Adrian Piper and El Anatsui Win Major Awards at the Venice Biennale
Adrian Piper and El Anatsui received the Golden Lion, the major award of the Venice Biennale’s All The World's Futures art exhibition on May 9, 2015. Among the jurors for awards was Naomi Beckwith, the former Studio Museum in Harlem curator who is now a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
In addition to the pronounced African Diaspora presence at the international festival's awards program, All The World's Futures is helping to make a more humane future with awards for art projects addressing genocide and brutal working conditions in Asia.
Biennale chair Paolo Baratta and Okwui Enwezor, director of the All The World's Futures exhibition, presided at the awards ceremony. In his opening remarks, Enwezor said that “there is no strategy, no preparation or rule book with which one arrives as a curator” at the Venice Bienale. “It’s a mystery. When that call comes what’s clear is the essential role of art in every society. The spirit of rebellion to change our perceptions and open up new horizons is one that cannot be calculated.”
Organizing the exhibition was “a mammoth task,” Enwezor said and noted that the exhibition is “riddled with contradictions and dualities.” His challenge was to face the “present that is unruly, unbounded and unbuilt with so many forces, each seeking a way to be heard. That’s why All The World’s Futures is not an exhibition about singularity. It’s an exhibition not only of plurality but of multiplicity.”
Formally educated in political science, not an arts discipline, Enwezor is an art theorist whose aesthetic philosophy is informed by political philosophy. All The World’s Futures “can be only be understood from Sergei Eisenstein’s notion of dialectical montage,” he said. “That is to say to comprehend the exhibition one must approach it through thousands of little details that constitute the world of ideas that (not only) govern our sense of discovery but also govern our sense of risk.” (Early Russian filmmaker Eisenstein believed that splicing disparate, not related, scenes together heightens the emotional impact of film.) Enwezor's thoughtful remarks were delivered from memory.
Adrian Piper’s life and work have centered on connections between art and philosophy (her PhD is in the latter discipline) and have involved “a great sense of risk,” as Enwezor would say. A first generation conceptual artist, Adrian Piper intensified her African American identity and obliterated her middle class persona by donning an Afro wig and posing as a badass dude with shades, mustache and a cigarette dangling from “his” mouth. The impersonation took place in her 1972-75 “Mythic Being” series of photos of "him" with cartoon speech bubbles saying things like "I embody everything you hate and fear" and street performances.
Adrian Piper continued to make waves through her career including a filing a lawsuit against Wellesley College when she was terminated from her tenured position after a more than 10-year conflict over her contract, and in 2013 when she demanded that a film of her Mythic Being performance be pulled from the groundbreaking Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art survey organized by Valerie Cassel Oliver. Piper didn’t want her work represented in the show because she feels that the all-black artist exhibition further marginalizes the artists. Instead, she believes that black artists advance when their work is displayed with relevant works by other artists.
Piper received the Golden Lion for best artist in the international exhibition. Piper’s Biennale’s installation, The Probable Trust Registry — with its large golden counters and signs — looks like the entryway to paradise where, for admission, souls must sign contracts agreeing to these rules: “I will mean everything I say,” “I will do everything I say I will do,” and “I will always be too expensive to buy.” The work can be seen here in another installation.
El Anatsui received the Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement. In his presentation of the award, Enwezor said that El Anatsui is “perhaps the most significant artist working on the continent today.” He commended the artist's great contribution to the recognition of African artists internationally and for his influence on two generations of artists over a 45-year career as artist, mentor and teacher.
In accepting the award, El Anatsui stated that he's 71 (which differs from the public record of his birth year: 1945). The artist joked that when his colleagues heard about his Golden Lion life time achievement award, they said that it signals that “your time is numbered.” However one crony saw the bright side: gold does not rust so neither will Anatui’s lion hunting skills.
Other awards were conferred by international jurors which included Naomi Beckwith, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Naomi Beckwith presented a Special Mention award to a representative of Harun Farocki, the German documentary filmmaker who died in 2014.
Other awardees included Susanne Ghez, who retired from the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society in 2013, after curating more that 160 exhibitions. Ghez received a Special Golden Lion for Services to the Arts for her pioneering role in giving young artists such as Kara Walker their first museum exhibition, vaunting the Renaissance society to being “one of the most original and ambitious contemporary art museums in the U.S.” and for her “total commitment to the vision of the artist.” In accepting her award, Ghez recalled first meeting Enwezor about 20 years ago at the Johannesburg biennial and noted that he "changed (her) life by helping her understand "the enormous role that this work we do plays in society."
The Silver Lion for a promising young artist went to Im Heung-Soon, who is represented in the international exhibition by Factory Complex, a video work on the adverse working conditions of women across Asia.
The Golden Lion for Best National Participation went to Armenia pavilion organizers whose exhibition, Armenity, featured artists from the Armenian diaspora who, as decedents of survivors of the Armenian Genocide are building a transnational, reinvented Amenian culture from the remnants of a shattered identity.
In his introductory remarks, Enwezor thanked Venice Biennale chair Paolo Baratta for the “enormous privilege” being selected to direct the biennale which he described as "a beacon of emulation around the world."
Okwui Enwezor also thanked his “very good friend and colleague” architect David Adjaye for his design of “choreographed spaces” that create “the kind of hospitality that art requires in order to be experienced.” David Adjaye adapted a 16th-century ship-building warehouse in Venice to house a selection of works in the exhibition. Adjaye also designed the arena space for performance art, film projections and public discussion.
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