The Biennial's Radical Heart
Steve Dutton reflects on the exhausted Biennial model and gives his account of how curators are finding ways to overcome this syndrome.
What can there be left to add to the already hyper-inflated discourses around the global Biennial phenomenon? What could possibly be left to be said on the phenomenon of forever asking what may be left to be said?
Never one to pass up the opportunity of labouring over a point, five years ago I suggested (with tongue only slightly in cheek) to an audience in Sheffield that the international globalising Biennial model, (of which I denied ArtSheffield05 had any aspirations to become) was past its sell by date and was in need of a drastic overhaul, only to then struggle in vain to articulate what form that overhaul might take. My feeling was then, as it is now, that ArtSheffield incarnations (05, 08, 10) were attempting to refuse 'Biennial' status in an attempt to outmanouvre what I saw as the paralysing effects of a ubiquitous, uncritical, overblown, market orientated Biennial model.
Of course, in reality, there is no single Biennial model, and many Biennials are incredibly informative and ambitious projects. Yet looking back over the last decade or so, a skeptic might argue there was little or no substantial difference between them, that they were more or less an endless proliferation and reproduction of the same, with the odd new slant often conveyed by some quasi-thematic hyperbole, and that these often enormous events were part of some elaborate conversations which more or less agreed to maintain the status quo. Even Manray Hsu and Vasif Kortun's flirtation with Activist practices in the 2008 Taipei Biennial, though brave, felt somewhat hollow and depressing within the vast sweep of the Biennial itself, which effectively neutralises all it comes into contact with.
The Biennial kills all that it attempts to claim by framing and 'housing' its art and artists. Like an extraordinarily elaborate conceptual yet flexible frame of quotation marks, the Biennial 'houses' work alongside other work within a growing taxonomy and currency of 'biennial art'. The work is reduced by the Biennial's encircling grip to a series of generalisations and cyphers, as encyclopedic signs and examples of 'art'. Occasionally work breaks out of course (sometimes literally like Mike Nelson's installation in Istanbul in 2003 which encouraged the viewer to get totally lost in an edgy part of town) and becomes particular and specific again - alive even, if only momentarily - but it seems a rare thing for this to happen. The Biennial, often complex, skilfully curated and brilliantly conceived in many respects, is nonetheless often a monster survey, which, as if by its very nature, ultimately foregoes depth, difference and slowness for speed, homogeneity and surface.
Like the Art Fair, the Biennial also exists as a significant force in social, financial, political and geographical space and time. Yet precisely by doing so it reduces the art it houses (or contains and limits) to a series of non-specific generalities subservient to the Biennial's performing of its own considerable presence. In this sense it is the Biennial as an entity rather than its art, which is always somehow more specific than much of the work within it. In an intriguing process of transference, the Biennial becomes or appears in the world often at the expense of the disappearance of the art and artists it houses. This is a dual operation: on the one hand a curated gathering and survey, on the other a performing operation which exists above and beyond its constituent parts as both an object and an event with a force all its own.
Of course, curators have been publicly agonising over how to embed the practices of art back into the world using a range of tactics. In a fairly recent spate of Biennial discourse, much has been made of considering locality as a means of 'grounding' the event and the work within it into the here and now. But despite these appearances the Biennial still continues to confirm itself more as a commercial branding event/spectacle than a genuine attempt to get down and dirty with the matter of 'art and people'.
This year's incarnations in Taipei and Guangju offer a glimmer of hope. Both have opted for high degrees of self-reflection, though in entirely different ways. Most immediately noticeable is that the Taipei Biennial 2010 has no overarching thematic title. The curators Hongjohn Lin and Tirdad Zolghadr have dramatically decreased the size of the project, blankly refusing the grand theme almost in a self-reflexive snub of past pretensions. Taipei 10 openly reconsiders the Biennial format through a number of structural proposals and confesses to having "no curatorial master plan to scream from the rooftops" other than a "question of what is distinctive of Biennials today?" asking: "What are the conditions of production a Biennial creates; what can you do with a Biennial that you cannot do with anything else?"To take things even further there is a transfiguration of Taipei 10 into a two-year process leading to a series of smaller exhibitions in 2012, the process being sustained by an academic framework "ideally resulting in sustainable art-pedagogical infrastructure".
Guangju Biennial 2010, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, though equally self-critical, is huge. This Biennial practically posits a case for a programme from which it might be possible to formulate a theory and practice of specificity on which the discourse on locality is only a part. Taken as one whole experience, Guangju suggests, by the nature of the work within it alongside its overall sense of presence, that it is not the gesture (whether it be token or genuine) towards locality which makes for something meaningful for an audience, but a recognition and respect for specificity and difference - of which a respect for locality is only a part. (By specificity I mean the tangible, here and now, the subjective, the individuated, different, oppositional, discursive, brilliant and textured.)
Where Taipei 2010 is deeply self-reflective, vastly reduced, and almost humble, Guangju directly addresses the labyrinthine complexities of the 'human image' and in doing so actively performs something very singular and particular. The project, titled '10,000 Lives', is like a vast mirror reflecting our images right back at us. In some senses Guangju goes back to basics, much like Taipei's self-reflections, by eschewing grand themes and trying to rethink itself in front of us. Yet it is able to appeal to the highly specific (what is it to be me? to be you? to be her, him, them, us? to be human? to die?) without losing a sense of the epic, sprawling nature of art and human creative endeavour Significantly Guangju also doesn't get hung up on 'art' and allows a number of varied anthropological strands and documents into the frame which light up the whole project. This vast show is shot through, top to bottom and inside out, with a special care and attention full of disturbances, refusals, little shocks, stories, details, narratives, layers, textures and worlds within worlds and in its own way has a radical heart.
What Guangju offers is something cohesive and solid, yet still in a process of becoming something as an operation always to be completed by another human being. The abiding theme of Guangju is supplied by the yearly photographic portraits taken of Ye Jinglu, a simple annual pose for the camera, from 1901 to 1968 - not art; but not not art. By focusing on people and time, Guangju develops into an enthralling, four dimensional experience in which multiple strands, layers and histories make up an event which is nothing less than a profound durational performance in which the whole is an equivalence to its parts. This is a 'Biennial' as an event which neither overshadows the 'work' nor is overshadowed by it, and it is the dual performance of this dynamic, of the Biennial as an event/object and of the work operating within it on equal terms, that artists and curators might carefully consider.
I hadn't realised there was so much that could be done, that there was so much that was being done and that there was so much yet to do.
Steve Dutton is an artist in the collaboration Dutton and Swindells, a Director of ArtSheffield and the Director of Lanchester Gallery Projects, Coventry School of Art and Design.