Art’s place in all of this

by Liam Ferney

Poet and Gas Mask
Credit: Sarah Teitt

Held biannually since 1895, the Venice Biennale conquers La Serenissima filling two major venues, the Arsenale and the Giardini, colonising most of the city’s mid-sized galleries and stuffing a stack of palazzi and scuole with exhibits from across the globe. At the centre of it all is a curated show sprawling across the major venues. This year the reigns were handed to world renowned Okwui Enzwezor, a Nigerian curator who splits his time between New York and Munich, for All the World’s Futures. And those futures, in Enzwezor’s telling, don’t seem particularly bright.

Some days I’d definitely agree. I’m finalising this post in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks. Earlier in the week forty-four people were killed in a bombing in southern Beirut. Syria is in the fourth year of an appalling civil war involving an overflowing handful of sovereign states, a bunch of proxy armies, a score of disorganised rebel militias and, just to make things interesting, a caliphate. The science that models climate change is brain meltingly complex; the political class dodging its responsibility is numbingly myopic. The certainty and glory of the post-millennial free market has been trashed by the GFC and the almost decade of seemingly unending economic unease that has followed. Sure technology is great; I love reading comics on my iPad, but are we completely down with drone strikes? One of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination is a brain surgeon with brainless ideas about archaeology while the other is a billionaire who brags about declaring bankruptcy four times.

The work Enzwezor presented explored all of this and more. Italian Monica Bonvincini’s banana bunches of chainsaws, coated in thick black polyurethane, dripped from the ceiling. Sierra Leonean Abu Bakar Mansaray’s drawings recalled the kind of doodles that fill schoolboys’ exercise books in the last slow periods of Friday afternoon. In this case they were fantasy war planes of the ‘mine could beat yours’ variety. Kitted out with ghoulishly inventive killing accessories, it was impossible to separate them from the country’s eleven year civil war and its predilection for eleven-year-old soldiers. Germany’s Katharine Grosse  transformed an entire room in the Arsenale into a street decimated by war or economics, Aleppo or Detroit. Grosse’s twist was spray painting the rubble in a rainbow riot of colour.

French Algerian Adel Abdessemed reinterpreted Monet’s “Nympheas”, (“Water Lilies”) as blooms of machetes – a tool as synonymous with subsistence farming as it is with environmental degradation, colonialism and genocide. Were Abdessemed’s flowers a riff on the foliage that must have flourished in Rwanda’s richly fertilised soil? Proving art itself is not immune to these moral questions the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition unfurled a banner that asked “Who’s Building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?” In the main pavilion of the Giardini someone, somewhere, was reading Das Kapital all day, every day. Get the picture? Enzwezor bludgeoned with the subtlety of a tyrant conserving bullets. Much of the work was very good. Pieces have stayed with me for months, but there was plenty of work that was far less memorable and, more than anything, there was just too much of it.

At its most successful political critique in art doesn’t just reiterate the world’s depredations. That is what the news is for, and even then repetition renders it wallpaper. Whether it’s Syria or Sierra Leone, Central African Republic or Myanmar, same shit, different continent. However, when art uses its capacity to awe and amuse, to be simultaneously enjoyable and unsettling, it can reveal our complicities in the crimes committed in our name.

 All the World’s Futures’ most significant pieces did exactly that. Irish filmmaker Steve McQueen’s “Ashes” was a requiem for a Grenadian fisherman. The video opens with the eponymous fisherman, astride the bow of a fishing boat bobbing in bright Caribbean sun. Act two is centred on the patient, deliberate whitewashing of Ashes’ tomb following his drug-related murder. The story is narrated in a thick Grenadian creole. If you arrive midway through, as many visitors inevitably do, you are stripped of context and immersed in either the rhythm of the waves or the methodical artisanship of white washing the concrete tomb. The viewer’s comprehension of the narrative’s tragedy is deferred, soothing visuals fill its place. The brutal truth, the violence of the story, is amplified when it becomes apparent.

Vietnam-based The Propeller Group used the beauty of abstracted violence to explore the Cold War’s proxy strife via its belligerent’s preferred projectiles. “The AK-47 vs. the M-16” details the collision of bullets by freezing (in ballistics gel) or slowing (in video) the moment of impact. An object designed to inflict lethal harm becomes a cloud of frozen movement, flecks of lead, small clouds of dust, a constellation of debris. In the video the ballistics gel billows like a skirt in the wind as the bullet passes through it.

It was fellow Vietnamese-American, and sometime The Propeller Group collaborator, Tiffany Chung who really stood out in the Arsenale’s long hall of darkness with her delicate, colourful and non-threatening drawings. Standing three or four metres back the 36 drawings had an upscale night market chic about them. The on-trend prints in simple wood frames looked like you’d see them on the back wall of a stall selling fancy fairy flights. Spindly branches were adorned with occasional blossoms and baubles of inviting reds and pinks.

1 Tiffany Chung Venice Biennale 2015
Source: Courtesy of the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, NY.

Only they’re not that. They’re a continuation of the artist’s long interest in cartography and catastrophe. The branches are Syrian roads. The baubles and blossoms chart areas of civilian casualties and internally displaced people. They’re not marks of beauty, they’re bruises of trauma. The subterfuge unnerves the viewer and forces the victims of barrel bombs, beheadings and chemical weapons into focus.

In the national pavilions, lightness stood out. To be sure these were works asking big questions but they did it by constructing immersive experiential spaces that transported the participant. Representing Tuvalu in its first Biennale appearance, Taiwanese artist Vincent J.F. Huang used three pools and a walkway at water level to drive home the island nation’s precarious future. Macedonian artist Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, representing the Holy See, took John 1:14 literally with “In the Beginning… the Word became Flesh” by crafting box jelly fish-like diaphanous sheets out of caul-fat, Bible, intestines, cotton and plastic.

Japan Photo
Credit: Liam Ferney

In the Giardini, Japan’s Chiharu Shiota created a fairy tale forest of taut red string in “The Key in the Hand”. Centred around the hulls of two boats, Shiota spider-webbed the pavilion in tight lines of string with rusted keys attached to every strand. Celeste Boursier-Mougenot kitted out the French pavilion with a large tree – roots and dirt liberated and exposed – that floated mechanically around the stark sky lit space. Outside the pavilion another two other trees patrolled (bizarre and therapeutic, for some reason they reminded me of The Simpsons’ aliens Kang and Kodos). “Rêvolutions” was a place to retreat from the Biennale’s sensory overload and, like the poets in Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland”, ‘let it all be’. Both the French and Japanese works brimmed with philosophical and aesthetic intention but, in the middle of the afternoon of a long Biennale day, surely it was enough to be thrilled with the visceral novelty of a stroll down Movie World’s Main Street?

Fiona Hall
Credit: Sarah Teitt

Fiona Hall launched Australia’s new pavilion with “Wrong Way Time”. A cabinet of curiosities that proved many people’s highlight, it worked with a variety of everyday objects, from army camo to Coca-Cola cans, dollar bills to bread, to build an exhibit as witty as it was intricate. “Crust”, a cabinet of bread sculptures laid on maps was an exemplar. The link between the sculptures and their maps, as well as the medium, gave the piece a humour counterpointing its tragic subjects. A capsized Costa Concordia ciabatta floundered atop a map of Italy, a slain sourdough elephant lay prone across Africa, bombed out baguette buildings crumbled onto a map of the Middle East.

The central question Enwezor’s show asked, perhaps inadvertently, is what is art’s place in all of this? The Europe I visited this year was more closely touched by tumult than I’ve ever experienced. We were at Luton Airport, waiting for our flight to Venice, as news broke of the drowning of three-year- old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach. The images, tragic and taunting, looped on every 24-hour news channel, plastered every front page. The op-eds wailed. Later, as we made our way overland from Ljubljana to Munich via Budapest and Vienna, the influx of refugees was a fact of life. Every central train station spilled over with tents. Refugees sat around looking for places to charge smartphones. The walls were plastered with advice in how to get to this or that safe haven. Another slow step in the long desperate escape from the horror of the baubles on Chung’s drawings.

Credit: Sarah Teitt

On the day we left Vienna the German government suspended the Salzburg-Munich train line. Tens of thousands of people had sought refuge in Germany in the previous fortnight alone. In Salzburg we were greeted by dozens of police, volunteers and refugees. The volunteers were the only ones who didn’t look bored. On the forecourt of the train station enormous tents had been erected to provide services. While we waited for a friend to drive down from Holzkirchen to collect us, we caught a bus downtown to scarf sausages and Instagram a whirlwind tour of the city so beloved of Mozart, Stefan Zweig and Maria Von Trapp. It was impossible not to ask what art’s place in all of this was?

My East is Your West
Credit: Sarah Teitt

If the Biennale offered part of answer it was in the dim, crumbling Palazzo Benzon, hidden down a narrow side street off a small square in a quiet corner of San Marco. My East is Your West was a powerful sideshow that united Pakistani artist Rashid Rana and Indian Shilpa Gupta to explore the arbitrariness of colonial borders. As Gupta wrote on the exhibition’s website: “Now you are on the line where I last night made the border. But since it is raining today, it’s a bit difficult to see it.” It included pieces like Gupta’s “Untitled” which contained envelopes for people to open after crossing an imaginary border 100 yards distant from the exhibit, and the performance piece “998.9” which featured a draughtsman marking up more than three kilometres of cloth meter-by-meter. The cloth, symbolising the border, was woven in the Indian border town of Phulia where weavers from east Pakistan settled after partition in 1947. It is hard to imagine a more relevant exhibit in a spring where the limits of Schengen’s borderless vision were tested daily.

The highlight was a piece by Rashid Rana that centred on a giant screen that took up an entire wall of one of the Palazzo’s vast rooms. On screen people wandered in and out of a room identical to the one I stood in. The previous room had featured a similar screen projecting the viewer’s own delayed movements (you shook your finger at the screen and the gesture was replicated four seconds later). This seemed like a similar piece. Then the group on screen started pointing. We exchanged waves. We discovered we could talk to each other. “Where are you I asked?” One bloke replied: “Lahore.” The cricket fan in me immediately reached for my sub-Continental common ground.  A brief conversation followed:

Me: I’ve heard of it. I’m Australian. Do you like cricket?
Him: Do you know Boom Boom?
Me: I like cricket but I don’t know Boom Boom.
Him: You don’t like cricket if you don’t know Boom Boom [a collective shake of the head]
Me: Do you like Shahid Afridi?
Him: You do know Boom Boom! [hands in Lahore go up like fans in the stands celebrating a towering six tonked over the bowler’s head]

We laugh and like that art, channelling sport, spans oceans, languages and cultures opening up common ground. These were things we shared from Brisbane to Venice to Lahore. Perhaps what Enzwezor failed to account for in the face of the machetes, machine guns, construction deaths, environmental pillage, economic calamities, Daesh and Boko Haram, the tired faces from Budapest Keleti to Munich Hauptbahnhof, was that part of art’s role is to remind us of everything we share, because none of the battles threatening all the world’s futures can be won in isolation.

Credit: Liam Ferney