The Venice Biennale and the problem of nationalism

At the heart of the 56th Venice Biennale, curated under the banner “All the World’s Futures” by Okwui Enwenzor, is a critique of the nationalism inherent to the Venice Biennale, and the role of nationalism in art history. While this critique of the nation state is not explicitly stated, it is clear that the curator aims to challenge the Biennale’s art history through highlighting what he calls a ‘contemporary global reality’. Yet Enwezor says nothing of the political affiliations of the biennale, or the ways in which artists have reflected their national governments and institutions over the years. In the curator’s vernacular, the exhibition’s goal is to show the ‘state of things’. It is important to note that this exhibition fails to achieve this ambition.

Viewers of the exhibition, who are informed of the ‘state of things’ via world media, see no reflection of the current dramas of the globe such as the migration crisis in Europe and South-East Asia, for example. Italy, the home of the biennale, turns away Libyan asylum seekers; we know of the thousands who have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to get to safety. And it is not only the countries of Europe who have been callous towards human lives; Thailand, also, turns away Burmese asylum-seekers who are stranded at sea.

To be in the luxury of Venice, looking at the finest art in the world, is to realize the aloofness of an art world patronized by national governments, instead of challenging the very idea of the nation through art. The selection of ‘political art’ with no clear anti-national agenda, reveals the uncertainty in the curator’s position on nationalism or their place within this year’s biennale structure, and the deeply flawed nature of state-owned exhibitions. It is pretentious to claim this exhibition as a critique of the biennale tradition when nothing outrightly speaks against the involvement of government institutions, or the making of Venice a site of nationalist pride.

In his statement, the curator says, “In 2015, la Biennale di Venezia will employ the historical trajectory of the Biennale itself (…) the core of the project is the notion of the exhibition as stage where historical and counter-historical projects will be explored.” Again, the attention to history here is only in writing: the exhibition doesn’t engage the biennale’s problematic history as the home of Fascist propaganda from 1928 to 1942; nor that between art and politics in the 1930s collaboration of performance artist F. T. Marinetti, the founder of Italian Futurism, and Benito Mussolini, the head of the National Fascist Party. A defense of this history, or its rebuttal is absent in the exhibition. What is most successful about this exhibition is it’s masterful attention to form, and how objects are united by their spatial relationship. This is the use of the stage as a platform to produce theatrical effects through dramatic changes in artistic form and in other parts of the exhibition, its synthesis. By playing around with presenting forms that blend into one another, the curator succeeds at holding the attention of the viewer. However, this dramatic technique which relies on spatial relationships between art objects, requires a large body of artworks, hence the massive selection of 140 artworks in total. It produces the effect of a long unbreaking experience inside space, like that of listening to a Gustav Mahler symphony.

It is by no coincidence that the first artwork encountered in the exhibition uses sculptural form to draw comments on the state of empire. As you enter the Giardini in Venice, the historical site of the Biennale, you meet a park of all-white sculptures five times human size, and towering above the ground. Coronation Park (2015), by the Indian Raqs Media Collective refers to the 19th century period in British India, specifically. The white sculptures stood out prominently in the garden, posing in strange configurations: some were absent of a torso, standing beside the pedestal and reading the plaque, defaced, without arms and other limbs, or missing heads, reminding me of a particular kind of anarchist vandalism. This visual drama in the garden threshold, provided reflection on the national or imperial politics attached to the monuments in the garden, such as the bust of Richard Wagner, also standing in the garden. In light of today’s war in Syria, and Iraq, these anarchistic sculptures brought to mind the Youtube picture of ISIS destroying ancient sculptures in the Mosul Mosque in Iraq, or the student protest in University of Cape Town in South Africa called #RhodesMustFall that took down the statue of British colonial officer Cecil Rhodes. Though the act of taking down sculptures appears on a global scale, the politics within this act differs from event to event. Again, the lack of a definite position on nationalist politics, even in this case leaves a viewer confused about the generalized politics under the globalism umbrella.

Another form of anarchist vandalism took the form of an installation covering the title of the main international pavilion. Artist Glenn Ligon used neon lights to draw the words: blues blood bruise. Immersed in this theatre, I was rudely interrupted by a blue and white e-flux billboard. On this display the writer and editor Boris Groys wrote: “There is no progress in art. Art does not wait for a better society in the future to come–it immortalizes here and now.” This version of the future was a peripatetic turn. Recalling the goal of the exhibition to describe the state of things; to analyse the self in the global age, this peripatetic turn made it next to impossible to see how such a goal could be achieved through this selection of artworks. If art were to immortalize here and now, where was the migrant crisis reflected here in the exhibition space, and the thousands stranded at sea, denied entry into Italy or Thailand? Which ‘state of things’ ignores this obvious fact? In this sense, time was elusive in the exhibition. I kept pondering the title All the World’s Futures. Did it refer to any specific time in the future? And which specific world was being referred to here? This lack of specificity made any sign of time in the exhibition only a small and insignificant event in this massive symphony.

While the curator aimed for challenging the nationalist structure of the Biennale, it was harder to digest the artists’ perspective on our past.  The juxtaposition of the artists’ voices within this utopian space seemed inconsistent, especially because the critique of nation seemed out of place in a location that was so luxuriously and unabashedly centred around celebrating the fruits of nation and nationalism – within the protective envelope of late capitalism. As Ernesto Laclau reminds us, “Politics and space are antinomic terms. Politics only exists insofar as the spatial eludes us.” The space of art as a theatre of the mind is not innocent of its responsibility towards artwork. I felt the catch-all nature of the exhibition, as well as its lack of a concise political theme, took away from any important signification of time, particularly the present, within itself.

This peripatetic turn of events brought to mind tensions between artist and curator. What was the show really about? Who was it really representing? These questions led me to the inquiry on the biennale as a space by the artist-curator Ahmet Ogut who asks: “Are Biennales about providing a space, or becoming a space?” By using the terms “providing” and “becoming”, Ogut fractures space into two: one for artistic use, and another for institutional registration. This tension exists where time is generated through anti-imperialist or anti-nationalist discourse within the artwork which drowns in an unblemished exhibition space. When walking from one end of the Arsenale to the other, I felt so at ease that when I finally saw Italian sculptor Monica Bonvinci’s “Latent Combustion #1, #2, #3”, a composition of chain-saws hanging from above covered in black poly-urethane, I thought only for a moment of the violence implied, then imagined the work on a high fashion runway in Milan, where the fashion models and market would glamorize its violence.

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As a tourist city, Venice wreaks of glamor and superficial gloss. Honeymooning couples often role play in the la gondolas floating about the canals of the Venice districts. Piazza San Marco on a Summer’s day such as during the opening of the biennale floods with thousands of tourists, some just coming off the Titanic-sized cruise ships that dock in the lagoon. These tourists are fodder for biennale ticket sales. In 2009, the 54th Venice biennale received over 2000 visitors each day, and more than 300,000 in the entire period of its running.

However, Venice is clearly not immune to less romantic realities of global environmental damage and the long term effects of changing weather patterns. The flooding in Venice has increased considerably, which happens during winter. The city has recently flooded up to 130 cm, according to The Telegraph UK. The newspaper shows Venetians wearing fishing gear and wading through the floods on normal work days. An ambulance team wheels a man on a bench above floods. A group of tourists in raincoats and fishing gear roam around Piazza San Marco taking photographs. The site specificity of Venice coupled with a concern for the future of human life – given shifting water tables and threat by water, making precarious the existence of many now-habitable spaces – inspired several artists.

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John Akomfrah produced a 3 channel film titled Vertigo Sea (2015) that dealt with the relationship of humanity to the sea. In gripping archival footage, the shipwrecks of the past: images of wailing mothers, and survivors, and the violent images of whaling, became a clear reflection of the here and the now. This echoed the migration issues facing global politics, and the images of man’s relationship to nature brought the future into sharp focus, resonating deeply with the current state of things, as well as our inability to grasp these real forms of temporality in the past and present.

Vincent J. F. Huang, the solo artist of the Tuwala Pavilion produced the installation “Crossing the Tide”, a surreal work set in a future in which land disappears underwater. Baths are filled with water and illuminated from below. One has to walk across a wooden plank inserted above the baths, making an undeniable link between environmental threats to cities that depend on bodies of water for commerce and trade, and are yet beholden to the ocean’s instability. It was the suggestion of a complete disappearance of land under water that created a visceral encounter with the post-national future. I imagined the post-human of this time: perhaps akin to the gilled post-humans of the 1995 scifi film Waterworld, starring Kevin Costner.

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Similarly, the Mexican pavilion, Possessing Nature, featured the duo Tania Candiani and Luis Felope Ortega, both of whom drew comparisons between Mexico city and Venice – both of which are aquatic cities. The installation was a projection of the interchanging images of Venice and Mexico over a rippling pool of water. Likewise, Charles Lim focused on the future of sea and land in Singapore–in the exhibition Sea State–whose interest in the proximity of his country to the Pacific Ocean triggered a performative process of submerging a massive metallic object into the sea, removing it after six months, and installing it in the gallery space. This reproduction of aquatic life of barnacles and shellfish onto land and inside the biennale was an innovation of form. The surreal nature of this manufacturing of a future in which objects below the sea are installed on land, became a poetic meditation on the activities of a Sea State that functions on, in, and under water. It replicated this poetic interplay between sea and land, a metaphor for matters of labor, capital, and nation.

This interplay between labor, capital, and state also activated the 100 m. long coal sacs installation by Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama titled Out of Bounds. Its sheer length span the entire side of the Arsenale exhibition, a strange and dominating form: a temporality of a particular kind of present which is also the future. Perhaps it spoke about labor rising to the heights of power: a reflection on the growing middle class in Africa, and their increasing dominance of the state. As I walked through this colossus, I heard jazz improvisation coming from inside the Arsenale building. As an art form that thrives in the present tense, jazz is not restricted by geographical borders, languages, or cultures. The music being played was a pre-recorded work automatically playing-back on a programmed piano roll of an upright piano by a Black South African jazz pianist, Nduduzo Makhathini. Even though this was not happening in the here and now, I was consoled by the potential of jazz to liberate the self. Makhathini, who believes in music’s power to change people, reminded me of the words by South African critic Bloke Modisane. In speaking about the resilience of the human spirit he said of life in Sophiatown: “We made the desert bloom; made alterations, converted half-verandas into kitchens, decorated the houses and filled them with music.”

The spirit of anarchy was evident in the live political actions that took place in Venice such as the occupation of the Peggy Guggenheim museum along the Grand Canal winding through the central districts of Venice and into the lagoon. The live reading of Das Kapital by Karl Marx, organized by Enwenzor, were central to how the audience experienced the exhibition space – even if they came in on luxury yachts, and even if they were there protected by the kind of wealth that allowed them to buy artworks here, surely, a part of them found it disconcerting to hear Marx’s seminal words describing the suffering that made their acquisitions and aloofness from suffering possible. In this sense, the live actions formed a lot of intrigue as they contained a direct theatricality and liveness within the moment.

What this exhibition does – and partly why many reviewers and critics are peddling around the issue of its “dark tone” – is  create a new way of looking at the self in the global age when the mythology buttressing the nation state is being undermined. It is important to distinguish between the artists and curator for the simple reason that space dictates politics, and not vice versa. Following Ernesto Laclau’s statement, “Society is unrepresentable … any space is an attempt at constituting a society, not to state what it is,” Okwui Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures” is a radical attempt at shifting the paradigms of biennale models to create a more democratic society of artists and exhibition spaces.

Further Reading

Are you safe? Please stay safe

The statistics and scenes of violence against black immigrants in South Africa are horrible. A young Cameroonian student in South Africa writes about what it is like to live under such insecurity.

Eyes on the Prize

Does the peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea—now rewarded with a Nobel Prize—bring the kind of cooperation between the two countries that it aspired to do a year ago?