Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.
This is a rihla about the Biennale in Venice, Italy.
The last time I was at a Venice Biennale was in October 2004 for the 9th International Architecture Exhibition (Mostra di Archittura di Venezia), curated by Kurt W. Foster, to see in particular Ireland’s “Scary House” exhibit; architects John Twomey and Sheila O’Donnell’s interpretation of their work in transforming Letterfrack Industrial School in Renvyle, Connemara from being an institution of death, terror and despair to Ireland’s (and perhaps Europe’s?) premier institution of furniture design and craftsmanship. http://deworde.blogspot.ie/2009/05/dark-ages.html (Blog Sunday May 31 2009)
I was anxious to revisit the city (I am always anxious to revisit Venice constantly amazed by the fact that it even exists!) to experience the artistic and original Biennale (La Biennale di Venizia), which has been going since 1895. In 1922 the Biennale had its first exhibition of works by African artists and this year (the 56th) had it has its first African-born artistic director (curator) of the entire festival, Okwui Enwezor.
Enwezor a Nigerian has lived in New York since 1982 but has curated international shows all over the world. In addition however he also has a very strong track record of activism on the human rights stage and was the co-author with Yadh Ben Achour of Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation in 2003 arising out of a symposium held in New Delhi in 2001 which incorporated human rights lawyers, artists, curators, historians and anthropologists.
In its optimal manifestation Transitional Justice, complemented by human rights and humanitarian policy and law, looks to post-conflict resolution by incorporating non-punitive amnesty-driven “Truth” commissions in an effort to understand the origins and thus reduce the possibilities of recurring patterns of effect in any society devastated by conflict. In our Western consciousness however the increasingly restrictive and punitive post-9/11 “War on Terror” agenda has marginalised somewhat the Transitional Justice notion of “Truth” as being informative to being suspect and it is in this context in 2015 that I was interested to see where Enwezor’s interpretation of “Truth” in artistic transitional terms was going to take me.
The title chosen by Enwezor for this years Biennale was All The World’s Futures. (see: http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/exhibition/enwezor/) He conceived the exhibition to ‘delve into the contemporary global reality as one of constant realignment, adjustment, recalibration, motility, shape-shifting’ but decided to represent that reality with a ‘relentlessly incomplete’ fractal, fractious and to my mind, not so much a clarion-call but a hammer-blow to any notion of future development of transitional justice mechanisms.
I found the exhibitions in the Arsenale section in particular unsettling, not so much in their depiction of despair or dysfunction in “relentlessly incomplete” artistic terms, but for a cynicism that bordered on lunacy.
I live on the sea’s edge, and in my journey through the exhibition, it was if I was on a beach-combing exercise in the main wading through the detritus of an artistic storm. A chaotic, fuzzy and very miasmic reality presented no real sense of a “future” apart from the reality that modern communication means that artists increasingly depend on video-display interpretations of their work in caverned, curtained-off spaces where all light is conceived rather than perceived.
Edward Lorenz explained Chaos Theory as “When the present determines the future, the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.” Enwezor’s approximation of the “present” is proof of this.
In that approximation, in the Arsenale section particularly, there are some incredibly diverse interpretations of the present juxtaposed. From the bleakness of a Mexican partition wall to the sublime ceramics of the Argentinian Juan Carlos Distéfano; from a Swedish series of pools with intended sunken causeways to represent global warming (but their meaning and function entirely abandoned for the exhibition because of health and safety concerns) to an interpretive artist walking oh-so-solemnly diagonally across a defined space to release a model glider only to pick it up and release it again, depending on an occasional peripheral gust of wind to render chaos in the process and thus his interpretation.
I know now, where truth and art is concerned, that I am of a generation where a solidity of structure, of transforming space, even in its most translucent application, allows the opportunity of examining that space and interpreting its effect, its truth, its determination. I am also however of a generation who despite understanding the artistic interpretation of Lorenz’s explanation of the butterfly-effect of Chaos theory also love the notion that the colour of a butterfly’s wing is not the consequence of pigment but of structure, and that the “Truth” of that colour is one of refraction and diffraction of light caused by that structure. This is my concept of the future. We must continue to fight for the reality of truth, search for its structure within and use that to undermine the increasing latitude of approximation.
In a restaurant called Hostaria All’Ombra (the Shadow) on the Via Garibaldi, close to the Arsenale I wondered on its name. In English usage the umbra is the darkest part of a shadow, where the fuzzy twilight edge is excluded from the darkness. I asked the owner the reason for the name. Some Venetians, he explained, call their wine Ombra, from the term “giro di ombra” (journey of shadows) after the reality of when itinerant wine sellers in St Mark’s square had to keep moving their bottles on display into the cooler shades of the transit shadow cast by the Bell Tower.
My own journey through the shadows of the 56th Biennale, where truth has become redundant somewhat, left me with a feeling of umbrage rather than Ombra.