Venice Biennale 2015: An Exhibition to Be Reckoned With

Courtesy Jack Bell Gallery

At this year’s exhibition, the conversation turns political as curator Okwui Enwezor puts the world’s toughest issues on view. 

There’s a reason the Venice Biennale—opening May 9 through November 22—is considered the globe’s most prestigious art exhibition, dubbed both the “World Series of Curating” and the “Art Olympics.” Now in its 120th year, Venice is widely believed to be the best place to gauge what’s currently happening in contemporary art—and to predict what’s coming for the future—thanks to the exhibition’s encyclopedic grasp.

This year, the Biennale’s main exhibition, curated by Okwui Enwezor (currently director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich), features 136 artists from 53 countries around the world; there are also 89 national pavilions showcasing the works of hundreds of other artists in both one-person and group exhibitions, that, like the Olympics, highlight the most talented practitioners worldwide. No other non-market art exhibition compares in terms of stature and breadth with the exception of Documenta, which occurs only every five years.

But while sweeping in its showcase of the world’s most worthwhile artworks, this year’s central exhibition goes above and beyond what the Biennale’s affectionate nicknames promise to deliver—and the results won’t please everyone.

As one of the major forces behind ushering internationalism into the art world over the last two decades and as one of the leading voices of post-colonial African art, Enwezor has a history of putting politics at the center of his large-scale exhibitions, historically treading the line between critical acclaim and audience alienation. This year’s Biennale will prove no different, and in this international setting it’s almost certainly bound to provoke.

In keeping with this approach, Enwezor presents All the World’s Futures, an examination into how art and artists have engaged with the conflicts of our time including, but not limited to, mass migrations, environmental disasters, and genocides.

Symbolically, he’s placed a live reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital—a performance that will be on-view for the entirety of the six-month-long show—at the center of the exhibition space. Other powerful indicators include the largest work on display, African artist Ibrahim Mahama’s 300-meter tapestry made out of the burlap sacks Ghanaians use to transport coal; Mozambique-based Gonçalo Mabunda’s “gun throne” sculptures, which repurpose decommissioned weapons from the nation’s civil war into design-forward furniture; and Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s 45-foot paper boat, Lampedusa (pictured below), made in response to the October 2013 boat crash off the cost of Lampedusa, Italy, which killed 360 Libyan migrants.

But already the organization of the Biennale seems calculated to anticipate any criticism of too much politics: To temper the atmosphere, Enwezor has also added to his exhibition a series of “intimate surveys” of historic artists, including Bruce Nauman and Walker Evans, whose entire series of prints from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men will be on view. And, of course, the endless sea of creative voices coming from the myriad national pavilions is guaranteed to further dilute the political spirit.

Still, certain pavilions have already inspired political action Enwezor, nor the Biennale’s organizers, couldn’t have anticipated. While not all national pavilions show works by native artists, Kenya’s dedication this year to Chinese artists who neither live in Kenya nor deal with the country in their artworks has raised more than a few eyebrows—a petition against the pavilion has also sprouted. Neither the Kenyan government nor the Biennale will comment on the reasons behind the decision, and the silence leaves space for speculation; some say that Chinese artists are literally paying their way to Venice, trading hard cash for a spot at this highly important show.

It’s still weeks from opening, and already the Biennale has stirred the pot; it couldn’t be better timed. Under Enwezor, the show will prompt much needed debate about the effectiveness of political art—particularly in the context of an industry dominated by the one percent—and focus international attention on the many endless and avoidable conflicts tearing the world apart. This year’s Biennale may not be the easiest show to swallow, but Enwezor’s message may just be exactly what we all need to hear—and see.

La Biennale di Venezia, curated by Okwui Enwezor, is on view from May 9 through November 22, 2015, at the Giardini della Biennale and the Arsenale. The 89 national participations will be in the pavilions at the Giardini, at the Arsenale, and throughout the city of Venice.

UPDATE: As a result of the controversy surrounding Kenya's Pavilion, the nation announced on April 29 that it will not participate in this year's Biennale.

Image credit: Courtesy Vik Muniz Studio