Arts and Culture
HALF ART: VeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVenice
In the early months of 2015, the art world took in a long, slow breath ... So that it could, at the beginning of May, start talking excitedly and almost ceaselessly about a place, an event, a biennale – THE biennale – that it regards with something like veneration. All together now: VeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVeniceVenice!
The 56th installment of La Biennale di Venezia is underway. The yachts of the rich and famous are moored on Riva degli Schiavoni and elsewhere around the Venetian lagoon, artists and their corporate or state sponsors are trying to make their voices rise above the noise, and a few hundred thousand other visitors are gorging themselves on the feast of art works displayed across the city.
Venice is a paradox. It has, over the years, been a vital platform for artists, a source of inspiration, a hotbed of ideas and images and provocations. But it’s also an exercise in self-congratulation and affectation – take all the air-kissing and wine-drinking and big-spending and nonsense-talking of your average exhibition opening, then multiply these by a very large number, and you won’t even get close.
The Biennale veers between subversion and shameless endorsement of the status quo (insofar as the status quo is the concentration of wealth and influence in the hands of a few and the disenfranchisement or material privation of the many). So it’s pleasing to see Okwui Enwezor, curator of the main exhibition in 2015, not only acknowledging but emphasising this compromised status.
All the World’s Futures, which includes 136 artists, is a huge show in its own right – never mind all the national pavilions and the sub-festivals taking place under the mantle of the Biennale. Enwezor is thus able to set a tone for the next few months, and the tone he has chosen (notwithstanding the exhibition’s title) is both historicist and presentist: undertaking “a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things”, Enwezor realises that we need to ask how we got here.
This is a line of questioning that can never be adequately answered, of course, but it is still useful. It allows Enwezor to invoke the spirit of Karl Marx; the three volumes of Das Kapital will be read publically, start to finish, over the course of the Biennale. It also encourages us to consider the past manifestations of the event itself, which are inseparable from the political and economic cut and thrust of European, colonial and postcolonial history since 1895.
The South African footprint in Venice this year partly reproduces the tension at the heart of the Biennale between institutional power and individual or collective resistance; in addition to the official South African Pavilion, there is an independent “Johannesburg Pavilion”. The former, which was once again left perilously close to the last minute by the Department of Arts and Culture before being left in the hands of Christopher Till and Jeremy Rose, contains works by some prominent and respected South African artists but has inevitably raised a few eyebrows – including complaints about the racial balance in the group of artists selected. It also, curiously enough, includes one Brett Murray.
As Charl Blignaut has observed, the fact that an artist so “reviled” by the African National Congress is part of an exhibition being paid for by the government could be variously interpreted. An optimist would see this as evidence that “even if artists displease the state, our legal and free-expression processes triumph in the end – and not all state institutions have propagandist tendencies”. A skeptic would point out that it shows “the state’s right hand not being entirely sure what the left hand is doing”.
The Johannesburg pavilion, by contrast, while ostensibly something of a guerilla presence, includes a programme of works by film and performance artists who are not exactly rogue figures – a number of them have received major awards and grants, and occupy liminal positions as both part of the institutional art scene and critics of it.
Earlier this week, a Picasso painting set a new record for a price paid at auction: $160 million, or almost R2 billion. It is appropriate, indeed, to question “the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things”.