Work by Adrian Piper, photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
In 1968 the Venice Biennale was wracked by protests. Reacting to what they saw as the widespread commercialization of art and the rising power of the critic, some artists covered their works in solidarity with protesters, several exhibitions didn’t open, and the Grand Prizes—what would become known as the Golden Lion—were abolished. (How times have changed!) When the Biennale resumed its prize-giving in 1986, they adopted the Golden Lion, which began life as the Leone di San Marco at the Venice Film Biennale, later to become the Leone d’oro (Golden Lion). In that inaugural year of the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, it was awarded to Frank Auerbach, Sigmar Polke, and Daniel Buren. Nunzio di Stefano won the Duemila Prize, before it became the Silver Lion.
Since then, the jurors of the Venice Biennale have selected candidates for its Golden Lion prize from dozens of artists every two years; this year, they have chosen from a group of well over 200. Among the artists who have received the accolade in the past are Marina Abramović, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Barbara Kruger, and Christian Marclay. But how do the jurors establish a value system across the aesthetic traditions and contexts of five continents, and how does the prize impact an artist’s career?
Hrair Sarkissian, Unexposed, 2012. Courtesy Kalfayan Galleries, Athens/Thessaloniki.
“I just spent a day with Daniel Buren, who won the Golden Lion in 1986, and he commented that back then, it was totally different,” Paris gallerist Kamel Mennour told me over the phone. “Winning this kind of distinction took place on a much smaller stage.” In the 2013 Biennale, Camille Henrot, represented by Kamel Mennour, presented her work Grosse Fatigue (2013) in Massimiliano Gioni’s “The Encyclopedic Palace” and won the Silver Lion, a prize granted to promising emerging artists. “Camille already had some strong connections with museums, but these were accelerated, or amplified by the prize,” Mennour says. “You can’t say it goes from white to black. To build a career is a very long process. It’s something that builds very slowly. But there is an acceleration.”
Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue appeared the following year in the artist’s solo show at the New Museum, of which Gioni is Director of Exhibitions, which begs the question: how much influence does the Biennale’s chief curator exert over the prize’s jury? “As in any exhibition, your experience of an artwork is, in one way or another, influenced by the curatorial framework,” Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Collección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) and a member of the 2013 Venice Biennale jury, told me. “Aside from the International Art Exhibition, there is the experience of the national pavilions to consider.”
Rene Gabri & Ayreen Anastas, Even before the gates of Aleppo they were allowed no rest, 2014. Courtesy the artists; Aikaterini Gegisian, A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas, 2015. © Aikaterini Gegisian, courtesy Kalfayan Galleries, Athens/Thessaloniki.
This year that influence comes from 2015 Venice Biennale curator Okwui Enwezor, who has recommended El Anatsui—a Ghanaian, Nigeria-based artist who has risen to particular prominence over the past few years, with a slew of international shows, including a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013—for the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award. Other awards have gone to the Armenia Pavilion and Adrian Piper’s contribution to Okwui’s exhibition, “All the World’s Futures,” cementing the explicitly political bent of this edition of the Venice Biennale. Enwezor remarked in a press statement about his selection of El Anatsui, “The Golden Lion Award acknowledges not just his recent successes internationally, but also his artistic influence amongst two generations of artists working in West Africa.”
Portrait of El Anatsui. Courtesy of October Gallery. Photo by Andy Keate.
Speaking of the jury process for the Biennale’s awards, Hernández Chong Cuy suggests a similarly expansive approach to considering the cultural value of an artist’s practice: “One may consider the trajectory of the artist; what artists have done for the Biennale, but also before the Biennale; if and how their work is a significant contribution to the arts. The prize gives exposure to the artist’s work, as to the issues brought to bear by the work and how it has contributed to think differently. That’s what is important.”