What remains is tomorrow, South African Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

The South African Pavilion in Venice Biennale 2015 is themed “What remains is tomorrow”, taking cue from the International Art Exhibition at the 56th Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, Rose and Till present an array of works by artists who are deeply invested in local iterations of power, freedom, and civil liberty. The curators wish not only to represent recent, important work from South Africa, but also to set in motion a complex and dynamic debate about the relationship between the contemporary moment and the narratives of the past.

With this in mind, they have sought ways of inserting new works into a series of historic moments without, in any way, making those moments explicit or suggesting a crass opposition to or identification with history. Rather, they see—and seek to represent—the past as an alluvial undertow in South Africa’s fractured and multivocal present, a stream of dreams, desires, and memories that frequently boil to the surface in ways both useful and destructive.

The contemporary works on the exhibition pose a series of counter moves. Some are little interested in history and focus instead on ruptures in the present. Some embed themselves in regurgitated narratives of liberation and national identity with the view to unsettling the certainties of these narratives. Some, through their representation of the fraught particularities and singularities of individual lives, interrogate the grand myths of democracy and nation building. Some are subtle meditations on loss or escape or hope; others, strident refusals of the normative.

The show takes two recent historical points of departure – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and recent xenophobic attacks – with the curators aiming to “unsettle the useless mythologies of democracy, ubuntu and nationalism”.

Included in the show is Warrick Sony’s take on the Marikana massacre. Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Soft Vengeance, a red cast of the arms and hands of the Jan van Riebeeck statue in Adderley Street is a pointed take on the #RhodesMustFall movement. (I am reminded of one commentator’s suggestion that the South African pavilion contain only the decommissioned Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town.)

Gerald Machona’s People from Far Away, which uses signifiers of aliens and space explorers to deal with the difficulties of coming to South Africa as a Zimbabwean, and Mohau Modisakeng’s Inzilo, a video in which the artist engages in a Zulu morning ritual, both situate the artists’ own bodies within a complex set of sociopolitical and aesthetic intersections.

There is no live work or performance, no intervention, not even any real installation work, there seems to be no attempt towards any other kind of curatorial strategy.

Jeremy Rose formed Mashabane Rose Associates cc (MRA) in 1996 with Phil Mashabane. Rose has been principal architect on several museum, heritage, and public art projects, including the Mandela Capture Site Museum, the Mandela Cell sculpture, Freedom Park Museum, Nelson Mandela – ‘Prisoner to President’, Paris, Goodman Gallery Cape, the Mandela House Visitors’ Centre, the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, the Apartheid Museum, Liliesleaf Liberation Centre, Rivonia, the Origins Centre Wits University, the Mandela Capture Site public sculpture (with artist Marco Cianfanelli), Moving into Dance, Newtown, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, and the University of Johannesburg Arts Centre.

MRA was the 26th Sophia Grey Memorial Laureate, was shortlisted for the World Architecture Festival (Barcelona) culture category for Freedom Park Museum, and won commendation from the World Architecture Festival (Barcelona) for the Freedom Park Memorial. MRA won the Institute of South African Architects Award of Merit for Liliesleaf Liberation Centre, the Pretoria Institute of Architects Award of Merit for Freedom Park, the Cube Award for Public Space for the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, the Institute of South African Architects Award of Excellence for the Apartheid Museum and the Grand Prix Loerie Award for the Apartheid Museum.

Christopher Till began his career as Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe before serving as Director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery from 1983 to 1991. As Director of Culture for the City of Johannesburg, he established the city’s first cultural office and helped with the formation of arts and culture policy. He was responsible for establishing the Johannesburg Biennale in 1985 and the Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival in 1992, and for the re-building of the Civic Theatre (now Joburg Theatre). He was a seminal roleplayer in the redevelopment of the Newtown Cultural Precinct. He is a founding board member of the International Council of Museums Fine Art Committee and Chairman of the Cape Town Triennial Organising Committee. He is Director of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and the Gold of Africa Museum in Cape Town. Till is currently directing the planning and development of the new Javett Art Gallery and Museum at the University of Pretoria.

The Exhibition
What remains is tomorrow … the past of slow violence is never past … At the time of writing this introduction, a photograph detonated in our collective consciousness. On the front page of the South African Sunday Times, a Mozambican man called Emmanuel Sithole was shown being stabbed to death while people looked on. Those of us—not only in South Africa, but all over the world—fortunate enough to be in the comfort of our homes as we flicked open the newspaper, set aside our coffee cups, and looked again at this horrific image.

This photograph, and the events of which it was only one part, was a deadly and unwished-for representation of the central and underpinning idea of this exhibition, that the past has come back to haunt us, that in fact the past is by no means gone, and if we are to understand our contemporary moment, and plot our future so that it is more equitable, just and humane than the present, we must grapple once more with our history.

The title of our exhibition, What remains is tomorrow, is therefore neither a resigned acceptance of the mixed blessings of that history, nor a utopian gesture. Instead it conveys a desire to weigh the present against what has preceded it and to cast ahead to the possibility of alternative ways of being in the world, and of making the world. In this respect we have taken our cue from Okwui Enwezor’s title for the 56th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, and sought to give it a particular interpretation—in light of what we know. And what we know best—what touches our lives most directly—is what is unfolding in our country through a series of violent and explosive events.

But these localised upheavals are embedded in a global matrix of power and capital, apart from which we cannot begin to understand ourselves and our social, political and cultural situation. Indeed, if we read our own predicaments and achievements as the products and expressions of a narrow, idiosyncratic nationalism for which we alone are responsible, we will sink.

Power and capital are multivalent, and present in an array of guises. They connect us to a conglomeration of relations that not only emerge from the past (from imperialism and colonialism) but also stand somewhat apart from history’s grand narratives that give birth to the notions of nation and state. Power and capital make use of the nation state, but they do not believe in it. They believe only in ownership and profit and they employ the trappings of the state to extend these privileges to a few.

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The state, on the other hand, believes in itself, and perpetuates its own mythology of the nation as a coherent entity, logically explained by history, to which the citizens must declare their allegiance and from which others are excluded. This is a little-examined aspect not of the xenophobia that is erupting in South Africa at present, but of the analytical discourse surrounding that phenomenon.

So although there has been a vociferous and outraged reaction—a resounding condemnation of acts of violence against people who have come from other countries in order to make for themselves a meaningful and dignified life—a blind spot remains in the assessments. Xenophobia is attributed to unemployment and poverty, and the lack of delivery of basic services to communities is decried, but surfacing repeatedly in the discourse is the criticism of the government’s failure to police our ever more porous borders.

This imperative to police is fed by the deeply held belief that some are ‘naturally’ inside and some are outside. Certainly, decent, law-abiding people condemn the persecution of those who are outside, but don’t imagine that they can undo—or question— what is assumed to be their fundamental lack of belonging.

The artists whose works are presented here venture into this terrain. They take issue with deepseated assumptions about who is in and who is out. They have a sense that there is a narrative of belonging that must be interrogated. Without exception, while they are no doubt as susceptible as the rest of us to the spectacle of violence, they are also cognisant that beneath spectacle are insidious, ‘slower’ forms of violence that are eating us from the inside out.

In curating What remains is tomorrow, however, we have not wanted simply to present works that hold up a mirror to our society, or offer a litany of wrongs and injustices in order to give an international audience a sense of the local zeitgeist. The work that we have engaged in over the past several decades, individually and together, has made us deeply suspicious of lists of wrongdoing or lists of achievements. Such things give us only the illusion of having done something. We have both worked in fields—the public sector, museum design and curatorship, architectural practice—that have obliged us on occasion to inhabit the past. Having done so has made us wary of nostalgia, and of the perils of a mythologising, museological approach to history. But even so, we have not abandoned the idea that the past is an important reference, the key to knowing what to do, even if, as humans, we seem unable to learn from our mistakes. We are not, however, historians. Rather, we think about the world in visual and bodily terms.

Visual in the sense that we spend a great deal of time contemplating how things look, and bodily in the sense that much of our work involves considering how human beings move through, and engage with, space, built environments and landscape. So in order to create something out of the potential cacophony of a group of individual works of art placed together in a single, enclosed space, we have organised the exhibition not so much around a theme as around a moment, signalled by a small, darkened, cell of a room at one end of the exhibition around which the other works are, more or less, gathered.

This room is a direct reference to the Rivonia Treason Trial of 1963–4. A video work in close proximity to it connects the trial to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that began thirty-two years later as an attempt at restorative justice. These two moments are presented here as undeniably connected, but not in order to suggest that one fulfils the other. Certainly the viewer is invited to revisit these past events, but the presence of the other works permits no nostalgia, no sense of fulfilment.

The material of these two installations is sourced from and commissioned, respectively, by the Apartheid Museum, the one institution in South Africa whose relationship to the past—the bad past—is undisputed and necessary. In the context of the exhibition, however, these museum artefacts are now, inevitably, aestheticised. This is a deliberate manouevre since what we want to do, precisely, is look at the past through an aesthetic lens. Not in order, crassly, to beautify it, but because we have given ourselves the liberty to apply different rules to it than those that might apply in the context of a museum.

And so we have uncoupled from their original context, and from their museum home, two fragments of history—a trial and a truth commission—in order to revisit that history via a different set of pathways than the ones usually open to us. We have engaged a group of artists to help us enact this process (and in doing so have perpetrated the inevitable violence on their work that a group exhibition cannot escape).

In particular, we have imagined that the looped recording of the disembodied voice of a man speaking in quiet but impassioned defence of the struggle to overturn white domination, will sound new. That the very textures not only of the voice, but of the defunct technology that captured its cadences, will make us hear something that we have not heard before, or have not heard in a very long time. We have imagined that the sheer repetition of the voice in a darkened space will not only move those who hear it, but will unsettle the useless mythologies of democracy, ubuntu and nationalism.

Venice Biennale 2015
The 2015 Art Biennale closes a sort of trilogy that began with the exhibition curated by Bice Curiger in 2011, Illuminations, and continued with the Encyclopedic Palace of Massimiliano Gioni (2013). With All The World’s Futures, La Biennale continues its research on useful references for making aesthetic judgments on contemporary art, a “critical” issue after the end of the avant-garde and “non-art” art.

Through the exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor, La Biennale returns to observe the relationship between art and the development of human, social and political reality, in the pressing of external forces and phenomena: the ways in which, that is, the tensions of the external world solicit the sensitivities, the vital and expressive energies of the artists, their desires, the motions of the soul (their inner song ).

La Biennale di Venezia was founded in 1895. Paolo Baratta has been its President since 2008, and before that from 1998 to 2001. La Biennale, who stands at the forefront of research and promotion of new contemporary art trends, organizes exhibitions, festivals and researches in all its specific sectors: Arts (1895), Architecture (1980), Cinema (1932), Dance (1999), Music (1930), and Theatre (1934). Its activities are documented at the Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts (ASAC) that recently has been completely renovated.

The relationship with the local community has been strengthened through Educational activities and guided visits, with the participation of a growing number of schools from the Veneto region and beyond. This spreads the creativity on the new generation (3,000 teachers and 30,000 pupils involved in 2014). These activities have been supported by the Venice Chamber of Commerce. A cooperation with Universities and research institutes making special tours and stays at the exhibitions has also been establihed. In the three years from 2012-2014, 227 universities (79 Italian and 148 international) have joined the Biennale Sessions project.

In all sectors there have been more research and production opportunities addressed to the younger generation of artists, directly in contact with renowned teachers; this has become more systematic and continuous through the international project Biennale College, now running in the Dance, Theatre, Music, and Cinema sections.