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