BY Dominikus Müller in Reviews | 21 MAY 15
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Issue 20

All the World’s Futures

56. Biennale di Venezia

BY Dominikus Müller in Reviews | 21 MAY 15

Katharina Grosse, Untitled Trumpet, 2015, Acrylic on wall, floor and various objects

Okwui Enwezor’s documenta 11 in 2002 was structured around the concept of the ‘platform’. All the World’s Futures, on the other hand, is a clump: dense, bulky, erratically illegible. The exhibition’s individual components are inseparably fused, without creating the sense of a new whole. Such a clump renders impossible the indexical clarity and links that might be established between platforms. Nothing seems to fit together. Instead, everything merges into a perpetual mental overload as the exhibition constantly throws spanners into its own works, contradicting itself. But then, at key points, it does make sense after all.

Consequently, it is hard to identify a unifying structure through All the World’s Futures, although Enwezor has defined a number of ‘Filters’. One is called ‘Liveness: On epic duration’, another ‘Garden of Disorder’. Yet these filters do not prove especially helpful in beating a path through the chaotic undergrowth of works by 136 artists. The third filter, ‘Capital: A Live Reading’, is given a key position in the Central Pavilion: in the ‘Arena’, a stage built by David Adjaye. Isaac Julien has organized readings from all four volumes, including footnotes, of Karl Marx’ Capital (Volume 1 published in 1867, the rest after his death in 1883) for the duration of the biennial. According to Enwezor, capital is the ‘drama of our time’. The reading, though, is a monstrous project that doesn’t really work because listening to the text is not the same as reading it for yourself. For all its openness, it remains elusive. The content disappears behind the grand theatrical gesture.

This is a frequent problem here: content is hinted at throughout, albeit on slippery surfaces that evade one’s grip. For example, all of Harun Farocki’s 87 films are shown on a grid of small screens without sound: a snapshot of a life’s work rather than any accessible engagement with it. Or Alexander Kluge’s nine-hour film essay News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx, Eisenstein, Capital (2008–15) is shown in a tiny room as three parallel projections: cacophony instead of adequate reception. Elsewhere, too, much is closed off, turned inwards, impervious to one’s gaze – to such an extent that it no longer seems like a coincidence.

Perhaps we must turn things around, even if this goes against the Biennale’s own claims: contrary to what we are told time and again here, the central focus is not on reading and activating, but simply registering and taking notice. Similarly, it is not about the futures of the world, as the title asserts, but its pasts. And this is symbolized by the recurring motif of the book: as an object it is a peculiar black box, a cipher not for a world receiver but a world recorder. That each individual can read a book differently is, it seems, one reason for the show’s ungraspability and opacity. Not for nothing does Enwezor’s curatorial statement take Walter Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’ as its central reference: this angel is blown for­wards into the future, but it looks backwards. What it sees are the ruins of progress, the rubbish heap of history, the detritus left by the wayside. And that is precisely what this exhibition gathers up, scans en masse and presents as a huge, largely unprocessed body of material.

This is especially striking in the first third of the Arsenale. Here, All the World’s Futures achieves a formal and dramaturgical mass it lacks elsewhere. The centre of power in the exhibition is here, not in the ‘Arena’. The space swarms with lumpy forms and dense and dark layerings. Here are Terry Adkins’s rough musical instrument sculptures, a metre-high stack of chair frames (Smoke Signal, 2013), and objects in concrete, steel and silicon that appear to be rotting away beside a crude ball of rope (Shenandoah, 1998). There are Melvin Edwards’s hard, weapon-like wall objects in darkly shim­-mering steel – rakes, spikes, chains and horseshoes, all melted together. Or Monica Bonvicini’s sculpture series Latent Combustion (2015), bundles of axes and chainsaws covered in black polyurethane, hung from the ceiling on chains. All tight, squeezed together; compressed, hard and brutal. This is echoed later in the armada of vitrines installed by Ricardo Brey: boxes and crates carefully unpacked and spread out. Inside are balls, stones, and even a Rose of Jericho – a plant that curls up and plays dead only to open up and flower when water is added (Every Life is a Fire, since 2009) – boxes filled with clumps.

Also shown are staggering quantities of recorded footage. For Harun Farocki and Antje Ehmann’s project Labour in a Single Shot (2011–14), a few projection screens portray people at work – static shot through­-out. On the other side of the corridor is Raha Raissnia’s flickering 16mm film Longing (2014): grainy footage, shot with a wobbly camera in her pocket, the visibly subjective, suggestive counterpart to the sober objec­tivity of Farocki/Ehmann (with a fantastic droning soundtrack that can be heard in the neighbouring rooms). Such world-recording can be traced throughout the rooms of both the Arsenale and the Central pavilion in the Giardini: Rirkrit Tiravanija’s small (helpless, harmless) pencil renderings of protest around the world (Demonstration Drawings, 2015); Joachim Schönfeldt’s drawings of factory scenes; Hans Haacke’s structural visitors’ questionnaires; and back in the Arsenale, Oscar Murillo’s Frequencies (an archive, yet possibilities) (since 2013) for which canvases were stretched for periods on school desks, allowing us to examine the similarities and differences of the scribblings of school children from around the world.

In its density, it became hard to fathom why many objects were included in the first place. Interestingly, this applied above all to those by younger, commercially successful names: Helen Marten’s slick object collage Lunar nibs, On aerial greens (haymakers) and Night-blooming genera (all 2015), David Maljković’s installation New Reproductions (2015) or Gedi Sibony’s smart aluminium wall-piece-cum-paintings. Among the sculptures were a number of great video installations, simple and accessible but still compelling, like Chantal Akerman’s Now (2014–15), a room full of videos shot in the desert from a moving car, with sounds of breathing, gunshots, and the deafening noise of the wind in the microphone. The ‘now’: on the run. Or Steve McQueen’s moving double video installation Ashes (2015), a simple juxtaposition of life and death: on one side, footage of a young smiling man named Ashes on a boat, on the other the preparation of his grave after he was killed by drug dealers. The ‘now’: a grave. Overall, this Biennale displayed a strange existential darkness and heaviness as its major key, underscoring an unplea­santly male pathos; an absolutist air of ‘all or nothing’.

It was also the root of a certain untimeliness. This applies to the hulking mini-cathedral housing a series of Georg Baselitz paintings near the end of the Arsenale, and to Chris Marker’s series of photographs Passengers (2011), a strangely pathos-laden late work comprising swathes of pictures of passengers on local trains: classic commuter romanticism – strangers, casual encounters in the crush of the city, the vacant stare of someone coming home from work. Somehow out of time, it drifted into the realm of kitsch. Oddly, though, it was precisely these con­tributions that worked for me, works that seem at first glance to possess an overly simple message, a weird existential evocation of the oh-so-arduous human condition, of the kind I always associate with a hopelessly outdated understanding of art from the pre-­globalized, pre-1989 era. But maybe this can be understood as deliberate: if our present, anxious time really is unravelling, then this exhibition goes all the way with the idea that nothing can be out of date anymore. I must say I find this convincing. And interestingly, it also precisely excludes the kind of content and aesthetics that currently suggest something akin to the ‘now’ (at least in the Western art world): post-Internet, surveillance, cir­culation, the aping of neoliberal economies.

The unofficial focal point of the show, however, is John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015), a three-channel installation containing swathes of archive material and several newly shot sequences whose visual and emotive affect can perhaps best be compared to something like Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life (2011). Glossy HD meets grainy black and white, dramatic music meets breathtaking camerawork, nature documentary meets racial politics, or, to speak more concretely: the BBC’s Blue Planet meets Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic: flocks of birds, whales, eels, elephants; nature, landscape, mountains, ice and water. Shipwrecked slaves lie dead on the beach, cargo scattered along the cliffs, refugee boats, old people, whale fishing. Blood bubbles from the belly of a freshly shot elephant like water from a fountain. People stand inside freshly killed whales, as if these steaming cadavers were houses. This work brings together strands and sensibilities that mark the exhibition as a whole: exis­tentialism and (male) pathos; an inseparable linking of nature and culture; the layering of time. The show gave itself the ability to tell a wide range of stories about the world, even to bring an expanded world forth as history, but at the same time it strangely essentia­lizes its tone and atmosphere. I have no idea how this was achieved. It is both unpleasant and incredibly engaging. Steaming whale meat. Mental overload. An impenetrable clump.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.