The 56th Venice Biennale

Labour, relations of production, and making: some of the conspicuous rhythms in the 2015 Venice Biennale. With a title such as ‘All the World’s Futures’, one might have expected a hubristic take on contemporary practice; instead the notes sounded are more modest, if insistent. That insistence on making and making-do, where art goes beyond exploring materials, forms and issues to become an affirmation of endurance, permeates much of the work. Okwui Enzewor’s curated exhibition, naturally, makes more explicit links between ‘making’—that invokes the body of the artist in correspondence with ‘the world’—and current social, political and economic imperatives, in particular linking labour to resistance, and art practices to diverse forms of activism, without reducing one to the other. However, these links also emerge in the national pavilions.1

This focus on labour—both of the artist and of those whose expropriation is essential to capital—provides an anchor for revitalising materialist philosophies and theories of history. Karl Marx even gets his own catalogue entry here, a token to the literally central place devoted to his magnum opus, Das Kapital, which is being read aloud for the duration of the Biennale in the Arena, a large stage installed at the heart of the main pavilion in the Giardini. Adjacent to the Arena is a companion piece by the artist orchestrating this live performance, Isaac Julien’s KAPITAL, a two-screen video work depicting the artist in conversation with curators, critics and theorists, before a live audience. The star performer is American Marxist scholar David Harvey, whose The Enigma of Capital: And The Crises of Capitalism (2010) provides a lucid account of how the power of capital shapes our world, and sets out the case for a new radicalism. The form of Harvey’s critique places the logic and history of capital in a dialectical relationship in order to unfold the tendencies that articulate its present. Inflected through the prism of geography and spatial studies, Harvey’s contention is that crisis is endemic to the evolution of capital, and that capital depends on underlying growth of at least 3% to be sustainable, which in current circumstances is only possible through intolerable hardship to massive sectors of the globe. With each major capitalist crisis worse than the last, capitalism’s resilience and inventiveness may not be up to resolving the current crisis, and hence the opportunity for a revived anti-capitalist movement and alternative ways to organise the economy. 

Harvey looks at seven ‘activity spheres’ that offer means to realise such alternatives, including our relationship with nature, mental conceptions of the world, social relations, and the reproduction of daily life: all spheres in which art and artists have been contributing innovative, ethically driven approaches for some time. KAPITAL and the Arena are book-ended in the Giardini’s main pavilion by a room dedicated to Hans Haacke’s signature works of institutional critique which, through questionnaires and data mining, reveal the class inequities at the heart of the art world. Together with the ground breaking MoMA Poll (1970), World Poll (2015) unfolds within the exhibition, with cumulative data of visitor responses to questions—such as our stand on climate change, nationality, and education levels—available at the touch of a screen. World Poll is a very immediate and potent way to be reminded of the personal nature of the political.

Enzewor’s building of the curated exhibition around these works appears like an affirmation and reminder of the ‘old’ materialism—most saliently historical materialism—as the antecedent of the current buzz term ‘new materialism’. For many of the works in dialogue here through Enzewor’s curatorship, draw attention to the material means of capitalism’s mode of production: they craft small-scale alternatives, honour overlooked labour, materialise the lived bodily experience of abstract economic concepts, and highlight the inherent creativity of workers. There is a discernible emphasis on the handmade, the intimate—including personal story-telling—and the impact of social relations of production on human bodies. 

Works plunge us into the complex, ingenious and poetic processes of making. Ante Ehmann and Harun Farocki’s Labour in a Single Shot captures the often unseen labour necessary to keep a city running—such as the work of cobblers, cooks, waiters, window cleaners, nurses, tattoo-artists or garbage workers—in such a way that balances the particularity of each of the fifteen cities featured with a sense of the common experience and solidarity of labourers. Rirkrit Tiravanija organised for Chinese brick makers to manufacture bricks on site at the Biennale, immersing viewers in the process while also offering finished bricks for sale to raise money for a non-profit organisation that supports workers’ rights in China. The sensuous sounds and radiating images of Iraqi-born, Berlin-based Hiwa K’s The Bell, arouse admiration for the extraordinary skill of traditional bell-makers, a reaction chillingly complicated by the realisation that the bell here has been made from molten scrap yielded by Iraq’s ongoing wars. Such double-edged evocations of labour are also evident in Steve McQueen’s beautiful two-channel video, Ashes (2014-2015). On back-to-back screens, we are first charmed by the irrepressible Ashes, a young fisherman from Grenada whom the filmmaker captured bobbing joyously on the prow of a boat while filming there in 2002. The second screen brings the same sensual sensibility to the manual crafting of Ashes’s tombstone, several years later, as we discover that this once vital soul has been cut down by a drug ring. 

As Tim Ingold persuasively argues in Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (2013), artefacts, among other things, are always in process, never complete. And, in whatever form, they are the result of a complex ‘carrying on’ that depends on the openness of materials and humans to each other, their correspondence, where the mindful or attentive bodily movements of the practitioner, and the flows and resistance of materials, respond to one another in counterpoint.2 This is nowhere more evident than in Fatou Kandé Senghor’s film Giving Birth (2015) that honours the work of ceramicist Seni Awa Camara. Through an intimate, almost real-time view of the artist’s process, we see human-scale figurative sculptures emerge from earth to finished form. Here is the joy of ever-engaging and productive labour, in contrast to the punishing, absurd but nonetheless dignified cycle portrayed in Wangechi Mutu’s animation, The End of Carrying All (2015), where a woman burdened by her load persists in her task as it gradually diminishes her to the point of oblivion. While Mutu’s portrayal is lyrical, Im Heung-soon’s Factory Complex (2014) captures the tragedy of capital’s destruction of human dignity in Korean supermarket employees’ matter-of-fact descriptions of the petty, even cruel, privations they suffer at the hands of their employers: testimonials here are a strategy of survival.3 Meantime, resilience through solidarity and humour sounds out in Jeremy Deller’s installation of workers’ songs, manifested through a jukebox, song lyrics and banners in a festive display that recalls a hand-decorated community hall. 

Joachim Schönfeldt’s video tribute to the trade guilds of South Africa and his series of realist pencil renderings of Factor(ies) Drawn in Situ are simple, but moving, paeans to traditional manual skills and ingenuity. The video draws parallels between seemingly disparate activities, from shoeing horses to playing a piano, affirming the grace and fluidity of the trained human hand, while the drawings bring the time-based presence of life drawing to these, at times, inhuman industrial contexts. Drawing, with its utilitarian, low-tech and immediate (read authentic) language, is a notable inclusion in Enzewor’s curated exhibition. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Demonstration Drawings (2007), postcard sized graphite transpositions of images of protests from around the world, fill a room, their hand rendering, scale and installation affirming a politics of grass roots endurance. Olga Chernysheva’s series of witty and wise observations of everyday scenes, elevated through formal composition in pencil, is also refreshing in its modest puncturing of dominant ideologies. Similar impulse and means are found in the drawings and animations of Algerian-born, France-based Massinissa Selmani, who brings a simple line treatment to media images, extracting their essence for bemused reflection outside the mass media spectacular flow. 

Immersion in the processes of hand-rendered labour also occurs in some of the national pavilions, most notably Japan and Australia. Chiharu Shiota’s The Key in the Hand (2015) is a striking installation built up from countless acts of knotting and joining thread, each length punctuated by a suspended key collected through public donations from around the world (the work was constructed by a small army of installers over several days, a process recorded in an accompanying video). The effect is like standing within the molecular structure of matter, a mass of connections that appear at the same time random and carefully designed. Given the thread is red, creating thickened masses in parts, and the pavilion takes in natural light through the ceiling, the work envelops viewers in the red glow of fleshly interiors, while the material presence and metaphor of the keys pulls them in another direction, towards dreams of passage. Fiona Hall’s Wrong Way Time (2012-15) in the Australian Pavilion, brings together several strands of her work, so strongly characterised by her investment of time and manual labour. From exquisitely human-made replicas of birds’ nests in shredded banknotes, to re-purposed cuckoo clocks and the exuberant woven animal sculptures made in collaboration with the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, Hall’s installation is a wondrous testament to the inextricability of making and thinking. This joint dedication to craft and concept, and the creative energies released by attempting a non-hierarchical relationship with non-human species and inorganic matter, also drives Joan Jonas’s work in the American Pavilion. Jonas’s raucous installation They Come to Us without a Word revolves around the revelations of domestic life and labour—including the inherent creativity of dogs and children—where the parameters of art both inform and are nourished by everyday experiences of art and spirituality. 

The inversion of hierarchies and imagining the world otherwise implied by the privileging of the handmade and the small scale, together with a humane regard for labour and its creativities, is made literal in the latest work by Russian collective AES+F (a ‘collateral event’ of the Biennale installed in the Dorsoduro quarter). Inverso Mundus, in the tradition of the group’s The Feast of Trimalchio (2009-10), is a digital collage inspired by ancient (morality) tales, in this case medieval engravings that represented the world upside down, with its dualist hierarchies—such as adult/child, male/female, rich/poor—inverted. AES+F’s aesthetics of excess work wonders as satire, evoking a physical revulsion that redoubles their arch critique. Here labour is represented in typical AES+F style, as in impossibly beautiful street cleaners pumping sanitised waste through sleek devices. As the impeccable corporates—the benign face of capital—descend from their glass tower to the street, labourers and homeless people ascend to sit at the boardroom table; women trade places with men, strapping them into devices that reduce them to playthings of the gaze; and juvenile delinquents switch from prey to predators in their erotic hunt for police. All this plays out with the uncanny glitches of AES+F’s digital stitching technique: the images are other-worldly yet totally recognisable through the language of advertising and high fashion. While the antithesis of the modest handmade aesthetics of much of the labour-honouring work discussed here, arguably Inverso Mundus also addresses the underlying desire for something other, beyond the current imaginings of capital, and reminds us of the malleable nature of reality. 

Fiona Hall, Wrong Way Time. Installation view, Australian Pavilion. 56th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia. Photograph Alessandra Chemollo. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

AES+F, Inverso Mundus, 2015. Still from 7-channel HD video installation. Courtesy the artists.

Olga Chernysheva, Untitled, from the series Graphic Performatives, 2015. Charcoal on paper, dimensions variable. Installation view, la Biennale di Venezia. Photograph Alessandra Chemollo. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

Coco Fusco, The Confession, 2015. Digital video, b/w, colour, sound, 30mins. Photograph Alessandra Chemollo. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

notes: 

1. Some of the national pavilions play with received ideas of nation and national identity, in order to foreground the relationship between art and politics: Canada’s Canadassimo by collective BGL which converts the pavilion into a convenience store and displaces the expected exhibition space onto an improvised second storey, and Serbia’s United Dead Nations (by artist Ivan Grubanov)which with the blackest of humour commemorates the ‘dead nations’ of recent history (such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire, Soviet Union, German Democratic Republic, Yugoslavia) are worth mentioning in this regard. A work in the Arsenale’s Giardini di Vergine also strikes this playful but stinging note, Emeka Ogboh’s sound work that features a choir of Nigerian singers interpreting Deutschland Deutschland Über Alles in native Nigerian dialects. 

2. Tim Ingold, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture, Routledge, London, 2013, pp.94-97.

3. A fascinating variation of these worker testimonials is the narration of his life’s work as a tanner and taxidermist by the store-keeper of AGRIMIKÁa shop in Volos that sells animal hides and leather, recreated in its entirety in Maria Papadimitriou’s Why Look at Animals? AGRIMIKÁ in the Greek pavilion. 

Jacqueline Millner is Associate Dean, Research and Senior Lecturer, Theoretical Enquiry, at Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney University.