Features

East City Art’s Highlights from the Venice Biennale (Part 1)

Entrance to the Venice Biennale. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope

Entrance to the Venice Biennale.
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope

La Biennale di Venezia is a must-stop on the art world circuit, and with good reason.  As one of the oldest recurring exhibitions in the world, the Biennale provides art lovers with a far-reaching survey of current artistic trends from around the world in both group exhibition and country-specific formats.  I recently traveled to Venice to visit the Biennale and am excited to share this experience with the East City Art community.

But first, a quick overview of the event.  The Biennale features two main components—first, an overarching exhibition with a world-wide roster of artists and second, related exhibitions curated by individual countries.  The event dates to 1893 when the Venice city council passed a resolution to create a national art exhibition celebrating the silver anniversary of  King Umberto.  The first exhibition was held in 1895 and has, with the exception of the two world wars, continued regularly to the present day.  From the very first exhibition the scope was international, and the first country pavilion—Belgium—was inaugurated in 1907.  The 2015 Biennale features 136 international artists in the main exhibition alongside the individual participation of 89 countries.  The Biennale largely takes place in the Giardini (public gardens) and Arsenale (ship yards) on the eastern side of the city.  The Giardini currently hosts 29 permanent country pavilions, including the United States as well as the first section of the main exhibition.  The main exhibition continues in the Arsenale, which also encompasses the exhibitions of several dozen countries.  The remaining countries, as well as several collateral events, are disbursed throughout Venice.

     Cannone Semovente by Pino Pascale looms over Biennale visitors. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.


Cannone Semovente, 1975 by Pino Pascale looms over Biennale visitors. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

The title of this 56th exhibition is All The World’s Futures and was developed by the internationally-renowned curator Okwui Enwezor.  The exhibition opens at a time of global upheaval and Enwezor states the following in his introduction:

          Over the course of the last two centuries the radical changes – from industrial to post-industrial modernity; technological to digital modernity; mass migration to mass mobility, environmental disasters and genocidal conflicts, chaos and promise – have made fascinating subject matter for artists, writers, filmmakers, performers, composers, musicians, etc.  This situation is no less palpable today. It is with this recognition that in 2015, the 56th International Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia proposes ‘All the World’s Futures’ a project devoted to a fresh appraisal of the relationship     of art and artists to the current state of things.
 Enwezor  views the exhibition not as a fixed narrative but as a series of events to be viewed through several themes or filters.  Those filters include Liveness: on Epic Duration which focuses on the notion that the exhibition—like life—is temporal and undulates through disparate, overlapping occurrences; Garden of Disorder focusing on the spatial characteristics of geopolitics and current events; and Capital: A Live Reading which puts Karl Marx’s most famous work on center stage, examining how the notion of capital accumulation is central to our current world order.  While Enwezor’s outlook might seem bleak, it underscores a palpable and exciting message:  that artists are in a unique position to shine a light on current affairs and guide the discussion as we look for ways to navigate the complex issues facing humanity.
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The opening vignette in the Arsenale sets the tone, plunging visitors into near darkness as it juxtiposes neon works by Bruce Nauman with a sculptural installation of sabers by the Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed.  This sense of visceral discord continues throughout the shipyards before giving way to a more nuanced, political sensibility in the Giardini.  In both locations, the most compelling works build across cultures or the first/third world divide, providing artists on the periphery a chance to inform the debate.  Here are just a few of those works which provide food for thought.
One of the African Black Magic, The Witch Plane, 2008 Abu Bakarr Mansaray Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

One of the African Black Magic, The Witch Plane, 2008
Abu Bakarr Mansaray
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

Mansaray’s drawings blend African proverbs and mysticism from his native Sierra Leone with a cutting glimpse into the Western industrial complex that supports war throughout the third world.

Jing Ling Chronical Theater Project, 2010-2015 (partial installation view. Qiu Zhijie Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

Jing Ling Chronical Theater Project, 2010-2015 (partial installation view).
Qiu Zhijie
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

 The Chinese-b0rn artist presents a fully immersive theatrical spectacle, lining the walls with culturally traditional paintings whose calligraphy echos moments of life while grand, theatrical props are disbursed all over the floor or dangle in the air.  I found myself fascinated by the way in which the artist balances notions of chaos and serenity.
Exquisite Cachophany, 2015 (video still) Sonia Boyce Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

Exquisite Cacophony, 2015 (video still)
Sonia Boyce
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

This arresting video from the British-born Boyce captures a spoken-word performance of the American rapper Astronautalis over-laced with the Dada-meets-jazz scat of Elaine Mitchener.  Rather than battle, the sounds form a layered conversation between two worlds.

Recent works by British artist Chris Ofili.  Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

Recent works by British artist Chris Ofili.
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

The Biennale features four of Ofili’s most recent works which include references ranging from hip-hop to politics.

The AK-47 vs The M16, 2015 (video still) The Propeller Group Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

The AK-47 vs The M16, 2015 (video still)
The Propeller Group
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

The Propeller Group, Vietnamese artists Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Phunam Thuc Ha, seeks to examine the intersection or art, brand identity and modes of production.  Their ongoing project, A Universe of Collisions, examines a uniquely rare occurrence in warfare—moments when the instruments of war collide in midair on the battlefield. Here the artists present, through high-speed videography, the meeting of two iconographic weapons from two world superpowers in a slow motion aerial ballet.

STAGED: Savoy Ballroom I, 2015 Jason Moran Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

STAGED: Savoy Ballroom I, 2015
Jason Moran
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

Jason Moran is one of two DC-based artists in this year’s exhibition.  A true multidisciplinary artist (he’s a noted Jazz musician as well), Moran’s installations at the Biennale investigate how the historical architecture of theaters shapes the interaction between audiences and musicians.  The venues which the artist models were active during the Jim Crow era (which the exhibition catalog defines as roughly 1865-1965) and so also highlight the status of African-Americans within the world of Jazz.

To Protect and Serve, 2012 Lavar Munroe Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

To Protect and Serve, 2012
Lavar Munroe
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

Munroe, the other DC-based artist in the exhibition (he splits his time between DC and North Carolina), creates dystopian, mixed-media realms that mix fantasy and reality.  Works at the Biennale weave together narratives from his childhood home of the Bahamas and seem to raise as many questions as they attempt to answer.  I found myself wondering if this caped crusader would save us from harm or send us straight into hell.

She's got the whole world in her,2015  (foreground) The End of Carrying All,2015 (on wall) Wangechi Mutu Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

She’s got the whole world in her,2015 (foreground)
The End of Carrying All,2015 (on wall)
Wangechi Mutu
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

The Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu presents a visually compelling installation incorporating collage, video and sculpture which questions  women’s role in society as it highlights the ways in which our rampant natural resource use impacts the globe.  The video piece is particularly engrossing.  The three-channel work begins with what appears to be a live-action snapshot of a woman’s grueling walk across the landscape before quickly morphing into animation that becomes more apocalyptic as time goes on.

 

Recalled, 1998 Tetsuya Ishida Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

Recalled, 1998
Tetsuya Ishida
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

Ishida elegantly captures the bleakness of the Japanese “lost decade” of economic stagnation with painted vignettes that are humorous on the surface but foreboding in content.

Coronation Park, 2015 (partial installation view) RAQS Media Collective Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

Coronation Park, 2015 (partial installation view)
RAQS Media Collective
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

The main exhibition includes several outdoor works, including these by RAQS Media Collective.  The collective consists of New Delhi-based artists Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta and was formed in 1992.  For All the Worlds Futures, the collective has created a series of nine sculptures which from a distance seem to single out unnamed politicians for their political achievements.  Look closely however, and the viewer realizes that torsos are sliced, heads missing and in some cases the clothing hides a hollowed out shell.  The title of the series references the park in which King George V and Queen Mary were crowned emperor and empress of India in 1911 and the disfigurements thus offer up a heap of political criticism and critique.  Adding to this narrative is the fact that these sculptures are cast in bitumen and wax, two materials derived from oil, highlighting how global capitalism and the world’s hunger for oil plays into politician’s lust for power.

Coming up in Part 2 of our series on the Biennale, we’ll focus on the pavilions devoted to individual countries. 

 

Eric Hope
Authored by: Eric Hope

Eric Hope is a curator and writer based in Brookland. He moved to Washington DC in 1997 and a twist of fate found him a volunteer marketing job at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In 2009, after ten years of marketing work at large museums in DC he moved into the realm of curating, staging a variety of solo, duo and small-group shows for the Evolve Urban Arts Project. He currently freelances as a curator and writes about local artists and the DC arts scene for a variety of online publications. Originally from Missouri, Hope holds degrees in International Relations and Public Service Administration from DePaul University in Chicago.