Review of the 2015 Venice Biennale - All The World’s Futures

December 8, 2015

One of the most important art events just closed its doors, as the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale ended on November 22nd. We took the chance to visit the Finissage weekend and tried to recall the highlights of this rather extensively curated exhibition. The weekend was marked by the presence of the curators, artists and, of course, by the artistic director of this year’s edition, Okwui Enwezor, currently the director of Haus der Kunst in Munich. It has been a cold and rainy weekend in la Serenissima, which might have lead to an even stronger impression of the dark, intellectual and political side of the Biennale.

Inaugurated in May, almost one month earlier than previous editions, the Venice Biennale has been visited by a total of 501,502 visitors, with 2,899 average visitors per day according to the organizers – a remarkable increase compared to former editions (475,000 in 2013). Continuing with the records and numbers, there were 89 national participants, with 5 nations taking part for the first time: Grenada, Mauritius, Mongolia, Republic of Mozambique, and Republic of Seychelles.

A Biennale Focusing on the Current Political State of Things

The title and main theme of the 2015 Venice Biennale, All The World's Futures, meant to prompt artists to consider and think about the current “state of things.” It can be understood as an attempt to describe artistic production and curatorial thinking in times of crisis and to find moments to connect the sensitive local conditions with a broader international perspective. Paolo Baratta, the president of the Biennale, stated in his introduction that “The world before us today exhibits deep divisions and wounds, pronounced inequalities and uncertainties as to the future. Despite the great progress made in knowledge and technology, we are currently negotiating an ‘age of anxiety’.” The Biennale lamented the conflict, political tyranny and deconstructed capitalism. The curatorial program urged the public to assume the utility of art as a learning tool to expand their view of the world. Enwezor showed his definition of how political art can be a tool for social change and a documentation of political conditions without being appropriated as propaganda or through ideological purposes. Most of the times in a very loud manner, Enwezor has been successful with this approach. Not only had he had the visitor question the state of the world, but also the politics of the world of art too.

One could wonder whether such an international mega exhibition is the right format to take such a perspective. The high number of artworks - not surprising but actually typical of any Biennale worldwide — makes it almost impossible to see through the complexity of the programming. It requires preparation beforehand and even then, one needs time to connect the dots. This year’s biennale was a true challenge in both space and time.

The artists reflected upon topics such as labor, postcolonialism, poverty, racism, injustice, war, violence, social engagement, revolution and broken ideologies and created a complex ecosystem of this world, a challenge that leads to a quite disturbing and brutal exhibition. Enwezor’s powerful curatorial gesture was constantly present, which put some of the artworks in danger to lose their own autonomy. But, thankfully, the Biennale was also punctuated by moments of quiet, resilient beauty and hope. As in any other exhibition, no matter how well elaborated the curatorial approach is, the best moments are those of immediate and intimate dialogue between the artwork and the visitor — where one emerges into another world and forgets the company of other visitors.

Top 5 artists from the curated All The World’s Futures exhibitions at Giardini and Arsenale

Adrian Piper - The Probably Trust Registry, 2013 (merited with a Golden Lion)

The piece consisted of “corporate-looking desks” at which people could choose to sign contracts agreeing to live by one or more of three rules: I will mean everything I say; I will do everything I say I will do; and I will always be too expensive to buy. The jury statement praised her work as an invitation to "engage in a life-long performance of personal responsibility”. Among the global topics the biennale dealt with, this piece went to the personal and negotiated the topic of personal responsibility as a key to real change.

Adrian Piper, The probable trust register, Venice Biennale 2015
Adrian Piper. Photo by Alessandra Chemollo, courtesy la Biennale di Venezia

Olga Chernysheva - Untitled, 2015 (drawings)

The Moscow-based artist engages with the everyday. She carefully observes the mundane, small changes that seem banal, but show the small influences of capitalism on the individual Russian life. She captures the transformation of a former Soviet Era towards neoliberalism. In her new series of drawings she puts little text fragments in each piece and connects the poetics of everyday life with art.

Venice Biennale 2015
Olga Chernysheva. Photo by Alessandra Chemollo, courtesy la Biennale di Venezia 2015

Lorna Simpson - Three Figures, 2014; True value, 2015; Untitled (Woman in Slip), 2015; Suspended, 2015; Nightmare?, 2015.

The Brooklyn based artist had her first museum retrospective 2013 at Haus der Kunst Munich. Her works challenge the visual representation of black women to question identity and memory, gender and history, fact and fiction. She investigates gestures, poses, and hairstyles, in order to question racial, gender and social stereotypes. Simpson, who became well-known for her conceptual photographies, chose large-scale paintings for the Biennale, which depict strong female characters.

Venice Biennale 2015
Lorna Simpson

Maja Bajevic - The Unbelievable Lightness of Being, 2015

Born in 1967 in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, she lives and works in Paris. Using a range of media including video, light, installation, photography and performance, Bajevic practice deals with the notion of identity and the role of women within the historical or present context. In her newly commissioned work for the Biennale she connects handicraft, usually attributed to females, with the stock market indexes dealing with labor, productivity and income.

Venice Biennale 2015
Maja Bajevic

Taryn Simon - Paperwork, and the Will for Capital, 2015

The artist presents a series of bouquets — pressed and photographed — along with corresponding texts derived from governmental agreements, contracts, and treaties. In historic photographs showing the signing of these documents, powerful men are typically flanked by magnificent floral arrangements. Simon has isolated these bouquets to mark their role as “silent observers” of man’s determination to control the fates of nations and the natural world. This powerful work of body functions as a modern still life memorial, reversing the historic meaning to contemplate to show how nature is pressed into the service of the human ego.

Venice Biennale 2015
Taryn Simon

All images courtesy of the author, unless otherwise stated in captions.