/BF Publications, Digest

Michel Oren: Biennials that promote an ‘emancipatory politics’ in World Art Journal.

World Art Journal,  Volume 4, Issue 2, 2014

Michel Oren

Biennials that promote an ‘emancipatory politics’.


This essay argues that smaller and more innovative art biennials offer a better chance for what postcolonial theory has termed an ‘emancipatory politics’ – one relatively free from Western hegemony, whether of global capitalism or the Euro-American art world. Such biennials typically exercise ‘powers of the weak’ through trickster tactics that allow them a momentary freedom before disintegration or institutionalization. In their experimental approach and unstable leap into the future, they may resemble avant-gardes. By contrast, several mega-exhibitions of 2002–2003 led to debates about biennial merits and goals that have remained inconclusive despite three recent conferences in Gwangju, Karlsruhe and Berlin.

‘In the early days biennials were synonymous with the innovative and experimental nature of contemporary art,’ the Gwangju co-directors recalled; ‘Three decades into the boom of biennials, a systematic evaluation and debate is imperative’. A Gramscian response to such demands explaining why emancipatory politics are an important biennial goal that can be achieved by leveraging hegemonic shifts in biennial structure seems promising in this regard, although a recent Istanbul Biennial offered challenges. As an alternative, the essay turns to discuss eight unusual biennials that propose models not only for recapturing the ideals of ‘early days’ but for illuminating where the biennial movement still might go and what its range might be.

Read the full text online on Taylor & Francis.

Image: Sanja Ivekovic, The Right One: Pearls of Revolution, was shown at several Meeting Points 7 venues. In this series of photographs, the model’s made-up faceand string of pearls contrasts with her attempts to match the partisan salute of the women in the inset photographs and raises questions about the commodification of critical action. Photo courtesy of Meeting Points