Collapses: The Venice Biennale and the End of History | Art Practical

Collapses: The Venice Biennale and the End of History

The 2019 Venice Biennale feels like the end of everything: the end of art tourism, the end of vacations, the end of the beach and the climate of pleasure. With bad news about the climate crisis worsening every day, the nationalistic turn of governments from the U.S. to Britain to Italy to India and Brazil, it’s unclear whether the liberal ideology that produces world-scale cultural events like the Biennale can hold much longer, or whether the economic or ecological structures of global tourism can continue to support it. The liberal democratic order of free markets and free will is undermined around the globe by violent nationalism and economic protectionism. The Biennale exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times, offers little but a hollow scream in opposition. The whole thing feels a bit like buyer’s remorse, a magnum opus from a lapsed believer in Francis Fukuyama’s promise that we’d reached the End of History.1

Arthur Jafa

Joint Italy-EU military vessel with helicopter, Piraeus Port, Greece, August 2019. Photo: Anuradha Vikram

Both the main exhibitions and the various national pavilions feature more women and artists of color this year than any previous. Diversity is manifest with respect to types of work, interests, materials, biographies, and ages of the artists on view. Curator Ralph Rugoff states that “[the artists’] work grows out of a practice of entertaining multiple perspectives: of holding in mind seemingly contradictory notions, and juggling diverse ways of making sense of the world.”2 Diversity and multiplicity appear here to be set up as counternarratives to universalism, the ideology that has historically governed the international contemporary art discourse. But is this in fact the case? Fukuyama says, “The spectacular abundance of advanced liberal economies and the infinitely diverse consumer culture made possible by them seem to both foster and preserve liberalism in the political sphere.” If, as Fukuyama suggests, there are  “fundamental ‘contradictions’ of human life that cannot be resolved in the context of modern liberalism, that would be resolvable by an alternative political-economic structure,”3 diversity is not one of those contradictions. Rather, pluralism reinforces the “common ideological heritage of mankind,”4 while fascism’s resurgence around the globe and the popular embrace of nationalist identity are more of a contradiction in light of the realities of international markets. This is the turn of events that market utopians like Fukuyama failed to anticipate.

Rugoff never comes off as a utopian, given his pervasive air of weary detachment. Rather, the exhibition transmits how it feels to watch the ascent of Donald Trump and the unfolding catastrophe of Brexit from the “all-knowing,” cool remove of the contemporary art insider—omniscient, yet impotent, and unable to divest from toxic habits. George Condo, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Christian Marclay, and Arthur Jafa channel an anxiety bordering on panic. Construction, shipping, air travel, commerce, monuments, the body, gender—all once fixed as concepts in the Western imagination, with clearly associated positive values, are now invoked by artists such as Yin Xiuzhen, Nicole Eisenman, Slavs and Tatars, and Martine Gutierrez as hazardous, unstable, and volatile. Nowhere is this instability more evident than in the work of Mari Katayama, a Japanese artist whose self-portraiture tableaus tease the boundary between agency and objectification. These artists, more than the comparably straightforward representation advanced by artists like Zanele Muholi, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, or Gauri Gill, capture the zeitgeist of not just the show but the present time. Our historical moment is monumentally catastrophic, and the usual serious response to extremism doesn’t seem to be working. Instead, the images range from abject to absurd.

astronaut

Indios antropófagos: A Butterfly Garden in the (Urban) Jungle. Peru Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019. Photo: Anuradha Vikram

Especially relevant are the artists who toy with the fetishization of Indigenous bodies and cultures for Western consumption. Within the main exhibition curated by Rugoff, Gutierrez situates her U.S.-born Latinx, trans body within a series of photographic landscapes, Body in Thrall, that challenge touristic notions of indigeneity, cultural authenticity, and romanticized poverty around non-white people. She occupies diverse personas, from a film noir femme fatale to the terrifying Aztec deity Tlazolteotl, “Eater of Filth,” always negotiating the high fashion aesthetics of desire with a subversive decolonial aggression. Similar themes and tactics appear in Indios antropófagos in the Peruvian Pavilion, curated by Gustavo Buntinx, in which historical artifacts from the Spanish colonial era and large mosaic tile works by Christian Bendayán depicting frolicking Indigenous youth come together in a scathing critique of cultural tourism. In the French Pavilion, curated by Martha Kirszenbaum, artist Laure Prouvost references the oceans and the sea life projected to die out by 2048, only 29 years into the future, with a number of glass animals seemingly cast into the sea floor, strewn across a landscape of refuse and discarded technologies.

Back in the real world, there’s no way to excise or sequester the beautiful parts into a future that can outlast the very real catastrophes happening now. The overwhelmingly urgent need for a complete lifestyle change played in my head over the week following my visit to the Biennale, as I recuperated from a difficult personal and professional year on a seven-day Greek Islands cruise with my young children, partner, and parents. Looking over the waters where thousands of migrants have drowned, from the top deck of a massive, yet outdated, luxury vessel, I considered how the looming climate crisis creates a condition of simultaneous enjoyment of the modern world that is all around us, and a mourning for its obvious and inevitable loss. Is this the end of curating? The traditional role of the curator as guardian of the world’s collected treasures seems as irrelevant as the contemporary job of mounting resource-heavy exhibitions for an international crowd of jet-setters. Conceptualism has begun to rot from the head, as when Rugoff controversially chose to include Christoph Büchel’s installation of a salvaged boat that, in 2015, sank in the Mediterranean with more than 800 people aboard. I reflected on this watery tomb, recommissioned as a tourist attraction, while looking out across Piraeus port. In the distance, a military troop (jointly operated by Italy and the European Union) performed exercises atop a warship in a city where anti-immigrant attacks are on the rise. In the seventeenth century, the Venetians gained and lost control of Athens in a rivalry with the Ottomans. Today, it seems the EU’s primary objective in the Mediterranean is to sever thousands of years of interconnection between these three regions. Two years ago, the regenerative promise of art as a universal cultural good was undermined when documenta 14 recreated the financial dynamics of German austerity policies in Athens, Greece afresh. Debts went unpaid, workers uncompensated, all in the name of “fiscal responsibility” that nearly shuttered the sixty-year-old event for good. What better outcome ought we to expect this year from an art event born out of universal nationalism?

Christine Wertheim

Halil Altindere, Space Refugee, 2016. May You Live in Interesting Times, Venice Biennale 2019. Photo: Anuradha Vikram

An explicitly utopian impulse is fugitive in May You Live in Interesting Times, but it manifests in the intersection of art, science, and technology. Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s Crochet Coral Reef raises awareness about preservation of the oceans through a crowdsourcing practice that combines mathematical learning with environmentalism and craft. Tavares Strachan’s meditation on African American astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., locates metaphysical discourse about the afterlife within a scientific conversation about space travel—where elsewhere Halil Altindere complicates this view with the tale of Syrian cosmonaut Muhammed Ahmed Faris and his persecution by the state. Ryoji Ikeda bathes us in cleansing white light and describes a massive, thunderous universe of data that takes breathtaking shape before our eyes. Hito Steyerl’s This is the Future is a post-internet pastorale in which computer vision is applied to the Venetian landscape to depict a state of perpetual, dreamlike futurity in which the present persistently refuses to resolve into view. The protagonist of Steyerl’s installation seeks out a garden that she had previously hidden in the future in order to protect it from the ravages of the present.

The song of the Lithuanian Pavilion Sun & Sea (Marina) still rings in my ears:

“When my body dies, I will remain,
In an empty planet without birds, animals and corals.
Yet with the press of a single button,
I will remake this world again”

The finale of Sun & Sea (Marina) details the 3D printing of facsimiles of species in widespread collapse, taking comfort in their simulated resurrection as one would in the cold rays of a dying sun.

Greek Islands

Sun & Sea (Marina), Lithuanian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019. Photo: Anuradha Vikram

The gentle tenor of the apocalyptic visions in Sun & Sea (Marina) perfectly encapsulates the feeling of living at the outside edge of the story of the human species on planet Earth, with the knowledge that history as we know it may well be about to end because our species is one of millions undergoing collapse. The emptiness of our endeavors is invoked by Shilpa Gupta, whose wildly swinging metal gate hammers an effigy of national borders into a gallery wall. Otobong Nkanga’s drawings in acrylic on crayon reference the mechanical, industrialized nature of exploitation in the 21st century. Unlike the bees, whose society is organized around abundance, we humans have engineered systems to maximize our suffering. If humankind can truly lay claim to a common ideological heritage, as Fukuyama once argued, we have only ourselves to blame for our impending end.

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Akinrinade on civil war: “Day my dancing partner was shot and my other escapes from death” | P.M. News

person

From left: Alabi Isama, Akinrinade, Adekunle, Godwin Alli, and Col Alimi Ogunkanmi during the civil war

Ademola Adegbamigbe 

General Alani Akinrinade, a Nigerian Army General, civil war hero and pro democracy fighter who, like many other kindred spirits, spent times at the barricades, has a lot to thank God for at 80. He still stands on his feet, breathing. In other words he, on many occasions, would have died but for luck or Providence or a combination of both.

One of such occasions was when, at the war front, the rank and file liked to let off tension when live bands were brought to play and soldiers were free to dance and make merry. That day, his dancing partner was hit by gun bullets and she died. Perhaps, Akinrinade was in the enemy’s cross hairs. He revealed this to TheNEWS in an interview in his Yakoyo country home recently.

TheNEWS cover interview with General Akinrinade

Dancing and merry making at the war front are are a global practice. Many soldiers like to enjoy every minute of their days, for who knows the next set that will end up in body bags? US Navy permits such on their aircraft carriers- those aquatic juggernauts that roam the oceans of the world, telling anyone who cares to listen that America has the capability to balance terror with terror. Russia and France know this happens on their war frigates, so also is the British Admiralty.

Akinrinade narrated what happened: “I was sitting on a sofa with one lady, there was music and I just told the woman, Let’s go and dance, but she wouldn’t answer me. At first, I thought, These civilians are so petrified. Unknown to me, a bullet came into the sitting room, hit her in the head and she died.”

Before then, he sat down with people when he and his men of the 3rd Marine Commando were going to capture Aba, talking about what next to do, because Biafran land mines were, as he put it, very pervasive, going off at every 100 meters. “We were just sitting down when a young soldier who was on the same parapet that we were sitting got shot and he went down. The bullet went to his helmet, but it was the concussion that knocked him down. The bullet did not really hit his head.”

General Akinrinade was also in the same room with another military brass hat, Ayo Ariyo, who had a rocking chair. “He was sitting in the chair. He was our classmate, but he was already a Sergeant in the Army by the time they recruited us. He sat in the chair and we were all sitting together. He just got up and wanted to go to the bathroom. As soon as he got up, he couldn’t have taken two steps away when a bullet hit where his head was on the chair. When he came back, we jokingly said, That bullet was meant for you, bloody idiot! We all laughed about it. That’s the nature of the work.” It could also have been aimed at Akinrinade.

Another anecdote he shared with the magazine is laughable and also shows the vulnerability of African mesmerism in the face of bullets. He narrated: “The only time I ever got hit was on my finger. People could get killed so easily. Felix Onifade was my senior, but over the time the war started, he lost seniority because we had exams and I overtook him. When they now posted him to work under me, he came, we spent the night in my house. We later joined a Navy ship to Bonny. We went out in the morning to show him his new command and then we sat in one trench and I was pointing out something to him. But a bullet hit him there and he died. 

“That was his first day. When we got the medics to take off his shirts, we found a small tortoise that was still alive under his chest. That diminished my belief in the potency of charms.”

Even after the war, when he returned to civvy street, fighting for democracy, he was a target. TheNEWS asked him:

Q: In January 1984, you were shot by some assassins at Opebi. Why did they want to kill you?
He replied: “I don’t know. I really don’t know. The hoodlums were trying to order me out of my car, but I refused. I said, What the hell is that? So they jumped into my car, took away my brief case and shot me. I don’t think they were assassins—they were hoodlums.”

Read more in the Preface and the marathon interview here.

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Incredible Fossils Shed Light On Mysterious Sharks That Lived 360 Million Years Ago

During the Devonian era, mysterious sharks with bizarre teeth and sinuous bodies swam the seas. Until now, we’ve only known about them from teeth and fin spines, but researchers have finally uncovered skeletal remains in Morocco, shedding light on what these strange toothy fishes were like.

Describing their finds in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers uncovered near-complete skeletal remains, including several skulls, from two different species belonging to the genus Phoebodus. Shark skeletons are notoriously tricky to stumble upon because they are made out of cartilage, not bone.

“It is hard to find shark skeletons of this completeness and quality because they are made out of cartilage,” first author Linda Frey, of the Palaeontologocial Institute and Museum at the University of Zurich, told IFLScience. “Cartilage is not that robust such as bone and therefore, it is less often preserved. For this reason, we were overwhelmed by making such a discovery.

“Although the shark Phoebodus was known from plenty of teeth material for decades, skeletons were completely absent before our recent discoveries.” Cartilaginous fish are known as Chondrichthyes and include sharks, skates, and rays.

The new remains were found in the Maïder region of Morocco, an area known for its Drotops trilobite fossils. Once a shallow sea, the sharks lived there during the Late Devonian, a period spanning 376 to 360 million years ago that preceded the Carboniferous period. Poor water circulation would have helped to preserve the sharks’ bodies by creating a low-oxygen environment.

One of the most notable features of this group of sharks hinted at by the remains is that they had anguilliform – or eel-like – bodies, in addition to a long jaw and nose. The physical characteristics of the genus suggest it is closely related to a species of elasmobranch called Thrinacodus gracia, discovered in limestone in Montana, that lived during the Carboniferous era.

Christian Klug
a) reconstruction of a Phoebodus shark b) reconstruction of T. gracia c) image of a frilled shark. Linda Frey and Christian Klug, Paläontologisches Institut und Museum, University of Zurich

The researchers note that Phoebodus is reminiscent of another shark, but less in terms of relatedness and more in terms of looks. The frilled shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus) is a living species of shark found in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A strange creature, it has an eel-like body and slightly horror-film-esque teeth arranged in neatly separated rows, each with three sharp spikes.

The bizarre frilled shark. 

Well-known sharks like the great white chomp up their prey, but frilled sharks use a different approach. Their unique sets of teeth allow them to grab onto prey and then swallow it whole, with inward-pointing gnashers preventing any unlucky fish that finds its way into the shark’s mouth from escaping.

CT scans of the new fossils suggest that Phoebodus may have fed in a similar way to frilled sharks as both their teeth and body shapes are remarkably similar. The team also thinks that Phoebodus’ feeding technique may share similarities with that of the alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula), one of the biggest freshwater fishes in North America, which has a long, flat, almost crocodilian snout that helps it grab fish that appear at its side.

first author
A rather sweet-looking alligator gar. Wikimedia Commons

New finds might tell us more about the physiology and behavior of ancient Phoebodus sharks, but for now, we have the most complete skeleton of one of these marine beasts ever uncovered, and that’s pretty awesome.

[H/T: NatGeo]

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The Aerosols of Earth

Image Credit: NASA/Joshua Stevens/Adam Voiland

[NASA, Yvette Smith] Take a deep breath. Even if the air looks clear, it is nearly certain that you will inhale millions of solid particles and liquid droplets. These ubiquitous specks of matter are known as aerosols, and they can be found in the air over oceans, deserts, mountains, forests, ice and every ecosystem in between.

If you have ever watched smoke billowing from a wildfire, ash erupting from a volcano or dust blowing in the wind, you have seen aerosols. Satellites like NASA’s Earth-observing satellites, Terra, Aqua, Aura and Suomi NPP, “see†them as well, though they offer a completely different perspective from hundreds of kilometers above Earth’s surface. A version of a NASA model called the Goddard Earth Observing System Forward Processing (GEOS FP) offers a similarly expansive view of the mishmash of particles that dance and swirl through the atmosphere.

The visualization above highlights GEOS FP model output for aerosols on August 23, 2018. On that day, huge plumes of smoke drifted over North America and Africa, three different tropical cyclones churned in the Pacific Ocean, and large clouds of dust blew over deserts in Africa and Asia. The storms are visible within giant swirls of sea salt aerosol (blue), which winds loft into the air as part of sea spray. Black carbon particles (red) are among the particles emitted by fires; vehicle and factory emissions are another common source. Particles the model classified as dust are shown in purple. The visualization includes a layer of night light data collected by the day-night band of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP that shows the locations of towns and cities.

via NASA

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