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Biennials: The Exhibitions We Love to Hate

Biennials: The Exhibitions We Love to Hate

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Biennials: The Exhibitions We Love to Hate

148 pages
2 heures
Sep 1, 2020


Examine one of the most significant recent transitions in the contemporary art world: the proliferation of large-scale international recurrent survey shows of contemporary art, commonly referred to as contemporary biennials. Since the mid-1980s biennials have been instrumental in shaping curating as an autonomous practice. These exhibitions are also said to have provided increased visibility for certain types of new art practices, notably those that are socially and politically committed, research-based, and site-specific, and to have undermined some of the more traditional art media, such as painting, drawing, or sculpture. They have been responsible for substantially reshaping the contemporary art world and disrupting the existing value chain of the art market, which now relies on biennials as much as it does on major museums' acquisitions and exhibitions. Rafal Niemojewski, Director of the Biennial Foundation, deftly unpicks the critical discussion and controversy surrounding contemporary biennials. Branded by some critics as showcases of neo-liberalism run amok, in which culture has become synonymous with the dollar-generating leisure industry, biennials have also been associated with the production of monumental artworks which are both highly consumable and photogenic (Instagrammable). The exhibitions we love to hate? This engaging publication makes an essential contribution to a fascinating cultural debate.
Sep 1, 2020

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Biennials - Rafal Niemojewski


Chapter 1

Biennialization and its counternarratives

There are few transitions in the contemporary art world over the past three decades that have made a mark comparable to the proliferation of the international iterative exhibitions commonly referred to as ‘biennials’.¹ They have been instrumental in the most spirited debates in contemporary art and theory, in particular those surrounding decolonialization, migration, the formation of subjectivity, intersectionality, technology and temporality. Their growth has encouraged the progressive absorption into the discourse of contemporary art of vocabulary and concepts borrowed from a variety of disciplines – from the humanities, but also the social and political sciences, economics and urban studies. At the same time, they have advocated for the authority of artistic practices to make epistemic claims. These exhibitions have facilitated the production and dissemination of certain types of art practice: socially and politically committed, process- or research-driven, documentary, site-specific, community-based and public – all practices which might have had difficulty finding a place in the context of a museum or commercial gallery. Parallel to this, biennials are also said to have undermined more traditional art media, such as painting, drawing or sculpture. Intersecting new and existing networks, biennials have been responsible for a substantial reshaping of the contemporary art world, whose calendar revolves around them at least as much as it does around art fairs and exhibitions at major museums. They have laid the ground for unprecedented movement of artists and the increased visibility given to emergent art hubs and scenes. In putting a new spotlight on the figure of the curator, they have also added new dimensions to their practice, including cultural translation, diplomacy and a growing requirement to be public facing. Last, but not least, large-scale international exhibitions have disrupted the existing art market’s value chain, which now relies on biennials as much as it does on major museum acquisitions and exhibitions.

The beginning of this period of growth can be roughly traced to the mid-1980s, concomitant with the appearance of new biennials in territories largely peripheral to, or disconnected from, the core of the contemporary art world, which at that time was still centralized and revolved around the few Western art capitals empowered throughout modernity. The biennials emerging during this period were characterized by a strong desire to challenge the status quo of unequal power relations within the art world and the world at large. The earliest contemporary biennial organizations (Havana, Cairo) emerged in territories then designated as the Third World, which could be translated as both geographically remote and politically and economically incompatible with the Western core. Others (notably Istanbul) materialized in the peripheries and semi-peripheries with an analogous agenda of correcting and decentralizing the cartography the art world inherited from modernity. One thing that these various positions had in common was that they were located on the margins of dominant culture, within the regions of the so-called social, cultural and/or geographical periphery or ‘other’.

By the early 1990s, with major shifts occurring in geopolitics following the end of the Cold War, the ever-accelerating pace of the revolution in information processing, transportation (the boom in low-cost aviation) and telecommunication technologies (the Internet, use of satellites), globalization processes took a major leap. The visible division of the world into two blocs had been replaced by a complex network of exchanges, in which American hegemony was relativized by the European Union, the rising power of East Asia and the former USSR – among others – while the future remained uncertain for most of the Arab and African countries. On the economic front, mass national markets had been largely replaced by other, smaller units and scales, notably by subnational entities such as cities and regions as well as supranational ones such as global electronic markets and free trade blocs.² The signing of treaties activating two new major trade agreements in the Americas – Mercosul (Southern Common Market including Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Venezuela and Uruguay) in 1991 and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico) in 1994 – along with the transformation of the earlier European Economic Community into an economic and political European Union in 1993, introduced economic deregulation and open markets on an unparalleled scale.

Accordingly, in the decades following the 1989 transitions, we have witnessed an increased number of new biennials in Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East. With the new world order in place, the previous political alliances and the notion of periphery – whether defined geographically or symbolically – could no longer be used to comprehend the proliferation of biennials. Instead, it was necessary to privilege a different approach, using the same nomenclature and division into strategic alliances that characterized the system of the global economy. We have seen the rise of contemporary biennial organizations within the single market of the European Union (Lyon, Berlin, Liverpool, Gothenburg etc.), later including its new and prospective members from Eastern and Central Europe (Tirana, Iasi, Prague, Cetinje, Łódź, Bucharest etc.), as well as from the highly developed economies of the Asian Tigers (Gwangju, Taipei, Busan, Fukuoka, Singapore etc.), the emerging markets of BRIC and Mercosul countries (Porto Alegre, Fortaleza, Moscow, Kochi, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, Buenos Aires etc.), NAFTA countries (Tijuana, Santa Fe, Montreal, New Orleans etc.) and the Persian Gulf region (Sharjah).

The agendas of post-1989 biennials greatly differed as compared to their predecessors. Most were established with the desire to join and expand the Western art world, rather than to challenge it, eager to play an important role within the post-Cold-War global economy. They can thus be seen as a legitimization of rising economic powers eager to promote themselves on the international arena and to join the competition over cultural influence between global cities. Nonetheless, it would be highly reductive to conclude that the development of any biennial is directly and solely subsumed within the circulation of capital and global competitiveness. As I will argue in the following chapters, along with global visibility, city branding and attracting foreign money into the local art scene and local economy, the ambitions behind the creation of a new biennial may also be rather less prosaic, and include sustainable development of a local art scene, social cohesion, political projects, utopian ideals or simply a genuine passion for the arts.


In the absence of academic research and publication, the first reactions to the growing number of biennials of contemporary art came from the art press. The arrival of new biennials in various parts of the world has been seen from the start as a prolific phenomenon by some critics and a veritable outbreak by others. The guesstimates of the actual number of biennials continued to grow exponentially: 50, 100, over 250 … Eventually, they became a feature of almost every review of a biennial exhibition. It is curious that art critics rarely indulge in the exercise of counting the art museums in the world. Yet biennials brought about a strange case of arithmomania in the art world.

Following the most intense period of proliferation in the 1990s, the contemporary biennial came under increasing scrutiny. The format had already been dividing critics and art professionals in the previous decade; however, the amount and severity of criticism directed at the contemporary biennial from 2000 onwards was unprecedented. ‘Does the world really need another every-other-year contemporary art exhibition?’ asked Jana Reena on the pages of Artforum in 2001, opening her review of the newly founded Valencia Biennial.³ Similar questions regarding the overwhelming number of new biennials have multiplied in parallel with the growing awareness of this proliferation.

Statements about the excess number of new arrivals on the scene were not the only type of criticism that biennials began to attract. Next came critiques exposing the troublesome relationship between biennials and the economic agendas of their host cities. Representative of these were comments made by curator and critic Robert Nickas in his contribution to the 2007 book Curating Subjects: ‘If you are a city that hosts one of them, the mayor of that city, its travel and tourism director, the owner of a hotel, a sauna, or a sex shop, the answer is yes. Biennials make a lot of sense. Dollars and cents.’⁴ Despite the flippant tone of Nickas’s remark, it was symptomatic of the view of many critics (though generally not of curators) that the biennial was merely a showcase of neoliberalism run amok, in which culture became synonymous with the leisure industry. It is not a secret that the governments in capitalist countries came to consider the cultural sector in terms of its economic contribution, especially given the interest in what are known as the creative industries. The visual arts sector, in particular, has been singled out for its ability to attract business and investment, and to generate spillover effects and innovation across the economy as a whole. Nonetheless, to assume that destination marketing was the dominant logic behind the growing number of biennials would be to undermine the work of thousands of artists, curators and cultural producers who have contributed to biennial culture over the past 30 years. Biennials make a lot of sense, and not just because of dollars and cents.

Biennials have also been repeatedly criticized for commissioning artists to create overly exuberant works, giving rise to ‘biennial art’ that is often monumentally scaled, elaborately produced, rapidly consumable and photogenic (now read as Instagrammable), veering towards the spectacular. In turn, members of the press and visitors alike have come to expect as much, frequently compare the pictures as to which installation was the most impressive. The examples of such criticism go back to 1999, when the critic for The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl, condemned biennials as ‘festivalism’ – a style of exhibition that ‘commands a particular space in a way that is instantly diverting but not too absorbing … the drill is ambulatory consumption: a little of this, a little of that.’⁵ For others, however, biennials mean a great deal more. Okwui Enwezor, former curator of documenta and the Venice Biennale and a committed champion of the biennial format, has argued that today’s large-scale exhibitions can ‘create possible uses for spectacle’, allowing new possibilities in artistic practice and ‘a rich ground for curatorial experimentation’.⁶ I would also add that, while acknowledging the existence of biennial art and festivalism, one could argue that if some biennials seemed to be crossing the

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