The Polite American – When It Comes To Art Criticism


Das Kapital Recital, Venice Biennale, 2015
Das Kapital Recital, Venice Biennale, 2015



Reviewing the Venice Biennale, with its large number of artists in the main show alone (136 in 2015; 156 in 2013) is a difficult task. Add to it the national pavilions and Collateral Events (89 and 44 respectively) this year that scatter throughout the city, the task is beyond impossible. Since most critics go during the opening week when the art world gathers—with all the socializing and parties—it would take a super-human to write a complete review. So reading and quoting a few choice ones from around the world seems like a good way to go.  (While it also marks the different styles of US and UK critics).

This year’s 56th Venice Biennale of International Art main show is curated by the Nigerian-American Okwui Enwezor. It is the polar opposite of its 2013 edition in theme. If this year’s show is about all the world’s ills in their most explicit manifestations, 2013’s Encyclopedic Palace was about all the world’s art and imagination, emanating from  the body-brain itself; and included many artists not trained in the traditional way. By contrast, All the World’s Futures this year included many artists who are truly excellent, but also many I would call ‘career artists’—having been channeled through art schools with a set of techniques and strategies without deep passion or real compassion necessarily. If the 2013 iteration was about the unconscious, the implicit, whence art springs; the current show is about the conscious, the explicit, from which social systems and politics arise. (See here some pictures of works in the Biennale)

Here are some quotes from a few reviewers (my italics):

Roberta Smith (New York Times):

  • “…the very future of the planet — its many futures — hangs in the balance. This is not the time for art as an object of contemplation or delight, much less a market commodity — certainly not in a public exhibition whose chief responsibility is to stimulate debate.”
  • “…brings out into the open a central preoccupation of the moment, namely the belief that art is not doing its job unless it has loud and clear social concerns, a position whose popularity has made “social practice” the latest new thing to be taught in art schools
  • “Mr. Enwezor is less interested in artistic urgency than in the urgent state of the world itself.
  • “… it includes a fair amount of good, even great art, along with too much that is only well-intentioned… If it is not perfect, it goes off-message in redemptive ways, including artists whose work is not overtly political.”

Adrian Searle (The Guardian, London):

  • “…You cannot curate an entire world, or all its possible futures. That would be God’s job, but Enwezor has hubris enough to try. If his exhibition fails, it does so on a grand scale…”
  • “…All the World’s Futures has everything from contemporary images of caged and ditch-digging convicts in Louisiana to the depression-era photographs of Walker Evans. Here are the gorgeous new paintings of Chris Ofili, lush and swooning against walls of hand-painted foliage. Here are the horrible new paintings of Georg Baselitz. (I can’t understand for the life of me why he is here.) We can … and play among the 108 objects in Qiu Zhijie’s magical theatre of hanging lanterns, lighthouses and suspended birds. Sometimes, a great bell tolls…”
  • “All biennales suffer from their own excess, and the Venice Biennale is the mother of them all… Wherever we find ourselves we seek the exceptional, the singular voice…”
  • [Dahn Vo’s Slip of the Tongue in the Punta Della Dogana] “Vo lets the objects speak and I left speechless. All the World’s Futures tells a different story, of a world too complex to submit to any single critique or system, even Marx’s. I have seen the future and I’m not going.”

Laura Cummings (The Guardian, London):

  • [The Rolls-Royce pavilion and the reading of Das Kapital] “…But the double act is emblematic of this 56th edition…which nothing if not explicitly critical of capitalism, consumerism and filthy lucre while relying upon them all for its very lifeblood.”
  • “The big thematic show in the Italian pavilion, organised by the Biennale’s first African curator, Okwui Enwezor, is full of ladies in Louboutins picking their way [through artworks showing] global starvation, industrial pollution and the atrocious conditions of garment workers in developing countries…Coal sacks dangle like trade union banners…”
  • “Art can take you anywhere, but this year it is straight into the heart of darkness in many of the national pavilions – the prisons of Brazil, the gay brothels of Chile… The predominant media are film and photography, with a preponderance of documents … an entire edition of a Nigerian magazine reporting the recent election… as if this could possibly pass for art of any sort, let alone actual thought or imagination…”
  • “These artists are worried about the state of the world, and their own nations, and many of them don’t care if what they produce is on the level of agitprop… The vocabulary of Biennale art is diminishing…”

Tony Godfrey (British art historian, Visiting Research Fellow, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore):

  • [Aside from the four national pavilions] “…Elsewhere South-East Asia was invisible: Enwezor… does not seem to know it exists…There was Danh Vo, however, who was born in Vietnam, but left when he was aged four…but he isn’t Asian save in ethnicity… That he is in no way a South-East Asian artist was emphasised by the show he curated at Pinault’s Punta Della Dogana space…[which] included no other artist from South-East Asia.” *
  • “Rightly or wrongly, he, like Dinh Q. Le and Tiffany Chung, who both fled with their parents to the US and were schooled and grew up there, are, I suspect, often taken to represent Vietnam and its environs. (Dinh Q. and Chung often work in Vietnam but they will always be Viêt Kiêu – overseas vietnamese.) Curators may feel that by including them in shows they have ticked the South-East Asian box and need not look further…”

NB These quotes are from Tony’s email newsletter dated September 3, 2015.

*  Martin Wong in Vo’s show Slip of the Tongue, in the Dogana was born in Oregon in 1946 (d 1999)  to Chinese immigrant parents.

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