Yongwoo Lee is the director of the Shanghai Himalayas Museum and president of the International Biennial Association. He was previously one of the founding members of the Gwangju Biennale in 1995 and president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation from 2010 to 2014.

Illustration by Camille Raviart.

Yongwoo Lee

Korea, South
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

There is no “biennale” in biennales. The art calendars in Asia and in the West are quite different from one another. The schedule in Europe and America is crowded in the first half of the year—clustered in the springtime—and, in Asia, the various art festivals, such as biennales and art fairs, occur primarily in the fall or harvest season. In the spring, there are events with long histories like the Venice Biennale, Documenta in Kassel, the Whitney Biennial, Manifesta and the Berlin Biennale, and art fairs such as Art Basel, the Armory Show, Frieze New York, and ARCO. On the other hand, major events in Asia such as the Gwangju Biennale, Shanghai Biennale, Singapore Biennale, Busan Biennale, Yokohama Triennale, Mediacity Seoul, Taipei Biennial, Guangzhou Triennial and others are primarily organized in the fall. Additionally, fairs like West Bund Art & Design, Art021 Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair and KIAF also take place in the fall. Are these scheduling preferences related to sensibilities derived from cultural differences? Or, is it a matter of how culture is perceived?  

I visited many biennales this year that made me think about the critical discourse and particularly the distrust surrounding the biennale structure that is currently circulating in the field of visual culture. Among the expressions of wariness I heard were the following questions: “Why are there so many biennales?” “Why do they all look alike?” “Why are they over-politicized?” “Why don’t they collaborate with local communities more actively?” “Why are their standards so low and why do they act as if they are a promotion channels for their host governments?” “Why do they resemble museum exhibitions?” “Is the biennale still the liveliest example of a working social medium, an avant-garde form of cultural activism?” “Or are they already another institutionalized power structure?” “Why are they not making efforts to attain box-office success even though they spend enormous amounts of money?” “Are they so blinded by box-office hits that they haven given up on the civic duties of art?” 

Except for a handful of renowned biennales, most suffer immensely from the economic symbol they have become and subsequently are bound to political mandate. Additionally, they are often faced with unexpected factors despite their authority in the public sphere. Along with a lack of funding, biennales also endure extreme exhaustion in dealing with external circumstances, such as the rejection of visa applications for participants, censorship policy, political discrimination against certain countries and regions, and the exclusivity of the respective local community. Also, it cannot be ignored that they are exposed to unreasonable demands from funding bodies. Then again, should we consider these variables as excuses for the faults of biennales? Of course not.    

If there is a way for biennales to survive, it should be to prove the value of their existence clearly to those who claim that there are too many. In the case of several biennales I visited, there were many disappointing elements. Some were too politically radical; some had lost the beautiful, universal language that a biennale’s cultural action can present, becoming instead trapped in localism; some had lost or ignored social urgencies that a biennale can address; and some had been altered to indulge in aesthetic esotericism.  

We must be reminded of the fact that there are apparent reasons for the proliferation of biennales in the 1990s. These reasons include the rapid expansion of globalization and its economic influence, the information revolution and the rapid expansion of the tourism industry. This led to the existence of almost 300 biennales after a growth period of 20 years, an expansion that can be attributed to the spirit of cultural action shared by cultural producers and consumers of culture. 

I am not advocating for the politicization of artistic discourse and biennale rhetoric. Rather, I am advocating a de-politicization of the local politics that provoke hostility toward neighbors. This is my self-reflective criticism on biennale culture, not as a museum curator but as a colleague who has shared the sufferings in the turmoil of the biennale field for the past 20 years.

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