The Currency of Place: Katherine Cohn’s Venice Diary

Follow curator Katherine Cohn around the Venice Biennale through excerpts from her travel diary.

The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Italy. Photo by Katherine Cohn.

Editor's Note

Continuing our ongoing explorations of the relationship between art and place, we asked three people—Katherine Cohn, Felicia Mings, and Esther Honig—to reflect on the culture of contemporary art biennials. Cohn and Mings participated in last year’s Independent Curators International Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans and traveled to the Venice Biennale as an extension of their research. After the blockbuster exhibition in Italy had closed, Honig visited the Mini Vinnie Bini in Kansas City, Missouri—an unauthorized recreation that brought artwork to restaurants, bars, and even an abandoned prison.

We’re publishing records of their experiences together to examine how place can affect our interpretations of art and to contemplate how art can—and does—exist outside of the world’s dominant art capitals.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

6 pm: Depart Newark Liberty Airport for Venice. As I sit on the plane on my way to my first layover, I am trying to organize my thoughts about what I’m about to see. The curator of this year’s iteration is Okwui Enwezor. Born in Nigeria, living and working in New York and Munich, he’s written extensively about realigning the way we approach art, rethinking dominant Eurocentric art histories, and getting away from tunnel vision when it comes to culture, identity, and politics. I start reviewing an old October text of his from 2009 in which he tries to explain what “the contemporary” is today. His texts that I’m familiar with have dealt with various transnational and nationally specific African art histories, such as a book on the photo-documentation of Apartheid in South Africa, or another on contemporary African art since 1980. This one surprises me because he writes of his big interest in contemporary Chinese art.

My seatmate at first seemed pleasant—charming the stewardess—but he suddenly starts lambasting the row in front of us for “not knowing how to travel” when they don’t immediately put their window shade down at the start of a red-eye. The sun hasn’t even set yet. I quietly put my shade down and try to return focus to this huge show I’m about to see. The Venice Biennale’s worldwide fame affords it more influence than most other exhibitions; with it a curator can provide lesser known artists a mass audience and a stamp of legitimacy that will no doubt open doors for them in the future. Simultaneously, with its focus on national pavilions, it has the potential to offer alternative histories for audiences to consider beyond traditional perspectives. Something right up Enwezor’s alley, I would imagine.

Just because the Venice Biennale is famous, though, doesn’t mean it’s the most important. In fact, as I look at the roster of the 136 artists who Enwezor has chosen to include, there are 14 participants from New Orleans’ three Prospect biennials. That’s more than ten percent. Maybe Prospect was a direct influence on Enwezor’s search, maybe the curatorial strategies align, or maybe there are simply a tiny slice of artists who have infiltrated the international biennial circuit. Either way, the clear connection between the works in Prospect and the works in Venice this year makes me think about how the larger point isn’t to look to one show, or one curator, or one artist as the big takeaway, but rather to find my personal purpose or inspiration in this larger web.

I’ve been talking a lot about the curator here rather than the artists in the show. Some people worry that curators have become more valued than artists, that most people don’t want to search through countless artists’ ideas before they find something they like. They want curators who, like search engines, rank artists and artworks in a way that makes finding new ideas more manageable. I can understand this anxiety, it’s a problem when curators become powerful tastemakers with the authority to make or break an artist’s (or sometimes a whole community’s) livelihood based on arbitrary logic or formulas.

However, I don’t typically think of an exhibition as a display of taste as much as a visual essay. My priority isn’t to pick out the upcoming trends in the luxury goods market, but to find ideas that might help change the way I think about problems in the world.

I’ve long admired Enwezor’s writing, but I haven’t yet witnessed how he realizes these ideas beyond the page. I can’t wait to see the show.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

5 pm: Arrive in Venice, meet Ryan Dennis, my travel companion, at airport. It takes two water buses (the Alilaguna and the Vaporetto), and a 20-minute walk to reach our rented apartment. Once there, after 24 straight hours of travel, a quick hello to my other travel companions, then straight to bed.

Installation view of Isaac Julien, Das Kapital Oratorio, 2015, at the 56th Venice Biennale. Photo by Katherine Cohn.

Friday, May 8, 2015

8 am: Wake up, organize the day. Few of us have international cell phones, so we make advance plans on where to meet in case Wi-Fi is inaccessible.

10 am: Vaporetto water bus to the Giardini stop—too slow; tomorrow we walk.

11 am: Begin with the Central Pavilion, where Enwezor’s “All The World’s Future” is installed, in the Giardini. Above the grand entrance is Glenn Ligon’s A Small Band, a neon sculpture that reads “blues blood bruise.” Flanking the entryway columns is Oscar Murillo’s signaling devices now in bastard territory, enormous pieces of blackened fabric thickly textured with a waxy substance, hanging like flags with no pole or wind. With these two selections, I see Enwezor has opened the exhibition investigating issues of labor and racialization. It sets the frame for viewing the rest of the day.

We make our way to the Arena inside the Central Pavilion, a large section of the building in which a stage and seating has been built for ongoing film screenings and performances. We pass by one of the most disturbing videos I’ve ever seen by Christian Boltanski, L’Homme qui tousse (The Man Who Coughs), 1969. The film loops an image of an extremely ill man in the corner of what looks like an outdoor shed with a dirt floor, who seems to be coughing to death. When we arrive at the Arena, we find Isaac Julien’s performance Das Kapital Oratorio in progress. Two male actors on stage, each with a different accent, read Marx’s Das Kapital in turns and in English. I already know that I want to plan my day in the Giardini around the performances.

4:40 pm: After a day spent exploring national pavilions, make my way back to the Arena to watch Rashida Bumbray’s compelling performance of Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran’s Work Songs, a presentation featuring work songs sung in prisons, fields, and houses. The lyrics immediately evoke questions about American culture and history. I wonder, as I watch visitors of every nationality—who may or may not speak English—walk through the Arena, how much of this particular performance is being lost in translation, or how universal aesthetic languages can be. How much will I be able to grasp the messages and subtleties of the works yet to come for which I have no prior context or knowledge?

Saturday May 9, 2015

8 am: Start walking to the Arsenale, stopping along the way at various pavilions, 89 of which represent different countries. While some countries have built permanent buildings in the Giardini for their Biennale pavilions, most of the foreign participants have to make use of all kinds of temporary venues throughout the city. Finding them is like a scavenger hunt.

4:30 pm: Starting at the far end of the Arsenale now, I linger at outdoor installations that are curated by Enwezor and peek into a few of the dozens of pavilions installed all over the Arsenale’s maze-like fortress. I pass Xu Bing’s Phoenix project, two enormous and beautiful birds the size of ships made of recycled materials, hanging majestically above water in a huge boathouse at the end of the Arsenale. I visit the Argentinian Pavilion with sculptures by Juan Carlos Distéfano. I walk into Tania Bruguera’s performance in a room with no light and a floor covered in what feels like volcanic gravel and where, after my eyes start to adjust to the dark, I realize there are four naked performers barely moving and facing the walls, lit only by the glow of a small television screening news broadcasts at the far end of the room.

6 pm: Return home to organize notes and get ready for dinner. As I review the day, I realize I have missed an entire section of Enwezor’s exhibition. There is a hallway near the “Invisible Borders” installation that leads into an additional wing that I missed. Must return.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

8 am: Spend the day working on assignments separate from the Biennale.

Monday, May 11, 2015

2 pm: In what looks like a small, ancient storage unit with a row of brick stalls, we find several film installations, including Coco Fusco’s The Confession, a visual essay centered around the Cuban counter-revolutionary Heberto Padilla, and the Abounaddara collective’s Syria: Snapshots of History in the Making, video work that they call “emergency cinema” screening civilian journalist and documentary clips of the lived experiences of people of Syria.

2:45 pm: In another small building, we find Mounira Al Solh’s À la santé des allies, an installation that addresses, according to the catalogue, the artist’s “maternal and paternal ancestor’s experiences in Lebanon and Syria during WWI and the Nasserite and pan-Arab revolutionary movements of the 1950s and ’60s.” I am especially taken by the fact that her work focuses on the disenfranchisement of people with disabilities, presenting slogans such as “I believe someone with what they now call ID (Intellectual Disability) should become the President of the Republic.” The work seems both fantastical and dead serious.

4 pm: Everyone has been hearing about Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf, an actual mini-golf course wherein artists who “explore the histories and relationships—both real and imagined—between work, leisure, colonialism, tourism, information and economics” designed all the different courses. We are eager to find it and play among the sculpture, but when we get there, it’s closed.

4:30 pm: Some of the group takes a meal break while I head off with Felicia to visit some of the pavilions we missed at the Giardini.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

12 pm: My travel companions have all left and I walk the Giardini alone. This time, I buy the short guide and brush up on the background I’m missing when looking at unfamiliar works. I spend more time with several of the films I’d viewed earlier in the week, and try to stop into the Arena to catch other, various film screenings. I watch the entirety of Wangechi Mutu’s film The End of Carrying All, a seamlessly installed three-channel video eloquently portraying the metaphorical and material baggage carried throughout time and across landscapes by a black female form. The goal, at this point, is to feel more acquainted with the details and material presence of the works I previously rushed past, so that I can think more about them after I leave.

Installation view of Maria Eichorn, Canvas/Brush/Painting, 1992-2015, at the 56th Venice Biennale. Photo by Katherine Cohn.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

10 am: Revisit the Arsenale from start to finish, this time with the short guide in hand to inform me about all works that are unknown to me. I read up on Chris Marker’s incredible history, spending time with his photographs. I can’t decide whether I like Maria Eichhorn’s Canvas/Brush/Painting. Eichhorn has set up painting materials in the Arsenale, and the project’s realization relies on visitors using the materials to make paintings each day until the exhibition closes. It reminds me of Oscar Murillo’s collection of canvases drawn on by children around the world (also in the Arsenale) because both projects introduce individuals other than the artist who create the artwork, and in both cases it is an unusual, almost factory-like format. Both artists achieved their works through the voluntary participation of others. I wonder about some of the details of the setup for Murillo’s project, and where the line may blur between enthusiastic volunteer work and unpaid labor.

3 pm: Stop for a last few minutes in the Arsenale before heading back to New York tomorrow. The Propeller Group’s The AK-47 vs. The M16 is pretty spectacular. The eponymous guns were fired at each other into a gel block where the bullets of both collided, somehow capturing the aesthetics of violence.

Adrian Piper’s The Probable Trust Registry asks visitors to choose and agree to one of three social or personal contracts. (One reads “I will always be too expensive to buy.”)

Selections from Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick’s photo-documentation of prisoners at the Angola prison farm serve as a reminder of the human reality of the abstract concepts of labor that many of the artists in Biennale reference. It’s an important note to leave on.