“PRETTY PICTURES” + THE VENICE BIENNALE

The Australian cultural magazine Daily Review posted an image-based summation of the Venice Biennale 2015 on May 9th—just two days after its public opening—with the provocative clickbait-driven title: “Venice Biennale 2015 Does Not Make a Pretty Picture.” While the title might suggest a markedly uncomplimentary attitude towards the event’s political hyperawareness, the review itself consists only of a short paragraph of text that is calculatedly evasive of any didactic judgment on the exhibition as a whole, instead presenting a surveyed collection of images and videos for the reader to inject their own interpretation. Ultimately, the review’s only deliberate qualification of the exhibition was deferred to the content of its title, seeming to observe exclusively negative imagery overwhelming every pavilion.

Yet curator Okuwi Enwezor’s remarks at the biennial’s Creative Time Summit reveals a much more nuanced intention that the writers at the Daily Review may have perhaps missed. Certainly, with a superficial interaction with Enwezor’s choice of thematic prompt—entitled “All the World’s Futures,” addressing a present “age of anxiety”—the exhibition could easily be distinguished as a grim demonstration of the tragedies upon tragedies that stain the current global landscape. Yet what Enwezor has attempted to extract through his curatorial choices can be likened to the global propagation of works of Abstract Expressionism on the part of powerful American institutions and individuals during the Cold War, as Eva Cockroft maintains: that is, utilizing critical cultural content and dialectical images in a public sphere in order to generationally influence a people’s perspective on their contemporaneous condition.

Obviously, there are discernable differences between the institutional proliferation of Abstract Expressionist works with a patently ideological agenda in Cold War-era America and Enwezor’s prompt. However, Cockroft’s explication illustrates the cause and effect of the cultural sector’s propensity (and even responsibility) to maintain a societal influence; to stimulate praxis by means of a prudent curation of poesis. And it is within this process that Enwezor’s curatorial decisions attempt to internationalize and demarginalize the global dialectics of contemporary art and its public, by way of internationalizing and demarginalizing what is arguably the most historically influential contemporary art event in the world. Enwezor’s biennial seeks to exploit the historical weight of the Venice Biennale such that it functions not as a selection of artworks that “represent” their elected nations in a fragmentary surveyed manner, but to compel its international public to—in his words—“really begin to re-envision the historical necessity to think historically in the present.”

It thus seems that the exhibition’s visual domination of seemingly negative expressions towards the current state of things is an inexorable product of its times. As the Daily Review’s article expresses this domination: “War, terror, government surveillance, and ecological degradation are prominent in [the artists’] responses.” Yet what distinguishes their predominantly text-less text of biennial coverage as clickbait content is its qualification of the images from the exhibition as “not pretty” (which, as another matter, is arguably simply false, as the highly aestheticized Getty-sourced photographs they present of the installation-based exhibition are in fact extremely beautiful). To condense the dialectical climate of this year’s biennial to the concept of “pretty” or not—perhaps a issue of the Western ontogeny of the discourse of visual culture—seems reductionist, irresponsible, and irreverent of the powerful statement and historical landmark that has manifested in the form of the 2015 Venice Biennale. Furthermore, the distinct effort on the part of Enwezor and the rest of the biennial’s curatorial team to expand their inclusion of countries instinctively disregarded in the discourse of contemporary art—including first-time participation from Mongolia, Seychelles, Mozambique, Grenada and Mauritius—seemed to go unnoticed in the Daily Review’s coverage. Instead the “not pretty” images that are featured within this article are featured from the pavilions of only the traditional powerhouses: Germany, Turkey, Russia, and Korea, etc.

To me, this myopic restatement of the biennial as a presentation of fragmented, dismal images seems fundamentally problematic: like a monoscopic camera fixed in position and focus, willfully perceiving a Venice Biennale as its most primitive iteration as a salon of artworks seen through a Western lens—a lens with a distinct propensity to “celebrate” internationalism by means of exoticism, paradoxically marginalizing everything beyond the Western world. However, that is not the Venice Biennale that has been carefully crafted by Enwezor, nor his recent predecessors. Instead, Enwezor asserts that the exhibition as a phenomenon has the responsibility to manifest a sort of virtual dialectical space for its public; to prompt a hyperawareness of their present condition with the weighty dialogue of their troubled history; to interrupt the painfully detached immediacy of our contemporaneous tragedies with the stillness of meditation in visual poetry. And just as the curator has these responsibilities to the public via the exhibition space, so does a publication to the public via its critical faculty within media coverage of that exhibition space. The Daily Review’s article seems to have disregarded that critical faculty, and thus spurned its own responsibility as a raconteur of the biennial as an experience.

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