Anthology of Current Global Art
A Tour of the 56th Venice Biennale

“All The World’s Futures,” Okwui Enwezor’s multimedia exhibition at the Venice Biennale, is political and discursive. He invited numerous artists from the Deutsche Bank Collection. Some critics find this collection of works and positions too Eurocentric and overloaded. But Brigitte Werneburg was convinced by Enwezor’s concept.
At the 56th Venice Biennale, the most beautiful—no, just the most convincing—work on the relationship between art and capital is by Binelde Hyrcan, in the Angolan Pavilion. Hyrcan made a wonderful film that begins with a darkened screen and English subtitles that translate the Portuguese spoken off-screen. Someone is yelling at a driver to stop talking and drive. But not so fast! And what route is he taking, anyway? There’s a cut, and to the viewer’s great surprise: on a beach, the four young boys talking have dug themselves into the sand, arranged as though they were seated in a car. They’re complaining that they have to listen to the same song again. They want the driver, who is pretending that his flip-flop is a steering wheel, to switch to another station. In response, he asks them: can’t they see that the radio is broken? After which one of the passengers tells him to buy a new one.

Eventually, they agree that there’s no worse car than their own—but before they do, and with great wit and dedication, they tease out every last aspect of the good life and poverty’s pitfalls. Their play is true art, and every other car far less interesting than theirs, which is always headed for the sea and the setting sun. Yet the car they lack would spell capital and the potential to earn a living from transport and messenger services, to aspire, as boys from the Angolan shacks, to one of “All The World’s Futures,” the motto of this year’s Biennale.  

Okwui Enwezor, director of documenta 11 in 2002 and today director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, formulated this motto for the 56th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte, which he curated, as an incentive to think about the Earth’s future not merely from a European and North American perspective, but from an African, Asian, and South American perspective as well. In doing so, he enlarged art’s playing field in a very concrete way. In the former Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, for instance, he had a stage space built called the “Arena” to accommodate sound art, performances, readings, film screenings, and theater pieces. Another feature of Enwezor’s agenda is the fact that every day, someone reads out loud from Karl Marx’s Capital in the space—because for a far longer period than art, which only began doing so in modern times, capital has been speaking about the future, about the secular, i.e. social, economic, and political developments and expectations worth investing in, working with, and influencing accordingly.

With this Marx reading taking place at what is, to a certain extent, the Holy Grail of contemporary art, it emerges that a category such as “Socialist Realism” no longer comes to mind. Uncontestedly and, as German chancellor Angela Merkel phrased it, “without alternative,” art with a conceptual origin is the political art of our time, a global phenomenon. Works driven by ideas—that intervene and take the form of installations, to name only a few approaches that frame their arguments in a variety of different media and materials—are discussed, exhibited, and collected internationally.

One example of a concept of this kind is the reduced, deceptively simple work The AK-47 vs. The M16 (2015) by the Propeller Group, consisting of Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phunam Thuc, and Matt Lucero. It consists of a ballistic gel block and an ultra high-speed video showing the bullets of an American M16 and a Russian AK-47 as they collide. But there are also works that fill the space, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s clay brick structure Untitled 2015 (14.086), which was shown the first time in 2010 in Beijing. Imprinted into the bricks, which viewers can purchase (and help fund development projects in China), is a serial number and a Chinese ideogram; this is followed by the motto “Ne Traivaillez Jamais,” which originates from the Situationists of the 1960s, who operated on the interface between art and politics and called for the abolition of goods, wage-earning work, the technocracy, and hierarchies.

Okwui Enwezor makes no much demands. Instead, he has people read Marx out loud. And for those complaining that the political impetus of many works of art in this show dissolves into thin air—that the thematic exhibition is an obvious showcase for collectors, that it’s still heavily Western-oriented, Euro-centric, and top heavy, not radical enough, inconsistent in its execution—the reading of Das Kapital might indeed be helpful in terms of understanding the context. After all, the first sentence reads: “The wealth of those societies in which the Capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of economies, its unit being a single commodity.” This determination is as little affected by the current social changes as it is by developments in contemporary art. The Biennale is subject to this commodity form; how could it be otherwise? Yet at the same time, it points to an inestimable cultural wealth that one must retain at all costs.

The fact that art defines itself here more as an understanding (of a not quite everyday nature) between subjects capable of speech and action and less in terms of classical objects such as sculpture and panel painting, does not mean that these positions have been excluded. Okwui Enwezor neither over-orchestrates his motto about the world’s futures, nor acts as a patron of non-Western artists. Instead, he presents a natural, self-evident anthology of global contemporary art with a strong emphasis on politically and socially driven positions.

This includes many contributions by artists represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, among them Marlene Dumas, with her series of Skulls (2013-15); Chris Ofili and his explorations of modernist classics such as Henri Matisse; Kerry James Marshall’s African-American couples with their deep-black skin color (evincing both painterly and political intention); Katharina Grosse’s color-space painting, which should be taken literally; and last but not least, Georg Baselitz’ impressive rotunda of upside-down naked men. The selection presents a wide spectrum of painterly positions.

With her large-scale canvases from the series Drexciya, whose surfaces resemble inlay work, African-American artist Ellen Gallagher asserts herself splendidly alongside Huma Bhabha’s monumental sugar sculptures positioned in the room. “Drexciya,” so goes the myth invented by techno producer James Stinson, was founded by pregnant African women who jumped overboard or were pushed off the slave ships that crossed the Atlantic and gave birth to children capable of breathing under water.

The work of Victor Man is hung sensitively in a side room, where there is nothing to disturb the viewer’s concentration on the small panels, whose dark-in-dark pictorial content only becomes visible gradually, as the eye adjusts to the night contained within these paintings. Untitled (after Giovanni di Pietro), Untitled (after Domenico Veneziano), and Untitled (after Giorgione) were all painted in 2015 and depict—nothing unusual for Man—martyred, flogged bodies, exotic animals, and magical architecture made up of fetishized bodies and Gothic stone.

The careful hanging continues to the work of Isa Genzken, whose Realized and Unrealized Outdoor Projects are hung on the wall and framed by a precious row of small black and white photographs by Walker Evans from the New Deal-era documentary project Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1936), which he conceived in collaboration with the author James Agee. Small, delicate white structures—models of completed and proposed works in public space—are placed on dozens of white pedestals. As always, Genzken finds the perfect balance between the ludicrousness of the commodity and the sublime nature of large-scale architecture, between beach umbrellas, deck chairs, and Gothic church windows that she brings together in the project Untitled (2007).

One realized outdoor project is now on view in the Giardini: two orchids enlarged to building height, intended by Isa Genzken to correct the architectural functionalism which, as she says, “despises the beauty of flowers.” In the Giardini, however, what first catches the eye are the nine sculptures by the RAQS Media Collective, titled Coronation Park in a reference to the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary as Emperor and Empress of India. Placed atop the black tar pedestals, however, and clad with the insignia of imperial power, are mere white paraffin fragments of the classical ruling figure.

From the Emperor’s feet, which rest sadly on the pedestal, it’s just a few steps to the Danish Pavilion and Danh Vo’s work, where the devil rules in the midst of medieval religious relics. Satan speaks to us from the year 1973, through Linda Blair, the devil-possessed child in the horror film The Exorcist. As always, Danh Vo links the private to wider concerns; his childhood was Catholic, and for him to channel the devil is child’s play, at any rate in a world plagued by crisis. Parallel to the Biennale, Vo curated a large show in François Pinault’s Punta della Dogana in which he combines works of his own with those of 35 other artists. Slip of the Tongue draws connections between thematic classics like death, transience, and identity and is worth a visit.

Olaf Nicolai also works with sound. The point of departure for his song piece Non Consumiamo..., performed by a total of eight singers, is the daily Marx reading in the Arena. Nicolai’s performance, which will be put on every four or five days during the Biennale, carries on a work by Luigi Nono from the revolutionary ’60s in which he staged a musical Marx reading mixed with everyday sounds and interviews. Nicolai’s Non Consumiamo... can also be carried through the Giardini via backpack and the four audio channels can be mixed individually.

Olaf Nicolai is one of the four artists in the German Pavilion, which has been transformed into a surprisingly amazing “factory” by its curator Florian Ebner of the Folkwang Museum in Essen. The result is a long queue in front of the building, because visitors can only access the higher floor, which never existed in this form before, via a very narrow staircase. Upstairs, Tobias Zielony has installed a room-sized media work on African refugees in Berlin and Hamburg, whom he accompanied over an extended period of time. He has also given his photographs, which go far beyond the ubiquitous photos of the Mediterranean and Lampedusa, to African newspaper editors to help them inform their readers on the situation of compatriots who have landed in Germany.

This spread of images is an intelligent, strategic move of political relevance. To be active beyond art’s boundaries is something the artists of this 56th Venice Biennale do well. Olaf Nicolai achieves this in a playful way by organizing a “shadow economy beneath the glaring sun” hidden away on the roof of the German Pavilion. This is where three people fabricate the boomerangs one sees being flung from the roof from time to time. Because they’re well made, and they return, after which they are distributed among Venice’s street vendors, thus ending up in another day-to-day shadow economy.

Capitalism is nothing if it’s not in motion, said Marx at a time when both the academy and the state regarded themselves as eternal. In his installation United Dead Nations, Ivan Grubanov, to whose works an entire floor of the Deutsche Bank head office in Frankfurt is dedicated, recalls all the empires and republics that have ceased to exist since the Venice Biennale was founded. Among these are the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918), the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922), the Soviet Union (1922-1991), and of course Yugoslavia (1918-2003). This is why his work—a floor painting in which the stone tiles are saturated in a (battle) field of color in bloody red and dirty blue-black with bandages, aka national flags—is now on show in the Serbian Pavilion. The dates on the wall—Tibet (1913-1951), GDR (1949-1990), etc. can be clearly read as work titles. And all at once, Deutsche Bank, founded in 1870, springs to mind—a witness to the three German states that have come and gone in its time.