Okwui Enwezor and the Venice Problem

By Veronica Hernandez

For this edition of the Venice Biennale, Okwui Enwezor gave a voice to usually marginalized, underrepresented artists, those primarily from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

As he explains in his curator’s statement, “[r]ather than one overarching theme that gathers and encapsulates diverse forms and practices into one unified field of vision, All the World’s Futures is informed by…a constellation of parameters that circumscribe multiple ideas, which will be touched upon to both imagine and realize a diversity of practices.” His main goal was just to make sure that there was representation from minorities, but he does not follow through executing and curating the show well to make sure these artists are exhibited well. Enwezor gives these minority artists, 139 in total, a platform for their voices, their woes, their anxieties.

But with so many talking, it is difficult to distinguish what each is saying. It is imperative as a viewer to listen to these lesser-known artists and learn from their works; however, the spectator only has so much of an attention span. Both exhibitions at Arsenale and Giardini are filled with such diverse works, covering divergent topics that all exhibited together they begin to lose their impact.

The standout pieces at this Biennale are the ones that manage to take up a whole room or happened to be singularly exhibited in a pavilion. For example, at the Giardini, the Swiss Pavilion, represented by Pamela Rosencrantz this year, chose to create an immersive experience commenting on race in her home continent. She created a pool dyed of the same color as the standardized, pale Northern Europe skin tone, common in her homeland, but also pushed as the standard of beauty abroad in countries where people have different skin colors.

Off-site, located in the neighborhood of Cannaregio, the Christoph Büchel made a powerful statement heard around the world. For the Icelandic Pavilion, he constructed and opened Venice’s first mosque. The groundbreaking act of open a house of worship for a minority long ignored by the city speaks to a history of discrimination for Muslims, who have been routinely underserved by the Venetian community. Not surprisingly, the day after I visited, the mosque was shut down, with an excuse of the artist not having a proper permit to run a religious enterprise.

Christoph Büchel, THE MOSQUE: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice, 2015, Santa Maria della Misericordia, Cannaregio, Venice

Another example would be My East is Your West, a collaborative pavilion between India and Pakistan located off-site in the Palazzo Benzon. Here artists of both nationalities take the effects borders have had on their people and the repercussions of the geopolitical tension. One especially intriguing piece is by Pakistani artist Rashid Rana called “Viewing, Viewer and Viewed”, a live video installation where one screen is located in the palazzo in Venice and there is another located in an exact reproduction of the room located in an open-air market in Lahore. This piece acknowledges the global nature of art and allowed people of kinds to interact with each other and the art, even if they could not afford the flight to Venice.

Rashid Rana, War Within II, 2013-14, India-Pakistan Pavilion

Amid the world-class art at the Biennale, there were still some misses in Enwenzor’s exhibition. The Nigerian-born curator added an innovative feature to the long-standing Biennale: ARENA, an auditorium-like space reserved solely for live performances. The most-promoted performance was a live-reading of the entire text of Marx’s Das Kapital orchestrated by artist Isaac Julien that would run for the whole length of the Biennale. Seeing the performance live was uninspiring and dull. Reading the text aloud does not add a new dimension to Marx’s work, but rather bores the viewers. Seeing the Das Kapital highlights the major irony that surrounds this whole Biennale. A fixture in the art world since 1895, the Venice Biennale is one of the major foundational blocks of the Euro-centric art world. Rather than an event for the people, showcasing the most important, groundbreaking contemporary art of the time, as it promises, it is an event that caters to the privileged. The opening of the Biennale was one of the most important events in the art world social calendar and was attended by moneyed collectors and other art world elite. Reading Das Kapital was thus an ironic statement.

Enwezor has brought some change to the Biennale system. He is paving the way for other aspiring African curators and bringing attention from wealthy art patrons to underrepresented artists from non-Western countries. He even ruffled some feathers when he changed to the opening date of the Biennale. The Biennale traditionally opens in June and is usually considered a preview for Art Basel, the art fair that launches about a week later in the middle of the month. However, this year, the Biennale opened a month early in May and messed with the traditional art world shopping schedule: first stop at the Biennale in Venice, then go buy it the next week at Basel. The privilege and wealth that surrounds the history and workings of this Biennale undermine what the well-intentioned Enwezor is trying to do and leaves a viewer atmosphere with a hypocritical taste in one’s mouth.

Bruce Nauman, Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn't Know, 1983, Arsenale


Gulf Labor, "Who Is Building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?", 2015, Arsenale

Tetsuya Ishida, Recalled, 1998, Giardini

Photography: the author's own.


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