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Is it time to call an end to biennials?

15 September 2018

The unstoppable takeover of the art world by the biennial form is evidenced by the nearly 250 biennials operating globally, listed by the Biennial Foundation’s Directory of Biennials. More than this number, it is the five-fold increase over the last ten years that warrants a certain slack-jawed response. The term ‘biennialisation’ is not just used to describe this proliferation but how, in the words of the critic Terry Smith, ‘biennials have become structural within the contemporary visual arts exhibitionary complex’. The biennial is not just an art exhibition that takes place every two years, but a sign of the event-based nature of the art world, with a focus on the temporary and occasional – what, in capitalist terms, is understood as the experience economy.

In fact, biennials are typified less by a two-year cycle (triennials and quinquennials are included in the category) than by their concern with performing the intertwined relationships of local/global and contemporary/timeless. This means that biennials are concerned with art’s presentation at a specific time and in a particular locality, and by an idea of art’s timeless and non-geographically specific value. Unsurprisingly, this tension produces a model under constant strain. Is this too much for the biennial form to bear?

The roots of the biennial can be found in Great Exhibitions, World Fairs and Salons, and in the showing-off required by industrial capitalism, the chest-puffing of nation-state-driven imperialism and the growth of bourgeois tourism in the late 19th century. Venice inaugurated the first art biennale in 1895, when the city was no longer at the height of its trading power, but it is no coincidence that the format was not replicated for over half a century. The value of the biennial as a tool for soft diplomacy and for the trumpeting of forward-thinking cultural production found global favour after the Second World War. In fact, the next city to adopt the Venetian model was São Paulo in 1951. While Venice opened the door to the possibility of a transnational art world speaking to publics and patrons alike, São Paulo encouraged a move away from the self-defined art centre of Western Europe, allowing for the future spread of biennials from Havana (inaugurated in 1984) to Gwangju (first edition 1995). Brazil also provided a concept that perhaps summarises the tension at the heart of the biennial model: anthropophagy. Developed in the 1920s by Tarsila do Amaral and Oswald de Andrade and later used as the curatorial proposition of the São Paulo Biennial in 1998, anthropophagy, or cultural cannibalism, names the anxious question that underlies all biennials: who’s consuming whom?

This question is usually framed by conditions of colonialism or postcolonialism on the one hand and global capitalism on the other, with which each biennial with a mandate of internationalism must contend. However, the problem of cultural consumption is illustrated by the controversy surrounding the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting, based upon the horrifying photograph of the murdered African-American boy Emmett Till, in the nationally focused Whitney Biennial in 2017. The ensuing protests and widely distributed open letter by British artist and writer Hannah Black demanding the removal of the painting raised a warning for all biennials. In clamouring to prove themselves timely, to capture audiences’ attention and to locate art in specific geopolitical contexts, curators all too often forget to ask whose lives, suffering and experiences are being visualised and consumed by whom for whom. In these terms, the inclusion of Schutz’s painting represents a misguided move on the part of the Biennial’s curators.

The slippage from the critically questioning to the representationally banal or exploitative is often one consequence of a biennialisation that seeks work that can be seen in terms of its contemporary relevance. In 2012, the curators of the 7th Berlin Biennale attempted to capture the expansion of the Occupy movement, only to be accused by the activist group of turning them into a ‘human zoo’. The removal of political agency does not just befall activists, but can also claim artists and artworks in a biennial’s hunger for the urgent, relevant and globally representational. Ibrahim Mahama’s spectacular installations of sewn and draped jute bags, originally developed as a site-specific work in Mallam Atta market in Accra, Ghana, have become a recurring feature of biennials, appearing at Venice in 2015 and Documenta in 2017. Mahama’s work adapts so well to different biennial contexts because it is site-specific to the global condition of trade and, as a result, makes a global/local statement of contemporary significance wherever it is presented. Affecting though these temporary monuments to global labour and exchange are, does their meaning wane as they are used by biennials as loose symbols of the global unevenness of labour and trade in the present moment?

Controversies surrounding biennials also encompass the very structures and pretensions of the mega art exhibition/event itself. Given that so many biennial curators and directors make grand political and ethical claims for what they are doing (revealed in the number of biennial titles that put the world at their centre, such as Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 Venice Biennale edition  ‘All the World’s Futures’ and the 2018 Liverpool Biennial’s ‘Beautiful world, where are you?’), they are frequently chastised for failing to live up to their own lofty goals. The 19th Sydney Biennale, with its suggestively utopian title ‘You Imagine What You Desire’, was widely criticised, successfully lobbied and boycotted over its close links with Transfield, an operator of immigration detention centres in Australia.

This tension (one might say hypocrisy) between the aspirations of the curatorial undertaking and the realpolitik that any biennial requires, as an incredible feat of resource gathering, has led the sociologist Pascal Gielen to define the two central qualities of the contemporary international curator as cynicism and opportunism. Gielen does not mean this to be a condemnation of the curator, but rather an acknowledgement of inevitable contradictions facing the curator who attempts to act against the status quo while relying on the resources and structures of the system they are seeking to critique.

Such contradictions are made especially clear in art world events that attempt to raise awareness of environmental catastrophe, but in so doing risk hastening that catastrophe through travel to the event or further human encroachment. This problem is encapsulated by the most far-flung addition to the biennial scene, the Antarctic Biennale. In a review of the Biennale for Frieze, Dehlia Hannah writes: ‘With the full knowledge that we were fuelling desires for this place which, if fulfilled, would hasten its destruction, participants felt the pressure to justify the apparent decadence of this “existential cruise.’’’ Hannah comes down on the side of the Biennale, suggesting that its opportunity to draw attention is more important than its negative environmental impact.

Illustration by James Graham

Illustration by James Graham

Perhaps, as the art theorist Peter Osborne muses, even when the critically minded art world provocatively asks the question ‘to biennial or not to biennial?’, as was done at the Bergen Biennial Conference in 2009, the answer is always ‘to biennial’. After all, how can one vote out of existence a form that has given so much attention to those who make a career out of being even a sceptical part of the art world? Not to mention the fact that for a large part of the global art scene it is the biennial and not the museum or the art gallery that provides the necessary infrastructure for artists to work and survive. Indeed, biennials are all about attention, including the shifting of attention to new artists, underrepresented regions of production, and types of practice. While mid 20th-century artistic modernism spoke of a universalism that was in fact just a Western European and North American export, the biennial, as a transnational form, presents a contemporaneity that is unevenly experienced and accessed. What is surprising, given the political and diplomatic role that biennials play in shaping fields of attention at local, national and transnational levels, is that the political power put in the hands of curators and biennial directors is seldom scrutinised.

The uber-biennial Documenta (a quinquennial exhibition) is perhaps the art world’s most explicit manifestation of soft power. Documenta’s founder Arnold Bode hoped for an event that made visible past erasures and healed present wounds. It was with this kind of spirit in mind that Adam Szymczyk announced his curatorial conceit as ‘learning from Athens’ for the 2017 edition. But the German organisation was not altogether welcomed by the Athenians and the title of the concomitant Athens Biennale, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, can be seen as a critique of the patronising tone of the curatorial gesture to ‘learn’ from Athens. Unfortunately, what has lingered in the press following Documenta 14 was not whether anything was indeed learnt from Athens or whether Athenians were happy to be learnt from, but that the endeavour almost bankrupted Documenta as an organisation. This isn’t quite the scandal it may seem: Harald Szeemann’s celebrated 1972 edition landed the curator with a bill for an overspend that could never be paid back.

Arguably, we should see this controversy not as a real question about the economic viability of Documenta but as a power play between local government, national government and the EU at a time when who is said to ‘pay’ for what and who is conceived as ‘in debt’ is the central theme of national and transnational politics. Still, the curators’ response to the accusations of overspend, asking in an open letter whether this is the beginning of the end for the mega-exhibition, did raise serious questions about the resources required to stage such events. Biennials, like any large institution, are always caught between being seen as income generators and drains on resources. One local curator taking part in this year’s edition of the biennial-like Glasgow International (GI) told me that the opportunity that GI provides in terms of attention for the local arts scene is counterbalanced by the unpaid hours and overstretching of resources that is demanded by the event. This problem is exaggerated in places where an art scene infrastructure is not as developed, as was revealed by the departure of Rashid Rana, the first artistic director of the Lahore Biennale, and his replacement by a new team ‘supported’ by UK institutions.

Although Documenta 14 represents an extreme example of the tensions that arise when ambition and finances meet in the sphere of local, national and transnational politics, the curators’ stated fear was not that the mega-event model is unsustainable, but that the interference by politicians in the curatorial realm sullies the independent artistic endeavour. However, the biennial proves that culture and politics are always entwined, from the state-controlled Havana Biennial to the model of the nomadic European  biennial, Manifesta. Is the cry for artistic autonomy an early 20th-century response to a late 20th-century phenomenon?

This brief overview of some of the problems that beset the institution of the biennial might suggest that I am calling for its abandonment; I would not be alone in this. Is this spectacular form of art production and consumption really sustaining and sustainable? Many biennial organisations would point out that they operate continuously to support local infrastructure and that the biennial ‘event’ is only one visible part of the overall machine, but it is not always clear if and how local artists benefit from these grand displays of internationalism. To wish biennials gone, however, would be not only futile, but misguided. All art and educational organisations are embedded in the cynical and opportunistic attitudinal demands of contemporary global capitalism. Biennials are one part of a world that demands contemporariness as a constant declaration of the now for the extraction of value. But ethical and political questions should be asked and certain types of mega-events and curatorial hubris should be challenged.

Perhaps it is time to think about what each biennial, triennial, quinquennial does in relation to the local systems of which each is inevitably a part and what the particular affordances are of different formats for different moments and places. The Ghetto Biennale in Haiti provides an example that consciously resists the allure of the star international curator (a figure so closely linked to the rise of the biennial) and survey-like representation, openly playing with the contradictions of an art world that is both global and critical at the same time – and one that is frequently impossible to enter for many artists, curators and publics who do not have the resources or the visas to participate. Although the Ghetto Biennale is certainly nothing like a model, it does suggest that the alternatives to the biennial form must somehow come from within that form.

Surprisingly, it is the oldest biennial that may offer examples of how it can be repurposed. In 2017, two ‘pavilions’ subverted Venice’s national presentation model. The Diaspora Pavilion and NSK State Pavilion, born out of very different curatorial ambitions, both used the platform of the Biennale to give a radical alternative to the nationalistic-local/international-global dialectic that has haunted biennials for too long. Although listed on the Venice Biennale’s website, these ‘collateral’ pavilions were dropped off the main Biennale map. This error of judgement suggests an alternative future for biennials, as facilitators of the subsidiary, rather than producers of the main event or narrative. This shift in approach would mean that to ask ‘to biennial or not to biennial’ would be to ask the wrong question. Rather, we would have to ask, whose biennial is it anyway?

From the September issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here

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