/BF Publications, Feature

Biennials: Four Fundamentals, Many Variations

JASON HOELSCHER Dynamic Biennial Dialogic/Chronotopic Network Diagram , (2012) 6×6 in.

When we look back at the century plus history of recurrent survey exhibitions of contemporary art––those we call biennials, triennials, and (at Kassel, itself expanding) documentas––we can see that they slowly established a set of distinctive protocols, that were formalized during the 1980s, then rapidly replicated throughout the world, while at the same time steadily increasing in size and scope. It is also evident that, today, the distinctive characteristics of the biennial form are everywhere being exceeded, as they, like every other component of artworlds everywhere, fall subject to the current frenzy of code-switching. What were those protocols, the features that became distinctive and fundamental? I will identify four, and then note some of the ways in which they are changing.

Studies such as Charles Green and Anthony Gardner’s Biennials, Triennials, and Documentas: The Exhibitions that created Contemporary Art (2016), are giving us a nuanced understanding of the historical unfolding of the biennial form.[1] Biennials have proliferated globally, in successive waves, according to the specific needs in different parts of the world, and to the interplay between them. The result is a dense field of mobility between artists, curators, gallerists, critics, collectors and visitors––especially on an international level––that is unprecedented in its quantity, scope, and variety. It is obvious that the biennial has become as structural to what is usually called “the artworld” in any particular place as every other element in what amounts to a visual arts exhibitionary complex.[2] Secondly, it is precisely their core format, one that offers the reliable repetition of unpredictable difference, which secured their relevance, enabled their expansion, and may ensure their longevity. Third, biennials have become essential to contemporary art’s evidently international character, many would say its “globality,” although I will argue more specifically that they have been the primary platform of the transnational transitionality that has shifted the core locus of art making, distributing and valuing from used to be called the West, moved it South and then East, within regions of the these regions, and thus, now, everywhere. It is this in-transit energy that drives much contemporary art today, throughout the world and in most of the traditional and modern centers. Finally, biennials have also become structural to contemporary art’s very contemporaneity, reflecting its preferred forms in that they have become distributed events, in their localities and across the world. As such, they too are subject to the larger changes effecting communicative exchange everywhere, including network culture’s mediatization of the social.

1. Biennials have become structural within the contemporary visual arts exhibitionary complex

Biennials share with all exhibitionary formats the fundamental purpose of holding something out for inspection, of showing items––as the definition of the word “exhibition” (in English dictionaries, at least) tells us––publicly, for entertainment, instruction, or in a competition. Within the larger exhibitionary complex, these purposes characterize distinct kinds of displays, which are usually held in specialized venues: for example, music halls, public museums, or sporting fields. Annual artist society exhibitions, since their origins in France and England during the seventeenth century, have emphasized contestation between artists, attitudes, and genres as manifest in freshly-made works of art: competition to gain entry to the academy, competition for prizes, then competition for sales. Since Venice in 1895, and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie International from 1896, recurrent exhibitions all over the world have sought to fulfill all three purposes at once.

So, as the first fundamental but not unique characteristic of a visual arts biennial exhibition, we can establish this proposition: that it offers, in one place, a display of the contemporary art of the world in ways that are entertaining, instructive, and competitive, all at the same time. Doing all these things at once begins to distinguish them from exhibitions in art museums. Biennials are, crucially, exhibitionary events, as distinct from displays of the kind exemplified most clearly in the permanent collection rooms of a modern art museum (where continuity over time is emphasized, and change is understood as a modification or eruption within the evolutionary narrative of art’s history), and from temporary exhibitions in such museums (which usually explore in more detail and depth aspects of the history of art that are exemplified in a more general way in the collection display rooms––including the rooms that show the recent past as an opening towards an unspecified present). Being events, rather than primarily an assembly of art objects on display, is what makes biennials contemporary.

The logic and dynamic of the biennial differs from the core logic and dynamic of the modern art museum. Such museums alternate between relatively static displays of their permanent collections and a program of temporary exhibitions of artworks that usually, yet not always nor entirely, come from somewhere else, often from another museum or a private collection. Within this framework, the biennial occurs as an alternative to both the collection and the temporary exhibition, while at the same time having some features of both. (Some museums––notably the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, host to the Carnegie International, and the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, host to the Asia Pacific Triennial––acquire works from biennials, often the prize-winning works, thus continually reshaping their collections.) During the boom years of the 1990s and 2000s, the controlled dynamic between collection and temporary exhibitions that previously prevailed at the modern museum was disrupted by the biennial, which regularly offered different models of what both the collection rooms and temporary exhibitions program might become. This is still an important effect of biennials in most cities in most parts of the world, and effect that is still unfolding. In contrast, in some cities, such as Sydney, that has mounted a Biennale since 1973, the local museums that regularly host biennials (the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the Museum of Contemporary Art) have worked hard to absorb them into their programming, framing them as if they were temporary exhibitions that happen to be recurrent. My instinct is that, in such cases, we are seeing the modern museum working with, but also struggling against, the artworld expectation that today all art should be open to being experienced as contemporary. More broadly, museums and galleries of all kinds are widely expected to be spaces in which art can be experienced in ways continuous with the socially mediated prosumption of images that today is spreading across all exhibitionary platforms, actual and virtual.[3]

2. Condensed contemporaneity, every two years

The simple fact of it occurring every two years has become the most widely adopted characteristic of a biennial. It is often forgotten that the Venice International Exhibition only became a biennial some years after 1895 (indeed, its organization was made systematic during the 1920s and 1930, the fascist years in Italy). Why has this rather mechanical, pragmatic aspect of staging big-scale exhibitions become so definitive? I suggest that it is because, while they occur every two years, and are in that sense repetitions, biennials offer difference each time. They must do this, because they are, usually, committed to showing contemporary art, or recent and past art in so far as it is relevant to contemporary circumstances. Contemporary art, by its own constant redefinition, is an art of becoming, of happenings, occurrences, and occasions. While its content may include material from any time, it is precisely because it typically engages with more than a single temporality at the same time that contemporary art requires the event as its form of appearance. When contemporary art is slowed down––for example, as part of a chronological history of art display in a museum, it ceases to be contemporary, although it maintains the distinctive character of having been contemporary within the contemporaneity that we still share with it. Artworks shown in biennials may be subsequently shown at art fairs, and may be acquired by museums, but, unlike most other exhibitionary venues, neither commerce nor historical valiance is their primary purpose or source of value. Rather, it is to show a purposeful selection from, or as wide a range as possible of, the art being made in the world right now. This is why biennials have––overwhelmingly, and, until recently, almost entirely––shown new, or at least recent work, and have favored work made for the occasion, and specifically for the site. It is this impulse that underlies the preponderance of new media, videos, and installations of various kinds, as well as their openness to research-based, archival, and “social practice” work that is less readily shown in museums and commercial galleries. Biennials share these preferences with not-for-profit, alternative art spaces.

In these ways, biennials typically concentrate contemporary energy in one place, or a related set of places, for a specified time. They are a double-sided form: reliable in their recurrence, but open-ended in their actualization. We do not know what art will be like two years from now, but we can expect that it will be different. Therefore, biennials can be counted on to build anticipation beforehand, and to surprise us when they happen. A regularly timetabled openness to contemporaneity––to art to come, whatever it may be––is the second most distinctive feature of biennials.

3. Local, regional, international

The first Venice International Exhibition and the first Carnegie International introduced another key innovation, one that has persisted to this day: biennials are forms of cultural exchange between nations, enacted at a regional center; specifically, they encourage negotiation between local and international artworlds, conducted at distances within both. This rather complex quality is the source of much that is positively distinctive––indeed, world changing––about biennials, as well as of much of the confusion, over-hyping, and sense of failed expectation, that they also seem to engender.

Biennials did not invent the conception of the “international” or the “regional” in art contexts, but they have certainly institutionalized modes of internal world-picturing among artists, curators, art writers, and art’s many publics, more thoroughly that any other exhibitionary platform. “International” is not a single synonym for “global,” nor is it a straightforward antonym to “local.” Within the biennial dynamic, “international” usually means everywhere else; it means connectedness occurring at scales beyond the immediate reach of the local agents––that is, beyond my artworld, and those nearby, beyond my “region.” It is a concept that has a kind of default inequality built into it, but also the potential that unequal distributions of power may be overcome by assiduous activity, and by making better, more interesting, and more transformatory art right here… It recognizes the fact that artworlds everywhere else are also local, with regions around them, and ringed with other artworlds at both practical and ideological distances. Internationality stakes its agency on effective mobility across this circuitry, as distinct from falling subject to the logic of provincialism, of center-periphery dominance. It acknowledges provincialism as a fact of cultural power, but it holds out the promise of being a vehicle that might assist in overcoming it. This kind of internationalism is not globalism; it will not occur as a result of any top-down, “beneficent” spread of economic and political globalization. It must be won, precisely, against neoliberal globalization…by working in steps, from locality to region, from my locality to another, relevant one, outside my region.

While artists everywhere have always been alert to art being made elsewhere that might be important to their practice, in recent decades biennials have intensified this sense of global connectedness and comparison. It is true that, beginning with Venice, many biennials were founded by lord mayors, city leaders, or civic-minded patrons. Yet these people were usually prompted by groups of local artists who wished to exceed the limits of the their location, and few have survived without the support of at least some local artists (while being reliably opposed by others). So, we can say that the biennial offers local artists the sharp shock of competition; it educates local audiences about art being made outside of their community; it tests local critics, inspires local collectors, and challenges local art administrators to provide the relevant infrastructure so that art of this kind can be made locally and circulated throughout the world. In sum, biennials have become the major means through which local artworlds regionalize and internationalize themselves. (Other methods include travel, magazines, overseas residencies, trading exhibitions, and cultural exchanges.)

Looked at from worldly perspectives, local-international exchange is built into the biennial form. Thus the biennial has suited Western institutions that wish to sample art from everywhere else, yet not necessarily collect it. Venice, São Paulo, Sydney, and to a degree Berlin are examples. In mirror reversal, the biennial form suits artists from elsewhere who wish to sample art from the West, but not necessarily reproduce it. Havana, beginning in 1984, remains the leading instance of this (unaligned, third world) perspective. As well, biennials demonstrate international exhibitionary standards for art-producing locales that wish to build and maintain permanent cultural infrastructure. This is their main role in South East and Northern Asia. In many cities in this region (Shanghai, for example) the biennial substitutes for the mega-exhibition of contemporary art in cities that do not wish, or cannot, present them as a matter of course.[4]

Of course, international cultural exchanges have never been equitable. They are often oriented towards spreading a nation’s influence and values, now known as “soft power.” Yet, on balance, the global proliferation of biennials has challenged the predominance of certain EuroAmerican art centers, such as London, Paris and New York––not as markets, but as art-producing localities. Biennials have done so because, since the 1990s, they have been ideal disseminative vehicles for what I have identified as the one of the major currents in contemporary art. Some characterize this current as “postcolonial” or “global” art, but I call the art of transnational transitionality.[5] Along with a number of path-finding traveling exhibitions that surveyed the art of various continents and regions (Magiciens de la terre 1989 being the paradigm), the proliferation of biennials has enabled artists from previously colonized countries to show their work in venues in their regions and around the world. A network that is no longer dependent on the metropolitan centers has emerged. Unlike the situation for artists throughout the twentieth century, who were obliged to expatriate themselves to metropolitan centers for long periods in order to pursue sustainable careers (or, less materially, to make the best art of which they were capable), it is this network that is sustaining many of the most ambitious and inventive artists. They may participate in it from bases anywhere in the world (although of course enterprising regional, that is, so-called “second tier” global cities, such as Berlin, compete to attract artists by offering them affordable access to precisely such bases).

If the biennial began, in 1895, as an ideal form for internationalizing local artworlds (at least within the centers and peripheries of Europe), we could say that, now, it has become one among the many forms that are assisting to localize and regionalize the international. Like other changes in exhibition making, this is also a result of changes in art practice, which has, for decades, been leading curatorial practice. An example is the 2013-14 Carnegie International, which responded to this overall situation in a number of interesting ways. It introduced a range of local activities two years before the opening of the main exhibition. The curators also extended the exhibition into local playgrounds (Tezuka Architects), and supported such specific community initiatives as reviving the practice of local libraries checking out works of art as well as books (Tranformazium at the Carnegie Library, Braddock). In the museum-based aspects of the show, the work of artists concerned with questions of locality (Joel Sternfeld on utopian communes) were highlighted.[6]

TRANSFORMAZIUM Art Lending Collection at the Braddock Carnegie Library (2013)

In these ways, the overall impact of biennials has, I believe, been of value for contemporary art in the world as a whole. International experience has been crucial to the maturation of the work of a number of contemporary artists from previously colonized countries and those who are members of postcolonial diasporas. El Anatsui, William Kentridge, Tania Bruguera, Wangechi Mutu, and Pedro Lasch are some obvious examples. On the other hand, it is rare for a local artworld––even those as close to concentrations of enormous wealth as New York and London––to contain all the resources necessary to challenge an artist of the strongest ambition in a sustained way across the course of a career. I think of Isaac Julian, John Akomfrah, or Steve McQueen, to take some based in London, or artists such as Tacita Dean or Olafur Eliasson who shifted their studios to the relative periphery of Berlin. Whatever their origins or bases, however, artists today must negotiate contexts and challenges that are––at the same time––local, regional, global, and connected. Being artists, they are sensitive to the fact that these complex relationships are not given, like rules in a game, or settled, as in traditional cultures. They are volatile, and are characterized above all by the contemporaneity of different kinds of difference.

4. The biennial as a distributed event.

Does the biennial have a distinctive spatial character? In most cities, the anchor of the biennial, or at least one of its sites, is the main art historical survey museum, or the museum of contemporary art, or an equivalent venue or pairing of venues. Venice and São Paulo are exceptional in that they have dedicated sites for their biennales. Nowadays, while the main local museum or contemporary art gallery or a dedicated site might anchor the event, biennials increasingly occur across a number of sites in their host city. This is happens most dramatically at Venice itself, with over 200 related venues outside the Giardini and the Arsenale, but is also characteristic of smaller biennials, such as Liverpool. Thus we can identify the fourth feature of biennials: they have become distributed events. They are cosmopolitan (of the city) in this basic sense; and in the broadest, international sense, that is, in linking what is, in effect, the art produced in a number of cities.

In being exceptional yet recurrent events in a particular city, yet deploying a form that is used in many other cities, biennials take on some of the character of festivals: crowds of people gathered to have a good time, to be entertained by art, to participate in an occasion on which behavior apart from the norm is expected, to be spectators at a carnival, yet secure in the promise that normal life will resume when the circus leaves town. New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl accuses biennials of becoming subject to “festivalism.”[7] Sometimes, merging the forms of the recurrent exhibition into those of the festival can be a good thing: the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale is a case in point. Since 2000, Fram Kitagawa has brought hundreds of artists from all over the world to work with local villagers to create around 900 pieces, of which 200 remain as site-specific works in locations throughout the region. But Schjeldahl was, rightly, targeting the tendency for artists to produce high-impact, low quality works that stand out amid crowded displays, through which bemused crowds wander, mouths agape, minds emptying, feelings benumbed. This complaint was often heard during the 1990s and early 2000s: a small cohort of curators was regularly accused of sequestering opportunities for their signature cadres of artists, dominating what was perceived as a finite circuit, excluding other worthy artists, and boring audiences with repetitions and variations of the same kind of art. As biennials increase in number, size, range, and kind––way beyond the capacity of any individual to monitor––this complaint is less often heard.

These are, to my mind, the fundamental characteristics of biennials as they have evolved during the century and a quarter in which mega-exhibitions have become a standard way of exhibiting art. But the fundamentals are changing, so will I list some of them, in brief, with comments about their likely direction.

5. Biennials blending with other exhibitionary forms. Some recent biennials abjure their traditional obligation to survey as much as possible of contemporary art on a worldwide basis, and have put aside themes that imply a matching generalized socio-political statement about the world today, in favor of a museum-like exhibition about a certain kind of art. A striking recent example was Massilimiano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale. Has this tendency diminished the biennial’s core purpose of offering a wide-ranging survey of international contemporary art to local audiences? On the other hand, art fairs such as Art Basel, Miami, and Hong Kong, and Frieze London and New York, have taken up the model of the annual salon presented by an artists’ society, with the difference that selection is made by a jury of peers consisting of dealers rather than artists. Has the art fair replaced the biennial in offering annual surveys of contemporary art? Short answer: In places where the art fair is strong, developed, and diverse in its formats (including, for example, paracuratorial activities), yes. Elsewhere, not so much. A longer answer would focus on the influence of art dealers on mega-exhibitions, both those in museums and in biennials. In 1972, Konrad Fischer was a vital figure within the curation of Documenta 5, but dealer input is a factor now widely perceived as having grown to become a somewhat distorting influence, especially on the “production values” expected of displays at the leading biennials. It is entirely predictable that key collectors, whose impact on museums has been out there in recent years, will soon have a similar impact on biennials.

6. Biennials as infrastructure builders. When biennials mature to become leading cultural institutions in their locality, nation, or region, they may take on roles usually pursued by established art institutions––especially if these are relatively weak in that city. As neoliberalism’s attack on non-market activity impacts on local government, non-profit organizations everywhere are feeling the pinch. In Liverpool, for example, the Biennale office remains active on a constant basis, offering between Biennales a variety of local cultural services, including the commissioning of public art for the city, educational activities for all ages and levels, public fora on issues of concern, and regular publications in print and online. On the other side of the coin, prominent biennials have taken on roles that extend well beyond the city in which they are located. During the 1930s and 1940s, when the Venice Biennale was one of Italy’s most internationally visible cultural institutions, it actively staged exhibitions of Italian and other art elsewhere in Europe, the United States, and Asia, and curated the participation of Italian artists in exhibitions abroad, including in other biennials, such as Alexandria and São Paulo. These activities continued until 1968, when the credibility of the Biennale came in for widespread questioning by a new generation, leading to artist boycotts and gestures of solidarity. In 1970, the Biennale abolished its Grand Prizes and its sales office, and staged thematic exhibitions instead of the usual celebratory and monographic exhibitions. In 1974 the entire edition was devoted to protesting the overthrow of democracy in Chile. Similarly, documenta 12 was staged across five “platforms,” documenta 13 incorporated Kabul, and Documenta 14 will be presented at both Athens and Kassel.

7. The impact of network culture. Is the online experience of art influencing how biennial visitors look at art in the same ways and to the same degree that it is affecting those who visit art museums? Is it introducing a temporality between viewers and artworks that is indifferent to the seasonal and schedule-driven character of museums and the commercial sector, galleries, fairs, and auction houses? Does the ubiquity of online access to images of art being made everywhere today, and in every past everywhere, reduce the need to be shown a curated survey of contemporary art? Short answer to each of these questions: Yes. Biennial recurrence is an artifact of the practicalities of staging a major physical exhibition in an institution or a city on a regular basis. It makes little sense within the azonal temporalities of the Internet.

8. Biennials as occasions of curatorial innovation. It is true that, during the 1990s and 2000s, there was a repetitious narrowing of the number of artists who were regularly seen in these exhibitions, and a concentration on the efforts of a few curators. This has changed in the last few years, due to the sheer number of biennials, their global spread, the proliferation of curatorial styles, and the multiplicity of regional and local purposes that they now serve.

In Thinking Contemporary Curating, I make the point that, since around 2010, the biennial has been widely understood by many people in the international artworld as being in a crisis of overproduction, of having become stale in form, and, as a result, in danger of being absorbed back into the traditional museum.[8] Asked whether she thought “there is life left in the form yet” Juliana Engberg replied:

Yes. I think it’s funny, this whole rhetoric around the problem with biennales. I’ve just seen four in the past three weeks, each different, showing different work, going for a different idea. They are events that come around every two years, shaped by diverse curatorial approaches. The generate a great deal of discussion and debate and excitement and they are a clearly visible event for a public looking to be attracted by contemporary art in a different way from museums and small enterprises. And I wonder who constructs this rhetoric. Nobody knows what a biennale should be, and that’s its strength.[9]

Whatever one’s opinion, there is no doubt that among the curatoriate there has recently arisen a competition as to who could reconceive the biennial in the most inventive and influential way. Critic Eleanor Hartney: “Of late, it has become a cliché for curators to announce bravely that they are dispensing with the conventional biennial structure, a tendency so pervasive that one begins to wonder where, outside of Venice, a conventional biennial might be found today.”[10]

Yet to reinvent the biennial every time out, and do so for every iteration of the 150 being mounted today, is to take on the impossible. Many curators seem to have responded to this challenge by reverting to exhibitions that are scarcely distinguishable from collections displays in museums, or those of in-depth, historical temporary exhibitions on a specific theme. For example, the 2013 Venice Biennale was a museum-type historical survey of parallels, during the twentieth century, between the exploration of psychoanalytic themes by certain modern and contemporary artists and the obsessive pursuits of “outsider” artists, many with certified mental illnesses. While finely done, and often fascinating, it puts to one side any concern about contemporary art per se.[11] To me, this disqualifies it as a biennial. For Boris Groys, in our conversation in Talking Contemporary Curating, it was simply an example of subjective curating, which one either likes or not, on the same subjective grounds. Unlike the case of an exhibition that attempts an art historical task (such as offering a survey of contemporary art) neither the curator nor the audience is in any way accountable.[12]

9. Biennials, triennials, and documentas. At least since Catherine David’s iteration in 1997, documentas have become, in my estimation, meta-exhibitions, that is to say, exhibitions that add to the fundamentals of repeating mega-exhibitions such as biennials and triennials a quality of overview and, by implication, commentary on these exhibitions. Their five-year cycle, and their huge budgets, permits this critical distancing. Of course, this distinction is as unstable as every other one that I have been making so far: we must anticipate a documenta that will retreat into the most conventional survey of world art format, just as we witnessed in 2015 Okwui Enwezor attempting to insert a documenta-type meta-exhibition into the main pavilions of the Venice Biennale.

10. The institutionalization of artistic-political-ideological orientations, especially at established biennials, e.g. Venice, Sydney, Sao Paulo, as well as documenta, that routinely swing from one side of the ideological compass to the other. Thus the president of the Venice Biennale, Paolo Baratta, announces blithely that after Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 biennale, which, he says, “centered on the many rifts and divisions of our contemporary world,” for the next iteration in 2017 he has chosen a curator “committed to emphasizing the important role artists play in inventing their own universes and in reverberating generous vitality towards the world we live in.”[13]

Those who would deny, or denigrate as insignificant, the political implication of biennials as a cultural form need to pay attention to statements such as these. Effective power brokers know that their work is most effective when it is done in plain sight, especially when you are trafficking in how to symbolize the present in the interests of the 1% when most artists wish their work to serve those of the rest of us, especially interests that we do not yet know that we have.

11. The impingement of actual politics on the biennial’s habitual politics of the symbolic. As biennials become more and more like other elements within the exhibitionary complex, especially the slower, more institutionalized ones, they become less and less able to engage with the challenges thrown up by present and emerging realities. A case in point was the 19th Sydney Biennale, shown in many venues around the city between March and June 2014. Shortly before the exhibition was due to open, controversy arose when it became known that the main sponsor, the Transfield Foundation, was tainted by direct association a company that executes the Australian government’s egregious policy of mandatory detention and off-shore processing of refugees who risk their lives on the high seas of the Indian Ocean and the Timor Straits in order to reach the safety of Australian territory. A call to boycott the Biennale was issued by a number of the invited artists. Displaying unusual resolve, the board asked its chairman, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, president of the Transfield company, to resign. He did so, withdrawing the company’s sponsorship. Subsequently, all but two of the artists agreed that their work could be shown.[14]

Protest posters and demonstrations during the 2014 Sydney Biennale.

Meanwhile, in St Petersburg, artists were called upon to boycott the 11th edition of Manifesta because the Russian state, having recently legislated against “homosexual propaganda,” was busily annexing Crimea, and advancing into Eastern Ukraine. Curator Kasper König appealed for an apolitical exhibition, condemning any actions to act politically in the situation as a “misuse.” Invited to write a catalog essay on “political meaning of Russian contemporary art,” critic Ekaterina Dergot instead wrote an essay entitled “A Text That Should Never have Been Written?” After a searching examination of the mountains of bad faith being generated by all involved, she concludes with this passage:

In a way, the Russian cultural authorities who suddenly became archaically and ridiculously anti-modernist and made Manifesta, no matter how it would appear, into a heroic deed, made things look simpler than they currently are. Since Vladimir Putin goes so far as forbidding state employees to ride foreign cars and to take their holidays abroad, why not just ban any foreign art outright? Under aesthetic censorship (that agrees to make some exceptions for “export” situations), international contemporary art is a protest act by definition. But in a broader context it is not, and has not been for decades. The world we live in is more complex than that. There is no guarantee of emancipatory potential in contemporary art, and neither are there specific forms that would assure us of the correct political behavior of their creators, let alone their owners. Increasingly, we hear of such a thing as a left-wing rhetoric (and maybe not even just a rhetoric) of the right wing, and we see contemporary-looking (and maybe even contemporary-thinking) art that embraces nationalism and dictatorship. There will be such examples—from the Russian context—at Manifesta, although it seems through an oversight rather than programmatically. There are no rules anymore, and each case has to be taken separately; the relatively safe common ground of contemporary art is shifting. And this incredible complexity is the only hope left. [15]

12. In a converging artworld but a divisive social context biennials are exceeding their fundamental forms. This tendency has been evident throughout these comments. The result is that cities intent on establishing their own biennials, or improving the still developing one that they have, view established biennials like the one in Sydney as instances of international culture to be examined and adapted for local use. Implicitly, those planning to create a biennial ask: can my city create a visual arts infrastructure that will be sophisticated enough to sustain such an event for a number of years to come? But in places that have biennials similar to that in Sydney, and have had them for some time, the problem, today, is the opposite: can the biennial form, now past middle-age, be regenerated to capture the innovative energy and the inspiring impact that it had throughout the world during the 1990s, or will our biennial drift into the repetitions of institutionalization, the taming of difference, and the merge with other artworld structures?

As biennials everywhere become more institutionalized, more integrated into the visual arts exhibitionary complex on the one hand, and, on the other, more subject to the subjectivism of independent curators, it might become necessary to invent a different exhibitionary structure, one that manifests more acutely the antinomies of our present situation: its multiplicity, its layered cotemporalities, its proliferation of differences, and its increasingly desperate reach for a revised contract with the planet. This is the direction that, I believe, artists, curators, and arts administrators are being asked to move if they wish to really engage themselves in exhibiting our contemporaneity, and in doing their part in creating our contemporary composition.

*Some parts of this text are drawn from a keynote lecture for Busan Biennale Symposium 2013 on Biennale Ecology in Contemporary Art, held at the Museum of Art, Busan, Korea, on November 30, 2013. I thank Kwangsu Oh for his invitation, Minhee Park and her team for their organization, and Jinsang Yoo, Paul Domela, Anna Harding, Calvin Hui, Kyehoon Ha, and the other participants for their conversation. Published Kwangsu Oh ed., The Symposium 2013 Busan Biennale: Biennale Ecology in Contemporary Art (Busan: Busan Biennale, 2014). These ideas were further developed for a keynote lecture for the symposium at Liverpool John Moores University curated by Joasia Krysa, The Biennial Condition: Contemporaneity and the Episodic, October 7 and 8, 2016, which presented work in progress from “The Contemporary Condition” project, led by Jacob Lund and Geoff Cox of Aarhus University. I benefitted from discussion on the panel The Biennials Explosion: An Argument, A Conversation, a Downpour of Questions, with Carolee Thea and Rafal Niemojewski at the School of Visual Arts, New York, October 20, 2016, organized by Steven Henry Madoff.

  1. Charles Green and Anthony Gardner’s Biennials, Triennials, and Documentas: The Exhibitions that created Contemporary Art (London: Wiley, 2016).
  2. See Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1995), especially chapter 6, and his important chapter “The Exhibitionary Complex,” in Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, eds., Thinking About Exhibitions (London: Routledge, 1996).
  3. See Terry Smith, Thinking Contemporary Curating (New York: Independent Curators International, 2012), chapter 2 “Shifting the Exhibitionary Complex.” Of course, biennials have not been the only precipitators of transformation in the modern art museum. The emergence of economies of experience brought about by globalized communicative connectivity, and the rise of global cities in particular, is a deeper and more pervasive causal factor. See B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore, The Experience Economy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011 updated edition), and Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), chapter 5, “The Experience Museum,” and chapter 6 “The Intensity Exhibit.”
  4. On the specific difficulties but also inventive freedoms of biennials outside of Europe and the United States, see Carolee Thea, On Curating 2: Interviews with Fourteen Curators (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2016).
  5. Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents (London: Laurence King; Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2011), Part 2.
  6. Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers, Tina Kukielski, 2013 Carnegie International (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 2013).
  7. Peter Schjeldahl, “The Art World: Festivalism,” The New Yorker (July 5, 1999): 85.
  8. See Smith, Thinking Contemporary Curating, 92-99.
  9. Cited in Natasha Hoare, Coline Milliard, Rafal Niemojewski, Ben Borthwick and Jonathan Watkins, The New Curator (London: Laurence King, 2016), 41.
  10. Eleanor Heartney, “Gwangju Report: Image Surplus,” Art in America, vol. 98, no. 11 (December 2010): 78.
  11. The museum character of the exhibition was confirmed when Gioni curated a smaller version of it, with additional examples, in the exhibition, The Keeper, at the New Museum, New York, July-September 2016.
  12. Terry Smith, Talking Contemporary Curating (New York: Independent Curators International, 2015), 71-74.
  13. Jane Morris, “Venice Biennale director Christine Macel promises an artist-centered exhibition,” The Art Newspaper, September 23, 2016, online at http://theartnewspaper.com/news/news/christine-macel-reveals-plans-to-make-venice-biennale-look-on-the-bright-side-/?utm_source=weekly_sept23_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=email_weekly.]
  14. The Sydney Biennale website explains that the Foundation was established as a joint venture by Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services, the last being the company managing the detention centers. See http://www.biennaleofsydney.com.au/19bos/support-us/current-partners/transfield-holdings/. On the controversy, see the “Open Letter to the Board of the Sydney Biennale from Participating Artists,” February 19, 2014; at http://19boswg.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/open-letter-to-board-of-sydney-biennale.html. Statement of withdrawal by five artists, February 26, 2014; at http://19boswg.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/statement-of-withdrawal-from-19th.html. Media release by Biennale regarding resignation of chair; at http://www.biennaleofsydney.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/MediaRelease_Luca_Belgiorno-Nettis_7_March_2014.pdf. The controversy is discussed in detail in many articles in the June 2014 issue of Contemporary Visual Art+Culture Broadsheet, vol. 43, no 2 (June 2014), and on the website of the journal Discipline, at http://www.discipline.net.au/Discipline/Biennale_of_Sydney_2014.html, with statements by Nikos Papastergiadis, Charles Esche, and others. Juliana Engberg’s comments may be found in the interview in Natasha Hoare, Coline Milliard, Rafal Niemojewski, Ben Borthwick and Jonathan Watkins, The New Curator (London: Laurence King, 2016), 41.
  15. Ekaterina Degot, “A Text That Should Never have Been Written?”, at http://www.e-flux.com/issues/56-june-2014/. See also Art Newspaper, #257, May 2014.