"A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
The State of Things
In May 2015, one hundred and twenty years after its first art exhibition, the International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia will unfold once again in the Giardini, the historical grounds where the first event took place in 1895. When that first exhibition was inaugurated there were no national pavilions. The only permanent exhibition building that existed at the time was the sepulchral structure of the Central Pavilion, with its neo-classical columns and towering winged victory perched atop the pediment. National pavilions would arrive twelve years later with the Belgian Pavilion in 1907, followed by several others in successive years to where it stands today at nearly ninety five pavilions. The expansion of the pavilions in the Giardini to thirty exhibition buildings designed in various architectural styles, and the overspill of those pavilions unable to secure a plot in the Giardini proper into different areas of the city and the Arsenale area, testify to the unquestionable allure of this most anachronistic of exhibition models dedicated to national representation. Adjacent to the bourgeoning national pavilions is the non-national international exhibition in the Giardini and Arsenale.
Since its first edition in 1895, the visual art exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia has existed at the confluence of many socio-political changes and radical historical ruptures across the fields of art, culture, politics, technology, and economics. Founded in 1893, the institution of la Biennale di Venezia arrived on the world stage at a significant historic period, at a point when forces of industrial modernity, capital, emergent technologies, urbanization, and colonial regimes were remaking the global map and rewriting the rules of sovereignty. Accompanying these developments were several mass movements: from workers’ to women’s movements; anti-colonial to civil rights movements, etc.
One hundred years after the first shots of the First World War were fired in 1914, and seventy-five years after the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the global landscape again lies shattered and in disarray, scarred by violent turmoil, panicked by specters of economic crisis and viral pandemonium, secessionist politics and a humanitarian catastrophe on the high seas, deserts, and borderlands, as immigrants, refugees, and desperate peoples seek refuge in seemingly calmer and prosperous lands. Everywhere one turns new crisis, uncertainty, and deepening insecurity across all regions of the world seem to leap into view.
Surveying these epic events from the vantage point of the current disquiet that pervades our time, one feels as if summoned by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus. Thanks to the philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin who bought the work in 1921, the painting has acquired a kind of cult status of clairvoyance beyond its actual representation. Benjamin saw in Klee’s picture what in fact, was not registered nor even painted in it. Instead he read Angelus Novus allegorically, seeing the picture with clear historical eyes, while facing another catastrophe unfolding in Europe at a time of immense crisis. By excavating the painting as the very reality unfolding before him, with the state of the world he knew being dismantled right before his very own eyes, Benjamin compels us to revision the representational capacity of art. His novel interpretation of the animated stick figure standing in the middle of Klee’s composition, with shocked expression in its eyes, as the “angel of history,” at whose feet the wreckage of modern destruction reaches new summits, remains a vivid image. If not necessarily for what the picture actually contains and the image it registers, but for the way Benjamin brought a focus to how the work of art can challenge us to see much further and beyond the prosaic appearance of things.
The ruptures that surround and abound around every corner of the global landscape today recall the evanescent debris of previous catastrophes piled at the feet of the angel of history in Angelus Novus. How can the current disquiet of our time be properly grasped, made comprehensible, examined, and articulated? Over the course of the last two centuries the radical changes – from industrial to post-industrial modernity; technological to digital modernity; mass migration to mass mobility, environmental disasters and genocidal conflicts, chaos and promise – have made fascinating subject matter for artists, writers, filmmakers, performers, composers, musicians, etc.
This situation is no less palpable today. It is with this recognition that in 2015, the 56th International Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia proposes All the World’s Futures a project devoted to a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things.