“I think the nice thing about Biennale Arts, it happens every two years, it’s like a clock and I like the idea that it is a way of taking the pulse of what’s happening in art but also in the world.” Ralph Rugoff, Curator of ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’, the title of the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019
I will contend in this article that Ralph Rugoff is wholly wrong, that a Biennale by its very nature cannot deal with, or inform, ‘the world’ and indeed that the attempt is wholly wasted. That in trying to do so artists become followers and cease to be forward-looking.
Art, which may well have begun for humans with the manufacture of flint tools, became a philosophy with Plato and Aristotle. Since their time in the fourth century BCE, individual artists have had an intimate relationship with pure ideas. Ideas which the New Art Examiner has always described as the ‘visual experience’. Ideas of place, the human condition, polity, belief systems, down to colour, light, material and, above all, message.
Take two famous artists. Leonardo Da Vinci is a byword to describe an artist with an overarching interest in things few people were thinking about in any other terms than as a daydream. Anyone reading Mark Rothko’s personal journals on his journey as an artist cannot but be struck by his depth of thinking in fathoming his own creativity.
A survey of a few of the titles of the Venice Biennale in 2019 will demonstrate how artists have fallen into the trap of being nothing more than acceptable liberal conscience of our societies: After Illusion (Saudi Arabia), The Future is Now (Andorra), Altered Views (Chile), Find Yourself: Carnival and Resistance (Antigua & Barbuda), How we Live (Bulgaria). It doesn’t take long before you realise that these artists, in an attempt to open our eyes and expand our thinking, have become deeply enmeshed in the narrowed thinking of the art world clientele who can afford to fly to Italy, travel to Venice, stay a week and take in the views. That they come out of the stable of high end museums and galleries, selling in the richest cities in the world, and a few sops thrown to those who do not wish to. This is not the world. This is not even a significant part of the intellectual segment of the world. I know, I’ve been there. The names of artists are barely known there, not because there is no interest in art but simply because what these artists talk about we all know. There are better ways of dealing with the pain of modern life than walking around a gallery being told about the pain. Most real thinkers make attempts at solving the causes for the pain, not simply publicize them. This Biennale was an exercise in countries marketing themselves to each other through their chosen art community.
One of the reasons artists have fallen prey to this is that those in power have always distrusted ideas that hold political criticism as a legitimate way of thinking and no artist working today at the Bienniale – or any art fair – can do so without a patron and patrons by means of their wealth, not by verity of their interest in art, hold social power and not a little political power. Patrons demand something and grant systems have requirements and both these elements are antithetical to art.
The artists at the Venice Biennale in 2019 dealt in their way with the environmental emergency now facing the planet because of human acquisitiveness. They visualised identity, trawled history to pronounce upon repression, and the outliers told tourists to go home. The Venice Biennale is its own idea – not demonstrated by the title given it this year – but by the fact of countries having pavilions and exhibiting their own vision of themselves. The powers that be amongst the art-going elite, had decreed there were several ‘in’ shows amongst which were the application powered game in the British Pavilion and the immersive ocean-like experience of the French Pavilion. Chile and the Philippines also ranked in some writers’ top ten. Readers latch onto top ten lists like limpets onto rocks waiting for the tide to cover them again so they can eat. Projectors abounded – nearly all white – cleverness was everywhere from the Italian Pavilion’s labyrinth suggesting the viewer could choose their own path through the works, to off-the-shelf holographic-imitative fans. All interplayed with ‘sounds’. I once heard a wordsmith on the BBC in the 1980s saying they were waiting for the first poet to get the words AIDS into a poem. Fashion, it seems, has become the rule across the arts in recent generations. In the next biennial there will be more video and a lot of 3D printing, much more criticism of China and works about the growing crisis of social injustice in the USA. You may even see the first grapheme-enabled works and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the first dirigibles taking people into the skies to watch huge holographic fireworks.
Thankfully, I am not much interested in predictions. Like fashion they make for a light meal.
What does interest me is why artists spend so much time today making statements about the ills and glories of the world, when few are listening, given from where they are speaking. Not one thing changed in the world because of all the money and work put on in Venice this year, despite the artists crying for the need for change. Nor will Venice ever change anything for the better, for the people who have the money to travel there and stay a while are not those with power and certainly not those interested in making change more than talking about it over Italian coffee in a back ‘calli’ they first visited when they were seven years old.
Now, as individuals many were deeply effected. They laughed, mourned, danced and sang. Whatever emotional sensibility they felt, they wholly felt. Proving partly, of course, how personal the visual experience is, but also proving how empty the work is at doing anything positive to make change. There was nothing really startling in Venice and at least one third of the passing conversations mentioned the city was sinking. So, it was ‘see it while you can.’
In Venice, as in all galleries around the world, preaching is being projected to the converted. They are not the problem. But then these Biennales only make use of artists; they are not that interested in change either. Venice wants to maintain an eminence. Every pavilion wants to be the go-to venue. Fashion has transferred itself effortlessly from the dress of the elite to the artwork and by so doing neutered the artist. The conversation has become far too incestuous to be of value.
Let us take one idea – the environment. We now know biodiversity is vital to the well being of the planet. We now know recycling is the pre-eminent conundrum facing the industrialised world. We can now see humanity has been like a child in a sweetshop running around in glee tasting every new sweet without the slightest thought to the wreckage it is leaving behind in its wake. We now face our own extinction.
How does talking about these issues in Venice change a thing? The first speeches were given on environmental awareness centuries ago, they gathered pace in the 1920s, they have become profound in the last twenty years. Contemporary artists were born into the crisis, though it seems they have not yet dealt with that fact. Nor the fact of shipping materials around the world without telling anyone if it was done in a carbon neutral manner. And the hundreds of flights into Venice … let us forget them.
On the CVs of these artists you will now see Venice Biennale 2019 xxx pavilion, what you will never see is ‘my work changed policy because …’
Artists have to escape the amber of too much social awareness and bring that empathy and feeling into evolving the human race. It’s a centuries old struggle and there will be more suffering and more war than anyone could stomach the thought of before we get close to the end. And when those crises hit artists across the world, artists will be on the front line. They always are because irascible and disconnected to mainstream thinking as they have often been, many of them have never lacked for courage.
But looking at this Biennale, you would wonder where such courage exists in the second millennium. The French pavilion should have dredged up a few tonnes of the British Channel. Let the people see and smell what three hundred years of neglectful and selfish industrialisation has destroyed. The single, unrepeatable installation that doesn’t need a name because it has all our names stamped upon it.