The art world’s movers and shakers descended on Venice in early May by plane, train, boat and super yacht for the opening week of the 56th Biennale of visual art. While the oldest and most revered of the big international art festivals rides the stifling commercial hype in contemporary art that has surrounded collectors, dealers and even museums since the 1980s, at root the value of the Biennale to its diverse and discriminating audience is still determined by artists and their ideas.
Numbers only go so far in describing the Venice Biennale. Nevertheless, 89 countries have organised pavilions, the largest concentrated in the historic Giardini, offering strident proof, once again, that the multidimensional phenomenon of contemporary art has global coverage.
In addition, 44 so-called collateral events occupy venues in the city itself. They vary in size from downbeat shows by obscure art schools to major loan exhibitions at, among many other museums, the Punta della Dogana (a beautiful, thoughtful show assembled by artist Danh Vo about old art adapted to new settings), the Accademia (a fine survey of Arte Povera artist Mario Merz) and the Museo Correr (American conceptualist Jenny Holzer, plus an outstanding survey of interwar German realism).
Add to those the cascade of independently initiated talks, seminars, performances and one-off encounters in accommodating palazzi, cinema lobbies, studios, vacant shops and cafés, and the truly wearying scope of imagination and activity throughout the Biennale’s seven-month run (up from the usual six months for economic rather than cultural reasons) begins to suggest itself to the prospective visitor.
One number, though, is missing: the value of purchases. The Biennale is not a place to buy art; instead, involvement is perceived as a mark of quality independent of commerce. Since the revolutionary year of 1968, exhibits are not officially for sale on site.
Instead, successful participation in some part of the Biennale enhances an artist’s commercial value. This is the ‘Venice Effect.’ Dealers and collectors understand its importance and capitalise on it at the art fairs that bracket the event in the calendar, especially in New York, Basel and London.
At the Biennale itself, collectors are pampered with exclusive openings and receptions. The inaugural week, therefore, resembles sparkling and tiresome theatre, with overexcited curators crisscrossing the city’s campi to locate well-hidden parties hosted by national art agencies while everyone else in town struggles to find a restaurant not already block-booked by a blue-chip gallery.
After that first week, the pace relaxes and venues assume a calmer demeanour. People begin to look at art. Yet although almost half a million people saw the festival’s main exhibition in 2013, that total is less impressive when the protracted duration of the show is remembered. Attendances are not huge but they include some of the wealthiest and most influential individuals on the planet.
Yet stamina is a greater asset at the Biennale than cash. Alongside the numerous pavilions, the central themed show is split between the Giardini’s main building, with almost 3,000 square metres of floor space, and the nearby Corderie at the Arsenale where its theme unwinds along the 316-metre length of a single broad, monumental and poorly lit partitioned gallery.
Since at least the 1960s this show has steadily grown in scale, ambition and hubris. Its organisation is entrusted to a guest curator who, in the manner of old-fashioned Hollywood directors, attempts to carve a compelling story or thesis from a cast of hundreds.
Needless to say, the task is daunting. This year, the Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor, whose reputation has been made in the United States and Germany for rethinking recent art history in global rather than Eurocentric terms, has selected works by 136 artists.
Titled ‘All the World’s Futures,’ its three parallel strands include such long-established artists as Bruce Nauman, Georg Baselitz and Marlene Dumas. Despite the Biennale’s emphasis on the new, only 11 artists were born after 1979. Indeed, some of the most interesting rooms in the show, demonstrating ideas that still appear fresh, feature artists who are now dead: the documentary filmmakers Chris Marker and Harun Farocki; Fabio Mauri, Italian conceptual art pioneer and friend of Pasolini; and the American musician and sculptor Terry Adkins.
But the future is built on the recent past and many compelling moments are provided by artists from outside Europe and America. Some, like the Propeller Group from Vietnam, have seldom shown to these key audiences while others, such as Adel Abdessemed from Algeria, Thea Djordjadze from Georgia and Romanian Victor Man, are now based in London or Berlin, cities which, with New York, are the epicentres of new art.
Conceived with a budget of nearly USD$15 million, Enwezor’s show aims to ‘delve into the contemporary global reality as one of constant realignment, adjustment, recalibration, motility and shape-shifting.’ The reality of the overloaded show, however, is its ultimate aimlessness, achieved without humour or sustained highpoints.
Perhaps the strongest images deck the exteriors of its two buildings and resonate boldly with the show’s theme. Between the columns on the pavilion’s façade, Colombian Oscar Murillo, 29, has hung tall, tattered and furled black flags, while the long pathway beside the Corderie is lined from top to bottom, from start to end, by 28-year-old Ghanaian Ibrahim Mahama’s installation of stained and sewn jute sacks recycled from the global coal and cocoa trades.
The national pavilions, unfortunately, do not ride to the rescue of this Biennale’s flagging centrepiece. Any shared themes here are coincidental. This year, coincidence linked artists chosen by Holland, France and Japan through trees, while Spain, Greece and Canada each selected fake shops (selling nothing, naturally).
Stories abound in the Danish, Belgian and U.S. shows (Danh Vo, again, making Denmark’s stories the best); the United States and Germany have bricked up their front doors so that visitors come round the side; and Tuvalu has semi-submerged the walkways to symbolise its sinking islands.
Both Albania and Australia have bones. Australian Fiona Hall merges past and future with cuddly animals, old banknotes and ticking clocks, and Albania tells a good Cold War story. Meanwhile, Germany and New Zealand are both concerned about current freedoms encroached upon by government (the latter strikingly set amongst the maps in the Biblioteca Marciana).
In rare eruptions of colour in this monochrome Biennale, Japan’s tree was festooned with 50,000 keys on red cords; inside, the august British pavilion was painted banana yellow throughout; and Denmark also went red. Like a nonchalant full stop, a phoenix from China floated over in the dock at the far end of the Arsenale. Across the globe, there are now countless biennials, triennials and even the occasional quinquennial (like this year’s Documenta in Kassel, Germany). Although the course is invariably uneven, Venice is keeping pole position among its rivals.
56th Venice Biennale International Exhibition of Art
Until November 22, 2015
Giardini, Arsenale and other venues across the city