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Capital and Contradiction: Okwui Enwezor's 2015 Venice Biennale

05/21/2015 03:01 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

Katharina GrosseUntitled Trumpet, 2015. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo.

The Venice Biennale is built on paradox and contradiction: against the grain of globalization, the Biennale follows a model of representation by nation-states, and its non-commercial structure is undermined by the extravagant cost of mounting an exhibition there. These inconvenient facts have been duly pointed out by art critics disembarking en masse onto Venice's waterlogged streets for the Biennale preview week, with more than one critic seizing the image of "ladies in Louboutins" struggling to keep their footing through the Venice art marathon as the perfect metaphor for the Biennale's inherent contradictions. The city's slow submergence into the Venetian lagoon is also oft quoted, a reliably irresistible analogy for the perceived decline of the art world into a bog of moneyed hypocrisy. The yacht flaunting of the super wealthy is summarily juxtaposed with the political content of the art on view. So when a dock collapsed under the weight of a group of well-heeled patrons heading to an exclusive party at the Fondazione Prada you could almost hear the screams of delight issuing from the art media.

Isaac Julien, DAS KAPITAL Oratorio, 2015. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Andrea Avezzù.

It's from this context that Okwui Enwezor's Biennale Arte exhibition, "All the World's Futures," was quickly characterized as "didactic," "daunting," "unpleasant," "compendious and difficult." The linchpin of Enwezor's exhibition, a marathon reading of all three volumes of Karl Marx's Das Kapital, drew the most scrutiny from the art press on the gap between art's ideals and its realities. The continuous live reading, held in the Biennale's new David Adjaye-designed auditorium in the Giardini, is organized and directed by British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien. Prior to the Biennale's official opening, across town at the Palazzo Malipiero-Barnabò Julien presented a glittering new film installation--a project produced and underwritten by the Rolls Royce Motor Car Company. The irony of this double booking has not gone unnoticed.

Bruce Nauman, Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain, 1983. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo.

But the droning undercurrent of Marxist theory at this year's Venice Biennale is more than an empty gesture in a half-empty auditorium. Its literalness makes its implications impossible to ignore, as though Enwezor intended for the entirety of the 56th Venice Biennale--from the curated exhibition at the Arsenale and Giardini, to the national pavilions, to the hundreds of collateral events, to the splashy VIP affairs, and down to the pop-up, off-brand exhibitions and events that sprout from every corner and cul-de-sac of the city--to be regarded through the lens of commodity, labor, and exploitation. Nothing, he seems to suggest, exists outside the system of capital. Just two days after the official opening date of the Biennale, on May 11 a painting by Picasso fetched the headline-grabbing price of $179.4 million at Christie's in New York, contributing to overall sales of a staggering $1.4 billion for the auction house in that week alone. Enwezor couldn't have asked for better case in point demonstrating the perverse disparities of advanced capitalism--and the role art, as commodity, plays in it.

Invisible Borders: The Trans-African Project, A Trans-African Worldspace, 2015. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo.

Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC), Who is building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, 2015. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo.

Enwezor describes the application of Das Kapital, at the Venice Biennale as "a kind of Oratorio," providing the framework for the choir, ensemble, and soloists that come together to perform "All the World's Futures." Enwezor's soloists contribute the exhibition's landmarks: Bruce Nauman's neon text sculptures; Katharina Grosse's rainbow-painted ruin; the entirety of Harun Farocki's oeuvre of video works. Artist collectives, of which there are nine represented in Enwezor's exhibition, form the ensemble: The Invisible Borders Trans-African Project, an artist-led project founded in Nigeria, presents photo-documentation of their travels throughout the continent; Abounaddara, an anonymous collective of filmmakers creates "emergency cinema" in Syria; The Gulf Labor Coalition speaks out against the exploitation of laborers in the building of the Guggenheim's Abu Dhabi outpost. Sounds float throughout, accompanying the viewer through the Giardini and Arsenale: the tolling of bells, the click of film projectors, the rattle and thud of drums. A few arias of immense beauty and wit emerge: Mika Rottenberg's NoNoseKnows, a fantastical fable centering on a narrative of the production of pearls; and Xu Bing's massive dragons made from construction tools suspended above the dock of the Arsenale.

Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2012-2013. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo.

Critics of the exhibition agree that there are simply too many voices in Enwezor's choir--nearly 140 artists in total--that the sheer quantity simply drowns out the artists with more modest contributions. "You cannot curate an entire world, or all its possible futures," writes Adrian Searle in The Guardian, "That would be God's job, but Enwezor has hubris enough to try." Yet if Enwezor's encompassing vision commits the sin of overwhelming the viewer, it's important to note that this is one of the most inclusive, diverse Biennials on record, with about half of the artists hailing from outside Western Europe and North America.

Chiharu Shiota, The Key in the Hand, 2015. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia and the Japan Pavilion. Photo by Sunhi Mang.

Pamela Rosenkranz, Our Product, 2015, Installation View, Swiss Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo: Marc Asekhame.

Viewers will find some respite from the claustrophobia of theory in the national pavilions' solo presentations, found in every hue and shade. Chiharu Shiota 's poetic installation of keys suspended from a web of red thread in the Japanese Pavilion became an instant favorite, while in the British Pavilion, Sarah Lucas's custard yellow rooms populated by lewd cigarette-vaunting sculptures drew mixed reactions. In the Swiss Pavilion, Pamela Rosenkranz averaged out European skin tones, filling the room with a pool in a shade of fleshy pink. Constructions of steel rebar stick out of a beach of ultramarine sand in the Kosovo Pavilion, a conceit "Speculating on the Blue" by Flaka Haliti.

Flaka Haliti, Speculating on the Blue, 2015, Installation View, Kosovo Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Courtesy of the Artist and LambdaLambdaLambda. Photo: Marc Krause.

Sean LynchAdventure: Capital, 2014-2015. Courtesy of the Artist, Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Dublin, Ronchini Gallery, London and Ireland at Venice.

But the echoes of Marxist critique resound, going beyond Enwezor's purview. In the Irish Pavilion, a video installation by Sean Lynch weaves a narrative around the flow of capital across landscape and history. Both the Canadian and Greek Pavilions feature reconstructions of commercial shops, a Quebecois corner shop and a Greek taxidermist, respectively. Simon Denny's showing for the New Zealand Pavilion centers on the insidious information tactics of the NSA, of which we're only now aware because of the daring actions and sacrifices of one individual, Edward Snowden. Yet it's the conspicuous absence of two national pavilions--Kenya and Costa Rica, who both pulled out amid controversy surrounding their dubious means of funding and/or curating their exhibitions--and the resulting storm of press that perhaps reveals the most about the machinations of the Biennale and its relation to capital. In an odd twist, both exhibitions will be held as originally planned, but without any national or official Biennale affiliation. Symbolical disavowed, but still, awkwardly, present, they stand as a reminder of the Venice Biennale's many strange paradoxes and contradictions.

Simon Denny, Secret Power, 2015. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia and the New Zealand Pavilion. Photo: Nick Ash.

The 56th Venice Biennale runs from May 9 to November 22, 2015.

--Natalie Hegert