The Will to Protest
Okwui Enwezor’s vision for the Venice Biennale

Okwui Enwezor is curating the year’s most important exhibition. Like his now legendary documenta 11, this event is certain to change the art world. And perhaps other things as well. Daniel Schreiber met him at Haus der Kunst in Munich.
The tall man, wearing a tailor-made suit and white shirt, opens the door to his office, murmurs a few instructions to his assistant, puts his smartphone in the breast pocket of his jacket, and smiles. Okwui Enwezor is 51. He is the director of Haus der Kunst, one of the four members of the Deutsche Bank Global Art Advisory Council, and the curator of this year’s Venice Biennale. A conspicious characteristic is his politeness, something one can only acquire in the international arena: open yet conscious of form, engaging yet not too close.

Enwezor seems aware of both, the complete affability, and the distance he needs to realize exciting projects in the true sense of the word. He has done what he was hired to do four years ago, bringing a postcolonial exhibition program around artists like Lorna Simpson, Stan Douglas, and Ellen Gallagher and few blockbuster shows to the city, including Matthew Barney, Georg Baselitz, and Louise Bourgeois. But his first official act was to set up an “archive gallery”—an unpretentious, cleverly curated space that engages with the inglorious history of the house and thus also the city. It is a space that challenges some certainties. This courage characterizes Enwezor’s entire curatorial work.

An image that sticks in his mind and that is probably central to his work, says Enwezor, is a line he found in a work by the Indian artist group Raqs Media Collective: “the insomnia of the rulers and the vigil of the protesters.” The group will feature prominently in Enwezor’s Biennale, which opens in early May. “The program of the Biennale,” says Enwezor, “is trying to address these moments of insomnia. We will ask: How can we look at the wounds of history? We’re going to talk about disorder, dystopia, and that moment that I call permanent transition. That insomnia has to do with the security state, the constant surveillance, the constant state of alert and the militarization of our lives. It’s all because the rulers can’t go to sleep.”

Artists from the Deutsche Bank Collection at the Venice Biennale

For All the World’s Futures, the main exhibition of the 56th Venice Biennale, Okwui Enwezor invited many artists represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. At the Arsenale and the Giardini, Maria Eichhorn, Olaf Nicolai, and Rirkrit Tiravanija are on view, as is the artist group Raqs Media Collective, which realized a commissioned work for the bank’s branch in Birmingham last year. The show also includes Wangechi Mutu, Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2010. Many artists in the collection will be shown at the national pavilions, including Yane Calovski (Macedonia), Ivan Grubanov (Serbia), and Shilpa Gupta, who along with Rashid Rana will be exhibited in the joint Indian-Pakistani pavilion. Also: Heri Dono (Indonesia), Cao Fei (China), Sarah Lucas (UK), Victor Man (Romania), Danh Vo (Denmark), and Heimo Zobernig (Austria).

After the legendary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, Enwezor, who was born in Calabar, Nigeria, will be the second person to direct both the documenta and the Venice Biennale. Documenta 5 in 1972, curated by Szeemann – in Enwezor’s words, the “father of us all” – was the first large-scale exhibition that showed conceptual art, Fluxus, happenings, Minimal, and performance art on an equal footing with painting. Enwezor’s documenta 11 in 2002 also changed art history forever. For the first time, artistic positions from the Ivory Coast and Brazil, from India and South America, from Colombia and Iran, from Israel, Cuba, Senegal, Nigeria, and the Congo shared the stage with Western artists. Enwezor managed to ring in the age of globalization in the art world.

If the curator implements only some of his ambitious plans, his Biennale in Venice could be just as groundbreaking. Enwezor intends to breathe new life into political art, which disappeared after the 1980s, irretrievably, it seemed, for many years. An example: all 87 films critical of capitalism by the late Harun Farocki will be shown at this Biennale. And Hans Haacke will present all of his Polls, fundamental works of anti-institutional conceptual art in which he asked visitors to MoMA and the Guggenheim in the 1970s and 1980s to think about the socioeconomic foundations of the art world. For Venice, Haacke will conduct another poll.

The lynchpin of this year’s Biennale will be the expression of global disquiet in the face of war, inequality, and climate change; an unease that occupies so many of us, including Enwezor and many artists. Connected with this is a fundamental criticism of the system of the art market, whose recent extreme growth seems to be threatening art itself. Like most artists, collectors, and critics, Enwezor observes this development with trepidation: “The era of biennales is over,” he says. “Instead, we’re experiencing the era of the art fairs. The biennales opened the door to the globalization of contemporary art, and now have been overtaken and exploited by the art market. Because of the huge amassing of capital. This has really changed the art world.”

He found inspiration for this year’s event in the history of the large exhibition under the aegis of Biennale President Carlo Ripa di Meana from 1974 to 1978. Under di Meana’s direction, the Biennale completely divorced itself from the market and from then on refrained from selling exhibited works. In 1974, moreover, the Biennale was partially cancelled in solidarity with the former Chilean president Salvador Allende, who shortly before had fallen victim to dictator Augusto Pinochet’s putsch. Instead, the film and theater program Libertà per il Cile (Freedom for Chile) was staged. “There were all these activities on the streets of Venice and everywhere,” Enwezor recalls enthusiastically. “There were different discussions and programs. It was a really incredible Biennale.”

The fundamental question that Enwezor asks with his approach to the Biennale is in many respects the only question that can be asked today, in an age in which anti-capitalist criticism can even land on the bestseller list, as in the case of Thomas Piketty. Any other question would have been dishonest or would have at least been out of tune with the zeitgeist. In this regard, the curator’s most ambitious plan is a reading of Capital, Karl Marx’s principal work. In an arena designed solely for the event by the British- Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, the three volumes of Capital will be read out loud live and in a loop under the direction of the British artist Isaac Julien, who has theater experience. Part of the reading will be a large-scale bibliographical research project. Books and essays on Capital will be on display, including commentary, objections, philosophical works influenced by Marx, and documents on his reception in China, India, Russia, Germany, and France. Letters written by Marx will be presented, as well as a manuscript with notes he wrote by hand and the original French edition – the only one he edited completely. In addition, Enwezor will bring together the last surviving participants in Louis Althusser’s legendary Paris seminar Lire le Capital from 1965, which forever changed the reception of the philosopher in many parts of the world. Enwezor envisions a large-scale “oratorio,” an “oral epic,” complete with worksongs and vocal music by the Venetian Luigi Nono. He got this idea, he says, when he occupied himself with Indian Sikh prayer chants, a meditative yet very social ritual. “The presence of the voice signifies something,” says Enwezor. “It signifies our common will for protest.”

But how credible can criticism of the market and the art market be coming from a star curator like Enwezor? Based on experience, the Biennale itself has a substantial impact on artists’ market value, influencing their careers for years on end. We all support this system, whether we want to or not. How sincere can one’s criticism be one if one is part of the problem in a certain respect?

The curator laughs his polite laugh. It’s a question he will probably have to answer often in the months to come. “It’s somewhat of a preemptive strike, of course, to distance myself from the market by criticizing it,” he says. “It’s a paradoxical thing indeed to instigate Marx into this field. The market in itself is not necessarily the problem. The problem is the way in which we use the market. And I think an important exhibition like the Biennale can become a key in raising questions about that.”

Enwezor looks pensive. During our talk, his phone must have rung 20 times. He answered each call calmly, asked if the caller could speak later, and then concentrated on our conversation again. He has come a long way. And he has achieved an incredible amount with his work. We should not be led astray by the glamour he embodies for many in the art world. The fact is, he is driven by a unique intellectual and human project. By a project that only someone with his experience could realize. A project that might help change the world for the better. At least a little.

Daniel Schreiber lives in Berlin and is a freelance author and journalist. His biography of Susan Sontag, titled "Geist und Glamour", was published in 2007 (Susan Sontag: A Biography, Northwestern University Press: Evanston, 2014) and an autobiographical essay, "Nüchtern. Über das Trinken und das Glück" (Sober. On Drinking and Happiness), came out in 2014.

Venice Biennale
56th International Art Exhibition
9th May to 22nd November 2015