Okwui Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures” for the 56th Venice Biennale is a worthy successor to Massimiliano Gioni’s “The Encyclopedic Palace,” which held the stage at the last Biennale. Gioni’s show was a topical paean to the booming knowledge culture of the 21st century. It traced the circuitous roots of that culture not only to the Internet, but also to late 19th-century mysticism and to the emergence of 20th-century psychology. In terms of body symbolics, the show was a story of how the head surpassed the heart in modern culture. It formulated art as if it was a science of subjectivity and laid great value on systems of thinking—whether invented cosmologies, alternate private worlds or archival architectures.
Enwezor has different fields to plough. His interest is not in an epistemology of art; it is in art’s relation to the public sphere—its function as a guide to enlarging social justice—hence the title: “all the world’s futures.” His exhibition is a showcase for engaged art. It unfolds as a studied tribute to multicultural and socially responsive art practice. As with any biennial, it is an open question as to where proceedings actually start, but whether you begin with the long trek of the Arsenale, or the compact density of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, it doesn’t take long for Enwezor to lay out some exemplary installations that speak eloquently to his theme and to his construction of a fiercely alternate history to the market-oriented, media-darling art world of the past decade.
At the Arsenale this year, the traditional long view that usually serves as a crisp visual aggregator of the theme is blocked. Instead, entry is through a tightly proportioned anteroom where a brief curatorial mission statement occupies the walls. It is a stark grey zone framed by a dark space beyond—not the most joyous beginning but, rather, a portentous leap-off point. Indeed, the space is a prelude to a combined installation of Bruce Nauman and Adel Abdessemed. Nauman, the grand old man of dark-side Conceptualism, presents neon text works from the 1970s and ’80s such as Eat Death (1972) and American Violence (1981–82). In the dimmed space, the brash, blinking neon colours contend with an unnerving array of wooden-handled machetes, knives and swords planted into the floor like so many sprouting bouquets of sharpened steel. As the neon words of the American artist stutter their primal needs and conditions into the room, Abdessemed’s sardonically titled Nymphéas (2015) casts clusters of shadows imbued with pressure-cooker violence. The scene is a poised clash of worlds—a first world of preoccupied, commercialized self-actualization against a third world of hard, unsung labour. Together, they blend into a global horizon of unsatisfied want and unrewarded effort—elements of a hard-boiled realism from both artists that circles a deeply disquieted human condition.
Over at the Giardini, at the Central Pavilion, another blocking (blinding) motif awaits entry. From the walkway in the leafy Giardini grounds you see hanging black curtains strung across the facade of the building under monumentally sized signage from artist Glenn Ligon that reads, “blues, blood, bruise.” The curtains are by Colombian artist Oscar Murillo. It is a work likewise titled in democratic lower case: signaling devices in now bastard territory (2015). Recalling Dante’s woeful phrase, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” (from Inferno) Enwezor’s choice of first works establishes a tone of parallel alarm, then follows through with another masterful selection of works by a cross-generational group of artists. Inside the central foyer are works by Italian Arte Povera artist Fabio Mauri, who died in 2009. Like Nauman, Mauri is an exemplar of disaffected criticality. He is also a European historical bridge for the show with his installation The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall (1993). The work is a 16-square-foot impasse of piled vintage suitcases referencing the confiscated luggage of Nazi concentration-camp victims. Now mutely restored as both memorial and defense system, the work stands in complex relation to works arrayed on the surrounding walls that each contain the word “fine” (Italian for “the end”) inscribed at the centre like the endnote of a New Wave film. With the suitcases as chorus, the word voices a declaration of mortality. Mauri individualizes it, work by work, in a way that speaks directly to the implied humanist import of all politicized art where lives are rendered real and accountable.
Enwezor magnifies this preoccupation with the extraordinary reach of his show. The artists come from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas, all of them on equal footing with one another. They bring human stories to life, whether it is the homage to a friend in Kutluğ Ataman’s The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci (2014)—a network of the faces of those friends in a high-tech flying carpet of changing portraits—or through the songs of workers gathered by Jeremy Deller in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2013), which together voice an ironically remembered solidarity; or in the protest slogans stamped on the wall in Barthélémy Toguo’s Urban Requiem (2015), where oversized, often toppled, wooden stamp forms share a double life as portrait busts. From work to work, Enwezor forges a chain of human impact on art and by art. Nothing is distracted from an overweening responsibility to show art that enables human agency and empowerment.
This takes its clearest form in the foregrounding of performance art in Enwezor’s exhibition. The keynote here is the exhibition-long live reading of Karl Marx’s Das Capital, under the direction of UK artist Isaac Julien. The project involves live actors reading Marx’s text aloud in a performance “arena” designed by the Ghanaian/British architect David Adjaye. The readings are a literal reminder of how many personal stories are built into Marx’s text side by side with its technical economic vocabulary. Marx is not just a theoretician; he is also an evangelist of social justice reporting on social inequity. Julien brings the book back to life with his infusion of live performance. His accompanying two-screen video Kapital (2013) is a record of an earlier related performance in London that carries this restorative topicality further by revisiting the market crash of 2008.
For Enwezor, performance becomes a way to find poetry in polemics. As a form, performance serves as an unmatched expression of vitality, a way of refocusing the world of ideas into real-time experience. One of the highlights of the show is to watch Argentinian artist Ernesto Ballesteros fly a delicate glider inside the Arsenale. His Indoor Flights (2015) becomes a manifestation of care and subtlety in his light-footed tracking of the plane’s various flight paths across the room. The work is a metaphor for inspiration, imagination—and simplicity. Its visceral directness is touching. The artist is before us and we watch his total engagement with keeping the plane in the air and off the ground.
Video is something else that takes flight in Enwezor’s show. In many respects, it is the driver of the exhibition, the clearest indicator of the discursive imagination that shapes contemporary art, the imagination where elaboration and duration become new elements of art’s formal vocabulary. On the opening press day, Oscar winner Steve McQueen was seen stacking take-away posters and doing a final sound check for his 2014 video Ashes. The work involves two sequences—one of a beautiful young Grenadian black man, Ashley, mugging for the camera on an open-sea boat ride; the other of the same man’s burial a few years later after his murder when he ran afoul of local drug dealers. The work is another instance where beauty faces a hard fate and where money plays the role of close cousin to violence. Down the corridor from McQueen, Carsten Höller and Måns Månsson fill a larger space with another two-screen video called Fara Fara (2014). It is a stunning documentary of competing music figures on the Kinshasa music scene. The enormous gathering crowds for a head-to-head concert make them seem more like political figures or gang leaders than musicians, and we imagine some near-future order of statehood where culture, not finance, is the root of power. Elsewhere in the exhibition, a comprehensive gathering of more than 80 video works by the late Harun Farocki pays homage to an influential figure in video art, one who now, in retrospect, seems a muse for Enwezor and many of the artists in the show.
If there was a standout work in “All the World’s Futures,” it was John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea: Oblique Tales on the Aquatic Sublime (2015). Akomfrah, new to me, is a founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective and has a long history on the British scene for works that fuse archival footage with his own original film, such as Handsworth Songs (1986). Vertigo Sea makes much of footage shot by the BBC Natural History Unit and on three simultaneous, juxtaposed screens, he creates a visual poem of the oceans of the world, linking them to economic and political histories of exploitation that sour the raw beauty of the natural world as the film touches down on whaling, polar-bear hunting, the slave trade and Argentina’s “disappeared.” Documentary footage meshes with acted portions throughout (with readings of texts by Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville and others) and the rising and falling of the accompanying soundtrack brings the film to epiphany after epiphany in a symphony of saddened glory. Beyond the histories, climate change becomes part of story as we watch sequences of sleeping bears on small patches of drifting ice and free-running water pouring down the faces of glaciers. A long film, it nevertheless creates the impression that we are running out of time. Actors, some of them dressed in period costumes, ponder far horizons. The end is near—for us, for even the sea. Mauri would have added “fine.” Enwezor, however, turns all of it into an energized new start for contemporary art.