Some Notes on the Venice Biennale 2015: Okwui Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures”
Two years ago, Massimilliano Gioni’s curated exhibition, “"The Encyclopedic Palace” earned enormous, deserved praise. I personally thought it was one of the best shows curated in the 21st century. That’s a hard act to follow, and I can imagine that even someone with the track record of Okwui Enwezor felt the pressure. Like Gioni, Enwezor’s exhibition is thematic and unfortunately, “"All the World’s Futures” succumbs to the pitfalls that can interfere with such an exhibition. For one, there are far too many artists and too much work even for the enormous Arsenale. The effect was that I felt bludgeoned almost immediately upon entering. It was the result of both the amount of work and the subject matter. Enwezor deliberately organized the show in terms of themes: Garden of Disorder, Liveness: On Epic Duration and Reading Capital. But my experience of the themes was slightly different: how we are destroying the world through war and environmental neglect, diaspora, refugees and immigration intolerance and how words are losing their meaning. These points were relentlessly made, over and over and over again. As my companion remarked, “"It’s like a school assignment where each student is asked to do a project that fits within the parameters of a certain theme and gets graded on how well he/she follows the rules.”
This leads the exhibition to suffer from a lack of aesthetic vision. It seems like Enwezor was so intent on making his points that he chose artists only who suited his themes (putting subject matter first and, frequently, quality and aesthetic vision after). This often happens–especially when a curator is intent on communicating political positions through art.
In the late 19th century, the ardent Socialist, artist Paul Signac was asked why, considering his political views, he didn’t make political paintings but preferred landscape.
He responded, “"Because political art makes bad art.” This caveat is worth noting because the tendency becomes to make the political point the end all of the work, and the exhibition. That’s not to say that political pieces cannot be good, even great and very powerful, and certainly this is true of Enwezor’s show.
Specifically, the room with work by Wangechi Mutu in the Central Pavilion at the Giardini stands out. The room consists of a video, “"The End of Carrying All”,
and a collage
If I had seen nothing else, I would have understood the plight of refugees, the universal and eternal struggle of diasporas and the specific plight of being a woman. In this case less is plenty. No need for room after room pressing these points.
In a room not far from Wangechi, are paintings by Kerry James Marshall. Some are paintings with the biting poignancy we have come to expect from him like “Untitled (Lovers)”.
Then there are a whole new set of abstract paintings, “Untitled (Blot)”, that are quite a beautiful surprise.
Also of note in the Central Pavilion are the totem sculptures of Huma Bhabha.
And the haunting set of skulls by Marlene Dumas.
Despite my previous remarks, I don’t want to leave the impression that the Arsenale is devoid of noteworthy, and often beautiful, works. Just as Kerry James Marshall’s abstractions were a pleasant surprise, so are the paintings by Lorna Simpson so long recognized as one of the premier narrative photographers.
Another African American artist who Enwezor included, Melvin Edwards, has been overlooked in the art world for years. His metal sculptures deliver a powerful message about African American history integrated with his vast knowledge about contemporary sculpture.
Edwards has also been enormously influential on many younger African American artists, for example Charles McGill.
One of the more moving installations is a series of tableaux, “"Every Life is a Fire”, by the Cuban artist, Ricardo Brey. The presentation is quiet but the effect is loud.
Right next to Brey’s work are the elegant, dark brooding landscapes of the Chinese artist, Ji Dachun.
Also worth a mention are the sculptures of Walead Beshty that could be found in several areas of the Arsenale.
And the collage of the Bahamian artist, Lavar Munroe
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This is by Charles Emerson. He submerges flowers in water and inks (these are created in his studio and photographed, no photoshop or anything). http://www.antlersgallery.com/artist/charlesemerson Antlers is a nomadic gallery that was founded by a friend of mine.