Mike Watson discusses the Venice Biennale’s treatment of art and nation, and its role in the exclusion of non-westerners from the profits of empire
As the 2019 Venice Biennale opens there comes an opportunity to reassess the political capacity of art. This perennial discussion today comes as a resurgent far right looms over Europe and the west. Many would argue that it has already taken a hold of mainstream politics in the UK, US, Italy, and—prior to that—in Hungary. As the left, in disarray, takes succour from small victories in Finland and Spain, hoping that Sanders might triumph, it is worth asking whether art, and more particularly the biennial format, has ever been equal to the job of overturning right-wing ideology, imperialism, and the worst excesses of capital.
The biennial format brings to light the contradictions of an art world that wants to be seen to proceed out of ethical interests, while acting as a sop to power interests and placating bourgeois guilt. Ultimately, large scale international art events highlight the structural complicity of art with governance and corporate investment. This year the gap between the ostensibly good intentions of the organisers of the Venice Biennale and the reality of the bourgeois art world’s detachment from suffering has been made pointedly—if unwittingly—by artist Christoph Büchel’s display of a fishing boat wrecked in the Mediterranean on 18th April 2015 while carrying 700-1000 passengers. All but 28 of the boat’s passengers died by drowning as the boat collided with a Portuguese cargo ship which was attempting to come to its rescue. The boat—part of the project Barca Nostra—is on display at the Venice Biennale’s second principal site The Arsenale, an ex-military arsenal, which houses a number of permanent national pavilions—including those of Italy and China.
The shipwreck, and its current incarnation as an artwork and spectacle at the world’s biggest and prestigious art event is the product of a highly confused Italian immigration policy. This policy plays out as the country wages a battle between its own conscience and the racist and Anti-EU rhetoric of its populist government. Occurring at a time when Italian state still willingly aided rescue from the Mediterranean, the wreck was raised from the sea in 2016 at the cost of €9.5m, before the remaining bodies were identified at a NATO base in Sicily. Today, while the Italian interior minister Salvini is in conflict with the EU, openly blocking migrant boats from entering Italian ports, the goodwill was found at the bureaucratic level to enable Büchel to transport the ship from Sicily to Venice for display as an art installation. This comes shortly after the EU’s collective rescue operations in the Mediterranean have been halted by opposition from the Italian government. So we have the husk of a boat whose sinking cost nearly a thousand deaths being accorded the position of secular relic to drowned migrants as the Italian government actively impedes other EU nations from saving the lives of other migrants attempting to cross from Africa to Europe.
To get some idea of the level to which Italy, and the West, could at this point be termed schizophrenic in their relation to migration it is worth recalling that the Italian PM in 2015, Matteo Renzi, likened the April 18th mass drowning to the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims under international watch in Srebrenica 20 years ago. Seen in this light, we could argue that whereas the West recognised it had blood on its hands in 2015, it now wants to put on show the wreck of April 18th 2015. This apparent act of symbolic atonement takes place within the highly compromised environment of the Venice Biennale, itself a kind of relic to an imperialism that has never really gone away.
In trying to understand how such a contorted statement came to be made, it is worth bearing in mind that Büchel is known for large scale ironic statements intended to provoke the public. At the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, he created a fully operational mosque within a deconsecrated church —which was quickly closed by the police following fears over ‘security’. Given the incendiary nature of that work, we can assume that Barca Nostra is itself intended as a form of provocation. However, there does also appear to be a genuine attempt on the artist’s part to address one of the most pressing issues of our time—i.e. migration—itself linked to climate change, conflict and capitalist exploitation. Indeed, the press for Büchel’s project says: “The public exhibition of Barca Nostra … opens up the possibility of actively using the collective shipwreck Barca Nostra as a vehicle of significant socio-political, ethical, and historical importance.”
Despite these motivations, co-option of even the best intentions would appear to be something of a speciality for the Biennale di Venezia, an entity long adept at giving space to political causes without genuinely embodying the spirit of rebellion which underpins them. This was evident in 2015 when the late Owkui Enwezor (born in Kenya and famed for concentrating throughout his career on non-Western art) declared that the 56th Biennale would focus on a consideration of Marx’s Capital. This was achieved in principal via a daily live reading of Das Kapital organized by artist Isaac Julien, which took place in a specially made arena within the International Pavilion in the Giardini (an area which houses the permanent pavilions of the regular national participants). Alongside these readings films were screened and performances were held which reflected upon issues of capital, class, race and gender exploitation. Whilst being well-intentioned the overall effect was to nullify the impact of Marx’s seminal text as its performance within a wider program made it seem somehow like an artifact of curiosity, rather than a serious text to be studied and applied to today’s society. In fact, if the performance said anything about the relationship between society and Marx in the 21st Century it would be that debate around Marx has been co-opted by the cultural elite who unwittingly parody serious political intent in their effort to whitewash art’s complicity with finance.
That edition of the Biennale, entitled All the World’s Futures, by now already belongs to a bygone era, prior to the Brexit vote and the election of Trump in the US, and the 5*-Lega coalition in Italy. Back then the art world was co-opting some vague stirrings of Marxism that has emanated from academia during the On the Idea of Communism conference of 2010, which had featured Žižek, Negri, and Badiou, among others. Now the co-option is of another degree entirely, stripping any chance of dignity for those who flee Africa for Europe with a high chance of meeting death along the way. This edition of the Biennale, curated by Ralph Rugoff, currently the director of the Hayward Gallery in London, is called May You Live In Interesting Times. In his curatorial statement, Rugoff states:
let us acknowledge at the outset that art does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics. Art cannot stem the rise of nationalist movements and authoritarian governments in different parts of the world, for instance, nor can it alleviate the tragic fate of displaced peoples across the globe (whose numbers now represent almost one percent of the world’s entire population).
With this statement Rugoff appears to totally foreclose on any possibility of Barca Nostra having an impact on the debate surrounding immigration. For while one might ask where our society of tragic spectacle may lead us if taken to its nth degree, what we are currently dealing with is a global society that leaves its poorest people to drown in the hundreds while trying to escape unbearable conditions by conflict and imperialism. That society then parades and displays the relic of mass-death at the hands of a military-industrial complex for an elite art-viewing public, who have been documented obliviously enjoying sandwiches and spritz in its shadow.
In the era of globalisation, the Venice Biennale presents a throwback to a period of European domination and competing national powers. The opulence of its individual national pavilions signals the perverse global inequality of the age of Empire, whilst the division of art by nation reflects the petty provincial competitiveness of that time. These two aspects are linked, with the merry jostling of national one-up-manship barely concealing the centuries-long plunder and bondage of Africa, Asia and the Americas by the European powers. Indeed, the Biennale, which was founded in 1893 and first opened in 1895 as a celebration of the silver anniversary of King Umberto I and Margherita of Savoy, is as an art institution beholden to state and nationalistic power. Artist Santiago Sierra highlighted this uncomfortable truth in 2003 by restricting entry to the Spanish Pavilion to Spanish passport holders only. On May 1st 2003 a performance—closed to the public—was held inside the pavilion in which a woman sat facing a wall for one hour wearing a black pointed hood. Again referencing the mechanisms of power and domination, the piece pointed to the role of bureaucracy and legislation in legitimizing violence by hiding practices of torture. It also highlights the exclusionary practices of the art world, which often operates some kind of restrictions on entry to events.
The display of Barca Nostra points to a very clear exclusion of non-westerners from the profits of empire, and to the extent to which the bourgeois class can countenance—or ignore—that exclusion, together with other social and wealth inequalities. The answer to the question of what political role art might play today is clear: it is here to inoculate the middle classes against guilt. If you are engaged in the contemporary art world and your leftist ambitions go further than that, it may be time seek active political participation elsewhere.
Mike Watson (PhD from Goldsmiths College) is a theorist, critic and curator who is principally focused on the relation between culture, new media and politics. He has written for Art Review Artforum, Frieze, Hyperallergic and Radical Philosophy and has curated events at the 55th and 56th Venice Biennale, and Manifesta 12. In 2019 he will publish his second book for ZerO Books, Can the Left Learn to Meme?: Adorno, Video Gaming and Stranger Things.