Biennial or bust
By Ben Luke for The Art Newspaper
The art world hordes that will descend on a cluster of islands amid the Adriatic this month are testament to the enduring allure of the very first art biennial. The Venice Biennale was founded in 1895, its focus on new art a novel twist on the phenomenon of the great exhibition and world’s fair culture so prominent in the 19th century. It took more than half a century for other cities to follow Venice’s lead: São Paulo was the first in 1951. But in recent decades, biennials, triennials and other cyclical contemporary art exhibitions have expanded exponentially. Hou Hanru, a curator of numerous biennials, estimates that there are now 300 across the world, each jostling for its place on the global art world map—soon after Venice come events in Folkestone, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Lyon, Istanbul, Moscow and Athens, and two in Brazil, at Porto Alegre and Curitiba.
Owing to its history and the magnetism of the city itself, Venice is out on its own, seemingly untouchable amid this clamour for prominence. But while it established the blueprint for biennials, many art world figures regard it with suspicion. Being appointed curator of the Venice Biennale is perceived as one of the most prestigious art world roles, but Robert Storr, curator of the biennale in 2007, one of the most bitterly debated exhibitions in recent history, was critical in these pages of the structure he was forced to deal with, and its financial and managerial limitations. Among his criticisms was a concern over uncertainties in funding the production of the art—a striking fact considering that its vernissage drips with glamour and conspicuous consumption.
British artist Jeremy Deller took part in “Utopia Station”, one of Venice’s official exhibitions in 2003, and reinforces Storr’s assessment. “You think that it’s a great honour, to be in an exhibition at the Venice Biennale, at the Arsenale,” Deller says, “and then you are in it, and you realise that it’s terrible, it’s really badly organised. You’ve spent all this money, and you’re never going to see it again, because no one’s going to pay you for your time or production. Because they have such reputations, you assume they will be great things to do. São Paulo was the same. It’s really prestigious. But people rest on their reputations and their laurels.”
Deller’s experience is not an isolated phenomenon, says Lewis Biggs, who recently announced he was stepping down after more than ten years as artistic director of the Liverpool Biennial. “I know artists who have shown in Venice and they have had to pay for themselves to get there, and their gallery has had to pay for the work to be transported there. It is an art fair, to be honest,” Biggs says. “With a biennial, the temptation is to think it is an exhibition that is somehow about objects and not about people. And that is what Venice is, it is a show in which practically everything is for sale.”
So what is the alternative? What should a biennial try to do? “It should offer something unique, and it should offer something of the highest experiential quality,” Biggs says. “One can say that anything is unique, but if you see a lot of biennials and see the same work and artists popping up, it’s boring. If you see the same art in every museum of modern art in the world, you begin to suspect there is something wrong.”
The cornerstone of the Liverpool Biennial’s attempt to differentiate itself has been its curatorial and commissioning policy, set in stone in its second edition in 2002. “We decided to form a curatorial team that would produce an exhibition collaboratively, and that curatorial team was based in Liverpool,” Biggs says. “That meant that, however international in outlook those curators happened to be, they didn’t spend their lives on aeroplanes: they spent their time talking to audiences who came to museums and galleries in Liverpool. So the exhibition that they constructed was composed entirely of artists from outside the UK.” Crucially, those artists were commissioned to create new, site-specific work. “Rather than the curator being totally in control of the exhibition, we placed artists at the centre of it, and allowed them to create their new comment in the context in which they are being asked to exhibit,” Biggs says. The approach has produced some extraordinary works: in 2008, for instance, Ai Weiwei created Web of Light, a giant spider and web above the Exchange Flags in the city centre, while Richard Wilson made Turning the Place Over, in which a circular form cut from the exterior of a derelict building revolves within its façade.
This emphasis on commissioning is common in biennials today—another British event, the Folkestone Triennial, is a case in point, consisting entirely of site-specific works exhibited in public spaces throughout the town.
A relative newcomer to the biennial scene is Victoria Noorthoorn, an Argentinian curator who was artistic director of the Pontevedra Biennial in Galicia, Spain, in 2006, and co-chief curator of the Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2009. This year she takes on her most high profile event to date, the Lyon Biennale. Noorthoorn’s approach is clearly defined by other events and approaches. “I am sceptical of the way in which the so-called ‘biennial format’ tends to propose a very homogeneous exhibition format and discourse, which is closer to that of an art fair, where every artist has their own booth,” she says. “I like to approach the construction of a biennial as I approach an exhibition. It is very important to me, for instance, which work is next to which, and how they propose a certain sense together.”
Noorthoorn’s Mercosul Biennial, co-organised by Chilean curator Camilo Yáñez, was an astute contribution to the debate on such events. It was a direct response to the 2008 São Paulo Bienal, curated by Ivo Mesquita and Ana Paula Cohen, which dispensed with artists, focusing instead on the history of the biennial itself, earning the nickname “the void biennial”. In Porto Alegre, Noorthoorn and Yáñez overturned São Paulo’s self-reflexive approach: “We positioned the artists in a curatorial structure—they took over the functions that were normally institutional.”
This emphasis on artists will be a crucial factor in Lyon, too, with an insistence, again, on a high number of commissions. Noorthoorn hopes to create dialogues between artists: “As the projects develop I let everyone know how other projects are developing, so they are able to react to each other’s works as much as they want to.”
The thematic structure of Noorthoorn’s Lyon Biennale is similarly conscious of prevailing biennial formats. She aims to avoid the kind of biennial that relies too heavily on text, in which “an idea or a concept acts as an umbrella for a whole show, and the different artists are selected to fit under that umbrella.” Noorthoorn’s title, “A Terrible Beauty Is Born”, quoting W.B. Yeats, is an attempt to reflect a tension or paradoxical quality rather than establish a grand subject.
Like Noorthoorn, Deller is suspicious of grand overarching themes, typified by Bice Curiger’s “Illuminazioni” in Venice. “There is this question of curators having this huge amount of power, and moulding the theme and moulding you into that theme. The theme and the big press release comes first, and then you are approached, so you are part of the masterplan,” he says.
Noorthoorn is keen to evade the cult of the curator that has developed around biennials. “Curators exist purely because the artists exist before them,” she says, but there is no doubt that the rise of the biennial has seen a parallel ascendance of the “supercurator”. Among them is Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the curator of the next Documenta opus in Kassel, Germany in 2012, and veteran of the Turin Triennial in 2005, as well as the Sydney Biennale of 2008. Another is Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of Documenta 11 in 2002, who has curated biennials in Johannesburg, Gwangju and Seville, and is reportedly directing the Paris Triennial next year.
Perhaps no one, however, has curated as many biennials as Hou Hanru. He estimates that he has organised or co-curated around 20 over the past two decades in places as diverse as Gwangju in South Korea, Limerick in Ireland and Tirana in Albania. He and Enwezor particularly have explored the dynamics of globalisation. Hou says that he has built on the established legacies of the Havana and Istanbul biennials, which attempted to shift the focus from the traditional western centres in the early 1990s. “Since then, I see the most significant development of biennial culture as creating platforms to decentralise the art world,” Hou says.
Hou has consistently aimed to help local communities reinvent their cities. “The subject or topic of the biennial has to help us re-understand local conditions: in terms of history, or maybe political and cultural conditions,” he says. Again, commissioning new work is essential to his approach. “Every time, I try to encourage the artists to produce specific projects for biennials that actually talk to the conditions there, and to help the public—or publics, because there are different kinds of publics—to look at the place where they are living in a different way.”
But what happens once the biennial closes? A persistent criticism is that curators and artists drop into a city, pay lip service to its culture, patronise the local people and disappear again. Hou claims the legacy of his biennials is always part of his plans: “I try as much as possible to continue to engage with the local communities. So for instance, I keep going back to Istanbul, Lyon, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Now I sit on the boards of different foundations or museums and try to engage with them in a long-term dialogue.”
Biggs suggests that biennials offer a stronger option to cities aiming to rehabilitate themselves than other cultural alternatives. “Biennials are a better answer to the question of how to regenerate our cities than building another museum of modern art,” he says. “Some museums in the western world are conceived as regeneration projects, but they are mainly bricks and mortar, with some culture applied to them at a rather late stage. At least with a biennial, it is an event that can’t be done without engaging people first.”
Nonetheless, Biggs suggests, biennial organisers need to understand the role their event will play on a local level. “Their rationale for being anywhere needs to include the reason for being where they are,” he says. “That immediately establishes a connection with the local audience as well as an international audience.” Deller suggests that a model example of an engagement with the immediate community and the wider world can be found in Skulptur Projekte Münster—an exhibition held every ten years since 1977 in the northern German city, which has featured contributions from Donald Judd, Daniel Buren, and Rosemarie Trockel among many others. “It is written into its whole purpose to engage with local people, and not just think about the art world and the art market,” Deller says. “Münster puts the art and artist first.”
“It is very local and it’s universal at the same time,” says Münster’s co-founder Kasper König. “It tries to avoid any kind of illustrative kitsch, and doesn’t make any concessions, but is very generous in making things possible, in informing the public and in not making it into a marketplace.” Münster has naturally—even accidentally, König suggests—become what so many cities developing new biennials crave to be: a genuine contemporary art destination.
But many more biennials will emerge, it seems, not from passionate individuals such as König, but from a political position. As Hou says, governments “understand that what makes cities economically viable is the new consumer culture that is based on culture, arts and tourism”. Hou believes that, rather than dwindling owing to saturation, biennials will burgeon as long as urbanisation continues apace: “There are now 300 biennials around the world and everyone is trying to find a new format or new ideas. And this is only the beginning.”