At the beginning of his essay in the catalog for this year’s Venice Biennale, Okwui Enwezor asks: “What do we see? A void of nothingness? A horizon of possibilities? What to do?” Enwezor is describing, perhaps more accurately than he realizes, the perspective of the visitor to the Venice Biennale—not just this year’s (of which Enwezor is the artistic director and curator), but any biennale curated by anyone in recent memory.
“Leap into the void or into the fray?” These are the possibilities that Enwezor envisions, but there are others, one being to turn back and walk away. Which is what I did, inadvertently, two years ago: Having decided not to attend the preview of the 55th Biennale—thinking that I’d be able to see much more if I visited the show later, when the crowds would be less overwhelming—I never quite got myself sufficiently organized to plan the trip. And that was a shame, because Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” might have been among the more interesting ones. Maybe I should just admit to myself that the attendant social whirl, though it distracts from the Biennale’s art, is partly what attracts me, or at least motivates me to go. As Enwezor observes, while “art can seek protection from the purifying fury of earnest concern by withdrawing from the disordered affairs that torment women, men, and the world,” and while it’s “the right of every artist to strike such a stance of radical refusal,” an exhibition is also “something that happens in the world, and carries with it the noise, pollution, dust, and decay” that are the world’s lot. And never more so than when the art world descends all at once like a plague of locusts.
This year, I resumed my old habit and attended the preview. Besides, there was a special reason to do so (and here comes what they call the “full disclosure” part): Among the artists exhibiting in the national pavilions of the Giardini della Biennale were two close friends. Moreover, my daughter was one of the six young featured performers in the videos that Joan Jonas made for the American pavilion, while Tsibi Geva, whose work occupies the Israeli pavilion, was also the subject of a traveling exhibition I’ve curated. It’s been shown in Washington, DC, and Rome and is about to open at the Mönchehaus Museum of Modern Art in Goslar, Germany (July 2–August 9), so I had to be there in support.
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For Enwezor, an exhibition like the Biennale must respond to the welter and waste of our dispiriting present by fulfilling a certain hunger for meaning. I’m not sure I agree. The call for meaning usually amounts to a demand to impose one’s own meaning on others. And besides, meaning is everywhere—there’s no stamping it out, no matter how hard you try. Even when so many unrelated or even contradictory ideas of art are juxtaposed, as they are in Venice—like so much attic clutter cleared out and offered up at a yard sale—it’s usually possible to detect a pattern. Thus the titles of these shows seem to offer everything and nothing in the grandest possible way, not unlike the slogans chosen every four years to sum up the FIFA World Cup. The most recent one, in Brazil last year, went under the banner Juntos num só ritmo, “All in One Rhythm,” for instance, while in Germany in 2006 it was Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden, “A Time to Make Friends.” Enwezor has chosen “All the World’s Futures.”