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Okwui Enwezor: Art world should shrink its footprint

Interview: Rainer TraubeMarch 11, 2015

One of the most influential names on the art scene, Okwui Enwezor is curating the Venice Biennale. He tells DW why Karl Marx is on deck, why words trump images, and why the art world's footprint is a few sizes too big.

Okwui Enwezor in Haus der Kunst in Munich, Copyright: Andreas Gebert/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: "All the World's Futures" is the theme of this year's Venice Biennale. What do you want to get out of this?

Okwui Enwezor: "All the World's Futures" is not so much a theme as it is a statement of intent in the sense that the exhibition comes at a particular moment of global history and I am pretty sure that every decade has had its trouble and difficulties.

I think we had two very terrible years since the last Biennale. I was reflecting on the state of things in the world and the way they appear to us and what we might do with the objects and images and the technologies that enable us to be part of the writing of history. I was fundamentally interested in the idea of residue. That's what all the features represent. There are three filters in the program of the exhibition. There is the "Garden of Disorder." There is "Capital: A Live Reading" by Karl Marx. And there is "Liveness: On Epic Duration," which is an attempt at working with the idea of how the space and time of the exhibition can go inside.

Do you think we need a lecture on Marxism to be better prepared for the future?

We are not interested in a lecture on Marxism. I'm not even necessarily trying to inject Marxism into the exhibition. I am interested in injecting the text "The Capital" into the exhibition. What I want is to bring in this text, which is highly controversial - but not the ideological use of Marx's work -, to read the text in a secular tone that requires time, and to test whether we can treat this as our contemporary Oratorio.

You have often mentioned the power of the spoken and especially the written word. That seems to be a theme as well. Everyone is talking about the power of the image in our times. Are you defying this?

It seems so. But I wanted to begin with very clear things and that, for me, is to return to a pre-visual dimension of human experience: Words. What they mean and signify; how they are annunciated; how they are spoken; how they are cited.

It is an entry point into the show that is really about human subjectivity - the capacity to say it in the way in which I say it is an embodiment of resistance. That is why this strand of this exhibition is so precise that I wanted to foreground it in the most immediate sense that one can understand the exhibition.

DW Rainer Traube with Okwui Enwezor Biennale at Haus der Kunst in Munich, Copyright: DW/R. Traube
DW's Rainer Traube spoke with Okwui Enwezor at Haus der Kunst in Munich, which Enwezor directsImage: DW/R. Traube

You mentioned "the current state of things." We all want to get that out of an art show like the Biennale. But is it still realistic in times of continuous upheaval in the world to try to find meaning in one single art show?

I am not interested in the Hegelian dialectic. I'm not interested in a kind of synthesis which summarizes everything. I don't even think it's possible to work with encapsulation to understand the current contemporary art today.

That is why there is the notion of residue. It is one way of reflecting and thinking about the present. The phrase is essential for one to think historically in the present. What does that mean? It means that we need to step back and look at the past to be able to look into the future, and not the other way around. I'm not interested in a retrospective view.

I'm not so sure that my exhibition has to summarize what is currently going on, but I want my exhibition to participate in the description of what is going on.

Tell us a little bit about your work as the curator. How do you get in contact with the artists?

You have colleagues, people you send notes to, you give them an idea of your projects and where you want to get to. Sometimes they contribute. You receive so many different things: Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.

But you also travel. I made a very strong effort to visit a number of places around the world like Nigeria, South Africa, Argentina, China, Japan, and Korea, and so on. I visited these places to discover for myself the experience of the various art worlds. From there I could take decisions to bring things together. An exhibition like Venice requires two things: careful calibration and the process of due speed to accomplish when very little time is left to do it.

There has been incredible expansion of the art world within the last 20 years. Is the art market interfering in what you do?

No, there is no interference. I would say the age of the Biennale was in the 90s. But the age of the Biennales is over. We are now in the age of the art fairs and auction houses. We are now in a time where we are intimate with the name of the auctioneer. That is kind of amazing that you know the name of the auctioneer!

Nevertheless, you've said that the art market is not the biggest challenge for the art world. Why is that?

Okwui Enwezor in Venice, Copyright:
Venice hosts the Biennale from May through NovemberImage: picture alliance/ROPI/M. Toniolo

Simply because, if you really think about it, why would the art market be seen as the biggest challenge? I think the biggest challenge that we face is funding for institutions. We are really at a very critical moment. Institutions are so box office driven that we can't fail to appeal to the public. And this populism, speaking for the non-profit sector, is really challenging.

I think it is really important to recognize the service the galleries provide. To show work which you believe in, but not only because you want to sell it, is very courageous. I don't want to discourage galleries from taking risks because we need these risks. It is also part of our own disciplinary ecology. Galleries have a role to play; markets have a role to play. It is the degree by which they play this role that we have to interrogate.

It's been said that the 21st century belongs to the global South - whatever the global south is. Did that matter to you in your choice of artists?

No. One of the things that have been a guide in aspects of my thinking is that I have never been into prognosis. I am always very interested in diagnosis. How can it belong to the global South? I think we can see that we are in a moment of deep tension between cultures. We can see this with Charlie Hebdo in Paris and Pegida in Germany, the Tea Party in the United States, ISIS in the Middle East, with Boko Haram in Nigeria, and so on. It is such an incredible turmoil. I'm not so sure that we are in a moment where we can predict where the world is going. So I don't know if the 21st century is from the global South.

The global South has always been part of the equation. I come from there and it is kind of a political construct.

Curating the Biennale is a sort of knighthood in the art world. What could come next for you?

The challenge is really here at the moment at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. What we see is this madness of expansion, the expansion of museums. People are not thinking ecologically. Can we do more with less, can we do better shows with less space? Can we show more collections without necessarily blowing the budget of the institution? There is so much money put into infrastructure and so little money into software. We are trying to create a balance here in the Haus der Kunst. I am feeling that I have to act intuitively, which means to reduce the space of exhibitions and reduce our exhibition footprint in order to better use the space intelligently.