Wangechi Mutu

The 56th Venice Biennale: Substantial Beauty

Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what’s hidden.
Study them,
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not.                                -Rumi

The Venice Biennale, now in its 120th year has become known as much for its glittering parties as for the art.

In the days prior to the opening, super yachts jostled for space in the city’s narrow harbors and a giddiness pervaded the air as attendees skipped from party to sumptuous party, hosted nightly by an array of jet-setting gallery owners, foundations, and corporate sponsors.

Collecting contemporary art has become a past-time for the wealthy.  To an extent, the art world has responded to the insatiable demand by promoting work that is pleasing, humorous, and often, easy to consume. This year’s Biennial theme “All the World’s Futures” dramatically changes that by being more inclusive and political. And that’s a good thing.

Okwui Enwezor

Curator Okwui Enwezor

 

Enzor Enwezor: Breaking the Mold

The appointment of Enwezor, a Nigerian curator and art critic and the first black person to curate the Bienniale, was a clear decision by the event committee to take exhibition forward beyond the parade of yachts and celebrities, and bring a level of discourse and integrity that has been lacking in recent years.

The Experience

Upon entering the massive Arsenale exhibition space, one is greeted by neon signs by Bruce Nauman, proclaiming “War” “Death” and “Pain.”  Spectators weave around machetes clumped together in menacing bushes. The next room opens to metal gas masks in various formations with words like “war” etched on the side. Tar-drenched chainsaws hang in clusters from thick metal chains;  an army tank sits closed, its barrel pointed towards viewers. In short: dauntingly serious stuff.

Bruce Nauman

Bruce Nauman – Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain

To our relief, the grim but emotionally charged entry into the exhibition would lighten up both in substance and subject with an impressive range of intellectual and aesthetic expression.  Videos, drawings, and performance are intermingled with sculpture and photography throughout the the massive building space. I loved Mika Rottenberg’s “NoNoseKnows,” a pearl market where, mesmerized by the stacks of pretty baubles of every color, the viewer enters to find herself in a cinema space watching a film about the pearl factory in China. The artist delicately balanced the piece as part parody/part documentary to illustrate the working conditions undergone by the women in the film. Other films were more direct: Im Heung Soon’s “Factory Complex” introduced us to several lovely young women who were employed in a factory in Vietnam that produced popular items of western branded clothing.  More of a standard documentary, it traced the worker’s protests for a living wage and the high tolls they paid. While I left the building slightly stunned, I nevertheless lauded the artist on producing such a strong commentary.  The feeling does not quickly subside while experiencing the privileges of a trip to a city as glorious Venice – which was a good thing.

Unlike previous years when novelty, beauty, or a mix of both reigned, the gravitas of the work and the level at which it has been executed raises one’s spirits in hope that museums may seek to expose similar themes in greater depth, rejecting the too-oft promotion of celebrity in exchange for blockbuster popular exhibits with substance.

The work at the Giardini – selected by national curators – was less successful. The clear outlier was the Japanese Pavilion whose elegiac ship bestrewn with red string and keys was an allegory for bridging time and space.

Barthélémy Toguo

Barthélémy Toguo – The New World Climax

The main weak point of the event was its organization. It was unclear whether the much-touted performances of Das Kapital were held the day I attended, and was informed that the docents had “no idea” when they would be held. Friends queued for nearly two hours for tickets and the online ticket sales failed to work after several hours of attempts. Transportation links were slow and uncomfortably full, getting in and around was hard work.

Overall, this year’s Biennale is an elegant reminder of the power of art to initiate important dialogue, cultural commentary, and critique. I was delighted by the broader, multi-faceted narrative, with contributions from many different voices examining the world today and revealing our blind spots and searching for alternatives with elegance.

Visiting The Biennale

The Biennale de Venezia runs May 9 through November 22, 2015.  The Arsenale and Giardini exhibitions are the most important parts of the Biennale. There are also seemingly endless number of national pavilions scattered across Venice.

Tickets can sometimes be difficult to acquire – I suggest asking the concierge of one of the large, central hotels. They have acquired the tickets in bulk and can offer them at a discount, helping you to avoid queues and frustration of trying to buy tickets online. For more information, visit www.labiennale.org.

About the Author

AfrolistaCatherine Dionne is globetrotting blogger who worships fashion. Raised in New York City and fluent in four languages, she has lived throughout Europe and now resides in London. Her work in international finance, fashion, and acting has taken her around the world—from Asia to Scandinavia and Latin America. A previous position as an assistant stylist and editor-in-chief for Luxos Magazine granted her front row access to her favorite pastimes: runway shows and art exhibitions. Discover more of Catherine Dionne’s discriminating taste and stylish adventures at www.afrolista.com.

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