The Venice Biennale: an artistic promise and its future

Biennale-Arte-2015-logoThe Venice Biennale celebrates its 120th birthday with a much anticipated 56th edition named “All the world’s futures”. It will gather 89 exhibiting nations (see full list http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/exhibition/national-participations/) and the Padiglione central (main exhibition) alone will showcase 159 pieces from 53 countries curated/commissioned by Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of the Biennale and current director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich.

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If we add the 44 official collateral events to what is considered the largest contemporary art event in the world – or this ” Parliament of forms” as Enwezor calls it, it bears the promise of an unprecedented cultural and artistic diversity.

The title “All the world’s futures” calls the 54th edition (2011) back to mind and the Arab spring that illuminated the Biennale then, making all futures and all dreams possible: it turned the Egyptian pavilion into a pilgrimage place (Ahmed Biasony last video “Days of running in the space” was shown on giant screens for an avid and compact audience – Biasony lost his life during the upsing on the Tahir place in Cairo), the uber talented Alem sisters, Raja and AlemShadia, created a “Black Arch” for the Saudi pavilion (a first participation for Saudi Arabia) esthetically bridging Western and Oriental cultures in a continuous and mutually beautifying mirror mechanism https://www.flickr.com/photos/49478590@N04/sets/72157626976440746/, the UAE caught the eye with Lateefa bint Maktoum’s photographs https://www.flickr.com/photos/49478590@N04/sets/72157626834439431/ and Irak appealed to the public and the critics with its “Acqua Ferita” pavilion. Above all “The future of a promise” (a Pan Arab contemporary art parallel event that was curated by Lisa Lazaar with brilliant pieces by Ayman Baalbaki, Lara Baladi, Yazan Khalili, …) captured our imagination and projected us into glorious futures*, with no prescience of their chimerical character.

lateefa bint maktoum

The 55th Venice Biennale (2013) under the artistic leadership of Massimiliano Gioni had the ambition to encapsulate contemporary art in its diversity building on Marino Auriti’s utopian “Encyclopedic palace of the world” project (The theme for the 55th Biennale was “An encyclopedic palace of art”). One would have expected a more technology oriented touch from the curator of the much acclaimed “Ghosts in the machine” exhibition ( http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/view/ghosts-in-the-machine).

My son watching an extinguisher as a piece of art in the main exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale

My son watching an extinguisher as a piece of art in the main exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale

His memorabilia approach, characteristic to all Biennales, left those who expected “a museal” consistency perplexed. It nevertheless brought up the deepest reflections on the nature of contemporary art. My then 8 y. son was no exception, sighing and repeating “why do they show this?” when he suddenly stopped in front of an extinguisher searching for the artist name without being able to find it – as it was a real extinguisher. “Why isn’t this piece considered art?” he protested “Why is it art according to you?” I asked. He pondered and replied: “it catches my eye, it’s exhibited, it has meaning because I can use it and… I decide this is art!”. And I decided that this is was the most powerful tour of the Biennale I had ever had for these questions are at the heart of contemporary art.

The 55th edition of the Biennale was indeed marked by realism: a dive into failing economies with the Greek and the Portuguese pavilions (Greece showed Stefano Tsivopoulos “History zero” http://stefanostsivopoulos.com/index.php?id=98 and Portugal set for a ship docked at the Arsenale instead of a much too expensive pavilion in the Giardini to exhibit internationally renowned Joanavasconcelos Vasconcelos https://www.facebook.com/ruxandra.poysti/media_set?set=a.10152516472559762.1073741842.822449761&type=3) South Africa opened the “archives” of its apartheid past, Chile displayed a miniature model of the Biennale designed by Alfredo Jaar http://moussemagazine.it/55vb-alfredo-jaar-chilean/ but even moments of escape from representation with pieces such as J.D.Okhai Ojeikere portrait pictures, Haïtian vodou flags or Papa Ibra Tall textile sceneries were reaching far inward reality, relying on the  “transformative power of imagination” to transcend the given and their immediacy (also applicable to the extinguisher).

“You can close your eyes but you cannot shut your ears” said Hong-Kai Wang as a prelude to “The heard& the unheard – soundscapeTaiwan” (54th Venice Biennale collateral event at the Palazzo delle Prigioni), Hu-Hsien Su sounds of nothinga fascinating exhibition where, among others, Hu Hsien Su explored the “sound of nothing” – an attempt to create an indie label with the music of those we don’t see (poor people living under a bridge,  immigrants working in the harbor). The  56th Venice Biennale will  have a voice for its entire duration in the ARENA , where Karl Marx “Das Kapital” will be read in its integrality.
Marx used to create a clear divide between the Western and the Eastern worlds, it is unlikely he will generate unity now but in an artistic context, it definitely raises the feeling of a common history (for or against it), a feeling of belonging to the same humanity, capable of the same wonders and the same terrible mistakes that define our futures. It will be interesting to see what this reading evokes to the visitors, and if it can still help them apprehend the future.

Having a glimpse into the world’s futures, the 56th Biennale plan, would comfort us as we so much hope for the best but live with the fear of the worst. In “Diary of the future” (2010), Lara Baladi poignantly tells about her father’s ailing health and death (presented at “the future of a promise”, parallel event 54th Venice Biennale) by organizing pictures of the cups of coffee and coffee grounds visitors shared and read with him until his last moment. If Lara Baladi’s rosace were the world, it would be full of hope in front of the ineluctable, full of care, love and beauty. When the ineluctable has happened, the care, the love and the beauty behind the piece remain eternally and art per se fulfills the promise of our futures.

All practical details: http://www.labiennale.org

Lara Baladi "Rose" (2010) a detail from the project "Diary of the future" (2007-2008)

Lara Baladi “Rose” (2010) a detail from the project “Diary of the future” (2007-2008)