Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
Have biennials, triennials and the like outlived their usefulness? In the face of their hugely increased cost, frequency and proliferation—and the rapid-fire global access that has linked those of us paying attention to virtually every potentially compelling artist on every mountaintop anywhere in the world with a bar of cell service—might all that money be better spent mixing up the formats and experimenting with new paradigms?
It could be argued that these international events have become more about the social circuit and marketing machinery of our industry than provocative and unique touchstones about where art is today (with “today” being more of a weekly occurrence than the singular, potentially magical moments of insight that they were when you had to wait years for them to come around again).
I have been asking myself these questions for some time now. My answer tends to be yes (yes!). Let’s rethink the format. It is time to stage a show dedicated to the work of 12 artists rather than 120; or to shift some events to entirely different environments where they are as attuned to their times and locales as we expect their curating to be; or to give the multi-million-euro budget to just one single artist, if a visionary curator is certain that this one artist’s voice can change the world, or at least the way we see it.
And yet, I remember Documenta 7 (1982, directed by Rudi Fuchs), which forever changed how I and many of my fellow American art enthusiasts saw the world of contemporary art. Or Documenta 11 (2002, curated by Okwui Enwezor), which recharted the established cultural map to cover much more of the world. The fourth Berlin Biennale, curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick in 2006 transported the visitor on a profound journey through life, history, birth and death—all within a five-block street in the former East Berlin.
When I recall the countless other -ennials, pavilions and unforgettable works of art that were created just for them (I don’t think I have attended a single Venice Biennale and not encountered one work—if not dozens—that profoundly changed my understanding of the vitality of art as it develops), I realize that I am not ready to give up on the premise. Yet, like so many of us, I am itchy for experimenting with ways to get us off the track of being on the track (which is the same track far too often).
In this issue, we take on the question of what it might mean to rethink the perennial -ennials. We hope you enjoy.
In Other Insights
For the 33rd edition of the Bienal de São Paulo—which opens to VIPs on 5 September and to the public two days later—I wanted to explore an alternative to the centralized, thematic curatorial model that is now unquestioningly applied across the world’s biennials. I suspect that this model, which was a terrific innovation two decades ago, tends to produce events that compete primarily on their discursive skills rather than on the experience of the visitors or participants—including the artists.
I suspect that many people share a sense of unease about the sheer predictability of many contemporary art projects. It seems that exhibition after exhibition is posited on the idea that a thematic group show about a loosely defined state of crisis in the world is somehow going to radically change us, or art, or the world.
Part of this is to do with the professionalization of the art world. This is the first generation to have graduated from the various MA programs in curatorial studies and, from what I can see, very few of these require either a background in art history or contact with living artists.
I recently received an email blast from a leading curatorial program that spoke a lot about activism and critical thinking but only used the word “art” once, and “artist” not at all. I wonder whom these programs are targeting, and how activism and curating came to be synonymous. It strikes me as either naïve or sinister to sell one thing as the other, especially given the reality of careers in the art world.
I wonder how activism and curating came to be synonymous. It strikes me as either naïve or sinister to sell one as the other
The curators I have long admired are those who are deeply committed to artists and to a certain vision of art: I’m thinking of Guy Brett, Paulo Herkenhoff, Catherine de Zegher, Gerardo Mosquera and many others. The risk today is that the curatorial field becomes less and less about art and artists, and more about other curators or critical theory. That’s potentially a problem.
Projects more concerned with demonstrating the inventiveness and cleverness of a curatorial construct are always likely to be less meaningful than those engaging with the actual art and artists.
When I was asked to curate the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo I wanted to look for an alternative to the thematic model. I wanted to examine the tradition of artists working as curators as a way to talk about art and its relationships in a less linear and instrumental way. So, I have invited seven artists to each curate an exhibition, including their own work, with total freedom to bring whatever references they choose into dialogue with their own work.
I like the idea of a biennial that emerges from the interests of the artists who take part in it
Some of the artists are well known, others less so but they are, to my mind, some of the most interesting practitioners working today: Antonio Ballester Moreno, Sofia Borges, Waltércio Caldas, Alejandro Cesarco, Claudia Fontes and Wura-Natasha Ogunji.
The result will be seven separate exhibitions, each with a different curatorial logic and set of interests. In addition to these, I will be selecting 12 individual projects that will be placed between the exhibitions. The Bienal de São Paulo has had an ambitious educational project from its early editions, and this year we will be focusing on “attention” as the core element that connects art to its viewers.
I like the idea of a biennial that emerges from the interests of the artists who take part in it, and who can create different curatorial frameworks to express their affinities and interests. I think it’s also time to create less vertical structures in which the authority stems from a single figure who is the “meta author” of an exhibition.
In Other Insights
It’s summer, and a biennial bonanza is in full swing. Anyone with the time (and money) can take their pick this month of shows in Bruges, Venice, Riga, Berlin, Yinchuan, Palermo, Liverpool, Cleveland, Santa Fe, Echigo-Tsumari in Japan or Murun in Mongolia. And all this before the top international art events of the autumn: the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo, the 12th Gwangju Biennale, the 12th Shanghai Biennale, the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial and, one of the oldest, the Carnegie International’s 57th edition.
The number of biennials—a catchall term for “large-scale recurring exhibitions”—has grown so rapidly over the past 25 years that the art world lost count. Until June, that is, when researchers at Zurich University of the Arts revealed there are 316 spread across Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa and Australia. In the early 1980s, there were fewer than 50.
The biennial model is “stale if not dead”, says Francesco Bonami, who directed the 2003 Venice Biennale. Curators today can be cowed by the bile of social media and hamstrung by overly powerful artists, Bonami says, adding that the way ahead is “unknown”—but that innovation will come, through art, artificial intelligence and other technologies.
There are positive aspects to the proliferation of biennials: they have “contributed to a more polyphonic cartography of art”, says Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries. But, he warns, “the downside, like everything relating to globalization, is when homogenizing forces take over”.
This, argues Shwetal Ashvin Patel, one of the editors of the On Curating Global Biennial Survey 2018 and a co-founder of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, is already happening. “The danger is that biennials become the circulation of four or five dozen artists, and two dozen curators, who are all very much in demand.”
If it feels like some biennials are produced on a treadmill, it is because they are
Part of the difficulty for biennial-makers, says Obrist, is time. If it feels like some biennials are produced on a treadmill, it is because they are. The two-year turnaround for most of these events is “relentless”, he says, with curators—and, as a result, artists—often chosen late. “We need to spend more time looking and listening,” Obrist says. “We need a new slowness in the process.”
One of the least frequent events is the once-every-10 years Skulptur Projekte Münster, a sculpture survey that has put the modest German city on the international art map. Because of its success in attracting visitors, the city wanted to stage the show every five years—a move firmly resisted by the arts organization. Ten years allows “time for a new generation of artists to come through”, says Britta Peters, one of the 2017 edition’s co-curators. Speeding up the schedule would just make Münster “like any other biennial”.
The increasing appetites of audiences for art events are a major factor in the growth in number of biennials: cities are more enthusiastic about branding themselves as cultural destinations because of the related revenues brought in by their (typically affluent) visitors. Audience numbers have ballooned, making some biennials big business. In 2003, around 260,000 people attended Bonami’s Venice Biennale. Last year, there were 615,000 paying visitors to Christine Macel’s edition, despite a lukewarm critical reception. The first edition of the once-every-five-year Documenta, in 1955, attracted 130,000 visitors to the German town of Kassel. Now considered one of the most important events on the art world calendar, there were 1.2 million visitors to 2017’s budget-busting edition, which took place in Kassel and Athens.
Numbers on this scale were unimaginable in 1972, when the charismatic Swiss curator Harald Szeeman staged the groundbreaking Documenta 5. Appointed initially as “general secretary” of Documenta 5, Szeeman swept away the raft of consultative committees and voting systems and established himself as sole creative director. He is credited with creating the role of the independent, globetrotting super-curator with which we are now so familiar.
The next Documenta should be curated by an artist
As Szeemann’s vision of the curator as auteur gained traction, works of art became building blocks in the construction of curatorial statements. The downside, as artist Robert Smithson famously noted, was that the curator’s vision often surpassed those of the artists themselves.
In recent years, there has been a movement towards putting artists back in charge. In 2004, the curator Jens Hoffmann organized a project entitled “The next Documenta should be curated by an artist”. This message has not been lost on Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, the director of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros who is curating next month’s Bienal de São Paulo. He intends to “challenge curatorialism, where the energy of the exhibition is focused on the curator and the theme” by breaking his biennial into seven artist-curated shows. “When I was looking for inspiration, I realized how many of the projects I liked the best had been made by artists,” he says, citing David Hammons’ recent MoMA show (“Charles White—Leonardo da Vinci”) as an “audacious” example.
The artistic director of the 2019 Venice Biennale intended to take this a step further by creating a gigantic artists’ studio. “One of my first ideas for Venice was to invite 100 artists to work there, then have them in residence for months,” says Ralph Rugoff. Indeed, why waste money shipping art around the world—an expense many biennials can ill afford—when it could be created in situ? Unfortunately, Rugoff’s idea proved impractical (artists being busy) and expensive (Venice, for its size, being relatively poor).
There’s too much certainty and too many conventions in the way most biennials are executed
The need for fresh ideas is felt by many. “There’s too much certainty and too many conventions in the way most biennials are executed,” says Michael Elmgreen, one half of the artistic duo Elmgreen & Dragset. “I’d love to see a Venice Biennale of just 12 artists, or one that dared to change its curatorial statement halfway through.”
Elmgreen & Dragset were invited to curate last year’s Istanbul Biennial, and were much praised for their tight presentation of mostly new, site-specific works. Ingar Dragset says they “deliberately kept the artist list small, which was really important in the process and final result”.
I’m not abdicating curatorial responsibility
Size matters: “too many biennials are behemoths in terms of scale [and] demands on the audience attention span,” says Neville Wakefield, curator of Desert X and Elevation 1049 in mountainous Gstaad. “The ambition of some of these things is just too great.” He is one of several curators who embrace a more fluid model that takes place beyond the white cube. These biennials involve a small number of artists who create site-specific commissions in an open-ended process which may have only loosely emerging themes. “I’m not abdicating curatorial responsibility,” Wakefield says. “I’m trying to create shows where the landscape—geographical, social, historical, economical—is generative and where it reframes the entry point for the art.”
The shift from authoritative single author to a more fragmented and multi-voiced series of visions extends beyond artistic commissions. Bonami’s Venice Biennale consisted of 10 projects made with nine other curators and two artists. This year’s Gwangju will have 11 equally billed curators mounting related exhibitions while next year’s Sharjah is headed by a triumvirate and the current Berlin Biennale by a team of five.
But should biennials, not just curators, work together? Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev—the director of Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art and professor at Northwestern University, whose edition of Documenta 13 in 2012 included a parallel exhibition in Kabul, thinks so. “It’s fascinating to have a dialogue between different places in the world when you are constructing a biennial,” she says. “It would be interesting, for example, if the Shanghai Biennale and the Yokohama [Triennale] would collaborate,” she says; the history of conflict between China and Japan would provide rich material for contemplation.
Such collaborations would, however, be complicated (a co-operative plan need be made between governments before artistic directors are even appointed, she says), expensive to mount and probably only affordable for a privileged few visitors.
It is important to do something that’s more than a smorgasboard of individuals whose work may be compelling
And yet, it could well be argued that the biennials that really changed the game and shifted our understanding of art were those large-scale events that articulated the visions of single curators. If anything, the need is now greater than ever for focused, well-argued surveys of this kind because museums are increasingly departing this terrain, says Lynne Cooke, a senior curator at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.
The Art Newspaper’s most recent survey of the best-attended exhibitions around the world is dominated by single-artist shows as museums embrace blockbusters (which often tell us more about what we already know than introducing entirely new ideas and art). For museums, in-depth surveys can be seen as time-intensive, difficult to secure loans for, expensive (but typically less appealing to funders) and less attractive to visitors.
This means that, today, “there’s an important place to do something that’s more than a smorgasboard of individuals whose work may be compelling,” Cooke says. “Biennials can home in on the questions of our time—technology and the environment, migration and identity, populism and nationalism. These are things the biennial can do.”
I am tired of the international sport of biennial bashing
For some curators, talk of banal biennials is itself now boring. “I am tired of the international sport of biennial bashing,” says Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director of New York’s New Museum whose 2013 Venice Biennale was well-received for its focus on outsiders, visionaries and misfits. “The reason we have bad or generic biennials is not because the format is bad, but simply how a specific biennial is made,” he says. “You blame the doctor, not the disease.”
While the brief for this article was to ask leading curators for big new ideas for biennials, many instead focused on small adjustments (a few, tantalizingly, said they had fresh ideas but didn’t want to give them away). It is perhaps inevitable—like asking a freelance journalist whether there should be fewer magazines and newspapers (no!). Despite criticisms of their bloating, biennials are, it seems, still beloved—by curators, at least.
In Must See
“Beautiful World Where are You?” is the plaintive, epoch-echoing title of this year’s Liverpool Biennial, a line taken from Die Götter Grichenlands (The Gods of Greece), a 1788 poem by Friedrich Schiller. Where indeed, asks much of the work in this exceptionally good biennial, now in its 10th edition. It includes work by 39 artists from 22 countries, much of which grapples with the multifaceted grimness of our current status quo.
Pasted on hoardings running along Great George Street, the Istanbul-based artist Banu Cennetoğlu’s ongoing The List (2007-present) commemorates the more than 34,000 refugees and migrants who have so far lost their lives within or on the borders of Europe since 1993. Detailing each individual’s name, place of origin and cause of death, The List was recently printed as a supplement in British newspaper The Guardian, but its impact here is immediate and visceral, stretching on and on for hundreds of yards down the street, a chilling memorial to an international abomination.
Inside Tate Liverpool, the biennial fills the ground floor and a suite of fourth-floor galleries with displays that explore and interrogate the representation of indigenous peoples. These include Wall Composition in Bimbird and Reckitt’s Blue (2018) a wall painting by Dale Harding from Brisbane, which is inspired by Australian rock painting using red ochre and Reckitt’s Blue, a laundry whitener manufactured in Britain and exported to colonial Africa and Australia; and Cheyenne-style feather headdresses made from Nike trainers by British Columbia-based Brian Jungen.
But by far the most powerful is the room full of autobiographical drawings by the late Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, which depict private everyday life in the small community of Kinngait, Canada. Dated between 2001 and 2006, they mess with touristic stereotypes by combining scenes of traditional whale and seal hunting and consumption with those of watching porn, queuing at the state liquor store and domestic violence.
Other artists address the implicit nostalgia of the biennial’s title by pointing out that the past wasn’t so wonderful, either. Two films by the young Chechen-born artist Aslan Gaisumov (one on show in the wonderful high Victorian-Gothic wunderkammer that is the Victoria Gallery & Museum and the other in Liverpool’s grand neoclassical St George’s Hall) offer a stark reminder of the human cost of the Soviet deportation of the entire population of Chechen and Ingush peoples from the Caucasus to central Asia in 1944.
In People of No Consequence (2016) the ageing survivors of these deportations—men in astrakhan hats, women in headscarves—file into a room, sit down and then leave. They are the only ones left. Behind them is a huge, jarringly garish image of a futuristic Soviet city.
In its companion work, Keicheyuhea (2017), Gaisumov takes one of these survivors, his grandmother, back to the high mountains and steep valleys of her North Caucasus homeland. It is the first time that she has visited this harsh but beautiful landscape since her forcible removal from it as a child, but she remembers exactly where the vanished houses and villages were, and the paths taken to graze livestock in the high meadows. Among her reminiscences, she reveals almost casually how she lost her younger sister to starvation during the deportation.
There are more painful memories in the film Whispering of Ghosts (2018) by Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa. Here an elderly patient of the psychoanalyst-philosopher Franz Fanon from the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria recounts the torture he suffered at the hands of the French and how he created a garden in the hospital grounds as occupational therapy.
On a happier note, Bourouissa has recreated this North African garden, complete with Algerian plants, as a community project in the grounds of Liverpool’s Kingsley Community School in Toxteth. Its title is Resilience Garden (2018).
For another powerful strand running through the biennial is an attempt to create a more beautiful world now, whether in Liverpool or beyond. Horse Day (2014-15), is another film by Bourouissa in which the artist worked with the urban stables in the impoverished inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion to devise, stage and document a special equestrian event. Watching the young inner-city riders show off their exceptionally high standard of horsemanship and their elaborately decorated steeds, is wonderfully uplifting. My prize goes to the stylish mount decked out in a gloriously bling armor fashioned from linked rows of gleaming CDs.
Closer to home, another of the biennial’s most successful and inspiring projects is Ryan Gander’s “Time Moves Quickly”, made in collaboration with five children from Liverpool’s Knotty Ash Primary School. This began with a series of play-focused workshops and has resulted in the design and fabrication of a series of five bench-like sculptures based on the forms of Liverpool’s modernist Catholic cathedral. These are now installed on the plateau behind Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, and there is currently a fundraising campaign to ensure that they remain permanently in situ.
So, despite its gloomy title, the 10th Liverpool Biennial also offers a glimmer of hope for a more beautiful world.
Summer novels need to do two things: divert you from holiday hitches (stolen passports, family fights) and remind you of the pleasure of reading fiction (usurped by meetings and deadlines). Stories steeped in the art world are the perfect traveling companions: they’re full of coveted things, coded language and baroque manners. Here are four books to ease the wait for your flight’s (un)expected time of departure.
The Impression of an Artist
This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest pranks in art history: novelist William Boyd’s invention of Nat Tate, an American Abstract Expressionist purported to have destroyed most of his works before throwing himself off the Staten Island ferry in 1960.
Boyd’s monograph about the painter, Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960, was launched at a grand party at Jeff Koons’ studio on April Fool’s Day 1998. David Bowie and Gore Vidal were in on the joke. Other guests—who were not—reminisced about Nat’s talent. Some claimed to have met him.
Often forgotten in the tale of Tate is what a slick sleight-of-hand the monograph is. A whistle-stop biography—art school on Cape Cod, pal of Braque, lover of Peggy Guggenheim—is propped up with found photographs supposedly featuring various players in the tragic trajectory of the artist. Further proof comes with illustrations of Tate’s work (drawn and painted by Boyd).
Using the form of the artist monograph for fictional ends is a clever conceit. And by putting himself into the narrative—being surprised by a Tate drawing on a visit to a New York gallery—Boyd asks the reader to trust a writer celebrated for his fiction. Bizarrely, it’s a strategy that works. Even if Tate hadn’t existed, one is left feeling as if he had.
*Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960 is published by Bloomsbury
The Art of Déjà Vu
Prolific novelist Antoine Laurain’s first novella, The Portrait, is perfect for a Parisian sojourn. In the back galleries of the Drouot auction house, antique hunter Pierre-François Chaumont gets a shock as he rummages through the forgotten lots. “Sixty centimetres by forty. An eighteenth-century pastel in its original frame, of a man wearing a powdered wig and blue coat,” Chaumont observes. “Transfixed, I could not tear my eyes away from it: the face was my own.”
The find triggers an obsession in Chaumont, making him pay well over estimate for the work. It also tries the patience of his wife, Charlotte, who can’t see the similarity between her husband and his pastel doppelgänger.
Chaumont’s collecting bug—his passions include snuffboxes, paperweights and button-hooks—has long been a marital bone of contention. “My predecessors, Gulbenkian, Sacha Guitry and even Serge Gainsbourg, had whole houses devoted to their innumerable collections,” Chaumont notes. “But I, at my lowly level, made do with a ‘study’.”
As Chaumont researches the canvas, he uncovers a personal as well as artistic provenance. The story also unpicks the peculiar psychology of collectors, how passing interest morphs into something else. “It’s a collection when you have two and are looking for a third,” Chaumont writes in his diary.
*The Portrait is published by Gallic Books
Gin, Guns and Goyas
From the believable to the barmy. In the early 1970s, London picture dealer Kyril Bonfiglioli turned his hand to writing, creating a memorably debonair art world rogue in the process. Charlie Mortdecai is not your typical expert in Old Masters: he carries a riverboat revolver, wears blue smoking jackets and has a butler who is quick with his fists. “I like art and money and dirty jokes and drink,” Charlie remarks. “I am very successful.”
Don’t Point That Thing at Me (1972), the first of four Mortdecai mysteries (the final one was published after Bonfiglioli’s death in 1985), finds Charlie in possession of a stolen Goya, which draws an assortment of thugs to his plush penthouse. Unflappable, he deals with attempted murder and corrupt cops with sardonic humor and a diet of martinis and oysters.
The Goya intrigue takes Charlie from London’s Mayfair—buzzing with barflies and burglars—to a villain’s lair in the deserts of New Mexico. On route, Charlie rhapsodises about the legs of American girls and the Genoese works of Van Dyck and endures stalkers in Buicks as well as unsavoury motel sheets.
Bonfiglioli is funny, tart and wholly inappropriate (a Rolls–Royce revs up “like a well-goosed widow”). The author insisted his books were not autobiographical. They were, he claimed, “about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer”.
*Don’t Point That Thing at Me is published by Penguin
In Thomas Bourke’s debut, The Consolation of Maps, a naïve Japanese antiquarian attempts to navigate the rough landscape of human emotions. After being talent-spotted by a client, Kenji swaps the cherry blossom of Tokyo for the cypress trees of Virginia when he takes a job with the enigmatic map dealer Theodora Appel. At Rare View, Appel’s classic revival mansion, Kenji delights in a trove of cartographic gems.
Kenji has a youthful, and puritanical, love of how maps trace history, both false and fake. He finds both at Rare View: but for all the delicate charts and giant globes on display he senses there is something hidden, something unspoken.
While Kenji sees their stock as symbols of progress, Appel takes a more commercial tack. “We’re art dealers,” she tells him. “We’re in competition with auctioneers, stockbrokers, yacht salesmen.” Kenji’s measured observations highlight the difference between the blunt nature of the New York trade and the gentle waltz of doing business Tokyo–style.
Bourke captures the topographical magic created by ground eggshell in Renaissance ink and woodcuts on mulberry paper. The story of mapmaking is one infused with the “reckoning of Phoenician sailors, the guarded secrets of court astronomers and the manoeuvring of admirals and generals”. And such plotting continues.
*The Consolation of Maps is published by Riverrun
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