The Venice Biennale: All The World’s Futures

Eddie Prabandono ‘After Party #3’ (2013), 640 x 340 cm. Iron Plate material, Vespa Special with duck paint

FOR ITS 56th edition, the Venice Biennale appointed Okwui Enwezor (b 1963 in Nigeria) as artistic director for this leading survey of the contemporary art world. Presently heading the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, Enwezor has previously curated many large scale exhibitions, including Documenta 11 (1998-2002) in Kassel,  Germany, and the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea (2008). Summarising the Biennale under the title ‘All the world’s futures’, Enwezor asked participating countries and individual artists to reflect upon ‘this moment of discontent and change’ that the world finds itself in. More than ever before, artists are aware that we live in a time of constant change and flux affecting our political, geographical, economic, sociological, environmental and historical surroundings and taking us into the unknown.

The Biennale follows its traditional configuration with one section bringing together the various national representations with a majority of pavilions located in the Giardini (the artists being selected at a national level), a number of collateral events to be found around town (set up through private or public initiatives, but approved by the Biennale) and a large exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor with artists from various nationalities working in different media. This segment is traditionally located in the Italian Pavilion of the Giardini, as well as in the Arsenale.

The winners of the prizes awarded by the jury of the Biennale were disclosed during the preview of the event with the Golden Lion going to the Pavilion of Armenia. Indeed, 2015 marked the centenary commemoration of the Armenian Genocide that led Armenia to highlight artists from the Armenian Diaspora. In a beautiful location, on the island of San Lazzaro, the exhibition took place in a monastery established in 1717 by an Armenian monk. This building has latterly served to preserve part of Armenia’s cultural heritage. The pavilion featured 16 artists from the Armenian Diaspora, among them Sarkis (b. 1938), Malik Ohanian (1969), and Aikaterini Gegisian (b. 1976). To some visitors, the choice of Armenia as best pavilion may be debatable, as from an aesthetic point of view, other pavilions, namely Japan, were largely superior. However, the aesthetic aspect was not the main priority of the jury in its motivation in regard to awarding the Golden Lion, which concluded that ‘in a year that witnessed a significant milestone for the Armenian people, the pavilion marks the resilience of trans-cultural confluence and exchanges’. The jury of the Biennale was eager to state its acknowledgment of a genocide that the international community was sometimes reluctant to articulate.

A highlight of the Biennale, among the national representations, is unquestionably Japan. Chiharu Shiota (b. 1972) presents a large-scale installation using an infinite network of thread that has become her signature. Entitled The Key in the Hand, the installation features two boats surrounded by a sky of red thread with a myriad of hanging keys. The installation can be subject to various interpretations (migration, each individual holding the key of their destiny, a key to secure one’s belongings, etc), including the experience of being physically in an installation of such scale is unique.

Korea, too, provides an excellent video installation by the duo Moon Kyungwon  (b 1969) & Jeon Joonho (b 1969), who were previously noticed at Documenta 13 in Kassel in 2012. The multi-channel film installation The Ways of Folding Space & Flying takes the viewer to a distant future where only the Korean pavilion remains after the disappearance of the city of Venice. The protagonist of the video awakes and investigates past and future civilisations. Visually beautifully executed, the video reaches its objective to take the audience into another unidentifiable time and place.

A pleasant surprise is the pavilion of Egypt with an interactive installation with green artificial grass paths creating the word ‘Peace’ within the building, a word also giving its title to the exhibition. The artists Ahmed Abdel Fattah (b 1977), Maher Dawoud (b 1983), and Gamal Elkheshen (b 1987) are displaying numerous tablets encouraging the audience to test the peace path and to decide whether it is negative (with the encounter of fire, spiders cockroaches), or positive (featuring butterflies, rabbits, flowers). The installation addresses a serious issue, especially in this part of the world, simplifying it to make sure the audience cannot ignore its own influence on creating a positive, or  negative, impact towards peace.

Located just before the main entrance of the Giardini is the Thai pavilion with the sculpture installation Earth, Air, Fire & Water by Kamol Tassananchalee (b. 1944). Known as an outstanding printmaker, Kamol Tassananchalee has created a series of stainless steel sculptures that replicate his tools: ink rollers, paint brushes, palette knives with certain sections carved out to let laser light get through and achieve an effect similar to the one of shadow puppets. The oversized sculptures are wonderfully executed and show the width of Tassananchalee’s skills that bring together the worlds of painting, drawing, print, and sculpture.

With their national representations in, or adjacent to, the Arsenale are Singapore, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, China, Hong Kong and Macao. With Sea State, Charles Lim Yi Yong (b 1973) addresses Singapore’s issue of land reclamation and brings to the forefront the country’s actual borders that are otherwise hidden by the water. Four different videos, maps and a life-size buoy that used to signal the presence of a local island on maritime maps and that has now disappeared illustrate the artist’s curatorial statement. Sarkis (b 1938 in Turkey) has the privilege to be simultaneously featured in two different pavilions: as the artist representing Turkey and considering his Armenian heritage, he is also part of the group exhibition in the Armenian pavilion. With Respiro, Sarkis continues his endless investigation about humanity with a site-specific installation consisting among others of neon rainbows and stained glass panes. The installation references the past and aims at a different approach to the human condition. Opting for a group show for its national representation is the United Arab Emirates, which has a selection of 15 artists with works that cover the past 40 years.

Participating at the Venice Biennale since 2009, the UAE may in the future benefit from a smaller presentation concentrating their efforts on five or six artists. The UAE’s participation is nevertheless an asset in order to have a global view of what is happening in the region.

For its national representation, Indonesia relied on internationally known Heri Dono (b 1960) with an installation entitled Voyage Trokomod. Referencing the Trojan horse and the Indonesian Komodo dragon, Dono created an oversized hybrid animal that alludes to globalisation. How to maintain a certain specificity in this continuous trend towards globalisation is the recurrent question of Heri Dono’s contribution.

A similar question is the basis of Tan Dun’s project in the Chinese pavilion where he exhibits together with four other artists. Living in Future is a music performance exploring our sense of sound, sight, and memory. More specifically, composer and conductor Tan Dun (b 1957) investigates the vanishing of the Nu Shu culture in Hunan (where the artist is originally from) and the specific language created by women and passed on from mother to daughter. Tan Dun encourages the viewer to reflect on the notion of ‘the future’ and its consequences, stating that ‘today is the future of yesterday, tomorrow is today’s future, yesterday is the future of the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow is the future of tomorrow’. Change is also at the centre of Wu Wenguang (b 1956) in his China Village Documentary Project, where after winning a prize, villagers were handed a camera allowing them to film their own lives. Besides Tan Dun and Wu Wenguang, Liu Jaikun (b 1956) and Lu Yang (b 1984) form part of this year’s Chinese pavilion. They are showing video productions.

Further afield, throughout the city, a variety of countries from the Asian and Islamic-world regions have set up their pavilions, namely Iraq, Azerbaijan, Iran, the Philippines, and Mongolia. Iraq kept the same location as two years ago and has selected five artists for its offering, Invisible Beauty. The idea behind the title of the exhibition is to provide visibility for the space that artists strive to preserve for their practice despite of the war, the violence, the shortages, and the rise of Islamic State. With these elements in mind, it is now more than ever important for artists to continue to work in the country. The pavilion features five artists, two living in Iraq (Al Ani and Salam Atta Sabri), and three from its diaspora – Shex Hadi (Iraqi Kurdistan), Haider Jabbar (Turkey), and Rabab Ghazoul from Wales. Salam Atta Sabri (b 1953) after having lived abroad (in the US and Jordan) for more than 15 years, returned to Baghdad in 2005. His return marked the beginning of a series of drawings, all very dense and compact that can be seen as a visual diary he kept over these years. With more than 100 drawings on display, the series expresses, in a powerful way, his transition back to Iraq with all the changes that came with the political situation there. Latif Al Ani (b 1932), considered as the father of Iraqi photography, is showing some early works form the 1960s when the beauty of the world still encouraged him to photograph both at home and abroad. The black-and-white series in the pavilion provides a glimpse into Latif Al Ani’s artistic practice, a legacy of a world long gone.

On the other hand, Haider Jabbar’s (b 1986) watercolours deal directly with the atrocities of the war and the rise of Islamic State (IS), while Akam Shex Hadi (b 1985) addresses the current IS issue in a more subtle way, with black and white photographs depicting individuals in their sparse surroundings while a black unwinding fabric points at the latent presence and threat of terrorism. The Iraqi pavilion has also launched an initiative to raise awareness on the refugee issue affecting the country by compiling the book Traces of Survival: Drawings by Refugees in Iraq Selected by Ai Weiwei. Providing pencils and paper to refugees in various camps, the initiative provided refugees with the opportunity to express themselves directly, to share their grief, their fears, hopes and dreams with the world in their own way. As pointed out by the curator of the pavilion Philippe Van Cauteren, surprisingly, more than 90 percent of the drawings showed no signs of violence and horror, but focused on dreams, hopes, the fauna and the flora. Proceeds from the sales are going back to the camps, to those two million people from Iraq who are now refugees. (Traces of Survival is available from good bookshops and online bookstore, published by Yale University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0300218206.)

Azerbaijan went for a more global approach with two presentations in two different spaces: Beyond the Line highlights a selection of the Azeri artists from the 1960s and 70s who had an impact on the future development of contemporary art in the country, while Vita Vitale, which brings together a group of international artists, looks at the relationship between nature and humans in regard to the balance of the eco system. Iran opted for a similar approach to Azerbaijan, presenting two exhibitions, one featuring Iranian artists, while the other has a broader outlook towards the Asian and Arabic region. Iranian Highlights features the work of Samira Alikhanzadeh (b 1967), Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar (b 1977), Jamshid Bayrami (b 1961), and Mohamed Ehsai (b 1939). An excellent draftsman, Mohamed Ehsai is a leading figure in Iranian calligraphy. With his large oil canvases referring to traditional calligraphy and to religious texts with brushstrokes that repeat and interlace, he has created a unique visual language. Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar (b 1977) creates collages, installations and sculptures. His series My Land presents a section of a border where a battle took place, addressing the feeling of nostalgia. Through his sculptures Talk Cloud and his installation Tulips Rise from Blood of the Nation Youth, the artist continues his effort to create work closely linked to the political events he is witnessing.

For this section, bringing together five Iranian artists still working in the country, the Iranian pavilion has made a more audacious and courageous choice than past editions, which is an excellent move considering the wealth of talent in the country. If the other exhibition organised by the pavilion – The Great Game – slightly lacked a focus as a gathering for artists from the Arabic and Asian region, it is nevertheless a show with very good pieces from artists such as Imran Qureshi, Sahand Hesamiyan, Pouran Jinchi, Riyas Komu, and Jamal Pemjweny. Sadly works from Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Newsha Tavakolian, and Amar Kanwar did not reach Venice on time for the preview. Considering this year’s promising contribution by Iran, one is looking forward to its 2017 presentation at the Biennale. Inviting foreign artists side by side with their native artists, the Syrian pavilion showcased 11 artists with Helidon Xhixha’s  (b 1970 in Albania) Iceberg floating on the waters of the Canale Grande, a surprising encounter during the hot summer months.

After an absence of 51 years, the Philippines returns to the Biennale with artists Manuel Conde (1915-1985), Carlo Francisco (1912-1969), Manny Montelibano (b 1971), and José Tence Ruiz (b 1956). The highlight of the Filippino pavilion is the installation Shoal by José Tence Ruiz, a life size boat covered with red felt that refers to a Filippino vessel run aground on the reef in 1999. With the reef strategically located on the disputed West Philippine Sea, the installation mixes art and politics. Located in the same palazzo as the Philippines, Mongolia organised its pavilion around the work of two artists: Unen Enkh (b 1958) and Enkhbold Togmidshiirev (b 1978), who both address the issue of mobility in a changing world. Thus, Enkhbold Togmidshiirev can reconstruct his portable Mongolian yurt in any place, aiming to limit the consequences of globalisation whilst being in his most intimate surroundings.

Although four countries were part of the collateral events of the Biennale, they were actually national presentations, but not labelled as such partly because of political reasons. That was the case for Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and Kazakhstan. With Infinite Nothing, Tsang Kin-Wah from Hong Kong is searching for the meaning of life based on Nietzche’s The Gay Science from 1882. With four distinct video installations that take over the entire space of the room, the artist reminds the viewer that nothing in this life is absolute and nothing is permanent.

Keeping its usual location at the Palazzo delle Prigioni, Taiwan featured the work of Wu Tien-Chang (b 1956) with Never Say Goodbye. Through three video installations, the artist addresses Taiwan’s past political situation where it had to define its relationship  with foreign powers such as Japan, the US, or China. In the marvellous video Farewell, Spring and Autumn Pavilions that runs with a traditional folk song, the issue of separation is at the centre of the piece. The audience witnesses the ‘magical’ physical transformation of a traditional sailor covered with a membrane skin through the colonial era. With digital alterations and by using membrane skins for the actor, the video is visually and aesthetically pleasing. Artistically, this is the most challenging contribution Taiwan has made in recent years. Under the title The Union of Fire and Water, two artists from Kazakhstan – Almagul Menlibayeva (b 1969) and Rashad Alakbarov (b 1979) – exhibited in the historic Palazzo Barbaro. In their own ways, Menlebayeva through a video that runs is subsequent rooms and Alakbarov through his sculptural interventions in this ancient building, both artists re-establish the historical connection that existed between Venice and Baku.

In the context of ‘All the world’s futures’ exhibition, curated by Okwui Enwezor in the Italian Pavilion and in the Arsenale, numerous artists from the Asian and Islamic regions are represented. Besides the internationally acclaimed Adel Abdessemed (b 1971), Qui Zhijie (b 1969), Cao Fei (b 1978), Kutlug Ataman (b 1961), and Rirkrit Tiravanija (b 1961), the exhibition brings together several artists new to the audience of the Biennale, or similar international events. One is Nidhal Chamekh (b 1985 in Tunisia) with his drawing series De quoi rèvent les martyrs? Using the Arab spring as a starting point, the black-and-white drawings with small accents of red colour bring together body parts, anatomical parts, weapons combined with writings as well as objects from daily life. The drawings are powerful, relying on a dense composition, which is the basis of endless interpretations and stories. Another very fine draftsman is Massinissa Selmani (b 1980, Algeria) with a graphite drawings series entitled A-t-on besoin des ombres pour se souvenir? Mixing aspects of daily life with a surrealistic composition, this series earned Massinissa Selmani a special mention by the Biennale jury for a young artist in the ‘All the world’s futures’ exhibition.

Working in new media is Korean artist Im Heung-soon (b. 1969), who has been awarded by the Biennale the Silver Lion for a promising young artist for his documentary Factory Complex. The film gives a voice to the exploited workers, here in this case women, who are the victims of the economic growth in Korea. Also determined to raise awareness with its oversized banner is the Gulf Labor Coalition, a collective bringing together artists, architects, curators, writers among others to speak up about the indecent working conditions on Sadyat Island (Abu Dhabi) during the building of branches of leading art institutions such as the Guggenheim and the Louvre. The Coalition is taking action –  such as mobilising people for petitions, launching awareness campaigns or occupying museum spaces – with the intent to trigger discussions and encourage renegotiations of the building process.

Among the collateral events of the Biennale, one should note My East is Your West, a joint effort to present a pavilion bringing together an Indian and a Pakistani artist. Shilpa Gupta (b 1976, India) and Rashid Rana (b 1968, Pakistan), who look at the issue of territorial division, an issue both artists are familiar with because of the troubles in their respective countries.

Among the various collateral events dealing with artists from Asian or Islamic areas, two exhibitions stand out, namely Dansaekhwa and Frontiers Reimagined. Dansaekhwa, which means ‘paintings of a single colour’ in Korean examines a prolific period in Korean history. Bringing to the forefront leading figures of the movement, the exhibition displays several large-scale paintings of each artist. Whether from the early 1970s, or completed in later years, the pieces in the show underline how determined the artists were to stay true to the original concept of Dansaekhwa. Among the artists that are still active are Chung Sang Hwa (b 1932), Ha Cong Hyun (b 1935), Lee Ufan (b 1936), Park Seo Bo (b 1931). The work of early pioneers in the field such as Chung Chang Sup (1927-2011), Kim Whanki (1913-1974), and Kwon Young Woo (1926 – 2013), remain particularly vibrant to this day.

Frontiers Reimagined is a marvellous exhibition that brings together artists from all parts of the world with close to 20 artists from the Asian and Islamic region. The exhibition is curated by Sundaram Tagore and Marius Kwint, an American art historian. All the artists investigate aspects of this increasingly global world in which we are living. Hiroshi Senju’s (b 1958, Japan) installation underlines the artist’s practice using self-made pigments, whereas Eddi Prabandono (b 1964, Central Java) echoes Indonesia’s daily life.

With each edition, the Venice Biennale has increased in terms of size and become more thorough. On a general note, the 2015 edition of the Biennale echoes great uncertainty amongst artists. The increasing globalisation, the melting of cultures and the political uncertainties are a central concern to many. On an artistic level, this Biennale has brought many new names to the forefront with in an extremely solid edition, where viewers from all walks of life should find works of art to their liking. It is a comforting experience to end the visit of the Biennale with a piece that goes back to the essence of art: beauty. The small pavilion set up in the Giardini promises a ‘heavenly experience’ and the internationally established artist Joana Vasconcelos’ installation, the Garden of Eden, is just that.

OLIVIA SAND

The Venice Biennale runs until 28 November, www.labiennale.org