What does it mean to belong in the world, and what actually belongs to us? The answer, as presented in the 56th International Art Exhibition, is that it is the world itself that is our collective, shared responsibility. With this in mind, the curated show at the Giardini and Arsenale asks: what of our future?

Curated by Okwui Enwezor, the exhibition speaks of inequality through its geo- and socio-political concerns, lessening the focus on European artists and offering a more global perspective. Enwezor, acting as a 21st century Janus, has selected 136 artists, but has he opened the gates wide enough? Gender imbalances remain: male artists are in the majority (54%) with female artists at 33%, the remaining 13% made up of mixed gender collaborations or collectives.

There are three intersecting ‘filters’ informing the exhibition: Garden of Disorder; Liveness: on Epic Duration; and Reading Capital. These filters all place the artist as performer as the conduit for enacting change.

You can see this in action at the David Adajye-designed arena in the Giardini, where a programme of performances is being presented throughout the seven months of the Biennale. In doing so, it accommodates the idea of the exhibition as a place for free dialogue, while exploring the role of the artist within the capitalist divisions of social labour.

With its red floor covering and expansive scene setting, the arena aims to present displays that might instigate action beyond mediation. Among a series of performances by artists including Jeremy Deller and Sonia Boyce, there is a daily live reading of the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867–1894), directed by Isaac Julien.

Julien’s two-screen installation, KAPITAL (2013), presented behind the arena, has the potential to thoroughly encapsulate any ideological thinking that might form the conceptual crux of the curated show, firmly placing the cards – of market events and market spectacle – on the table. KAPITAL is centred on a fascinating conversation in 2012 between Julien, David Harvey and their audience at the Hayward gallery, and includes contributions from the sorely missed Stuart Hall.

Beginning at the end

Dressed by Oscar Murillo (a series of indigo-coloured jute flags adorn the façade at the Central Pavilion’s entrance), All The World’s Futures begins at the end, so to speak, with a room dedicated to works by Fabio Mauri: text works on paper and The Western Wall or Wailing (1993), a sculpture made from assembled items of luggage, are imposing, monumental – deeply moving, they speak of death, that final departure.

At the Arsenale, the stage is set with a series of Bruce Nauman neons: Raw War (1971), Eat Death (1972), Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain (1983) and Human Nature/ life Death/ Knows Doesn’t Know (1983). These are accompanied by Adel Abdessemed’s Nympheas (Water Lilies), vicious sculptures featuring clusters of knives, that also draw our attention to the inevitable.

Although a hackneyed phrase, it is still true to say that we live in an age of global communication, and this is reflected by the decision to present a plurality of voices through the universal language of photography – the entire first edition of Walker Evans’ Great Depression-era photographs of rural America, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), is an exquisite highlight of the Giardini.

There is also an understanding that text-based work packs a considerable punch, epitomised by Glen Ligon’s cacophonous paintings that repeat text to the point of abstraction. We are asked to use these words as stimuli and to read past their often obfuscating effects. The challenge throughout is the dichotomy between understanding the position of art within a broader market-driven framework, and the wider implication of works that re-empower words in an endeavour to propel, project and reassert the position of the seemingly powerless.

Words also feature in My Epidemic (Small Bad Blood Opera) (2015), in which Lili Reynaud Dewar isolates the individual, placing her own body centre stage within the confines of video work that forms part of a large installation piece. The videos that we see as we enter the space in the Arsenale, albeit obscured at times, ask the viewer to turn our backs on her movements, trapped and archived. Walking behind the initially vibrant flurry we are presented, again, with a series of text-heavy, block coloured banners.

These banners, suggestive of protest and solidarity, prepare us for the community oriented, performative piece, The Probable Trust Registry, by Adrian Piper. Three booths ask for audience participation with the instructions: ‘Always do what I say I am going to do’; ‘Always be too expensive to buy; ‘Always mean what I say’. As with the best of the works here, we are investing in extended thought processes that serve to broaden our worldview.

How Piper’s proposals might be monitored is anybody’s guess for we are accountable only to ourselves in this instance. In Jeremy Deller’s Motorola WT4000, the process of surveillance and appraisal is unambiguous: it shows a prosthetic arm wearing a digital device used to monitor the work-rate of warehouse order pickers, a piece orginally shown in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2013) at Manchester Art Gallery, and which here concludes the exhibition at the Giardini.

Perhaps the star of All The World’s Futures was the a capella vocal performance Broadsides and Ballads of the Industrial Revolution (2015), part of Deller’s presentation in the arena. The humble, celebratory balladress Jennifer Reid deserves mention not merely as a transmitter, but as an artist who took centre-stage to make this work happen. She evoked the humanity that is often missing in the digital age: a humanity that is lost in favour of quantity over quality, objectification over personalisation, throwaway commodification over permanence and, sadly, the rich and powerful over the proletariat.

The 56th Venice Biennale, 9 May – 22 November 2015. www.labiennale.org

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