To judge from the amount of photographs I took (all of 24, about a quarter to a tenth of my usual digital production) , there is not much to see at the 56th Venice International Biennale of Art, currently on view until November 22nd. Directed by Okwui Enwezor, the 2015 edition of the Art Biennale is entitled “All the World’s Futures” and is more about the political and social positions art makes than about the creation of beautiful objects and images. That it nonetheless gives rise to a few visual experiences of power and importance just proves (at least to me) that artists and architects, if they are any good, can’t help themselves: They make objects, images, and spaces that convince us, trouble us, exhilarate us, or awaken a sense of wonder in us. They make their point by and in the making.
By far the strongest experience you can have at this year’s Biennale is also its ideological core: in the middle of the Exposition Pavilion, the event’s central gallery, Enwezor created a stage within a double-height space where two actors take turns reading Karl Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy all the way through from two podia. You can watch the drama from bleachers in a balcony that is usually a completely separate gallery. This is not just an informal reading: Performed by professional actors, in a setting that is an abstraction of either a union hall or an old fashioned auditorium, it is lit and amplified to perfection, requiring the continual attention of a crew of technicians. The stage was designed by architect David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, and the staging by the film maker Isaac Julien. It is performance art, not politics, and the difference is crucial. The site specific installation reminds us that politics is a collective performance, and that it offers, or should offer, an alternative scenario and space—in the case of Marxism, a utopia where both all physical constraints and all class distinctions will disappear—while it is acting out a verbal critique of where we are now.
As if to drive the point home, perennial Biennale exhibitor Thomas Hirshhorn has taken the roof off one corner of the Pavilion, creating “Roof Off”—a space where shreds of the building’s structure, air ducts, plastic strings and tape, and various other construction debris mix with sheets of typed paper piled on the floor to present a vision of society and building in transition, destroyed in a form of built (or anti-built) criticism but offering a wild and luscious vision of a space that is full rather than empty, chaotic rather than ordered, and replete with the fragments out of which we could create another construction.
Few of the other artists in this year’s Biennale, I am afraid to say, are able to continue the power of this performance with anything like its drama. You can find the Biennale’s most seductive pieces in the first few galleries of its other main venue, the Arsenale. There the British artist Terry Adkins in particular shows collages that combine musical instruments and cast-offs that may also serve to evoke union marching bands from the time when socialism still paraded through some towns, but that now are just objects that fascinate because of their materiality and composition.
Beyond the Biennale’s official sections, Chiharu Shiota’s Japanese Pavilion stands out most clearly. Called “The Key in Hand,” it consists of a fishing boat sprouting a red string cloud festooned with keys. As romantic and without message (other than a vague idea of unlocking connections) as the Pavilion and Arsenale are hectoring, it is a place where you can drown yourself for a moment in a visual field of great beauty.
I have to admit that I was not at this Biennale long enough to explore all the ancillary events and off-site country pavilions, but I left with one clear idea: Good art today works when it transforms a space, even a two-dimensional one and, through that act, offers us scenarios as alternatives to our current reality. If that is what Enwezor hoped to achieve in this Biennale, he has.