Why Marx got Venice Biennale invite

At the 2013 Venice Biennale, the artist Jeremy Deller represented the United Kingdom. He emblazoned one of the walls of the British pavilion with a mural of a colossal William Morris rising up, kraken-like, from the Venetian lagoon and sinking a millionnaire’s super-yacht. 

At that biennale’s opening – and the same goes for this year’s – a row of such yachts was moored not half a mile away, their occupants visiting the city precisely for the purpose of enjoying the avalanche of art and carnival of socialising that comes with the opening days of the biennale, arguably one of the art world’s most significant annual events.

This year, the sense of political disquiet and agitation is again in the air, yet more palpably. The curator of the biennale’s vast central exhibition, Okwui Enwezor, whose day job is as the director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, has anchored his show in one work of literature: Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Until November 22, when the biennale closes, a team of performers will stage daily readings from it, working their way through the entire text to, if not the end, as far as they can get.

The readings are directed by Isaac Julien, the British artist and filmmaker. A film work by him, Playtime, is also on show at the biennale – a work that contains footage of a public conversation between him and the Marx scholar David Harvey, enlivened by interventions from the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall.

It is, as you might already have inferred, all rather serious. According to Enwezor: “I wanted to do something that has contemporary relevance and speaks to the situation we are in. And so I thought of Das Kapital – a book that nobody has read and yet everyone hates or quotes from.”

The Das Kapital readings take place in a new performance space called the Arena, designed by British architect David Adjaye, in the biennale’s central pavilion. They are accompanied by what Enwezor called “annotations” – a range of different events and performances that cast light on the text in their own way. These include 19th-century broadsides and ballads curated by Deller; I caught a heart-stopping performance in this slot by Jennifer Reid, a singer who has researched and discovered such songs in Chetham’s library in Manchester.

One of the songs, meant for entertainment after a day’s grind in the cotton mills, is called A Prophecy for 1973 (probably composed in 1873) and it is a corker: “Everyone will be rich, there will be no need to beg/ Nor stump up and down with an old wooden leg/ … And children, then they will hatch them by steam/ And feed them with nutmeg, blacklead or cream.”

Are we to infer, then, that Enwezor is fomenting class war and suggesting that visitors to his biennale, instead of swarming through Venice’s Giardini in search of art, swarm instead to the barricades, possibly boarding and appropriating for the proletariat the super-yachts of the collector-billionaires? Not quite, it seems. “Contradictions are central to Das Kapital,” says Enwezor evasively.

“In terms of the biennale itself I was not so interested in what was happening on Riva dei Schiavoni [where some of the yachts are moored]. Of course it will spill out, but I wanted to bring a sense of sobriety to the proceedings. I wanted to make things a little more sober, undramatic, deeply reflective, deeply political.”

If contradictions are, in Enwezor’s view, central to Das Kapital, then they are certainly central to the biennale, where global capital and art meet. It is impossible not to notice, for example, that Julien himself is simultaneously presiding over the Marx readings and being supported by the ultimate luxury brand, Rolls-Royce, which threw him a glamorous party on the Grand Canal to produce his latest film. (It is a contradiction he indeed readily admits to, telling me: “It’s quite touchy – people ask me, ‘Who are you … to bring up the question of capitalism?’?”).

Marx would, perhaps, find intriguing material to analyse in the art world, were he alive today. Even I have read enough of volume one of Das Kapital to reach the part where he writes: “The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind. The nature of these needs, whether they arise, for example, from the stomach, or the imagination, makes no difference.”

Okwui Enwezor. (Photo: Andreas Gerbert)

So what is the corollary of staging Das Kapital? I ask Enwezor. Did not Marx foresee the end of capitalism, inevitably brought down by its internal contradictions? “His programme was to use capitalism to achieve social equality,” says Enwezor. “I don’t think that Marx, had he lived, would have wanted capitalism to end.”

I am slightly confused by this: I am no Marx expert, but I had gained the distinct impression that though Marx admired the energy and inventiveness of capitalism he wanted it overthrown and replaced with a system that allowed people justice and dignity. Perhaps, it occurs to me, Enwezor and I, neither of whom have actually read Das Kapital in its entirety, should resolve our differences by sticking around until November and hearing out the readings.

At any rate, what is certainly clear is that Enwezor’s interest in Das Kapital is centred in its economic and social analysis of labour conditions, and this shines through his exhibition. Art as labour, art as an investigation of labour, the changing nature of labour and conditions of labour as a sign of global inequality: all are notions taken on – in more or less straightforward or slantwise fashion – by artists Enwezor has invited.

Deller, for example, plunges right in with his inclusion, in his room in the central pavilion, of a wearable stock-checking device similar to those used in Amazon “fulfilment centres” (aka warehouses) and other mail-order companies. Fitting over the arm and wrist, they not only track stock, but also the work rate and movements of the employee. Can such acts of social commentary perform any palpable service? Can they effect change?

“Artists have always had a capacity to reflect on these questions, to question prevailing orthodoxies, especially political orthodoxies,” says Enwezor. “If you look at authoritarian regimes, the first people they want to ban are artists and writers.” He mentions a room in his exhibition that brings together Walker Evans’s intensely powerful documentary photographs of the tenant farmers of Alabama during the Great Depression with Andreas Gursky’s epic pictures of the New York Stock Exchange. “It’s clear that artists are able to address the more difficult and urgent questions of their time and age,” he says.

Perhaps in the end what visitors will remember best about Enwezor’s exhibition, though, is the sheer geographical spread of artists invited to show: the inclusion of a rich selection of figures either born or working in parts of the world almost invariably underrepresented in such exhibitions – artists from Cameroon, Ghana, Congo and Nigeria; from Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and Syria.

The very first room in the huge Arsenale section of his presentation, for example, could not be more forthright, startling and frankly alarming: a vast space that bristles with clusters of enormous knives, apparently thrust into the very floor, by the Algerian-born, London-based artist Abel Abdessemed.

And over the grand entrance of the central pavilion is a large-scale text work by Glenn Ligon: Blues Blood Bruise, it reads. It is a reference to Come Out, a 1966 piece by the composer Steve Reich, which in turn sampled part of the testimony of Daniel Hamm, a man wrongly accused of murder in the 1964 Harlem riots. (“I had to open the bruise up and let some of the blues … blood come out to show them,” said Hamm, stumbling over his words.) Reading it now, in the wake of the Baltimore riots, it could not seem more urgent.

In short, Enwezor’s exhibition is a strong statement of intent. Is the art world, I ask, stacked against black artists? “I wouldn’t put it quite that way – stacked against,” he says.

“But I remember back in the beginning of the 1990s when I started dealing with contemporary African artists, everyone was saying, ‘Isn’t that too limiting?’ The young Britist artists were really all the rage, they were the ticket in the market, but to talk about African artists was somehow seen as limiting.

“I don’t think the art world has deliberately set itself up to be against black artists, African artists, but we exist in a world of received habits that operate reflexively. It is reflexive bigotry. One does not intend it, one simply enacts it.”

It is, then, institutionally racist? “Well, perhaps.” He laughs. “It is the same for women and other groups in society for which there is a reflexive limit set on what they can and cannot do. You have to keep asking yourself, how does one get past it, how does one get around it? How does one face the rock?”

It seems that in this exhibition, Enwezor has found the way. – © Guardian News & Media, 2015

The Venice Biennale runs until November 22

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