Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Of Capital Importance? Marx at the 56th Venice Biennale

An image of the Das Kapital Oratorio taken during the Vernissage

One of the works in this latest edition of the Venice Biennale that has gotten the most attention from critics was created by Karl Marx long ago. It's the Das Kapital Oratorio, conceived by the current Biennale's General Director Okwui Enwezor and directed by Turner Prize-nominated installation artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien. It's a live 30-minute ongoing reading (in English) of the entirety of Marx's magnum opus, staged three times (as of 15 September, two times) every day in the Arena performance area of the Central Pavilion for the entirety of the Biennale's nearly seven month run.

In his introduction to this Biennale (, Enwezor singled it out as "a core part" of the extensive schedule of live performances running in the large theater space at the very center of the exhibition (beautifully designed by the architect David Adjaye), and critics of all political bents haven't hesitated to take their swings at the piece, which in this day and age, and in such a context, hovers piñata-like at the heart of the show--just as Enwezor intended.

Some have praised it, others have derided it as an open contradiction at the heart of this international art trade show of the wheeling and dealing 1%, their mega-yachts hitched up along the nearby Riva. "What a yawn," some of them say--with an agitation that belies those very words.

As Aurora Fonda put it in Artribune: "Can you imagine a reading of Marx's Das Kapital at the first Biennale of 1895? Impossible! That it is conceivable today signifies that all revolutionary potential in the text is exhausted. To read Das Kapital at the 2015 Biennale shows that its contents are by now innocuous, and this is the only reason it can be loudly declaimed in I Giardini (dei Biennale)" (my translation from the Italian). 

Why not read Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century (published to international acclaim in 2013), another critic asked?

And yet another one, during an afternoon session of the Das Kapital Oratorio in August, actually threatened to disrupt it.

He approached one of the Biennnale technicians at the fringe of the stage and asked what he, the tech, would do if someone walked up onto the stage and interrupted the readers.

The tech--actually the supervisor of all the live performances in the Arena--said he would physically remove that person from the Central Pavilion.

This answer gave the would-be disrupter pause. He decided to clarify his position: the reading was not active enough, he said. What did a reading alone ever accomplish? There had to be physical confrontation, drama. This was the real stuff of revolution.

At least this was as much sense as the Biennale supervisor could make of what the man said. He repeated simply that if the man--an artist himself, it seemed (as his itch to seize the spotlight for himself might have already indicated)--tried to disrupt the performance he would be hauled out of the pavilion.

This extended exchange was taking place between the two seated figures about 8 yards away from me, in the first row of seats just off to my right. It was quite audible, if not comprehensible, and I was surprised that Giovanni the technician, of all people, would be carrying on a conversation at this time.

You see, I was on the stage reading Das Kapital while this talk unfolded--approaching the end of the allotted pages for that particular session--with no idea that my co-reader and I were in any danger of having company.

As it turned out, we finished our reading before the young artist could make up his mind to interfere.

Generally, however, in the more than four months my fellow readers and I have read Das Kapital, (having finished all three volumes once, and now well into our second go-round), nothing so dramatic is even threatened. People pass through as we read on their way to other galleries. Some stop and sit down for a few minutes. Some stay longer. Some few stay for the entire 30 minutes. As a reader, those are the ones you wonder about. Especially if you find one or two persevering as you read through what might be called the less scintillating parts of Marx's work such as:

"The commodities in which the 2,000c is embodied can be broken down, as far as their value goes, into:

1. 1,333 1/3c + 333 1/3v + 83 1/3s = 2,000c; similarly the 500v into..."

And so on: formulas of this kind for pages.

The challenge presented to us readers by the director of the piece is to dramatize even passages like this. Not in the sense of "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?", but in the sense of maintaining a kind of vigorous, animating, engagement with the text even when we can't help but know that to almost every listener who wanders in mid-argument such figures add up to nothing very meaningful.

After all, it's not a lecture that's been constructed to be understood as spoken, but a text intended for the page, whose reading may, moreover, start and/or end abruptly mid-chapter.

But there have been a couple of pleasant surprises when listeners have known exactly what we were reading--and far more about it than we readers do. For example, a pair of professors from the University of California, Berkeley--one of whom had himself read all of Das Kapital four times through and lead discussion groups on it as a graduate student at Yale--who were quite pleased by the project. Though even the 4-time reader of it admitted that he'd had doubts it could be read out loud at all: fearing that there were long passages of the work, especially in Volumes 2 and 3, that would basically refuse to be resurrected from the page and become a viable spoken presence. 

Other listeners have simply asked what's the point of the piece. One, an earnest student from the University of Heidelberg who was writing a piece on the Biennale for a newspaper, just asked me straight out if I thought art could change the world.

And that really is the impossible question--which few art world pros would express or countenance in such a direct fashion--that haunts this Biennale (and obviously rankles some critics). Is it really possible that Enwezor believes that such a reading in such a place can have any effect on anyone or anything? Or does not even he himself actually believe it? And if he does not, then is it, instead, simply an empty or cynical or naïve or fashionable--or insert whatever derogatory adjective your own personal politics provide you with--gesture?

I told the student I honestly had no answer to her question. It was beyond me to even begin to imagine addressing it.

But one thing I've noticed since she asked and I didn't answer is that the thing about a piñata such as this Marx reading is that a person's reaction to it and (in the case of critics) their manner of attack, reveals more about them and their assumptions and ideals than it does about the piñata. 

After more than four months of doing the readings I've come up with certain ideas about some of the things it might be doing, even if I still have no idea about its (or art's in general) ultimate effect. But if I'm going to go into any of those ideas I'll have to do so in another post, as this one's long enough already.   

NOTE: To read more about the Das Kapital Oratorio, and how I came to be in it, visit:



  1. prof premraj pushpakaran writes -- 2018 marks the 200th birth year of Karl Heinrich Marx!!!

    1. I guess in a sense the Biennale piece was 3 years too early, Professor, as such an extended reading of Das Kapital would make even more sense on the 200th anniversary of his birth!