Art & Photography

Kaleidoscopic Futures: Larry Ossei-Mensah

The rising art star on co-curating the seventh Athens Biennale, expanding discourse beyond the parameters of the art world and taking a deep dive into the metaverse

Christoph Draeger, photography Emilios Haralambous

The seventh Athens Biennale is an expansive, and somewhat apocalyptic examination into the multiple potentialities of our current moment, presenting an immersive space across three venues that explores the psychological impact of an ever-expanding, and, for this writer at least, often mind-melting, metaverse, not to mention myriad explorations of identity, race, gender and historical narratives in perpetual flux.

Entitled Eclipse, it’s a fascinating and somewhat overwhelming experience containing artworks by a vast array of seemingly disparate talents, ranging from Tank-Girl-esque sculptured silicone apocalyptica (Casja Von Teipel), to post-real-world-massacre hotel room reconstructions (Christoph Draeger); unsettling self-perpetuating digital hellscapes (Trio Triantafylidis); ten-hour-plus films of a black social activist’s declassified FBI files (Steve McQueen); futuristic tarot-based gaming boards (Omsk Social Club); and psychedelic watercolours of other worlds (Susan Treister)–all of which is immaculately tied together with considerable and, perhaps rather incredibly, unpretentious grace.

Steve McQueen, End Credits at Onassis Stegi, Athens; co-produced by the Onassis Foundation

The fact the show holds its political, personal and meta investigations together cohesively is in no small part due to its having been co-curated by the rising art star Larry Ossei-Mensah, in association with Berlin-based digital provocateurs-par-excellence Omsk Social Club – who specialise in bringing aesthetics from the gamer community into the art space. In this exclusive interview for Port the Bronx-based Ghanaian-American curator, talks to us about bringing challenging conversations to the heart of conservative Greek society, and tells us why authenticity in art is all about engendering a physiological experience, rather than an intellectual one.

Larry Ossei-Mensah. Photography Nysos Vasilopoulos

As a curator, how do you recognise authenticity in an artwork?

I want to believe most work has a vibration and an energy that you can feel, and a lot of times that is to do with the conviction of the artists and the ideas. I am also normally guided towards things that make me feel uncomfortable, or confuse me – I like disruption, because it invites you to go deeper and stimulates an individual’s awareness of their surroundings and their environment. When you encounter good art it’s almost like when you do a meditation. If it’s a good session, you come out and your Spidey senses are kind of tingling, and creating an experience that opens up those pathways is the goal for me. One thing that I’m super mindful of is not necessarily trying to pontificate a position – I’m always learning from the artists. Because I’ve spent time as a maker, I know some of the challenges that artists endure in order to come up with really robust ideas.

Trio Triantafylidis, Ritual, 2020, Live Simulation

What would you say are the key ideas you are seeking to explore and communicate in Eclipse?

I think being cognisant that we’re in this state of flux globally, and exploring that sense of fluidity and recalibrating ideas of history–you know, the sense that history is not fixed. Eclipse became kind of a platform to invite more voices into the discourse related to the construction of history and talk about dystopia and identity, and what that actually means in 2021. We wanted to create a space where individuals have the capacity to be their full selves and not have to assimilate, and use that as a conduit to invite people to self-reflect about a myriad of concerns. If you look at where Athens is positioned, its history is so fluid – it is on the cusp of Eastern Europe and North Africa, and you have Asia next door. And, of course, there are all sorts of concerns here in relationship to the flow of migrants. This is framed as a crisis by the media, but I’m sure that these communities have been moving through this space for generations, so the question for me is how do you get people to talk more openly about these issues. 

Cajsa Von Zeipel, Catch & Kill

There are undoubtedly all sorts of contemporaneous issues explored in Eclipse. However, do you ever have concerns that art can be an echo chamber, where artists are preaching to the converted?

I wouldn’t say you’re necessarily preaching to the converted. I think it’s important for people to see these conversations on an international stage because it allows you to explore the ideas from various vantage points. Being based in the United States, a lot of my career has been about trying to create forums for Black, Brown, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ voices, but I was interested in what happens when you move those conversations to the context of an international stage. For me, it’s always been about how to create a condition that feels accessible to a multitude – particularly people who don’t feel welcome to the experience. I studied hospitality management and I tend to think about the exhibition format within that context–you’re my guest, so how am I going to create an evocative experience for you? I think we’ve done that here. It’s less about whether you’ll enjoy or not enjoy the experience, but more whether you will feel something, and whether it will evoke some emotions that maybe didn’t even know were there.

Still taken from Judy Chicago’s films series Women And Smoke, 1972

What have you learned personally from the experience of taking those conversations to the world stage? Also, why the decision to include so much digital art?

Mainly that there’s so many varying perspectives on the act of making art, and the act of using your creative wits and ideas to stimulate a conversation. I mean, pre-COVID-19, you would have a lot of debate on whether digital art is actually art, but spending over a year in front of a computer has accelerated everyone’s aptitude for the metaverse – a lot more artists are really looking at these micro economies and digital communities as another avenue to build conversations around their practice. I always say I’m digitally literate, not digital native, so for me that was an interesting realisation. The metaverse, of course, has a language that’s really attuned to a particular community, and there is a certain level of investment you need to make in order to understand it, but essentially all you need is a creative impulse and you can create a community. I learned a lot working with my co-curator Omsk Social Club. Their expertise in role-playing games, and creating and exploring those scenarios, made these ideas of the metaverse so much more expansive.

The Athens Biennale is supported by The Onassis Foundation