Genocide, the NSA, and Venice’s Short-Lived First Mosque: Scenes From a Biennale

Doges-Palace-
Such Doge’s Palace. Wow.

The Venice Biennale opened earlier this month, and among the throngs of artistic types descending on the famous city for the weekend was Flavorwire alumnus Geoff Mak. 

1.

We were good liberals: two unemployed New Yorkers in their mid-20s whose idea of a vacation was going to a biennial. By way of Berlin, we arrived in Venice to become better people, or in the very least, get more interesting. Danielle and I had moved to Berlin together, for her to do some traveling before she started grad school, and for me to finish my novel. I did not finish my novel, and instead found myself one night at Berghain, standing shirtless in a bathroom stall, staring at the reflection in my shattered smartphone, looking back at me between clumps of unidentified white powder caked up in the cracks. I asked myself, What am I doing with my life? I was going to a biennial in less than 24 hours, and by the next morning, that’s exactly what I did.

The theme this year was All the World’s Futures, which is a testy thing to do on an island that’s sinking. Posters were placed all over the city, hung over the Doge’s Palace and in the tea gardens at San Marco’s square. Above, statues from coppered Venetian cathedrals watched over selfie sticks, rugs with fake handbags, stylish Chinese tourists, and discontinued DSLRs. One man held a selfie stick with a Go-Pro camera attached and pointed at himself as he crossed the Arsenale bridge. Another had a gelato in one hand, and the other shoved resolutely in his crotch, with a shirt that read, “Light of the World.” By nightfall, collectors and pensioners sat on terraces with red Campari sodas, as all around them, the canal flooded slowly into the square. It was an image that might’ve said something about why all of us were here, or why anyone at any point in history has come to Venice: to put off what’s coming.

Such became particularly difficult once we got into the Giardini, the first of a two-part exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor. Upon entering, we were greeted with a 1969 video by Christian Boltanski of a man vomiting up blood without a whole lot of context. Maybe it was political, maybe it wasn’t, and maybe that was the point: that what the future entailed wasn’t exactly clear. We just knew it was bad.

“I cannot remember a time more precarious, more foreboding, than the current moment.” Enwezor said in a recent interview with Artforum. “Art may enable us to think through that and to think beyond it.” Among the various art-as-thought-exercises was a live reading of Das Kapital, as well as video interviews with contemporary Marxist interpreters. Most of the artwork shown was not as didactic. Sculptures by Elena Damiani displayed elegant abstractions of Peruvian marble, much in the tradition of Smithson’s small-scale installations; and photographs by Andreas Gursky of stock exchanges deftly show the cold, aborted adrenaline of the market economy. A particularly chilling series by Marlene Dumas showed paintings of skulls that, as the catalog describes, “register sexual intensity where it breaches into political aggression.” The skulls are distorted in disfigurement, abuse, or ecstasy — bringing to mind the erotic undercurrents of genocide. I couldn’t look at all of them before I felt my face go pale and had to exit the room.

Respites from the general apocalypse often came from artists like Wangechi Mutu and Tetsuya Ishida, who work in African and Asian traditions that, unlike Minimal and Conceptual discourse, don’t impose a stigma on decorative arts. In fact, to Enwezor’s credit, the 2015 Biennale is the most nationally diverse in the Biennale’s history, including the highest number of black artists.

By the time we got to Arsenale, the second half of the exhibition, I half-joked to Danielle that the only black people here were in paintings and video installations. One of those people was a dead black man named Ashes, in a gorgeously elegiac double-screen video by director Steve McQueen. On one side, a video shows a loop of Ashes, a handsome young man sitting on a boat in board shorts. On the other side: a gravesite, diggers, and a funeral. Only in the voiceovers do we hear accounts of how Ashes was violently murdered after he found a stash of drugs on the beach. It was the only piece in the exhibition to celebrate the classical male nude: not a Greek god, but a young black man killed in a drug crime who might’ve went unnoticed if he wasn’t caught on camera.

3466-SteveMcQueen_JSouteyrat
Still from “Ashes.”

As it turned out, we weren’t so far from home. On our Facebook minifeeds, Danielle and I were getting status updates about the murder of Freddie Gray, the protests in Baltimore and New York, friends who were jailed, and the pro-bono lawyers trying to get them out. In one instance, Danielle told me that in a women’s prison in Baltimore, the holding cells were so crowded that women had to sleep on the concrete floor with slices of bread as pillows.

All of this was and wasn’t on my mind as I made my way through redundant sculptures of tanks, bullets, machetes, and deconstructed AK-47s. By the time I got halfway through the Arsenale, my brain ran out of gas. I arrived at Adrian Piper’s installation, The Probable Trust Registry, which is set up like the lobby of a New York advertising agency. On the walls are three slogans, one of which stated: I WILL ALWAYS BE TOO EXPENSIVE TO BUY. The viewer is invited to sign personal contracts to commit to a slogan, and submit it to the Probable Trust Registry. I didn’t even sign the paper, I was too tired. Instead, I stood in front of the slogan and closed my eyes, thinking, I want to be too expensive to buy. I want to go to the gym more. I want Boko Haram to bring back our girls. I want Hong Kong to secede from China. I want to charge my phone. Where is Danielle? I want Turkey to stop denying the Armenian Genocide. I want to bring back Freddie Gray, and all the Libyan migrants beneath the Mediterranean Sea. I want to become a better person. I want a Campari soda. I will always be too expensive to buy.