Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Picture), 2000, oil on canvas, 68 7/8 x 98 7/16".

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Picture), 2000, oil on canvas, 68 7/8 x 98 7/16".

the 2nd International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville

Various Venues

“HOW MIGHT ART take measure of the multiple mutinies and upheavals that currently beset global society? . . . How might art become integral rather than peripheral to the widespread challenge that affects not only the production of art but its reception as well, particularly in light of the deleterious effects of reactionary, conservative and fundamentalist politics on all world social formations today?” It is with these weighty and pressing questions that curator Okwui Enwezor begins his catalogue essay introducing the second Seville Biennial, titled “The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in Global Society.” “The unhomely” is a literal translation of Freud’s das Unheimliche, usually rendered as “the uncanny,” but here the term was projected onto the field of geopolitics as a means of reflecting the oftentimes violent tensions accompanying globalization—in particular, the growing divide between the economic and political interests of multinational corporations and disenfranchised multitudes. This situation is exacerbated, Enwezor argues, by governance based increasingly on secrecy and executive privilege, as well as by the weakening of liberal traditions such as civil rights, individual liberty, and the social state. Accurate and timely as his analysis may be, the real achievement of this exhibition was, in my view, in how a broadly international assembly of artists presented visually and conceptually compelling work that both advanced and complicated the terms of Enwezor’s argument. The gap between the curatorial framing and the artistic offerings was productive, as many works provocatively mingled both political and aesthetic engagements.

Given Enwezor’s interests, it came as no surprise that the biennial included a number of artists who engaged directly with the political realities of war, poverty, and environmental despoilment. The Iraqi photojournalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, for example—a deserter from Saddam Hussein’s army, who is now a reporter on the current debacle—presented striking images of both coalition forces and insurgents in action, suggesting an Iraq populated exclusively by militants. Also noteworthy were photographs portraying Nigerian hardship and improvised urbanism by the Lagos-based collective Depth of Field, and Simryn Gill’s images of the ruined and crumbling colonial architecture of the Malaysian peninsula (Standing Still, 2000–2003), both dramatizing their respective countries’ drastic underdevelopment.

More typical of the exhibition, however, were creative mediations that exceeded the documentary mode. Alfredo Jaar created connections to an earlier art of identity politics and multiculturalism with a redeployment of his poignant installation Geography=War, 1990/2006, which consists of a series of photograph-bearing light boxes hanging over liquid-filled oil drums; one image shows several people in hazmat protection suits investigating a Nigerian dump site, the implication being that the corporate expropriation of natural resources has ravaged the country’s landscape. In another gallery, the Bay Area political collective Retort showed their installation Afflicted Powers, 2006, which includes a video in which figures from Picasso’s Guernica are projected over scenes of Iraq burning. Recalling the notorious veiling of the reproduction of the painting in the United Nations building, at the behest of the Bush administration, during the run-up to the invasion, Retort here made Picasso’s depictions of the anguish and destruction caused by European fascism relate directly to the war in Iraq.

Installed in the adjacent gallery was a series of serene counterpoints to the exhibition’s more disturbing representations—Gerhard Richter’s silver-blue abstractions, each titled Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Picture), 1999/2000, which seemed to imply the ultimate impossibility of representing catastrophe while nevertheless expressing a relation to it. Such an interpretation was bolstered by the inclusion in the same gallery of Richter’s Mustangs, 2005, a photograph based on the artist’s 1964 painting of a squadron of military airplanes. As with Pamela Wilson-Ryckman’s gentle watercolors of Iraq disasters and Thomas Ruff’s stunning C-prints of enlarged JPEG images of war-torn landscapes downloaded from the Internet, aestheticization here became a political gesture, creating perverse visualizations that made political realities deeply unsettling through an explosive combination of pleasure and disgust.

Enwezor’s conception of the “unhomely” was frequently brought out in the nuanced play between straightforward accounts of shocking experience and the processing of its psychic effects. The resulting symptomatology of transcultural projections, anxieties, and desires—the “phantom scenes” of the exhibition’s subtitle—had particular purchase in relation to the concepts of intimacy, proximity, and neighborliness: the three categories of social relations Enwezor explored in some detail in his catalogue essay. As proximity to strangers has become hysterically feared, while the desire for authentic communities has grown, Enwezor argues, the values attached to these terms have shifted: Today they can also describe an invasive closeness and a controlled distance. Reflecting these sentiments, a number of works elaborated on the ever-more-specialized forms of “intimacy” being produced by architectures of containment and systems of surveillance. Liz Larner’s Reversed Perspective, Reflected (Scaffolding Model, Full Scale), 2006, for example, is a brutal structure resembling a sideways pyramid, whose apex offers an authoritative viewing point into the caged space within. In a humorous take, Andreas Slominski exhibited his signature traps made for various species—e.g., “little vermin,” “wood fowl,” and “red deer”—which imply an obsessive desire to incarcerate life in general. And Tony Labat’s vaguely sadistic Day Labor: Mapping the Outside (Fat Chance Bruce Nauman), 2006, consisted of footage from a private four-camera surveillance system directed from the window of his San Francisco studio onto migrant workers waiting curbside for employment.

While such pieces presented the world as a giant panopticon, Steve McQueen’s beautiful, disturbing film Charlotte, 2005, linked surveillance to bodily intrusion. Screened in luscious 16 mm and with deep magenta hues, it shows a human eye in extreme close-up as a finger probes the eyeball and its heavy lid. The film painfully relates the imagined horror of an impersonal physical search, conducted maddeningly without context or justification, even as it taps into a perverse voyeuristic fantasy. (The eye belongs to actress Charlotte Rampling, who gives the film its title.) Intimating that the body has become merely the debased object of the state’s manipulations, McQueen makes us confront troubling thoughts of the self’s powerlessness even over its own physicality. Charlotte is a kind of gloss on the condition of a person reduced to mere bodily existence, bringing to mind Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s concept of “bare life” in its imaging of the horror of the body at the mercy of the state, which is made particularly unsettling through the film’s unnatural tonality and extreme magnification.

The exhibition largely overlooked sexuality as a form of intimacy, presumably because the erotic—through which our corporeal being is potentially loosed from our identity—complicates the category of bare life. There was, however, a kind of physical pleasure in the exquisite structures made by French-Israeli artist Absalon in the years before his death in 1994—his “Cellules,” 1991–93. Resembling enlarged Constructivist sculptures painted pure white, they offer mirages of peaceful, protective spaces, even while their enclosures are large enough to accommodate human bodies and thereby intimate death’s unhomely dwelling, the coffin. The grouping of these works with James Casebere’s seductive photographs (such as Asylum, 1994, which renders us complicit voyeurs of institutional confinement) and with Toba Khedoori’s monumental paintings of minimalist grids and fenestrated surfaces represented the height of this biennial’s tendency to be gorgeously abstract but still disconcerting.

The town of Seville was addressed directly by very few projects (among them Bonvenon, 2006, René Green’s series of banners welcoming visitors in Esperanto, which were hung on buildings near the exhibition). This provoked the criticism that the biennial could have been held anywhere, but I would argue that, on the contrary, the exhibition gained resonance from its location, both from Seville’s geopolitics and from the buildings in which it took place. Seville is close to North Africa and has a large number of immigrants (which added poignancy not least to migration-themed works in the show by Ursula Biemann and Yto Barrada), and the biennial was held in the stunning converted Reales Atarazanas (Royal Shipyards) and the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, a former Carthusian monastery founded in 1399 and later expanded into a porcelain and tile factory; both buildings linked the show to successive historical economies—colonial, industrial, and cultural—that each played a role in creating the conditions of globalization today.

In fact, Enwezor’s refusal to parachute socially engaged artists into Seville or conscript local collectives to perform site-specific actions was a refreshing way of questioning the assumption that interacting with everyday life grants art political immediacy and authentic publics. Suggesting instead that the processes of globalization and their conflict-ridden entwinement with postcolonial realities are increasingly relevant everywhere, Enwezor politicized the art institution itself, using the biennial model as a vehicle for his critical investigations. In other words, this biennial turned away from the activist politics of the street to propose a subtler mode of engagement—one made possible by the exhibition’s institutional framework.

Activist models and collectivist strategies were featured only by means of the documentation of previous events, which meant that a certain objectification occurred. Two works in particular suffered by being uprooted from their contexts—Rainer Ganahl’s photographs of reading groups discussing the Martinique-born psychiatrist and anticolonialist intellectual Frantz Fanon during the protests against the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York and against the 2003 G8 summit in Évian, France (Reading Frantz Fanon, 2001–2006); and Thomas Hirschhorn’s RE, 2006, which reconstructed his Musée Précaire Albinet, built in 2004 in the Paris banlieue of Aubervilliers, and featured a four-part library organized by subject (“utopia,” “the other,” “precariousness,” and “art’s autonomy”) as well as duct-taped chairs set before videos playing lectures given at the original site. That said, a compromise of this kind is perhaps necessary, given the impossibility of restaging such live events to identical effect.

Furthering Enwezor’s ambition to make art integral to responding to the challenges and upheavals of contemporary reality, the Seville Biennial demonstrated how art could make a critical intervention within the institution itself, countering the common perception of the art world as disengaged from global conflicts. Rather than bringing about a contradictory, depoliticizing retreat into the institution, Enwezor succeeded in making the institution explode outward, creating a space of sustained contemplation and analysis, if not of direct action. The Seville Biennial showed that art could simultaneously encompass the political and the aesthetic, the postcolonial and the global: That was this exhibition’s amazing accomplishment.

T. J. Demos's The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp will be published next month by the MIT Press.