Art is expected to do many things today. With the multitude of social and economic difficulties that the face the world – its human rights abuses, income inequalities, environmental crises and wars – art is supposed to reflect all of this, console and also provide something that is aesthetically uplifting. When faced with such uncertainties, it seems silly and trivial to think of the commodification of a work of art. An artwork must now offer resolution and an explanation. And that’s a high moral price tag for it to be bear.
Turn your gaze to the Middle East and the first six months of 2015. It’s been an exceptionally hard one for the region. The ray of hope that the Arab Spring provided in 2011 has since faded and in its place is the civil war in Syria, religious extremists and the increasing hysteria of the Islamic State. This political and social chaos has left its mark on the region not just through violence but through the destruction of a physical past – ancient artworks and monuments – a civilization’s very proof of existence. When we loose this - physical memories and identity markers of our past – what are we left with?
Now in its 56th edition, this year’s Venice Biennale fell under the curatorship of Okwui Enwezor. Entitled All the World’s Futures, his exhibition, as according to an early statement, was staged as a way to explore the ruptures and restlessness of our current time. Through performances, paintings, sculptures, videos, installations and other manifestations, the art in this year’s biennale strove to break free from confinement just as we yearn to make sense of the agony around us. But the artworks displayed, particularly in the Central Pavilion, weren’t pretty. Thought provoking, unsettling and at times hard to grasp, the works on exhibit were in protest and not in celebration. Enwezor, a Nigerian curator, writer, educator and poet known for his modern and post-colonial studies, wanted us to see the urgent state of the world through art.
The exhibition was centered on Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and its critiques of the Industrial Revolution. Among the hundreds of artworks on show was a marathon live reading of all three volumes of his 1867 book in the arena designed by Ghanian/British architect David Adjaye at the Central Pavilion of the Giardini – the public art also home to the Biennale’s national pavilions. The theme of labor is a recurrent theme as is displacement and colonization.
Hundreds of knives protrude into the ground in formations that resemble a garden of spikey flowers. On wall and revolving in circular neon are the words “Death Love Hate.” These are the first works you see when you enter into the Arsenale: Adel Abdessemed’s knives, which are entitled Nympheas, and Brue Nauman’s 1983 Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain neon light installation. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the Giardini is Fabio Mauri’s four-meter wall of battered suitcases, entitled The Western Wall of the Wailing Wall, recalls trips one-way trips to Auschwitz as well as modern migrations with no return. The effect each one is at once foreboding and rebellious. What Enwezor, who is the Biennale’s first African curator, called the “parliament of forms” – the works on show are exactly that. While they are derived from such different contexts and realities, they all protest in unison.
Middle Eastern names aplenty, Abdessemed’s is the first you see. Amidst the multitude of African, Middle Eastern, Asian and post-colonial references, is a big banner by Gulf Labor, a human rights collective that protects migrant workers in the UAE. Whether an artwork or not, it is positioned with the rest determined to offer another side of reality. In another room are Ricard Brey’s thirteen glass vitrines with delicately placed objects in archival folders, including two photo albums and a loaf of bread. On the wall behind is Jumana Emil Abboud’s 2008 work Company – 41 drawings depicting a variety of scenes at times alarming and other times heartwarming. Both seem to reflect the need to pack ones belongings and thus one’s memories and take them wherever they go. After moving through the unsettling works in the Arsenale, you’ll come across Kutlug Ataman’s 2014 The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci – a beautiful installation comprising 9216 LCD screens suspended over the exhibition room displaying the passport photographs of individuals that Sabanci had worked with throughout his life. The piece is stunning and offers resurrection from the dim lighting and packed exhibition halls – he’s included work in every conceivable medium and representative of around 140 artists from 53 countries – a true “parliament of forms.”
As you peruse the work at the National Pavilions, the mood is similar except for a few, such as Britain’s presentation of Sarah Lucas’ sculpted phalluses and torsos which seem incredibly self-centered compared to the ominous and deep works exhibited in Enwezor. Not a Middle Eastern pavilion, but definitely one that referenced the religious culture was Iceland’s presentation. It saw Christoph Büchel transform the church of Santa Maria della Misericordia into The Mosque. There’s never been a mosque in Venice. The installation took the form of a functioning mosque and was immediately welcomed by the city’s Muslim community – until it was shutdown by the police. The artwork encouraged the debate currently raging across Europe regarding Muslim worship as immigration from the Islamic world increases.
As for actual pavilions representative of the Middle East, Iraq, which was situated once again in the 16th century Ca’ Dandolo Palace, offered much to reflect on regarding the country’s current situation. Whereas last year’s exhibition offered a bit of humor and also hope, this year the mood and the artworks were solemn. Even so, in a nation now plagued with Islamic State (IS) fighters and where contemporary art is the last thing on everyone’s minds, art continues to be made and it is an art that does not shy away from addressing the madness of the present conflict. Organized by the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq and entitled Invisible Beauty, the exhibition was curated by Philippe Van Cauteren, Artistic Director of the Museum for Contemporary Art in Ghent. To select the five artists in the show, Van Cauteren traveled across America, Belgium, Turkey, the UK and Iraq. The result included poignant works by young painter Haider Jabbar, who depicted decapitated heads, mostly blindfolded and impaled on stakes; photographs especially commissioned for the exhibition by Akam Shex Hadi; and striking images by Latif Al Ani, known as the father of Iraqi photography. No humor was found here, but the works did carry with them an eerie beauty that is hard to forget. They are visual reminders of the need to find a resolution to crisis in Iraq and the power of art to transmit a message beyond national borders.
Staged in its now permanent home in the Sale d’Armi (Hall of Arms), the UAE Pavilion this year took a break from a dialogue with contemporary culture. A different scene was experienced from the previous edition where Mohammed Kazem’s breathtaking installation was shown. This time, the UAE looked back to its recent past and tradition. Curated by Hoor Al Qasimi and representing the works of 15 Emirati artists from 1980 to the present, the exhibition certainly confirmed the presence of an UAE art history – one that until now was not greatly known to the international art community. Ambitious in scope and also in the quantity of artworks, 1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates emphasized the importance of an UAE art history and an artistic dialogue that has for the last several decades been part of the Gulf. Now that this has been affirmed, future artistic exhibitions in the Pavilion will surely be seen with much greater context.
Situated on the other side of town, far away from the Giardini, was The Great Game, the exhibition for Iran’s Pavilion. Walk down the winding Venetian calle of Cannaregio and you’ll find an old empty Venetian building full of hastily exhibited works by Contemporary Iranian masters. Another ambitious display and one that sought to mirror the political “game” played for supremacy in 20th century Asia, the works burst with clever Iranian flair – mixing politics, contemporary society, Iranian heritage and artistic experimentation. Displayed were works such as Sadegh Tirafkhan’s 2000 digital photograph Iranian Man juxtaposed with Walid Siti’s refined sculpture of a fictional barbed wire, canvases by Mohammad Ehsai and films of war by Reza Aramesh. Revealed here were well-known tales of political woe, new beginnings and the deconstruction and revisitation of Iranian cultural imagery – each trying to make sense of it all.
The two pavilions that reverberated the most beauty amidst the chaos that we attribute to the region were also those that were not so long ago at war with each other: Armenia and Turkey. Both representations witnessed the participation of the artist Sarkis Zabunyan, known simply as Sarkis, the Turkish-born, Paris-based Armenian artist well regarded for his conceptual practice and social critique. Entitled Respiro meaning “breath” in Italian, and situated in Turkey’s national pavilion at the Arsenale – Sale d’Armi, for this year’s Biennale, which also marks the 100th anniversary of the devastating Armenian genocide, Sarkis fills the space with breathtaking multimedia works. Two large-scale, site-specific neon rainbows fill the space and cause one to pause in reflection. The solo exhibition also includes 36 illuminated stained glass windows depicting scenes of pain, war, and love, while a meditative soundscape by Jacopo Baboni-Schilingi fills the space. Spiritual in nature, Sarkis emphasized that he wanted to create something that went “beyond history.”
While the works in this year’s Venice Biennale were largely uneasy in nature – discomfort, sadness, distaste and upset were the outcomes of much that was seen – what Enwezor put together offers much to reflect upon in a world where even art struggles to make sense of so many broken realities. On a regional level, issues of identity and displacement still stand strong in art from the Middle East and its neighboring countries. It is hard to transcend these borders and ideologies just yet given the recent torments that have plagued the identities of the nations. It is by visualizing and intellectualizing these issues through art that a new step towards physical and spiritual reconciliation is taken. And we can all but hope that the discomfort and pain that is experienced as we look at much of this art will turn to illuminations soon.