Rhiannon Lowe's picture

Alicia Miller sends in her report from the main curated exhibition at the Arsenale at the 56th Venice Biennale of Art.

Maybe it's me, but I can't stop thinking about the end of the world. Okwui Enwezor's All the World's Futures has left me pondering our demise in the 21st century as capitalism comes face to face with climate change.

Enwezor's exhibition is infused with a sense that the future will be dangerous. Threads of the violence that erupts from deep anger and oppression are sewn through the exhibition, which is rife with dystopian visions like Cao Fei's La Town of civilisation's imminent collapse. Fei's filmic allegory in miniature is made of constructed scenes of chaos and social breakdown where death and destruction are malingering forces. It's the end game at its most pessimistic.

Bruce Nauman Human nature / Life death / Knows Doesn t Know, 1983. Neon Photo: Alessandra Chemollo Bruce Nauman, Human nature / Life death / Knows Doesn t Know, 1983. Neon Photo: Alessandra Chemollo

Entering the first great hall of the Arsenale, Adel Abdessemed's room of knives, Nympheas (Water Lilies), is installed with Bruce Nauman's taunting neon sculptures blinking on and off; one flashes 'Eat, War' as if they were our two most fundamental activities. We navigate carefully around the clustered swords, which fill the room in a delicate dance, trying not to touch them. If we are under any illusions that we are safe from harm, Enwezor wants to remind us that we're not. The Arsenale, where Venice's store of weapons was held, has never been a more appropriate setting.

Enwezor has taken on a monumental task to contemplate the state of things through the eyes of artists. Artistic practice offers a way of understanding what is happening in the world. While the exhibition is highly intellectual on one level Enwezor states that the exhibition is 'located in a dialectical field of references and artistic discipline' it is also richly experiential. Never more so in John Akomfrah's Vertigo Sea, a three screen video piece that lays bare the devastating trajectory of our relationship with the natural world one that now threatens our own survival on this planet, as we teeter on the brink of a two degree tipping point.

 Alessandra Chemollo John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015 Three-channel video installation with sound, 45' Photo: Alessandra Chemollo

,

Taking as its reference point historical footage of whaling and hunting in the early part of the 20th century, Akomfrah's filmic essay cuts between these and the majestic wildlife cinema of the BBC, interspersed with powerful images of the roiling, wild ocean. Staged shots of a couple on the shoreline of a sea, their possessions strewn across the rocks, which appear intermittently, describe both the terrors of migration and the fruitlessness of human endeavor in the face of nature's power. Our era of dominion has been an insanity.

Enwezor is uncompromising in where he lays the blame for the dissolution of the world. A major component of the exhibition is devoted to an unravelling of capitalism, with Marx's seminal critique at its centre. He pulls capitalism apart in 50 different ways through the exhibition, starting with a reading of all four volumes of Das Kapital which will run as part of a live programme everyday for the entirety of the exhibition perhaps a little heavy handed. He clearly doesn't want you to miss his point. However, there is some potent and fascinating work in the show that offers a more nuanced commentary on what capitalism brings to the table.

Hiwa K's project, The Bell, is one example of this. The eponymous bell is made from metal collected as scrap off of battlefields in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq where the Iran/Iraq war was fought. The weaponry was made by some 41 countries, 18 of which sold to both sides of the conflict. The business of war is unconcerned with winners and losers; it has always been a money-maker.

  Ric Bower Hiwa K, The Bell, 2014-2015 metal sculpture, two-channel HD video with sound Photo: Ric Bower

Hiwa K chose to make a bell from this metal, in part because it has a history of being melted down and made into cannons. The Bell is decorated with images of Iraq's iconic cultural heritage; the country, part of ancient Mesopotamia, called the 'cradle of civilisation' has produced artifacts that mark some of humanity's earliest cultural production. At the time that The Bell was being made, ISIS was systematically destroying many of the same. The piece subtly implicates the geo-politics of global capitalism, inviting us to contemplate the imbrication of culture and capital in armed conflict.

Labour, as a subject and theme, appears in many different guises describing the necessary relationship between it and capital. The Bell is literally a record of making something. Jeremy Deller's Factory Records, which as it states is a record of factory sounds and his examination of the Industrial Revolution, also appears, along with stranger (and more compelling) pieces, like Mika Rottenberg's NoNoseKnows, 2015. Rottenberg's surreal fantasy of work in a pearl factory imagines labour as an uncanny enchantment governed by magic and madness.

  Ric Bower Mika Rottenberg, NoNoseKnows, 2015 Detail from, colour video with sound. c 22 Photo: Ric Bower

 Alessandra Chemollo Theaster Gates, Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr, 2014 Wood, wind, concrete, slate, metal, digital video, colour with, sound. 6'31" Photo: Alessandra Chemollo

If labour has meaning, it is only in resistance and rebellion. Theaster Gates' piece Martyr Construction, set in an abandoned African American church in Chicago's south side, is a carefully choreographed ode to labour and, as Gates says, the reinvigoration of the 'spiritual potency inside of certain materials'. The performance of two men rhythmically throwing doors in the decaying church is reminiscent of the synchronized movements of a chain gang; the spiritual sung in the background a reminder not to lose faith. It is a reclamation project that reaches far beyond material gain.

Enwezor unquestionably maps All the World's Futures in a global frame. This Biennale is by far the most culturally diverse to date, having properly broken out of the 'Western' art world (though perhaps, it is really that rest of the world has broken in?) This is a structurally important point to make what's happening is happening to all of us. It is indeed 'all the world's futures' at stake.

CCQ was out in force at the Venice Biennale. Watch out for extensive coverage in CCQ Issue 7, out July 2015