Genocide, the NSA, and Venice’s Short-Lived First Mosque: Scenes From a Biennale

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Such Doge’s Palace. Wow.

The Venice Biennale opened earlier this month, and among the throngs of artistic types descending on the famous city for the weekend was Flavorwire alumnus Geoff Mak.

1.

We were good liberals: two unemployed New Yorkers in their mid-20s whose idea of a vacation was going to a biennial. By way of Berlin, we arrived in Venice to become better people, or in the very least, get more interesting. Danielle and I had moved to Berlin together, for her to do some traveling before she started grad school, and for me to finish my novel. I did not finish my novel, and instead found myself one night at Berghain, standing shirtless in a bathroom stall, staring at the reflection in my shattered smartphone, looking back at me between clumps of unidentified white powder caked up in the cracks. I asked myself, What am I doing with my life? I was going to a biennial in less than 24 hours, and by the next morning, that’s exactly what I did.

The theme this year was All the World’s Futures, which is a testy thing to do on an island that’s sinking. Posters were placed all over the city, hung over the Doge’s Palace and in the tea gardens at San Marco’s square. Above, statues from coppered Venetian cathedrals watched over selfie sticks, rugs with fake handbags, stylish Chinese tourists, and discontinued DSLRs. One man held a selfie stick with a Go-Pro camera attached and pointed at himself as he crossed the Arsenale bridge. Another had a gelato in one hand, and the other shoved resolutely in his crotch, with a shirt that read, “Light of the World.” By nightfall, collectors and pensioners sat on terraces with red Campari sodas, as all around them, the canal flooded slowly into the square. It was an image that might’ve said something about why all of us were here, or why anyone at any point in history has come to Venice: to put off what’s coming.

Such became particularly difficult once we got into the Giardini, the first of a two-part exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor. Upon entering, we were greeted with a 1969 video by Christian Boltanski of a man vomiting up blood without a whole lot of context. Maybe it was political, maybe it wasn’t, and maybe that was the point: that what the future entailed wasn’t exactly clear. We just knew it was bad.

“I cannot remember a time more precarious, more foreboding, than the current moment.” Enwezor said in a recent interview with Artforum. “Art may enable us to think through that and to think beyond it.” Among the various art-as-thought-exercises was a live reading of Das Kapital, as well as video interviews with contemporary Marxist interpreters. Most of the artwork shown was not as didactic. Sculptures by Elena Damiani displayed elegant abstractions of Peruvian marble, much in the tradition of Smithson’s small-scale installations; and photographs by Andreas Gursky of stock exchanges deftly show the cold, aborted adrenaline of the market economy. A particularly chilling series by Marlene Dumas showed paintings of skulls that, as the catalog describes, “register sexual intensity where it breaches into political aggression.” The skulls are distorted in disfigurement, abuse, or ecstasy — bringing to mind the erotic undercurrents of genocide. I couldn’t look at all of them before I felt my face go pale and had to exit the room.

Respites from the general apocalypse often came from artists like Wangechi Mutu and Tetsuya Ishida, who work in African and Asian traditions that, unlike Minimal and Conceptual discourse, don’t impose a stigma on decorative arts. In fact, to Enwezor’s credit, the 2015 Biennale is the most nationally diverse in the Biennale’s history, including the highest number of black artists.

By the time we got to Arsenale, the second half of the exhibition, I half-joked to Danielle that the only black people here were in paintings and video installations. One of those people was a dead black man named Ashes, in a gorgeously elegiac double-screen video by director Steve McQueen. On one side, a video shows a loop of Ashes, a handsome young man sitting on a boat in board shorts. On the other side: a gravesite, diggers, and a funeral. Only in the voiceovers do we hear accounts of how Ashes was violently murdered after he found a stash of drugs on the beach. It was the only piece in the exhibition to celebrate the classical male nude: not a Greek god, but a young black man killed in a drug crime who might’ve went unnoticed if he wasn’t caught on camera.

Still from “Ashes.”

As it turned out, we weren’t so far from home. On our Facebook minifeeds, Danielle and I were getting status updates about the murder of Freddie Gray, the protests in Baltimore and New York, friends who were jailed, and the pro-bono lawyers trying to get them out. In one instance, Danielle told me that in a women’s prison in Baltimore, the holding cells were so crowded that women had to sleep on the concrete floor with slices of bread as pillows.

All of this was and wasn’t on my mind as I made my way through redundant sculptures of tanks, bullets, machetes, and deconstructed AK-47s. By the time I got halfway through the Arsenale, my brain ran out of gas. I arrived at Adrian Piper’s installation, The Probable Trust Registry, which is set up like the lobby of a New York advertising agency. On the walls are three slogans, one of which stated: I WILL ALWAYS BE TOO EXPENSIVE TO BUY. The viewer is invited to sign personal contracts to commit to a slogan, and submit it to the Probable Trust Registry. I didn’t even sign the paper, I was too tired. Instead, I stood in front of the slogan and closed my eyes, thinking, I want to be too expensive to buy. I want to go to the gym more. I want Boko Haram to bring back our girls. I want Hong Kong to secede from China. I want to charge my phone. Where is Danielle? I want Turkey to stop denying the Armenian Genocide. I want to bring back Freddie Gray, and all the Libyan migrants beneath the Mediterranean Sea. I want to become a better person. I want a Campari soda. I will always be too expensive to buy.

2.

The only pavilion that seemed enthused about its future was China. Sponsored by the Chinese Ministry of Culture, the catalog read, “The masses are not passers-by who head on blindly. The are wise, active, and spontaneous.” At the entry was a photo-collage of anonymous locals being wise, active, and spontaneous. Staunchly apolitical, the works on display ranged from photographs of rural China, an oral interview with a long lost grandmother, musical instruments, factory workers, propaganda, kitsch, quasi-spiritual CGI. Some were more confusing than others. One end of the pavilion showed a 3D animation by Lu Yang of shirtless male models from all races and cultures shouting, huffing, and summoning chakra with harnesses strapped across their chests that, until then, I had only associated with gay leather bars. I watched the video three times, and I’m still not sure what the point was. I just know I missed it.

More to the point on the subject of propaganda was Simon Denny’s installation at the New Zealand pavilion. Beneath Renaissance wall paintings of Socrates and Aristotle, Denny’s installation reconstructed a glowing server room at the center of the Biblioteca Nazionale, with server racks displaying sculptural and graphical recreations of PowerPoint slides, leaked by Edward Snowden, that outline top-secret telecommunications surveillance programs. One infographic outlined “The 5 Team Dysfunctions” (i.e. lack of Accountability, lack of Results), accompanied by various illustrations, including furry squirrels, talking eagles, and a tortoise in a safari hat.

Simon Denny, “Secret Power” installation.

It was the kind of cognitive dissonance that would be too easy, too undergrad, if it were made up, except this couldn’t be made up. The illustrations were found on the Behance portfolio of David Darchicourt, the graphic designer and former “Creative Director of Defense Intelligence” at the NSA, according to his LinkedIn. As it turns out, the devil behind the cloak was a turtle in a safari hat, or a Fantasia-era wizard with a Santa Claus beard. At least Maoist propaganda had images of actual children, ready to please the Party, but the squirrels in red jumpsuits are getting out of hand.

Towards the north end of the island, Christoph Büchel converted a former Catholic church into the first mosque ever in the history of Venice for what may or may not have been the Icelandic pavilion. Only prayer times are listed in the catalog under Iceland, and nowhere in the mosque is there mention of the Biennale. Prayers were led on the carpet, where visitors were kindly asked to take off their shoes upon entering. Some did, and some didn’t. Some thought it was a good idea to climb the minbar and take selfies with the qibla wall.

Christoph Büchel, “Mosque” installation

“That was extremely offensive,” Danielle said later, over Campari sodas. “I find it extremely disrespectful to make performance art out of someone’s religion.”

“I think they were practicing Muslims,” I said. “If it looks like a mosque, acts like a mosque…”

“That wasn’t a real mosque.”

“What if it’s just a terribly run mosque?”

“A real mosque would never let people walk into the back room and take pictures.”

Turns out she was right. A few days before we got there, Venetian city officials sent a letter to The Iceland Art Center, saying, “The pavilion is not and cannot be a place of worship,” and threatened to shut down the mosque by May 20 if it continued to hold services, which it had been, complete with musical performances and free cookies. [It eventually did get shut down — Free Cookies Ed.] We are in an age where anything is institutionally permitted to be art, but what happens when the institution limits something to only being art? Effectively, the art had merged with the real, and initiated consequences that reached beyond the aesthetic and into what the Venetian authorities considered a “threat to safety.”

I suppose when all else fails, call it an “event.”

3.

On our third day in Venice, Danielle and I were sitting at the café of the Punta Della Dogana, when a woman passed by carrying a tote bag that said, “I want to please you so much it makes me sick.”

“I think it’s sad,” Danielle said.

“I think it’s kinky.”

“Well, look at who she’s with.”

“What if that’s her dad?”

“That’s not her dad.”

From Danh Vo, “Slip of the Tongue”

We finished our espressos, entered the exhibition, and the line on the tote bag was still on my mind. The exhibition, titled Slip of the Tongue, was curated for the Pinault Collection by Danh Vo, who showed at this year’s Danish Pavilion. Several of his works were on display, along with other artworks that could be read as inspirations to his work. This particular show wasn’t in conjunction with the Biennale, maybe because so many of the artists here had already met their futures — queer artists from the late 20th century who died or were close to those who died of AIDS: Felix Gonzales-Torres, Paul Thek, Hujar, Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong. Vo’s work, some of which have titles like Shove It Up Your Ass Faggot, are paired with meat hooks, harnesses, screwdrivers, nails, drawings of screwdrivers, and a lot of Venetian paintings of Christ on loan from the Gallerie dell’Accademia.

The curatorial argument of the show suggested that the relationship between objects can create an association more meaningful than that of the objects themselves. Vo’s curatorial decisions provoke associations with sadomasochism, bondage, martyrdom, and worship, but quietly so, elegiacally, as if these were relics from a bygone age. What resonated from the show at large was a longing for loveliness, a desire to be desired, such as in Roni Horn’s Gold Field, a sheet of gold foil. It was the predecessor to a later work of two gold sheets lying on top of each other, dedicated to Felix Gonzales-Torres and his lover Ross, both of whom died of AIDS.

People have a natural human desire to help those who are in pain. This is simultaneously the confusion, repulsion, and allure of the aesthetics of leather, and BDSM sexuality. It was also the tension that surrounded Leonor Antunes’ sculpture of horse bridles, hung limply like shoelaces from wooden beams in the ceiling. It could pass for a study in abstraction if it weren’t for the bridles themselves, harnesses out of use, faint outlines of bodies that are no longer here.

On an easel near the entrance was a painting by Martin Wong, of his lover. It’s titled INRI, referencing the tattoo on his back of Jesus crucified — the West’s most persistent symbol of power through submission. That image ricocheted across several works in the exhibition, including Andreas Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ. Hidden in the stairwell behind the café, the photograph shows an image of the crucifix submerged in the warm red glow of a tank filled with piss. It was a pretty thought: that a deity could, by submerging himself in the waste and filth of a dying body, be in turn our salvation and everlasting life. The piece is protected by Plexiglas, as it’s been attacked four times since the 1980s. As it were, the idea of salvation is only acceptable without reference to bodily maintenance. Yet as I stood in the stairwell, the photograph didn’t seem incendiary to me. I thought this was the only kind of Christ I could worship — one who wasn’t disgusted with my body, one who wasn’t disgusted with me.

Andres Serrano, “Piss Christ”

“I want to please you so much it makes me sick.”

By the time I reached Gonzales-Torres’ sculpture ‘Untitled’ (Blood) — a curtain of red and white beads — the museum was getting ready to close. Danielle had already gone to the piazza, and was waiting for me by the fountain. Outside the glass doors, the sun was low over the canal, reflecting off the transparent beads. In a few hours, the canal flooded into San Marco Square, as we returned to our room to pack our things, and by the next morning, we were no longer in Venice.