The Currency of Place: Felicia Mings’ Venice Diary

Read excerpts from curator Felicia Mings’ travelogue during her trip to the Venice Biennale.

Installation view of a work by Adam Pendleton at the Belgian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. 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.

Sunday, May 4, 2015

3:30 pm: I’ve never seen Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. I keep putting it off for fear that it will elicit the same anger and desire to self-segregate that I had when reading Alex Haley’s Roots. It seems like something to watch when you have hours to process it alone, free from work and people.

I’m sitting on an eight-hour flight to Venice, Italy, to attend the preview of the 56th Venice Biennale. I’m attending the first Biennale to have an African Artistic Director: Okwui Enwezor. The privilege of being on my way to Venice sits in sharp contrast to current protests, the death of Freddie Gray and the constant devaluing of black lives. Tapping the screen embedded in the chair in front of me I scroll through the entire list of available films twice before settling on 12 Years a Slave.

I squirm, obscure the screen with my outstretched hand, and tears well in my eyes. In slightly broken English the middle-aged Italian woman to my left says, “Why are you watching this? Don’t watch this.” I don’t know how to respond. This film doesn’t diminish or change this artistic pilgrimage I’m on. The film doesn’t further connect me to on-the-ground communities that are advocating for change. I’m not sure what watching this film does, but I tell I her that I have to finish.

Monday, May 5, 2015

10:30 am: I roll my luggage down the narrow streets of Venice and find my way to our rented apartment at Campiello Mosca. With hours to kill until I can get my hands on the keys, I decide to find food and explore.

I wander a little too far and finding my way back to our apartment proves difficult. It all looks the same to me—bridges, gondolas, piazzas, and quaint restaurants with people sipping wine on patios are everywhere. It’s surreal, sort of like being lost in an idyllic postcard image.

I have been here less than half a day and I’m already seeing familiar faces. Lost, I turn a corner and run into Franklin Sirmans with his wife. Franklin curated “Prospect 3: Notes for Now,” which was the first large-scale, contemporary art exhibition that I attended. Although it was international in scope, many of the artists’ works that I saw engaged traditions and histories that are particular to New Orleans. I know that the Venice Biennale won’t have as focused attention on its site and community, but with this as my only frame of reference, I’m not sure what to expect.

Tuesday, May 6, 2015

There are six of us staying together but I was the first to arrive. Charles Campbell, an artist and curator based in Kingston, Jamaica, and La Keisha Leek, a Chicago-based independent curator, came in at different times last night. I’m grateful to have them with me. My phone has decided to be selective about when and if it will display maps, call, and text. Luckily Charles’ phone is reliable; his GPS leads our 45-minute morning walk from our apartment to the Arsenale.

10 am: After scanning my ticket I stand for a few minutes gazing at the title wall: “All the World’s Futures.” The introductory text encouraged me to think about the exhibition through three intersecting filtersLa Keisha Leekwhat it calls “Garden of Disorder,” “Liveness: On Epic Duration,” and “Reading Capital.” I enter a dark room lit primarily by the rotation of fluorescent blue, pink, and green neon-tubed words like “PAIN,” “DOESN’T KNOW,” “DEATH,” and “HUMAN NATURE.” These neon signs by Bruce Nauman are paired with an equally playful and dark work by French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed titled Nymphéas. Abdessemed’s knife sculptures are scattered throughout the room. Knives are clustered together, their tips angled into the floor with long blades and handles extending outward like flower petals.

The dystopic feel of the first room continues in the spaces that follow due to works like Philippe Parreno’s Flickering Lights and Melvin Edwards’ Lynch Fragments—metal blades, claws, pitch forks, and chains melded together into small menacing sculptures.

Wednesday, May 7, 2015

9:30 am: This morning, walking into the Giardini, Thelma Golden is standing at the entrance beneath Glenn Ligon’s neon sign reading “blues blood bruise” and just in front of Oscar Murillo’s draped row of large, black canvas flags. She is styling in a one-piece, green jumper alongside Enwezor who looks to be in a finely made, black, tailored suit. I want to talk to them but I don’t want to be a groupie.

I hurry my way through the beginning of the Giardini. The crowds are thick and the small side rooms of work and corridors don’t allow for prolonged looking with so many people bustling through. I’m happy to stumble upon Rikrit Tiravanija’s Demonstration Drawings, 200 graphite images depicting mass lineups of prisoners. In discussion with a friend a little later I come to learn that Tiravanija hosts gatherings for the public and it’s this audience that actually creates the drawings.

Installation view of Steve McQueen, Ashes, 2014, at the 56th Venice Biennale. Photo by Katherine Cohn.

Thursday, May 8, 2015

2:10 pm: Steve McQueen returns. I spend nearly 45-minutes watching his short, two-channel video titled Ashes. Each side of the video can’t be more than 12 minutes, but I just can’t leave. The rich scrape of concrete being smoothed, the images of two older men laboring with their hands to make a tombstone, the sound of the ocean, the rhythm and cadence of Grenadian speech, all draw me in. There are only a few minutes of dialogue to inform me that the tombstone being created is for Ashes, a young man who was murdered over finding a bag of drugs on the beach.

Sometimes I hear the sound of waves crashing incongruously while I see cement being smoothed on screen. I watch the video loop at least twice before I venture around to the other side. The video on the reverse shows Ashes smiling in the sun, bobbing along the ocean on a small tangerine-orange boat. Footage of Ashes on the water seems to be without a distinctive narrative containing a beginning, middle, and end—just shots of him repeated.

I notice there’s consistently a larger crowd gathered around the screen that shows the building of Ashes’ tomb as opposed to the screen where he is alive. I wonder if it’s the repetition that warrants less of the viewers’ time, or if it’s something else.

Friday, May 9, 2015

11 am: I decide to travel through the Arsenale beginning at the back today, to see if it prompts me to pay more attention to works that I hadn’t noticed prior or possibly passed by due to fatigue. This ends up being a great idea. I had seen the video projection and photographs in “Invisible Borders: The Trans-African Project,” but somehow missed that there was another room. The second room contains three flat screens on the ground with video and photo essays, documenting mundane, hilarious, everyday moments and people that the artist collective encountered as they traveled from Lagos to Sarajevo to challenge stereotypical images of Africa and its histories.

Previously I had passed Barthélémy Toguo’s sculpture and print installation Urban Requiem. Today I realize that the piled wood sculptures are in the shape of human busts and that the sculptures themselves are the stamps that have produced the prints on the wall that read: “PLUS JAMAIS, HANDS UP DON’T SHOOT, FERGUSON IS EVERYWHERE,” and so much more.

On this day I also spend a significant amount of time looking at Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick’s photographs of inmates at the Angola Prison in Louisiana. The black-and-white images, part of a larger series titled Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex that was on view at Prospect.3, show black men sitting behind bars and working in the fields of the prison. They look as if they could be documenting life from hundreds of years ago, but instead are images that were captured in the 1980s. South African artist Joachim Schönfeldt’s Guilds and Unions project made up of a series of drawings and video depicting factory spaces, machinery, and laborers sits across from Calhoun and McCormick’s work. The critique of labor is strong in this display, but I preferred the installation in New Orleans. There Calhoun and McCormick’s photography series was confined to one room in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which forced the viewer to walk into and be surrounded by the series.

Installation view of Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, Slavery, the Prison Industrial Complex at the 56th Venice Biennale. Photo by Katherine Cohn.

Saturday, May 10, 2015

3:30 pm: I’m surprised by the focused attention given to black experiences and histories of colonization within some of the world pavilions. Curator Katerina Gregos and artist Vincent Meessen represent Belgium and have invited ten international artists to exhibit . In some form or another all of the artists reveal aspects of Belgium’s colonial history or African life after independence. Hanging from the doorway of the pavilion is a Black Lives Matter flag.

A large panoramic film projection of Halka, a Polish opera performed outdoors in Cazale, Haiti, occupies the main space of the Polish Pavilion. It’s a refreshing role reversal to see an all-white cast performing to a predominately black audience, but it’s the history that the project brings to light that is most interesting. Polish soldiers sent by Napoleon in 1802 and 1803 to quell the Haitian rebellion ended up uniting with the Haitians. Haiti achieved independence in 1804 and these soldiers were granted legal status, primarily settling in Cazale where some of their descendants still have Polish last names.

Sunday, May 11, 2015

Apparently there is a large outdoor aspect to the Giardini that my whole group somehow missed. I’m loving the artwork, but was really planning on spending the afternoon drinking a spritz and eating seafood on a beach in Lido. It feels a bit ridiculous to be at the Biennale for an entire week and not see all of the sites. No one else in my group seems eager to go to the beach, so more art it is. The intricacy of Sarah Sze’s artwork and the fact that this entire section of the Giardini is outdoors makes the venture worthwhile.

Monday, May 12, 2015

12 pm: Sitting in the airport waiting for my flight to Chicago via Heathrow, I’m feeling pretty fortunate to have been able to attend the Biennale. I’m also considering what I might do differently in the future:

  • Previews are largely for those that are well connected. Not only are certain parties hard to get into if you aren’t in the know, but even artist lectures are sometimes closed to the general public.
  • Great walking shoes and GPS are a must.
  • Spend time researching exhibiting artists prior to arriving.

I’m not sure if there is a wrong way to experience a biennale, but I think I was pretty successful. I need some distance to process all that I’ve seen, so for now: “Ciao, Venice!”