Interview: Venice Biennale Curator Okwui Enwezor On “All the World’s Futures” and the Angel of History

A detail from Paul Klee's "Angelus Novus" (1920).

During the London presentation of the 56th Venice Biennale, “All the World’s Futures,” curator Okwui Enwezor talked a lot about the past. H referenced the theoretical past as discussed by Walter Benjamin, the biennale’s own former associations with imperial powers, and its little-known 1974 edition conceived as a collective response to Pinochet’s Coup in Chile.

It’s in this past and the many parallel “shadow histories,” to borrow Enwezor’s terminology, that the curator and some of the 136 artists he’s invited find inspiration: the foundation from which to talk about the world we live in, and the one to come.

Following a logic suggested by his predecessor Massimiliano Gioni and his “Encyclopedic Palace” in 2013, Enwezor has forgone the temptation of an overarching theme, favoring instead three sub-chapters or so-called “filters”: “Liveness: On epic duration,” “Garden of Disorder,” and “Capital: A Live Reading.”

A David Adjaye-designed Arena will host, among many other things, a live reading of the three books of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital directed by Isaac Julien, which will act as a linchpin for the exhibition.

Opening with a dramatic new neon piece by Glenn Ligon that spells out the words “bruise, blood, blues” on the façade of the international pavilion, the show will be built on a back-and-forth between past and future, with a flurry of new works (179 in total, by the likes of Marlene Dumas, Isa Genzken, and Oscar Murillo) and substantial presentations of art historical heavyweights: these will include a survey of Hans Haacke’s poll pieces, neon works by Bruce Nauman, and Harun Farocki’s entire film output.

“All the World’s Futures” is the culmination of Enwezor’s stellar curatorial career. The curator, writer, and academic, who is currently serving as director at Haus der Kunst in Munich, has more than one biennial under his belt, and many more exhibitions. Widely credited for opening up a Western-centric art world to post-colonial concerns, he was behind the Johannesburg Biennale (1998), Documenta (2002), the Seville Biennial (2007), the Gwangju Biennial (2008), and most recently, Paris’s Triennale in 2012.


Okwui Enwezor, Director of the Visual Arts section – la Biennale di Venezia
Curator of the 56th International Art Exhibition “All The World’s Futures.”
Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

In your introductory text, you describe your contribution to the 56th Venice Biennale as a “project devoted to a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things.” Are there any specific events that have particularly shaped your thinking for the exhibition?

There’s not one single event, but it’s an accumulation of events. A key reference is Walter Benjamin’s reading of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920). In that picture, there isn’t a catastrophe that you can see, it’s more like a mental picture that Klee was constructing for us in terms of how one can think about history, and about the relationship between contemporary events and history, especially the history of progress, which is also accompanied by destruction.

Benjamin talks about this accumulation of debris that piles up at the feet of the Angel, being blown to the future with his back turned to the future but facing the past. If I were to read the period between the last biennale and mine, I think it’s been a terrible two years. It’s been a terrible two years of accumulation, of escalation, of dissonance in every imaginable way and our inability to come to terms with the shape of the global transition has come to a point of intense conflict. There isn’t a singular thing that I can say that has shaped it, but really looking at what’s going on around us today.

Benjamin and the Angel of History, the biennale’s own shadow history, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital … your show is very openly anchored in the past. Can you tell me something of this past you are addressing in the show in relation to the “futures” you are referring to in your title?

The past and the future are deeply entangled in this sense. That’s why I also used the term “residue,” because those residues can be smoldering ambers from the past. The wreckage itself is still fresh, it’s not spent ashes as it were, but something that is really real and alive to us: the conflicts in the Middle East, the conflict in Nigeria, the conflicts in South Asia and Bangladesh.

I recall the kind of correspondence I had with artists. Naeem Mohaiemen one morning sent me an email about the hacking to death of a Bangladeshi writer [Avijit Roy, on February 26] in Dhaka. Then there was Raqs Media Collective sending me a note in response to my prompt, talking about what they call “the insomnia of the rulers” and the “vigil of the protestors,” so there are all these different resonances. These shadow histories have to do with the way in which we are living at the moment, with many, many histories of the past. I think the biennale represents a point of departure—metaphorically, not literally—it’s a way to look at this collision of forces that are keeping us awake, that will not really let us stop our vigil.

Does your decision not to have a theme, but to work with a series of filters, respond to this “cacophony” of events? 

That’s partly the case. In 1974, the Venice Biennale launched its programPer Una Manifestazione Culturale. It wanted to inaugurate the idea of a cultural manifestation. The idea that one can take this big expansive space of the biennial and say “it’s only for things to look at” was antithetical to the program of 1974. It was really a collision of voices, in the most productive, impactful, interesting way. So for me in “All the World’s Futures,” by using the filters, I wanted to see if the different techniques, the so-called “Parliament of Forms,” can be brought together to form one stage of meaning, one stage of enunciation, one stage of articulation. So from a formal and curatorial standpoint, that’s what the filters stand for: not to impose a standardized narrative within the biennale, but look at the tectonic plates of the shape of the exhibition, through voices, through instruments, though visuals, through pre-visual categories and weave them together to look at something that hopefully could be comprehensible and enjoyable.

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