La Biennale de Venezia: All The World's Futures

Venice is without doubt one of the biggest and most important Contemporary art events in the calendar. Every year the Biennnale seems to get bigger as more and more countries join together with the curated projects and larger gallery exhibitions. The population of the island swells during the opening week and the city is filled with artgoers navigating by pavilions and events in the winding topography of the islands. Visiting Venice for the biennale, in fact colonising Venice we use the city as a backdrop to our own agenda. We transform it for the period into a theme park, the owners of several of the pavilions for collateral events move out temporarily, flats and rooms are let while the occupants move out. We don’t seriously engage with the place we are in, apart from the passing conversation that seems to happen each time as we huddle in groups for the vaparetti; that Venice is sinking.

The biennale is exciting, invigorating and exhausting, and as JJ Charlesworth pointed out recently it is its own bubble – however earnestly it tries to engage in world politics or current affairs, it is tinged with the knowledge that outside the parameters of what’s-on-offer, migrants are crossing the med seeking a better life, politics and conflict continue unabated. The opening week is indeed a privileged place. Gaining a pass to get into the Giardini and Arsenale is not straightforward, and for me, an artist/writer/ curator in Wales, the periphery of the UK on the periphery of Europe it took several applications. It was in the rejection responses that I found out that this time around you were either deemed important enough in the artworld, or you could buy your status and entrance if you were wealthy enough. This, combined with the removal of several countries after financial corruption was exposed set an interesting backdrop to a biennale with a critique of capitalism at its core.

Under the direction of Okwui Enwezor All The World’s Futures centrepiece was ARENA a layered research based project directed by Isaac Julien and committed to run as a live programme throughout the biennale. With each day beginning with a live reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and working tangentially through a variety of art forms it was difficult to grasp as the preview days unfolded, with little time to hear more than excerpts. With this focus on labour, profit and capitalism you could not help but pick up on this thread throughout the biennale. Okwui, though, also talks of the plurality of voices throughout, acknowledging the impossibility of curating coherance there is an acceptance that the biennale is a showcase of different voices and standpoints through which we need to find our own paths.

Again and again I came across images of manual labour, people at work, hard graft. Perhaps it is European nostalgia as these industries move east, but the juxtaposition of these observed and recorded ‘workers’ with the oft cited marxist texts only served to heighten a sense of removal from the actualities of labour. The German pavilion, with Hito Steyerl’s Factory of The Sun, a futuristic games world, which saw us all in a darkened tron space on loungers as just passive observers was offset by another work that was tucked away down a different stairs, easily overlooked. In the second film by Jasmina Metwaly/ Philip Rizk, workers were performing the privatisation of a public company, taking the the role of an incoming machine that would replace them all. With the collected and constructed footage from Antje Ehmann & Harun Farocki Labour In A Single Shot or Sergei Eisenstein using factories and industrial settings to play out recreations. Even Steve McQueens elegiac Ashes about a lost life focuses on the skills of the labourers in the poignant but practical construction of a memorial.

As I shuffled around one of the pavilions in the Giardini a cleaner knocked on the glass side door of the pavilion signalling to be let in, most people were avoiding eye contact, unsure of how to respond but even as I pushed the door open, wondering if this was a performance or a test, I realised she was just trying to do her job, there to clean greasy finger marks from the glass. In another pavilion, a maintenance man was trying to fix a metal ramp that had slipped, while people continued to use it, stepping over him and his tools. I wondered whether the reverence afforded to manual labour in many of the works would translate into encounters with those people, largely invisible, who keep the Biennale beast operating.

Elsewhere in Theaster Gates’ Gone Are The Days of Shelter and Martyr the physical labour of re-purposing a Catholic church becomes a soundtrack to a film and provides relics that are re-displayed. Gates’ work and life is a marriage of a philosophy and practicality, but his gallery presence is only a glimpse at a much wider practise that focuses on rebuilding and empowering communities that he is also part of. Often he shows only the extracted remains of the conversions or changes that take place, displaying them as sculptures. Across the island, another church was being re-purposed and Christoph Büchels Mosque was intriguing – partly because of its invisibility in any written guides and the subsequent word-of-mouth communication about where it was. Representing Iceland Büchel cites The Muslim Community in Iceland as an important voice in this dialogue, and hopes that the pavilion will be a positive contribution to this dialogue on the international stage. The project has been dogged with controversy and much has been written of its impact and subsequent removal but the organisers talk of a desire to link the Muslim communities of Venice with those in Iceland in a similar situation. The two artists appear to have socially engaged principles at the heart of what they do, but their standpoint differs in the position each holds within these communities perhaps.

The quoting or borrowing of ‘authenticity’ was also very much in evidence in contributions from other countries. Canada, in it’s awkward glass pavilion directs us through a recreated local shop and out through the back door through a ‘set’ titled Canadissimo that utilises the whole building to riff on productivity and unproductiveness by BGL. Rashid Rana (My East Is Your West, with Shilpa Gupta) turns this on its head and recreates a wall of the Palazzo we are standing in, but in a market square in Pakistan where a confusing live link up allows direct conversation across the two spaces. Greece presented Why Look at Animals? by Maria Papadimitrou is a rebuilt shop that sells animal hides and leather, transported from Volos. With an ambition to highlight anthropomorphism and difference we can’t help but get absorbed in the historical, museum like authenticity on display. The museum-ification of objects is prevalent; collections that are part fictionalised, part real (what museum isn’t?) For Lithuania Dainius Liškevičius: Museum is again a mix of fiction and autobiographical facts, imagined meetings and footage of events. It is neither completely looking back to the past but also looking toward a future, hypothetically shaped. Some of the references to Lithuanian past events were new to me but a focus on moments of protest and art movements that were invisible in the Soviet era are interspersed with seductive mid-century graphics that draw us through the archive, sharing in a collective sense of connoisseurship.

There are many curatorial paths through the biennale, the amount of works there connect in infinitely shifting ways and it allows the visitor to build a narrative, spot trends and zeitgeist coincidences. In the artworld we avoid using the word ‘fashions’ which would be too fickle and impulsive. Okwui has succeeded in introducing artists that were less known to me, along with the collateral pavilions there were voices and standpoints that I hadn’t come across. A highlight for me was Ana Gallardo, El Pedimento. This grotto-like installation comes right at the end of the cavernous Arsenale which only adds to its sense of removal. Primitive clay objects sit on benches tucked into a heap of soil, a crow’s head, lumpy thumb-pressed faces, vegetables and hearts. In a long dialogue she had asked several inmates of the women’s prison on Giudecca to make tokens following the cultural ritual of Mexico of making an offering for the future. The clay was sourced from the earth at the prison allotments and the benches produced in the male prison in Dorsoduro – a reminder of those areas of Venice that we choose to blank out over our Spritz.

For those of us who travelled for the opening week we viewed the UK general election from afar. Shocked as I heard the results, I was even more aware of our (my) own constructed small world of like-minded people. Queuing for the flight home I was aware of being surrounded by the radio-four-listening, guardian-reading environmentally conscious artworld, of which I am part; we all affirm our beliefs by seeing them mirrored back to us in the activities of our peers, batting off any criticisms with the certainty that it is us, not them who are open minded and self aware. With the results in mind and the fog of all the different artists I had seen, it was a very different UK to return to.