The Importance of Being Venice

Chiharu Shiota 50 000 Keys in the HandFor the thousands of visitors who flock to the labyrinthine canals and alleys of the Venetian archipelago every second year, the International Art Exhibition of Venice is the touchstone in a world groaning under the weight of biennales. Launched in 1895 to celebrate the marriage of Italy's King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Savoy, the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale (May 9 - November 22) is considered by many as the best in modern memory.

Much credit goes to Paolo Baratta, the Biennale's patrician president and his board, for having had the conviction to name the Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor for the hugely coveted curator slot. The chemistry, of mutual respect and admiration palpable between the two, has formed the basis for a spectacular biennale this year.

When Enwezor, who is the director of Munich's Haus der Kunst, announced the biennale's theme of All the World's Futures and with the proviso that the essence should be "a parliament of forms" to look into the "current disquiet of our times," he ruffled more than a few feathers. It was "highfalutin and pretentious" – and horrors of horrors, Karl Marx's Das Kapital would be read in marathon at the Central Arena as a performance art!

Nonetheless, the 136 artists from 56 countries lucky to be anointed with a space in the Giardini or Arsenale venues responded with gusto. So did organizers of the 44 semi-official "collateral events" of galleries, foundations and governments that showcase in palazzos, hotels, churches, convents and monasteries. Equally, most of the national pavilions rose to the occasion, helping Enwezor orchestrate "a multi-part chorus which rings out as the most cohesive, authoritative, arresting, urgent biennale for decades" - Jackie Wullschlager of the Financial Times, put it. Seven of the national pavilions are African, the highest number ever: Angola, Egypt, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Eighty-eight of the 136 artists are appearing for the first time – it's never has been like this before.


Scorecards & Favourites

If mirth and frivolity are often subtexts in past biennales, in All the World's Futures, messages of social justice, freedom, peacemaking and hope in a world reeling under inequality, isolation and violence seem to be a new de rigueur, abundantly served. It looks Venice is parting ways at last with the servings of gratuitous nudity and titillation that used to masquerade as performance art.

Everyone is enthusing about what they see as their best among the vast, sometimes unassailable, assemblage in Venice this year, from art of "are you kidding me" kind to the seriously spectacular. There is a legend that someone once claimed he'd seen all artworks and performances in a few days in Venice. The conventional wisdom is either the person is a liar or tone deaf for art. It's simply, physically, emotionally, impossible.

Scorecard wise, top of my list of the national pavilions is Iceland; for making the most potent response to Enwezor's vision of artistic activism, ie, to engage in ways which push our world along difficult but necessary paths towards social justice. Iceland sponsored the iconoclastic Swiss artist, Christoph Buschel, to create "The Mosque," installed in the Santa Maria della Misericordia, a Catholic church dating from the 10th century, but deconsecrated and unused since decades. Buschel's project, or living installation, with wudu area for washing, green prayer mats, calligraphic cartouches, mihrab indicating the qibla (direction of Mecca), plus daily throngs of Muslims and non Muslims at prayer is a triumph of solidarity over prejudice. Venice's sizeable Muslim community can't have a mosque in a city where Christian, Muslim and Jew have had peaceful co-existence for centuries?

The Vatican comes second on my best pavilion list. If you are expecting to be raptured viewing ecclesial artworks of cherubic angels or the 14 Stages of the Via Dolorosa, you'd be disappointed, because the Holy See offered its pavilion to a group of non-Western artists, including Mario Macilau (Mozambique), Monika Bravo (Colombia) and Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva (Macedonia) in one of the most cool halls at the Arsenale.

Third on my list is Japan. The pavilion has a single work, Chiharu Shiota's "Key in the Hand." It's colossal. It takes your breath away. A tangled yet order infused mass of red wool strings with dangling keys, 50,000 of them, all held in place from the ceiling and into two old wooden boats. The keys were collected from around the world. According to the Osaka-born Berlin-resident Shiota, they are imbued with the memories of the individuals who owned them. "Keys inspire us to open the door to unknown worlds," she says.

Fourth is Israel. Curator Hadas Maor has given the whole pavilion to Tsibi Geva, a doyen in the Israeli art establishment. In his "Archeology of the Present," a combo presentation of architecture, video and painting, Geva has enveloped the nondescript double-story Bauhaus building with hundreds of black tires, bound with cable wires to form a prickly protective skin. Inside, a video loops, showing interactions between Jews and Arabs in a mixed zone in Yaffo in 2003. The ground floor is given to a human magpie hoard of used household items: bed parts, mattress, TV sets, electric wires and bulbs, washing machine, freezer, baby bath tub, lawn sprinkler, rubber tubes, garden chair, ladder, bicycle, pots and pans, tools, bricks, house security barriers, panes - stacked under steel lattices and secured to the walls. Large abstract and figurative paintings by Geva himself, one quite naughty, complete the installation. "I metaphorically represent the instinct of keeping everything because there was a time when we (Jews) didn't have much," he says.

The Hungarian, Iranian, South African and Zimbabwe pavilions are remarkable for either their exuberance or the promise of their artists. Belgium makes a strong statement for memory with photo montages and "Un-Deux-Trois," a videoart situationist dialogue by Vincent Meeson, set in a Kinshasa night club where guests are invited to debate the Holocaust King Leopold II visited on Africa in which at least 10 million Congolese died in rubber plantations while enriching the thieving monarch.


New Kids on the Block

Outside the national pavilions format Adel Abdessemed, Theaster Gates, Fabio Mauri, Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili and Wangechi Mutu are supremely outstanding. Turner Prize winner Ofili didn't bring his best works to Venice this time, nonetheless, his four canvases at the Corderie in the Arsenale are excellent signatures of his multi-colour rhythmic patterning, minus the provocative mix of the sacred and profane that used to get him in trouble. And there isn't elephant dung in sight!

Who but Enwezor would offer prime time to an unknown young artist, Ibrahim Mahama, who at 28 is the youngest at the biennale? Sponsored by Brescia's Palazzo gallery Mahama has created a 300-metre long, three-ton tapestry made from his signature medium – jute sacks used to transport cocoa beans and charcoal in his native Ghana. With 70 assistants Mahama sewed the bags together for his installation that covers the length and height of the walkway into the sequencing heart of the Arsenale, an old naval shipyard turned into exhibition complex. That Mahama is being sued in a US court by some persons for an alleged breach of contract is a subject beyond this review but which you may access via Google.
Enwezor gave similar prominence to another new kid on the block, Oscar Murillo, 29, son of immigrant Columbian cleaners in London. Murillo's edgy, funereal black drapes on poles placed between the classical columns of the portico of the International pavilion in the Giardini, greet visitors like giant hooded sentries.

Wangechi Mutu is a class act, epitome of stylish excellence. She has a biggish room in the International pavilion where she's showing three works: "Forbidden Fruit Picker," one of her inimitable collages; "The End of Carrying All," a 3-screen video of a burdened Sisyphean-Kikuyu woman labouring across a stormy barren landscape; "She's got the whole world in her," a sculpture of a prone, horned, pert-breasted woman, lower body caged in a steel skirt as she stares into a gently spinning globe – or crystal ball? Stunning, is the overall effect, the message and symbolism I leave you to talk to the magician herself.
When I caught up with Mutu she was surrounded by a retinue of admirers around her installation and in the middle of photo shoot directed by a masked New York socialite, the mercurial Stacy Engman, who promptly corralled me as one of her props. For the love of Mutu I obliged. "Wangechi, I adore you!" I declared when the shoot was over and she had some breathing space to share her thoughts on the biennale. "Many, many, many dreams come true!" the 30-something Kenyan gushed, high cheekboned, chiseled face radiant like nothing you've ever seen. Here's one of the most successful, highly prized artists on the international circuit, enthusing like a novice at her first public show, fresh out of college - Yale School of Art, if you please.


The Coveted Accolades

The accolades were awarded in a rousing ceremony at the Ca' Giustinian palace, on May 9. Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement went to Brahim El Anatsui. The 71-year-old Ghanaian art teacher has taught in universities in Ghana and Nigeria for over thirty years and inspired a generation of artists. Anatsui is acclaimed for his intricate, shimmering, wall hanging sculptures created from recycled bottle tops, tin cans, bits of things metallic, all held together by copper or aluminum wires. He is among the first to break with sculpture's traditional adherence to a fixed shape. His tapestries are free forming and flexible, to be altered into varied appearances as desired. National museums worldwide queue up for "an Anatsui" because the white-haired maestro is unable to make them fast enough to meet demand.

The Board chaired by Paolo Baratta also awarded a Special Golden Lion for Services to the Arts to Susanne Ghez (USA) on the recommendation of Enwezor.
Golden Lion for Best Artist went to Berlin-resident American Adrian Piper, a pioneer conceptual artist and godmother of the social contact movement. Piper had a stall in the Arsenale asking people sign her "Probable Trust Registry" and pledge "a lifelong personal responsibility," to depend on one another, trust one another, keep words of honour to make the world a better place.

Golden Lion for the Best National Pavilion went to Armenia, whose pavilion, "Armenity: Contemporary Artists from the Armenian Diaspora," is a palimpsest, of contemporary images inserted into historic events and sites; a pavilion that "marks the resilience of trans-cultural confluence and exchanges," the Jury said. South Korean Im Heung-Soon received a Silver Lion for a Promising Young Artist for his documentary on the struggle of female workers across Asia.

There were three Special Mentions. Harun Farocki (1944–2014) received posthumous recognition; an Indo-German filmmaker, Farocki was a seminal figure in post-war cinema, an author, lecturer and media theorist. The second mention was the anonymous Abounaddara filmmakers collective, founded in 2010 to show alternative images of war-torn Syria to what the dominant mainstream narratives - a short film every week in a sort of "emergency cinema." The third mention was for Algerian Massinissa Selmani for working in "a modest medium of small drawings and low tech installations, "yet with a capacity to act and influence beyond their scale," as noted by the jury which comprised: Naomi Beckwith (USA), Sabine Breitwieser (Austria), Mario Codognato (Italy), Ranjit Hoskote (India), and Yongwoo Lee (South Korea).

The Biennale runs till November 22, 2015.

Osei G Kofi, May 2015


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