacked the proceedings, even launching physical protests against the Giardini and the Guggenheim.
A more engaging anarchistic intervention was the “Sinking of Venice,” performed by veteran Fluxus poet Alain Arias-Misson, who appeared on the Grand Canal in a boat towing the word “VENICE,” the giant letters inevitably sinking to the applause of enthusiastic onlookers. Throughout the main exhibition various soi disant Marxist figures lay out the territory, especially an older generation of radical filmmakers such as Jean-Marie Straub, Chris Marker, Chantal Ackermann, and Harun Farocki, whose works provide rigorous ideological backbone. And the extensive program of events scheduled for the performance arena, involving a dazzling range of thinkers, composers, performers, academics, show just how intelligent and sophisticated Marx’s theories remain, even if it is more about “the enchantment of the physical object” than class warfare.
“The trouble with the internet is that there is not enough Africa in it,” Brian Eno said a decade ago, and much the same might be true about the contemporary art world. Enwezor has rightly pushed a wider African (or at least black) participation, to a perfectly judged degree. While certainly not color-blind, Enwezor has engaged with a wide range of Diaspora artists whose varied practices are far beyond the banal rhetoric of previous “identity politics.” Among all this it is interesting to see how well painting fits the agenda, with key spots given to works by the likes of Ellen Gallagher — set next to the Aboriginal abstraction of Emily Kngwarreye — Wangechi Mutu and Chris Ofili, with the Arsenale culminating in a display of new towering canvases by Georg Baselitz, a man open in his loathing for “the revolution” (including, notoriously, the sexual revolution). Yet there is no sense that these paintings and sculptures (including many works by the late lamented Terry Adkins) are in any way token, obligatory inclusions, but rather embody a new level of sophistication in the art world, exemplified by Lorna Simpson’s latest work, paintings that extend rather then refute her conceptualist origins. In a final room of the Arsenale, Chinese laborers are working throughout the Biennale to craft individual decorated bricks, for sale for 20€ each, this being a work by Rirkrit Tiravanija, while next to them a paid actor reads out his book, gainfully employed by conceptual artist Dora Garcia. Adjacent to all this local art school students (half of them, revealingly, Asian) have signed up to create assembly-line monochrome paintings under the aegis of Maria Eichorn — some of which are actually quite beautiful. Global factory cultural production, minimum wage performance art thus providing a perfect Marxist dialectic for today’s pan-international economy.
Despite the seamless integration of painting into Enwezor’s theoretical argument, it was still shocking to see the Romanian Pavilion entirely given over to paintings and a few drawings, by just one artist, Adrian Ghenie, this most straightfoward display entirely radical today but standard practice for most of the Biennale’s history. There is no need to even mention the worst pavilions (France! Austria!) so let’s rather celebrate the few successes: the weird dark world of Fiona Hall in the Australian, the obsessive microlabor of Marco Maggi chez Uruguay, a sort of digital Gustave Doré by IC-98 at Finland’s Aalto-designed pavilion and that heady poetic hex cast by Joan Jonas on behalf of the USA. The Armenian Pavilion, titled “Armenity” was a rightful winner of the official prize, not just because this year marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide, but because the whole experience of visiting the island of San Lazzaro with its 18th-century Armenian monastery is a delight in itself. The beauty of the cloisters, buildings and historic collections are discretely, judiciously accompanied a range of current Armenian artists, and best of all there are no crowds. But in the end perhaps one outstandingly bad pavilion does warrant mention, the Italian, which is just so kitsch, as every year, that it may well be time that they had their Arsenale space taken away from them just as they previously lost their main pavilion in the Giardini.
Within the curator’s egg principle it is hardly paradoxical that one of the best group shows and the single worst solo exhibition should both come thanks to François Pinault. At the French collector’s Dogana there is the exemplary “Slip of the Tongue,” curated by Dahn Voh, so rich in contrasts and curios, whether medieval illuminated manuscripts next to Hubert Duprat gold maggots, or actual Bellini wooden panels and a wonderful assembly of all Nancy Spero’s Codex Artaud. But over at Palazzo Grassi there is a stinkingly bad Martial Raysse show (even the poster is truly nasty), which undoes all the good of his recent Pompidou retrospective. Other painters are to the fore around town, not least a lovely floor of Twombly at Ca’Pesaro, (don’t miss the marvelous rare outing novocento magic realist Cagnaccio di san Pietro on the floor below, by the way) and an impeccably tight small show of recent work by Peter Doig at the low key Palazzetto Tito.
The issue of winners and losers, and whether one is allowed to make such judgments in the art world these days, is central to Biennale practice: after all, they give out Golden Lions, so national pavilions are in principle battling one another. The show that most perfectly sums up such cultural competition is the long overdue retrospective of Charles Pollock at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which grants as much visual delight as it does larger existential doubt. Here is the question: is it better to die at 44, a bald alcoholic, having enjoying five years of fame and then future immortality, or to live to 85 with a full head of magnificent hair making very nice abstractions, no money, and no reputation? It was through his older brother Charles that Jackson studied with Thomas Hart Benton, moved to New York, persisted in trying to become an artist. He owed Charles everything but wiped him clean off the map. All art students should be obliged not just to go and study the latest Biennale but also to visit the Charles Pollock exhibition and ponder its real meaning, to ask themselves exactly what they want in becoming an artist.