John Akomfrah on Representing the UK at the 60th Venice Biennale

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2024 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the leadup to and during the Venice Biennale, which runs from 20 April to 24 November.

John Akomfrah is representing the United Kingdom; the pavilion is in the Giardini.

Photo: Christian Cassiel. © John Akomfrah; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

ArtReview What do you think of when you think of Venice?

John Akomfrah What do I think of when I think of Venice? Sinking? Visconti’s Death in Venice [1971] for some reason always comes into my head. I mean, apart from the fact that it’s a great film, it’s also not a particularly realistic take on Venice. Another is Nicolas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now. And, of course, the two major offshoots of the Biennale: the film festival and the architecture biennale. The film festival because I’ve been invited and gone there, really, since the 90s. And the art biennale since the 2000s, because I’ve been going either to talk or to attend openings or to be a speaker for other artists. So yeah, in short, when I think of Venice, I think work and occasional pleasures.

AR What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

JA I can tell you that it will be concerned with the ethics of the sonic. It will be concerned with questions of attunement, and about trying to foreground the sonic as a key narrative feature for a series of installations.

AR Why is the Venice Biennale still important, if at all? And what is the importance of showing there? Is it about visibility, inclusion, acknowledgment?

JA I think the hypervisibility of Venice makes it still probably the most important biennale for me. It is a curious mix of high theory and pizzazz. And interesting because literally everybody gathers for it at some point, either the opening weekend or during the many sidebar events that take place all the way to November. I don’t know any other biennial with the reach, the sense of entitlement or the cultural import that it brings. For every artist, it’s almost certainly the highpoint. There’s nowhere else to go after that.

AR When you make artworks do you have a specific audience in mind?

JA Sometimes. I mean there are obviously works that feel as if they are a kind of address, a cri de coeur or a plea for companionship with others. But even those are always more or less conversations with the self. I’m always first and foremost concerned with being loyal to the project itself. And to understanding whether the questions I asked it, and it asked me, were faithfully answered. If they are, then yeah, I’m more than happy with that.

I mean, in a way, the audience thing becomes super important when you haven’t really been paying attention to the project itself. If you’ve had a decent conversation, a decent dialogue with a theme, a subject, a set of narratives, bringing them to fruition satisfactorily is enough. It shouldn’t need other considerations, like who is it for. Those become paramount when that conversation is incomplete in some way, in my view. That’s what I found over the years, and I become more concerned about those questions when the work hasn’t quite found its ‘fruition’, when it hasn’t quite been brought to a satisfactory closure.

John Akomfrah, Arcadia (still), 2023, five channel HD Video, colour, black and white, 15.1 surround sound, 58 min 38 sec. © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

AR Do you think there is such a thing as national art? Or is all art universal? Is there something that defines your nation’s artistic traditions? And what is misunderstood or forgotten about your nation’s art history?

JA I don’t think there’s such a thing as a national art, because that’s too monolithic. I think there are versions of national arts, you know, like there are certain obsessions that underscore the work of a number of Black British artists or a number of feminist artists in Britain. Whether that all amounts to one giant national lab, I don’t know and I don’t think so. I think there are strains, themes, narratives, obsessions that can characterise the ether or particular national spaces, but I’m not sure that amounts to something as solid as a ‘national’ in the artmaking sense. I definitely don’t buy the universal art thing, you know? Again, it’s not like, ‘What do you like about Lubaina Himid’s work?’ The Jenny Holzers or Cindy Shermans can’t just be reduced to something called ‘universal’ art, because then that gets rid of the uniqueness of Himid and the uniqueness of Sherman. Why would you want something called universal law? Does it seem like there are things that all art can and sometimes shares? Yes, but I don’t think it amounts to something called ‘universal’.

AR If someone were to visit your nation, what three things would you recommend they see or read in order to understand it better?

JA Wow. God, I mean that’s completely flummoxed me! Well, any film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger would be good. Apart from anything else, I’d love for people to be attuned to the sort of surrealism that’s an undercurrent in this place. The poetry which is always there, but it’s hidden behind all kinds of other stuff. I’d love for people to be attuned to that. Any Black British novelists who’ve ever worked here, from V.S. Naipaul to Bernardine Evaristo. Just so that they get the sense of the layering of this place, so that they come with more than just Four Weddings and a Funeral or Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. The third is music…

AR Which other artists have influenced or inspired you?

JA Well it changes for every project, really. I mean there’s some constants obviously. I’ve spoken over the years about my admiration for Turner – that goes without saying, that magician of light. But each project finds another set. For this one, Yves Tinguely is a big influence. Zaha Hadid has been on my mind a lot, because I was trying to deal with space in a very different way.

AR What, other than your own work, are you looking forward to seeing while you are in Venice?

JA I’m very much looking forward to seeing the works in the pavilions around me, because everybody in those pavilions is either a friend or someone whose work I’ve admired for a long time. I’m looking forward to the Canadian Pavilion for sure. The French Pavilion, the American Pavilion – those three in particular. And the main. I’m excited by the main theme of [biennale curator Adriano] Pedrosa. I want to see how many of the artists whose work I know should be in there will end up being in there.

The 60th Venice Biennale, 20 April – 24 November

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