Curator Okwui Enwezor tackles grim realities at Venice Biennale, while Japan sticks to tired festival formula

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Staff Writer

Ugly, joyless, aggressive, didactic, morose, self-righteous, unpleasant; these are just some of the words used in the press to describe the recently opened 56th Venice Biennale in Italy.

It may be the world’s oldest large-scale art festival, held in priceless palazzos on Venice’s many islands and attended by a group of wealthy art-world elites, but the Biennale is not beyond criticism (or protest). However, this edition — headed by veteran Nigerian curator and critic Okwui Enwezor — has seen more vitriol than many others in recent memory.

Enwezor is the Biennale’s first African-born curator. His introduction into the world of large-scale exhibitions was as artistic director of the second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, and many of the themes he addressed there can be linked to his current “All the World’s Futures” exhibition in Venice. These include a fascination with cultural hybridization, border crossing and many other facets of globalization. But it’s his academic and curatorial interest in what he calls “the post-colonial constellation” and an anti-capitalist bent that seems to have people frustrated. Enwezor’s focus on redressing cultural and economic imbalances, and reorienting contemporary art around alternative geographies is ambitious and has led to characterizations of him as a didactic ivory-tower activist.

The majority of the participating artists in Enwezor’s exhibition have never shown at the Biennale before, and there are more artists involved from the African continent than at any other edition of the event. In one particularly facile review in The Guardian, a writer claimed Enwezor was “purposefully featuring as many black artists as he can,” as though that were a problem at an event that has been dominated by white European artists since its inception in 1895.

Enwezor further shook up the status quo by replacing the spectacularly big installations seen in previous years with documents, exceptionally long videos and what he described as an “epic live reading of all three volumes of Karl Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ … continuously read live, throughout the exhibition’s seven months’ duration.”

This anti-capitalist, morose and conceptually bewildering show is brilliant precisely because it’s neither easily understood nor always readily Instagrammable — which is more significant than it would first seem. According to one recent study by website Artsy, Instagram is an important tool for collectors: 51½ percent surveyed purchased works from artists they originally discovered through the photo-sharing social network.

This doesn’t mean “All the World’s Futures” doesn’t hit hard, however. It is a show of weaponized art; of chain saws hanging from the roof like grapes; of AK-47 and M16 assault rifles used by The Propeller Group; of Bruce Nauman’s neon demands of “SIT ON MY FACE” and “STICK IT IN YOUR EAR” glowing over French conceptual artist Adel Abdessemed’s machete clusters; of Cao Fei’s tiny models of mutations and disasters; of ruined buildings and monuments; of songs about AIDS and sculptures about rape and genocide; of lamentations about resource extraction, from Mika Rottenberg’s fantastic film about pearl cultivation to Seoul-based Ayoung Kim’s sound installation on the history of the oil industry; and it’s a show about labor, work and malfeasance — exploitation of all kinds. It’s a poem of pessimism for the late-capitalist era.

One particularly strong sequence of works in the Giardini begins with Italian artist Fabio Mauri’s “The Western or the Wailing Wall” (1993), a wall built out of old leather suitcases, reminiscent of piles of luggage leftover from Holocaust victims, erected near a wooden ladder that ascends through the domed space toward a black hole in the roof. Encircling this is a series of screen-like paintings blazoned with the words “The End.”

If there were any doubts about the mood of “All the World’s Futures,” in the following room is a 16-mm short film from 1969 by French artist Christian Boltanski showing a bandaged figure coughing up blood. The blunt-force trauma is followed by a room of Robert Smithson drawings, an unexpected highlight, that includes his 1969 installation “Dead Tree” — a real fallen tree, which in this re-creation is leafless.

It all adds up to a messy retort to the faith in progress embodied by Google and Silicon Valley, an attempt at articulating the horror and sense of dislocation we have with conceptualizing the scale of our new geological age, which many are calling the “Anthropocene” — an epoch defined by the profound influence of humans on the Earth.

So what has Japan got to do with all this?

While Enwezor only chose one Japanese artist to be exhibited in “All the World’s Futures,” the late painter Tetsuya Ishida, Japan selected Chiharu Shiota to represent it at its national pavilion in the Giardini. Born in Osaka in 1972, but a resident of Berlin since 1996, Shiota put together an installation titled “The Key in the Hand,” which was curated by Hitoshi Nakano from the Kanagawa Arts Foundation in Yokohama. It took a team of helpers two months to put together and required 50,000 used keys. The keys are attached to a dense web of her trademark red yarn, which is hung from the pavilion’s ceiling, and is “caught” by two old wooden boats below.

During opening week, Shiota’s installation emerged as the Biennale’s immediate hit. It certainly stood out in an otherwise thorny exhibition of dense, conceptually driven political art. But is this a good thing?

Speaking with Shiota outside the pavilion on opening day, she distanced herself from Enwezor’s show, saying his goals were “political” without going into further detail. Talking about her work, she was quick to explain the direct symbolism of her elements.

“The boat represent the hands, two hands holding people’s memories. The red lines are connected to the color of blood and inside blood is everything we can explain: nationality, family, human race, religion,” she said.

New York Times art critic Roberta Smith was one of those who took issue with the Japanese pavilion saying it, “succumbed to tired forms of festivalism.” She’s right.

Many of the nearby pavilions did not succumb, and some went headlong in the opposite direction, embracing Enwezor’s themes. Hito Steyerl’s video work in the German Pavilion was one of the strongest reflections on Internet culture at the Biennale; 35-year-old Pamela Rosenkranz filled an entire room with a primordial “skin toned” soup of liquid plastics, Viagra, Evian, silicone and other substances in the Swiss Pavilion — a brilliant, disturbing allusion to the merging of culture and nature in our bodies; and the Belgian Pavilion addressed its own troubled history, and reflected Enwezor’s destabilizing drive by inviting African artists to participate.

Meanwhile, Ishida, the sole Japanese artist in “All the World’s Futures,” is represented by his surreal, figurative paintings that show pallid young boys transformed Kafka-style into microscopes or walking advertisements for car companies. In 2005, 31-year-old Ishida was killed when he was hit by a train in Tokyo in what may have been a suicide. The mood of his work seems to echo through “All the World’s Futures” — a weird, existential despair set against an oppressive urban environment.

Enwezor’s show offers no consolation, only further proof that things aren’t getting better. The Biennale succeeds this year mainly because it avoids many of the pitfalls of celebratory “festivalism” — it is a cold, polemical foray into the new conditions of a troubled planet. But if you look closely, it’s also an expression of the potential for poetry through, not despite, deep-seated pessimism.

56th International Art Exhibition — la Biennale di Venezia, “All the World’s Futures” runs through Nov. 22. For details, visit www.labiennale.org/en.