ERIK GÖNRICH’s project titled “Picnic,” for “One Day in the Room,” in collaboration with ODA PROJESI, Galata, June 10, 2001. Copyright Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer. Courtesy Oda Projesi.

Biennials and Infrastructural Shift – Part I


This is the first of a two-part series about the mega-exhibition; the second part will run in AAP 80 (Sept/Oct). Smith’s article is drawn from a chapter of his Thinking Contemporary Curating, to be published by Independent Curators International, New York, in September.            

The most visible elements of the infrastructure in which art is presented to its various publics today are sites of exhibition, which can be imagined along a spectrum, ranging from the more traditional (in the sense of longest running) to the most recent, and from those thoroughly invested in landmark locations to those that presume mobility and transience. At one end are institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: a mother-ship among mega-museums that—like its few peer institutions, such as the British Museum, London, and the Louvre, Paris—has recently included contemporary art, and appointed a specialist curator of a new department of “Modern and Contemporary Art.” We could place at the other end of the spectrum the proliferation of open-ended projects that seek to work from within the creativity already present in the everyday life of communities—such as Oda Projesi (“Room Project”), a collective formed by three women artists, who staged 30 community art projects between 2000 and 2005 in their apartment and the courtyard of a building in the Galata section of Istanbul, and have continued to work since then in more mobile and virtual formats. Between them are a variety of more specialized collections, such as the period museum, university gallery, private collection, museum of modern or contemporary art and the single-artist or single-medium museum. In well-served cities, there are venues that do not have collections but are devoted to changing exhibitions: kunsthalles, alternative spaces, artist-operated initiatives. Finally, there are institutes such as foundations, which include exhibitions as part of their research, publication and educational activities, and as temporary and online sites. With these last, and many emergent quasi-institutions, the focus shifts: the event and the image prevail over place and duration.

In the last two decades, another pivotal element has pushed itself into this mix: the repeated mega-exhibition—the biennial or triennial—now so widespread as to have become an institution in itself. We may situate it, logically, in between concrete institutions, such as museums, and supplementary ones, from kunsthalles to online sites. Indeed, biennials have evolved into internally diverse displays that, recurrently, spread themselves out across the exhibition venues of their host city, occupying and transforming each site, while also connecting them, at least for their duration. Biennials may thus be regarded as “structural”—they have become fundamental to the display of contemporary art.

Each of these realms—the institutional, the alternative and the link—imitate the vital practices of the others, absorbing some of their enabling energies (in the case of institutions), countering them with previously unimagined activity (in the case of the alternatives) or embodying projective versions of both (in the case of the biennial). To fully grasp the settings in which art is shown these days, we need to keep in mind the interplay between the art system’s slow yet constant regeneration of structures and its rapid proliferation of artworks and exhibition ideas. With local variations all over the world, we may be approaching a situation in which museums will no longer be the default location for contemporary art and contemporary curating if they are to remain innovative. Biennials have become the major vehicles for contemporary art, yet their very success seems to have brought problems for curators, their primary custodians, not least the challenge of constant reinvention. Are these challenges confined to biennials or are they indicators of infrastructural shift? If so, in which directions is the system moving?

My recent research identifies three currents that predominate in contemporary art practice. The first—“official, market, museum contemporary art”—is at home in the universal art-historical survey museums, where a process of re-modernism prevails when they address contemporary art; it drives the desire of museums of modern art to remain contemporary, as it does those museums of contemporary art (the majority) that see their role as updating audiences on the continuous output of art (rather than to grapple with the challenges of contemporaneity). The other side of this current—retro-sensationalism—is the preferred mode for the private museums of those collectors who identify with its maverick-in-the-citadel attitude—famously Charles Saatchi, Eli Broad and François Pinault—who are drawn to spectacular art, and high-profile public shows of their collections, whether as part of well-known museums, grand renovations of older structures or by carving out art parks in the jungle (Bernardo Paz at Inhotim, Minas Gerais, Brazil). This is echoed on a smaller scale by many newly rich in Russia, China, the Middle East and elsewhere, including David Walsh, creator of the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania.

The second current, which I call the “transnational transition,” has found its ideal vehicle in the biennial. Local-international exchange is built into the biennial form, as is the regular repetition of the temporary survey exhibition. Thus the biennial has suited Western institutions that wish to sample art from everywhere else, yet not necessarily collect it: Venice, São Paulo, Sydney—the list goes on. In mirror reversal, the biennial suits artists from elsewhere who wish to sample Western  art, but not necessarily reproduce it. Havana, beginning in 1984, remains the leading instance of this (unaligned, third-world) perspective. The biennial also offers international standard models for art-producing locales that wish to build and maintain permanent infrastructure. At the same time, it substitutes for the grand exhibition in locales that cannot or do not wish to present them as a matter of course. This has been a winning combination for the global trafficking of art.

Neither museums nor biennials are the priority disseminative modes for the “under-the-radar proliferators,” a third current in contemporary art, which prefers the internet, direct interactivity, alternative spaces and temporary settings—all constantly changing, all entirely experimental. Third-current prosumers care less about their output being labeled as “art,” and more about whether it is “cool.” Some curators, consciously turning away from the art world’s fawning dependence on the global one percent, actively seek to add artistic energy to social changes that are occurring in new contexts, such as the Occupy Movement. The most interesting, rapid and perhaps most profound kinds of change in curatorial practice are happening in and between these three currents.

What about the biennial itself? Claire Bishop opens her September 2011 Artforum review of that year’s Venice Biennale with the observation that, a decade ago:  “The biennial, with its global reach and its comparative freedom from institutional red tape and historical baggage, provided a unique opportunity to experiment freely with curatorial arrangements (international teams, shows within shows, artist-curated shows) and exhibition structure (geographically dispersed satellite programs; conferences, symposia and publications), and to seek out practices that museums were too provincial or cautious to embrace.” 

Not so anymore, at least not in Venice. Indeed, the past three Biennales have been laid out in zones that echo at least two of the above currents. In the Central Pavilion, we now find a reach for a “universal” theme within contemporary art that usually implodes into a melancholy re-modernism. A “global” glance outward at the world from the Euro-American center usually prevails at the Arsenale. Transnational transition in various “official” forms appears in the National Pavilions (which divide between aspiring to enter the Central Pavilion and indignantly opposing any such ambition). There is a spilling over of transnationality throughout the city, including in the rented palazzos where smaller nations show their art, and better-resourced ones show their “unofficial” art, while dealer coalitions show quasi-official art. Art made within the third current appears sporadically, usually as an echo, or an absent option.

Venice is, of course, the primogenitor of all biennials. Arguably, the biennial format was not revised until the São Paulo Biennial (1951), Documenta (1955) and the Havana Biennial (1984), which, in their different ways, inaugurated a more limited, indeed regional, version of international-local exchange. In each case, again distinctively, regional emphasis aimed to manifest an ideological perspective: São Paulo to connect art in South America (Brazil especially) to Europe and the United States; Documenta 1 to make Kassel a site for the symbolic internationalization of German art after the Nazi era and to contrast West German abstraction with the Socialist Realism that prevailed on the other side of the Iron Curtain; and Havana to offer a base for artistic connection within Latin America and the Caribbean, and to reach out laterally to other “non-aligned” nation states.

In his 2006 essay “The Unstable Institution,” Carlos Basualdo notes that the proliferation of biennials in the last 30 years—a second wave or new phase in their history, yet one now ending—has occurred “completely in tune” with the integration of markets and the spreading of information about localities everywhere, along with resistances to such globalizing forces. The tension between the homogenizing and anti-homogenizing forces of globalization is captured in the biennial, as it foregrounds both international and local art, and highlights the complex relays between them.

Works shown at biennials tend to be less tied to market tastes and dictates, more critical in character, using more adventurous media, and more likely to be drawn from other expressive and symbolic practices such as cinema, design and architecture. (In a word, they are more contemporary.) And biennials require greater and more immediate immersion in dense and diverse interpretative discourses than do the usual run of exhibitions at museums. (Ditto.) While this has been the case in biennial exhibitions to date, how long will it remain so?

Taking a global view, many have argued that, in recent decades, the biennial has frequently led in exploring the implications of radically new forms of art-making. We are now reaping the benefits of 20 years of sustained assault, through the biennial form, on what Basualdo calls the “canonical mechanisms established in the historical narratives produced, almost exclusively, in Europe and the United States.” Despite the fact that museums often house biennials, I agree with Basualdo that “large-scale international exhibitions never completely belong to the system of art institutions in which they are supposedly inscribed,” therefore, “the range of practical and theoretical possibilities to which they give rise often turns out to be subversive.” This is highly significant, with enormous potential for the development of art, and its disseminative structures. Yet it also leaves us with this question, among others: If museums have been quick to absorb some of the lessons of the biennial into their usual displays and regular programming, what has this done to the subversive potentials of the biennial format? If it has been disabled, can curators best advance innovative art by investing their energies in creating new kinds of infrastructure?