In recent months, against the background of rapid change in our global political landscape, I have observed that my own echo-chamber of artists, curators and educators in the arts have been reacting. It has been clear to see that many of their practices have moved away from “art for art sake” approaches to a more hands-on engagement to their immediate political concerns. However, I have become evermore curious as to if and/or how the “high-end” art world has reacted to predicaments unfolding in the world. In attending the Biennale, I wished to explore whether there has also been a shift in the way the broader art establishment has responded towards current affairs.
At first glance, the official introduction document to the Venice Biennale curated by Christine Macel, may sound rather promising if not perhaps a little optimistic. Macel declares “today, in a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions. Art is the last bastion, a garden to cultivate above and beyond trends and personal interests.”
As I entered the vast exhibiting area of Arsenale, and wandered through wide arrays of artwork, initially I felt reassured, as if the official introduction passage could be affirmed. The show appeared to focus on many pieces dealing with various contemporary political issues. These works had been gathered from a wide range of international contexts, many of them featuring geo-political, national, international, ecological, socio-political, gender issues, to name just a few. Artists, including many of whom were non-European, were clearly engaged with the reality of today. Naively perhaps, before I arrived I was under the impression that many of these highly acclaimed artist, in the privileged position to take part in such a world renowned exhibition would have no interest in engaging in such matters. However, what I found at first was a pattern that seemed to mirror the situation within my aforementioned social and professional circles.
One artist in particular, whose work had dramatically shifted it’s focal point at this year’s Venice Biennale, was Ernest Neto. Neto’s work has always been “participatory”, often with large structures made up of smaller units which are woven or joined together to occupy a space, naturally welcoming and accommodating it’s audience. In Neto’s newest work,Um Sagrado Lugar (A Sacred Place), he has again created a large installation brought together through his signature construction method of weaving. Using natural hessian material he has produced a huge net, resembling a hunter’s trap or birdcage, draped from the ceiling over the floor laden with bark clipping and sub-tropical looking shrubs. The audience may enter this structure while reading on the fate of the indigenous Huni Kuin people in the Amazon rainforest. The message narrated through Netto’s work is socially and environmentally engaging. If one had not been familiar with his previous work, this presentation of such an important ecological issue may not strike you as anything particularly surprising or different for an artist, especially when exhibited amongst so many other socially engaged pieces within the show. However, knowing Neto’s earlier installations which was purely focussed on physical forms and their relationship to space, this move towards political content felt uncharacteristic. In this piece there is a clear departure from Neto’s usual approach that he is so well known for, and appears to have become “politically engaged”.
This example could help confirm that similar reactions towards global concerns can be seen between my close associates and the activity of the “high flyers” of the art world. But somehow, I was not able to feel full vindication through this discovery. Of course, I was very grateful to find that these household names were reacting to the changing world, just as I and my friends had been. I was grateful to Macel for bringing this much needed discussion and for highlighting these socially engaged approaches that artists had already been adopting years beforehand. But the more I saw artists dealing with specific socio-political issues, within the context of the Venice Biennale, the more I have become unsettled. I should have been delighted to witness the echoes resounding in Venice, but instead I felt uneasy. It was not until I saw Ollafur Elliasson’s exhibition in the main Pavilion at Giardinni that I realised what had been bothering me.
Like Neto, Elliasson’s works always had a communal aspect. His colossal installations often become an immersive environment where their audiences almost become an element in them. The beauty of Elliasson’s work was that it required no prior knowledge of art, or any skillful prompt provided by the artists/curator in order to engage with the audience. The awe-inspiring scale and spectacle illusory aspect of Elliasson’s work triggered the engagement of audiences organically. I remember the picnics and games children would play while rolling around on the floor, hand-in-hand, under Elliasson’s “Sun” at The Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. No intervention was required, but only the permission of Museum invigilators and teachers accompanying their school trip. However this time, In the centre of Biennale’s Main Pavilion, Elliasson did something starkly different. He orchestrated a giant “workshop”. During the opening week, the artist himself was seen interacting with the audience and encouraging them to create their own objects. The purpose was clear, and well framed. Watching a figure like Elliasson work with the public was a pleasant thing to see. It was clear that he was trying to embrace the interaction with people and highlight the importance of learning and playing through art, and all was well.
So, why was I feeling uncomfortable about this? While asking myself, I realised that there were a few multilayered problems I was encountering. One of the issues was that many artists, including these “celebrity” artists, seemed to be taking up these socially engaged artistic approaches as a new trend, rather than as a logical progression of their own practices. Because of this, the socio-political, environmental etc. elements of their pieces appeared to act as just “add-ons” to their works, rather than fully integrated parts of their practice. Though the introduction of these “add-ons” are a positive leap forward, there still remains a great discrepancy in these artists’ level/ability to articulate concerns around such issues. Rather than simply incorporating the issues to their work, I feel that in order for genuine discussion to take place through their pieces a deconstruction and/or reevaluation of their practices may need to take place.
Another issue I saw was that some artists may have been engaging with these issue not out of absolute necessity for their practices, but rather because of a trend, or maybe even with a branding exercise in mind. Though I do not believe in the purity in artist’s motivation, in the same way that I do not believe in true altruism in human nature, what bothered me was that such topics could be utilised as a mere passing trend for some artists. I worry that if some of these approaches are indeed simply trends, that they will eventually be reduced as a blip in an artist’s career. Furthermore, even if an artist’s motivation could be pure, within the context of the Biennale there is an inevitability that works will be consumed both economically and ideologically. There is a parallel here with the inherent issues of the big cultural industry, like Hollywood or Pop music. The politic topics tend to be consumed for branding, marketing, and profiling the business, even if there is a good intention behind it.
Marcel’s optimism and utopian take on Art described as “the last bastion” is a notion which would be nice to embrace but I cannot allow myself to fully subscribe to it. We, as artists, are only human, whose motivations always mixed. Therefore, Art will fall short of the ideal. Art can be manipulated and used against ourselves. The artist can simply move on and leave issues behind as their career moves forward. Meanwhile the issues themselves remain unsolved.