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56th Venice Biennale FOMO discussion


Stuck at work? Decided to opt out of biennale bacchanal this year? Lost in Castello? Biennale FOMO? Don’t worry, we’ve got your back. We’re traveling to as many pavilions, events, and exhibitions as possible, and will post photos, tips and reflections here.

If you happen to be in Venice yourself, please chime in! Everyone is welcome to share images, stories, etc.


Joan Jonas, “They Come to Us Without a Word,” US Pavilion

One of my most anticipated pavilions was Joan Jonas’s US Pavilion in the Giardini, especially since the last few US Pavilions have been underwhelming: Sarah Sze (2013), Allora and Calzadilla (2011), Bruce Nauman (2009), Felix Gonzalez-Torres (2007), Ed Ruscha (2005). Given the architecture of the US Pavilion is slightly difficult to work with–it’s a succession of small, chamber-like rooms–the building hasn’t always been kind to artists. Jonas’s immersive video installations fit perfectly in the building and in the verdant backdrop of the Giardini. In recent years, Jonas has been developing a visual vocabulary drawing on the writings of Icelandic author Halldór Laxness, specifically “Under the Glacier,” as well as her travels to near-arctic climates, including Iceland, to address rapidly evolving global changes. “Although the idea of my work involves the question of how the world is so rapidly and radically changing,” she states, “I do not address the subject directly or didactically. Rather, the ideas are implied poetically through sound, lighting, and the juxtaposition of images of children, animals, and landscape.”

Check out some images below.


Pamela Rosenkranz, “Our Product,” Swiss Pavilion

I’m a big fan of Pamela Rosenkranz, and her Swiss Pavilion project “Our Product,” but admittedly her pavilion has gotten mixed reviews. The main criticism I’ve heard is that it’s a big, pink one-liner. I’d argue that Rosenkranz is one of the most compelling contemporary artists making work about the body–its history in art, relationship to mass produced consumer products (think her Fiji water bottles filled with flesh-colored plastic), and its confinement. Photos and a video of her installation “Our Product” below.


Danh Vo, “mothertongue,” Danish Pavilion

“Your mother sucks cocks in Hell,” 2015. Seventeenth century oak-and-polychrome cherub’s head, wood, nails. 28.5 × 26.6 × 34.2 cm. Johnnie Walker’s square-shaped bottle, designed by Alexander Walker allowed more bottles to fit on a shelf and into crates for easy transport. Title excerpted from line delivered by the demon in The Exorcist (1973).

Does anyone have strong feelings about this? Basically, all of these are deconstructed sculptures (mostly in antique liquor crates) that are titled with excerpts from the screenplay of the 1973 movie The Exorcist. Seems like run-of-the-mill, hyper-salable, bad-boy work. The press release also gives us zero clues:

You’re gonna die up there/ Keep away! The sow is mine/ Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me/ Let Jesus fuck you, let Jesus fuck you! Let him fuck you/ Lick me, lick me/ Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?/ You might loosen the straps then/ I’m not Regan/ And I’m the Devil! Now kindly undo these straps/ That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras/ In here. With us/ Can you help an old altar boy Father?/ Your mother’s in here with us Karras, would you like to leave a message? I’ll see that she gets it/ What an excellent day for an exorcism/ Intensely/ It would bring us together/ You and us/ Uh Huh/ In time/ In time/ Mirabile dictu, don’t you agree?/ Ego te absolvo/ Bonjour/ La plume de ma tante/ Until she rots and lies stinking in the earth/ What’s that?/ You keep it away/ Ahhhhhhhhhhh/ Ahhhhhhh/ It burns, it burns/ Emit su evig/ Ydob eht ni mraw si ti/ Uoy ees I/ Tseirp a si eh/ Emit su evig/ Nirrem, Nirrem/ Tseirp a si eh/ Eno on ma I/ Eno on ma I/ Ahhhhhhhhhhh/ Stick your cock up her ass, you mother-fucking, worthless cocksucker/ Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras, you faithless slime/ Bastards, stop/ Shove it up your ass, you faggot/ Fuck him, Karras/ You killed your mother/ You left her alone to die/ She’ll never forgive you/ Bastard/ Dimmy, why you did this to me?/ Please Dimmy, I’m afraid/ Dimmy please!/ Dimmy, είσαι π

Am I missing something?


Simon Denny, “Secret Power,” New Zealand Pavilion

I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts about Simon Denny’s New Zealand pavilion. In my opinion, the ambitious project outshines many–if not all–of the pavilions in the Giardini. The exhibition’s level of detail and incredible backdrop of the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in San Marco. Check out images and the press release below.

In recent years, Simon Denny’s research-based art projects have explored aspects of technological evolution and obsolescence, corporate and neoliberal culture, national identity, tech-industry culture, and the internet.

His Biennale Arte 2015 project, Secret Power, was partly prompted by the impact of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks of PowerPoint slides outlining top-secret US telecommunications surveillance programmes to the world media, which began in 2013. These slides highlighted New Zealand’s role in US intelligence work, as a member of the US-led Five Eyes alliance. Now in the open, the slides have come to represent international surveillance work and its impact on individual privacy.

The New Zealand pavilion is split across two state buildings: the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (Marciana Library), in Piazzetta San Marco, in the heart of the city, and the terminal at Marco Polo Airport, on the outskirts.

In the Library, Denny has installed a server room, with server racks and a workstation. In addition to holding computer equipment, the server racks and workstation double as vitrines, displaying a case study in NSA visual culture, consisting of sculptural and graphic elements based on the work of a former NSA designer and Creative Director of Defense Intelligence David Darchicourt and the Snowden slide archive, suggesting links in iconography and treatment. The server room resonates with the Library’s decorated Renaissance-period interior, with its maps and allegorical paintings—Denny’s inquiry into the current iconography of geopolitical power being framed within an obsolete one.

The Airport terminal—a busy hub for millions of travellers—incorporates restricted spaces, surveillance spaces, and interrogation spaces, and is equipped with high-tech security systems. Denny has ‘dragged-and-dropped’ two actual-size photographic reproductions of the Library’s decorated interior across the floor and walls of the arrivals lounge, traversing the border between Schengen and non-Schengen space. The installation incorporates plaques that reproduce examples of early maps from the Library’s collection, which could be mistaken for advertisements for what’s currently on show there.

Secret Power is site specific, exploring La Biennale Arte di Venezia, the Library, and the Airport as media. Denny hints at geopolitical imperatives that cross-reference and distinguish these frames. Completed in 1588, the Library represents the Republic of Venice as a wealthy world power during the Renaissance. Established in 1895, La Biennale is premised on a model of national representation that seems obsolete today, in a time of cosmopolitan global art. Completed soon after 9/11, the Airport represents a new era of global security.

Denny’s project is a complex puzzle. Each element is nested in and reframed by other elements in an expanding allegory, making interpretation potentially interminable. And yet, despite this, Denny gets us close to his ostensible subject—the visual language of western intelligence agencies. Paradoxically, he places himself and us (as artist and viewers) in positions oddly analogous to these agencies, as we trawl through data and metadata, engaging in analytics, pattern recognition, and profiling, trying to make sense of things.

Secret Power takes its title from investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s 1996 book, which first revealed New Zealand’s involvement in US intelligence gathering.

—Robert Leonard, curator, Secret Power

Installation at Marco Polo Airport


Ummmmm and this happened:

See moment Prada fashionistas are dumped in freezing Grand Canal water when over-crowded Venice pontoon collapses

:scream: :hushed: :whale: :joy: :ocean:
Luckily everyone post-Prada pontoon disaster is alive and well! Stay safe, Venezia!


Reports about Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition “All the World’s Futures” have started trickling in, and the chatter on the street is not favorable. Here’s JJ Charlesworth’s takedown of art world hypocrisy on Artnet News:

As the world’s oldest biennial opens for its fifty-sixth edition, the thing now called “the global art world” descends on Venice for a non-stop week of openings, press breakfasts, VIP brunches, and after-parties. The point of all the partying is to celebrate the artistic efforts of the artists representing the 89 national pavilions and the 44 collateral events, and those in biennale director Okwui Enwezor’s own huge curated exhibition, titled “All the World’s Futures.”

“All the World’s Futures” is a massive, rambling essay supposed to be all about the political state of the world today, a world wracked, Enwezor contends, by “violent turmoil, panicked by specters of economic crisis and viral pandemonium, secessionist politics and a humanitarian catastrophe on the high seas, deserts, and borderlands, as immigrants, refugees, and desperate peoples seek refuge in seemingly calmer and prosperous lands. Everywhere one turns new crisis, uncertainty, and deepening insecurity across all regions of the world seem to leap into view."

Cheery stuff to party to, right? Especially when, while the thousands of jet-set global artworlders were busy trying not to get their Louboutins wet hopping from the vaporetto to the quayside at one end of the Mediterranean, at the other, thousands of desperate Libyan migrants were busy trying not to drown to death in the locked holds of gangster-run hulks, as they attempted desperately to get to the “seemingly calmer and more prosperous,” yet immigrant-phobic land of the EU (see Why Does Vik Muniz’s Giant Paper Boat for the Venice Biennale Trivialize Europe’s Migrant Crisis?).

Desperate outsiders trying to get into the land of plenty: if the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the southern Mediterranean wasn’t so horrific, we might be tempted to use it as a metaphor for the Biennale itself. After all, in the age of globalization, ever increasing numbers of countries want “in” on the Biennale: in 1999 there were 61 countries participating; this time round there are 89, along with 44 “collateral events” of non-national organizations. In the pluralist, utopian rhetoric of the Biennale, of course, this can only be a positive thing–a greater inclusivity, a greater diversity of nations and cultures, more international contact, exchange, and understanding, a great united nations of art, and so on. Who could be against that?

Being part of a system that is the problem, not the solution
But in the midst of the globalization hype-speak, it’s worth wondering what the more international, less Eurocentric Venice Biennale actually represents. For all the attention to the chaotic scenery of contemporary global existence “out there” that Enwezor’s exhibition proposes, for all the diverse issues of national identity, history, and politics that preoccupy the pavilions and collateral events, for all the non-stop reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital as the “centerpiece” of Enwezor’s exhibition, no one really wants to question why the world’s burgeoning art elites are so keen to gather on this weird, sinking, pretty little island every two years–to ask what function the Biennale serves. Could it be that in the partying and the networking, and all the talk of politics and capitalism, the real point for all these countries and non-countries is to be part of the new machinery of the global economic world order, of which art biennials have become the cultural window-dressing?

It’s ironic that as the cultural system of the international biennial has developed, the thematics that their top-ranking globetrotting curators have gone for have been increasingly about the big, global, political scene–usually with vaguely hysterical, apocalyptic overtones. Massimiliano Gioni’s last Venice Biennale was a case in point, and it’s almost as if Enwezor is trying to one-up Gioni in the planet-scale vision of the world going to hell in a handcart. (All that quoting of Walter Benjamin–enough already!) But underneath all the political posturing, what it really represents is a bad case of disavowal–of not wanting to admit that you’re part of a system that is the problem, not the solution.

Some might object to this interpretation, pointing to how biennials like Venice allow for the politically voiceless to be heard, and for artists who were once marginal to be welcomed onto the international scene, artists who often have political messages that struggle to be heard in their own countries; that biennials can offer a “critical” take on the world, and that art is uniquely placed to articulate it. Unfortunately, that’s no more than a handy myth, designed to make curators and artists feel better about being part of a rootless diaspora of cultural functionaries whose main aim is to perpetuate itself internationally, while distancing itself as much as possible from its origins. Since whether it does so by making art about politics or not, the underlying system is the same–an increasingly international, mobile, dislocated audience talking mostly to itself, in a system driven haplessly by the dynamics of global capital.

Don’t bring your screwed-up “real” politics into the polished world of the Biennale
In an unguarded moment during the opening press conference on Wednesday, Biennale di Venezia director Paolo Baratta mentioned the three countries that have chosen to withdraw from the Biennale at the eleventh hour (Costa Rica, Kenya and Nigeria), expressing his relief that those countries had not brought their fractious “polemics” to the heart of the biennale. In Costa Rica’s case, the show was pulled when it transpired that the curator was charging artists for their participation, most of which were Italian, not Costa Rican. In Kenya’s case, it turned out that the same (Italian) curators who had presented the Kenya Pavilion in 2013–including a majority of Chinese artists–had pulled the same trick this year (see Venice Loses Two National Pavilions, as Kenya and Costa Rica Pull Out).

Asked by one journalist why, if the biennial was so keen on “polemics,” Baratta should not welcome the troubled “polemics” of these countries, the Biennale’s boss hastily backtracked, explaining that he meant by “polemics” was the internal administrative controversies that led to those cancellations. Now, the Kenyan case might be just another case of low-level dodgy dealing between opportunistic artists and clueless government ministers in countries which haven’t really figured out what the Biennale is about, but the bizarre inclusion of Chinese artists stands out because of what it reveals about the real working of the new global economic order–China is trading heavily with Kenya for its commodities and exploring for oil there. So what Baratta was really saying is that he didn’t want anyone bringing their screwed-up, badly organized, “real” politics into the smoothly professional, polished world of the Biennale.

After declaring that there would be new regulations for how national governments would appoint curators, Baratta then went off on a rambling explanation about how the biennale was not interested in the market–“the work of art in its beginning, not where it ends up”–while musing cryptically about how the biennale was investigating “the mystery of creation.” Let’s keep politics (of the market, of culture) out of this, shall we?

Fodder for the new global class of cultural entrepreneurs
What the Biennale doesn’t want to investigate is the mystery of its own creation. Why should it? Who really needs this vast moot for an increasingly homogenous and international style of slightly-political, issues-based art? Not the visiting public, for sure–we’ll look at anything, but we’re not the ones making it happen. No, who really needs it is the new global class of cultural entrepreneurs for which art has become a truly international opportunity, as the emerging economic regions seek to assert themselves on the world stage through the vehicle of the new global art culture. But however political these curators and artists think themselves, the art itself changes absolutely nothing. The Chinese still need oil, the European Union still shuts the door on immigrants, Libyans still drown in ships sinking in sight of the coast of Italy–little more than subject matter for yet more self-regarding political art.


View of Hito Steyerl, Motion Capture Studio, featuring the video The Factory of the Sun, 2015

And here’s Sabrina Tarasoff for Art-Agenda:

When Kenya announced the artist list for their pavilion for this year’s Venice Biennale, forefronted for the second time in a row by Italian hotelier Armando Tanzini, alongside an astounding nine foreign participants and only one Kenyan, the only appropriate response—as far as I was concerned—would have been something akin to Lee Lozano throwing issues of Artforum into the air, as in her 1969 Throw-Up Piece. Disillusioned by the collusions between art and commerce, and repulsed by those who participated in its occurrence, Lozano’s gesture marked a breaking point. It was a final attempt to ask what, exactly, we—participants in the production of artistic value, which too often comes down to nothing but cultural entrepreneurship—are doing here?

Although copies of Artforum were not thrown around (nor Biennale guides, for that matter), when the Kenyan cultural ministry officials responded to the appointed curators of the Pavilion by calling them “imposters” and formally disassociating themselves from the presentation, a similar point of no return had been reached. The effect was immediate: not only did it mark a critique of the organizing party for having so blatantly neglected to represent their own, but also of the Biennale, which failed in its responsibilities by enabling such lapses of morality and representation. The Kenyan Pavilion was notably withdrawn from the official Biennale selection, echoing—in stark protest—Lozano’s parting words to the art world: “I have decided what I don’t want and am moving away from it, towards (o joy!) the unknown! (Thrill of all thrills.)”(1)

Though Lozano’s statements never received an appropriate response, and her work is somewhat obviously absent from the Biennale, the parallel between her actions and those of the Kenyan Pavilion bring to question the notion of withdrawal as a political or social act of resistance. Whether rooted in a “real-life” situation or appropriated as an artistic strategy, acts of withdrawal—exit, general strike—can be game-changing, or at least a way to flip the board. In this sense, withdrawal should be read as an active gesture—a critical expression, which subsists not as denial, but as an affirmation of the monopolizing centers of power that largely determine cultural production and dissemination. Kenya’s dropping out, as well as Costa Rica’s, for that matter (resulting from internal financial conflicts and scandal), is a clear attestation of the structural problems which pervade the Biennale, existing insidiously within its walls, and blocking any clearly demarcated exit points—which, by the way, in the maze of the Biennale, are hard to find—will continue without interruption.

Nevertheless, this becomes particularly interesting when one considers the artists featured within the framework of “All the World’s Futures,” Okwui Enwezor’s curatorial project, who employ withdrawal as a symbolic or critical component of their work. The Biennale, without doubt, is a hegemonic power in itself, and by accepting its invitation to participate, one is also occupying a privileged position: a proximity to those responsible for executing decisions that effect its framework, and at that, a position that enables a direct, internal critique.

The Swiss Pavilion, in choosing Pamela Rosenkranz as its representative, is a prime example of the potentials of this position. Rosenkranz’s project, Our Product (2015), is an absorbing installation comprised of an enticing pool of Pepto Bismol-colored liquid—a fleshy, pink pigment flooding the floor of the pavilion—accompanied by a strangely sweet smell of talcum powder or baby wipes. The pavilion’s foyer is saturated with an artificial mint-green light, spilling out over an austere and unkempt garden. Emptied of a so-called core materiality, the work withdraws into a realm of pure sense, mirroring the way that both art and commerce utilize “empty” faculties, like color, scent, or sound to stimulate our interest as consumers, a topic furthered by Kevin McGarry in his review of the Biennale on May 7. By emphasizing the alluring element often present in marketing strategies—a recurrent gesture in Rosenkranz’s practice—the artist also protects herself from participation in it, warning, perhaps, of falling prey to similar forces within the current context.

At the German Pavilion, Olaf Nicolai, Hito Steyerl, Tobias Zielony, and duo Jasmina Metwaly & Philip Rizk have created Fabrik, a four-part “factory” purported to be an examination of how the circulation of images has an effect on reality and political representation. Hito Steyerl’s work, The Factory of the Sun (2015) is, for example, a video projected in what is dubbed the “Motion Capture Studio”—a theater room mapped with an immersive 3D matrix where viewers can watch the video while lounging on plastic sun loungers. Narrated by a soft-spoken female voice, it consists of a game that progresses by virtue of light impulses overlaying disco tunes, staged cable-news segments, and the movements made by virtual protagonists clad in gold lamé, motion-capture-device-adorned unitards. Steyerl conveys this heliocentricity, the vitalistic relationship with light, as somewhat of a bright-eyed metaphor for progress, but only insofar as it becomes a way to discuss our complicity with the sun (as a progenitor of life, and thereby capital). By entering the virtual, she negotiates the potentials of our digital present—as part accelerated advertisement, part escapism—in order to reassess the current relationship between pictorial and political representation.

Similarly, Olaf Nicolai’s work Giro (2015) brings Steyerl’s inquiries into the real by placing three unseen or unheard actors to live on the roof of the pavilion for the duration of the Biennale. Under the Venice sun, the participants will allegedly appear at the edges of the building to sporadically cast boomerangs in any given direction, though I saw neither actors nor boomerangs. Whilst the motives of this project are never fully disclosed—an appropriate strategy in any covert operation—Nicolai’s work is a reclusion from the material excess of the Biennale, and a dramatization of the economic and symbolic feedback loops that perpetuate its existence.

Though a common denominator of Rosenkranz, Steyerl, and Nicolai’s work is the disclosure of variable power structures, they also operate through a first-person point of view, in which affect defines a part of the experience. In this vein, projects such as They Come to Us without a Word (2015), Joan Jonas’s sentimental project at the United States Pavilion, a bizarre installation of drawings and multiple videos of bees and fish, could be seen as equally hermetic. The Pavilion has been re-imagined as an almost Cremaster-esque space, if only Cremaster had been produced with a delicate, feminine touch—decorated as it is by lengths of beads suspended from chandeliers, rippled Murano glass mirrors, ambient lighting, and a soundtrack featuring songs by Sami musician Ánde Somby and Jonas’s frequent collaborator Jason Moran. Equally affective and undemanding of its viewer is the Tuvalu Pavilion, in which artist and curator Vincent J.F. Huang has created a moment of poetic distance as viewers walk over a rickety bridge hovering over a steaming, shallow pool. Uncomplicated and non-indulgent, Huang’s installation is a quiet and humble moment in stark contrast to the rest of the Arsenale, or the entire Biennale for that matter.

Within Enwezor’s exhibition, similar moments were far and wide, seen only in individual cases: strolling through Isa Genzken’s architectural models, for example; or filling out Hans Haacke’s 20-question survey World Poll (2015); staring into Robert Smithson’s utopian designs, Floating Island – Barge to Travel Around Manhattan Island (1971); or even simply exiting the show, by passing under Jeremy Deller’s inexhaustibly ironic 2013 banner Hello, today you have the day off… If only. All of these instances, however, merely deflect from the overall chaos and unbalance of the exhibition, and have little impact on one’s total experience.

At that, despite the few pavilions that took into consideration the possibility of an alternative production of meaning even within the Biennale’s borders, Enwezor’s exhibition is a sordid reminder of our inevitable entrapment. It seems ironic, really, that a project aiming to consider our futurity in an “age of anxieties” would present no alternatives, no future, no escape. The confusing and flurried show seems more a self-fulfilling prophecy, a recirculation of a distressed history. Walking around, Lozano’s calculated abandonment of the art world seems easy to understand. Though the thrill of the unknown she searched for in her departure is readily available—at least in those participating whom have found ways to withdraw into autonomy—it is lost within Enwezor’s bleak and backward-looking exhibition. Perhaps certain places of power, to somewhat inaccurately paraphrase Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), are simply condemned to inertia.


Works from the Giardini

Reports have been continually coming in from Venice, and the show has generally been considered a flop. While Enwezor vowed to not curate a market-pleasing exhibition, “All the World’s Futures” came off as illegible. One friend mentioned that it made him “appreciate how well curated Massimiliano Gioni’s last biennale was.” For one, I certainly missed the extended, well-written wall texts from Gioni’s biennale. For a show so strongly oriented around words, (specifically Das Kapital), it came as strange that didactic texts were rare in Enwezor’s show.

Below are some images from the Central Pavilion of the Giardini, which I felt was the more successful of the two venues. (One feat that I’ll give Enwezor is that he successfully contextualized everyone’s least favorite market darling, Oscar Murillo, whose smelly, entryway flags accounted for one of the most striking visceral experiences of the exhibition.)

The Central Pavilion in the Giardini, hosting “All the World’s Futures,” curated by Okwui Enwezor. Glenn Ligon’s neon on top, Oscar Murillo’s black flags on bottom

Oscar Murillo

Oscar Murillo, “Belisario Caicedo-Flores,” 1982/2015

The e-flux supercommunity posting board!

Tetsuya Ishida, “Solider,” 1996.

Tetsuya Ishida, “Recalled,” 1998.

Tetsuya Ishida

Huma Bhaba, “Atlas,” 2015

Huma Bhaba

Ellen Gallagher, “Dr. Blowfins,” 2014

View of ARENA, designed by David Adjaye

Robert Smithson, “Dead Tree,” 1969

Robert Smithson, “Asphalt on Eroded Cliff,” 1969

Robert Smithson, “Island Project,” 1970

Christian Boltanski," L’homme qui tousse," 1969

Fabio Mauri, “The End,” 1959