“A glum trudge,” a “morose, joyless, and ugly” exhibition that “beats the visitor up with political theory rather than giving us the pleasures and stimulations of great art.”1 The consensus gleaned from the reviews is that Okwui Enwezor's decision to focus the 56th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale on investigating and critiquing the place of art within advanced neoliberal capitalism is “hypocritical” due to the fact of art's existence as a “bastion of privilege,” a luxury good for the top percentile of the global one percent.2 The basic tautological lesson from these reviews is that a critique of capitalism is disqualified by participation in the capitalist economy (just as Occupy Wall Street was disqualified by activists using iPhones). Until the contradictions of culture under capitalism are resolved, these critics imply, a principled renunciation of any sector of the public sphere contaminated by the market is the only consistent way for an artist or curator to respond to “modernity and its discontents.”
What is immediately striking about Enwezor's exhibition and his catalogue essays, however, is his conviction that the resources of the aesthetic can still be mobilized for historical reflection, for making visible precarious forms of subjectivity under threat of disappearance, and for critical debate and exchange in public—and that these resources are too precious to abandon to the market. Largely eschewing claims for art's direct political expediency—whether documentary didacticism or the false immediacy proffered by much “social practice”—Enwezor's exhibition demonstrates a preference for work that operates within the contradictions of capitalism, mining or miming its forms and norms.
Indeed, a major theme running through the exhibition is the persistence of alienated forms of labor under the digital surface of financialization. A major example is Antje Ehmann and Harun Faroki's collaborative work Labour in a Single Shot, begun in 2011, in which the filmmakers initiated video workshops in fifteen cities, from Boston to Bangalore, to produce short films documenting quotidian labor, lasting one minute and with no edits. Initially an online project, in the Arsenale it is a multiscreen affair that surrounds the viewer with the sheer capaciousness of global labor, from the most precarious and manually intensive to the most “creative” and highly skilled. As such, Ehmann and Faroki—whose complete filmography from 1966 to 2014 is on view simultaneously in the Arsenale—outline the possibilities of a radical documentary practice irreducible to prior models, centered as they typically were on the heroic, white, and male laboring subject. Democratic in their production and distribution, the films show the stratified, fragmented, and globalized range of labor within neoliberal capital, which conscripts play, friendship, and affect itself in the process of valorization.
The body of the laboring subject is also at the center of Steve McQueen's two-channel installation, Ashes (2014–2015), which memorializes a life senselessly lost. Projected on both sides of a single screen dividing a room, one half shows footage of a young man named Ashes sitting on the bow of a fishing boat in Grenada, laughing and basking in the sun; the other, accompanied by a voice-over describing chance occurrences ending with Ashes shot in the street, shows the manual production, slow and grueling, of the boy's tombstone and grave. McQueen's construction of extended duration shots of the manipulation of materials is part of his avowed inheritance from the legacy of the task-based performances of Yvonne Rainer and Bruce Nauman. Yet, in McQueen's work, the postminimalist emphasis on the banal, on the quotidian, and on corporeal physicality is shifted into the actually existing life-and-death conditions of labor and alienation in the postcolonial global south.
Jeremy Deller, on the other hand, investigates the relation between art and labor in a more oblique and ludic fashion. Deller transforms a text message sent to workers whose hours had been revoked into a banner, positioned next to an exit, proclaiming “Hello, Today you have day off” (2013) ironizing art's role as a sphere of free play separated from means-end rationality of productive existence. Meanwhile, on the jukebox that he installed in the room, visitors could play 45s from “Factory Records,” with a range of grinding noise recorded during industrial production, recalling Jean-Luc Godard's statement, “The workers have to listen to that sound all day, every day, for weeks, months, and years, but bourgeois audiences can't stand to listen to it for more than a few seconds.”3 As a counterpoint, in the Arena, professional singers performed “factory songs” drawn by Deller from nineteenth-century archives, resuscitating a dead form of British working-class self-expression whose only contemporary equivalent might be found in hip hop.
Samson Kambalu's works meditate in different ways on the legacy of the Situationist International, specifically on what Libero Andreotti called their “play tactics.” The Sanguinetti Breakout Area (2015) occupies a large space in the Arsenale, and presents the “détourned” papers of the Italian Situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti, activist and theorist of terrorism, recently acquired by Yale University's Beinecke Library. Kambalu's installation meditates precisely on the acculturation of radical politics, with a mural email to Sanguinetti from Bill Brown, editor of Situationist texts, decrying the activist's “sell out.” Kambalu invites viewers to sort through a series of re-photographed photographs taken in the Beinecke, capturing his hands holding the archival materials, and makes a case (against Brown perhaps) for the way historical fragments can be cast into play for the present. Kambalu also presents a room of short films, which he calls “psychogeographical Nyau Cinema,” in language drawn from the Situationists and from the Chewa people. These films, more Buster Keaton than Guy Debord, document spontaneous moments of poetic or irrational engagement with architecture or environment, subjected to similar rules as Faroki's films, but to radically different ends: no more than a minute, “primitive” editing, live audio only, site-specific, and oriented toward the “otherworldly, transgressive, and playful.”
In a small room outside the Arsenale, sandwiched near the restaurants, one encounters Tania Bruguera's Untitled (Havana 2000) (2000–2015). Entering one at a time into a pitch-black corridor, the viewer is drawn toward a small video monitor in the distance, showing propaganda footage of Fidel Castro happily engaging with his people. As one approaches the screen, however, the ground slips out from under one's feet, literally, as piles of sugar cane shift uncannily underfoot, and figuratively, as one becomes aware in the dark of the close proximity of two naked men vigorously slapping themselves: exiting the claustrophobic space feels like a retreat. This work, censored at the Havana Biennale and recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in many ways stands as the exemplar of the politics of aesthetics on view in Enwezor's Biennale: the paradoxes of culture in the face of global conflict, dispossession, and exploitation may be intractable, but by dwelling upon these contradictions, art can make them visible and palpable, viscerally or playfully, and, thereby, in this very asymmetry, realign our sense of the possible.
Laura Cumming, “56th Venice Biennale Review: More of a Glum Trudge than an Exhilarating Adventure,” The Observer, May 10, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/10/venice-biennale-2015-review-56th-sarah-lucas-xu-bing-chiharu-shiota; Benjamin Genocchio, “Art World: Okwui Enwezor's 56th Venice Biennale Is Morose, Joyless, and Ugly,” Artnet News, May 8, 2015, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/okwui-enwezor-56th-venice-biennale-by-benjamin-genocchio-295434
Jean-Luc Godard, quoted in Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008), p. 345.