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.