The explosion of biennials

It was like a cultural version of Davos, held in the wintry grandeur of central Oslo. For three days, delegates and guests sat in a conference called Oslo Pilot, holding critical discussions about “relational aesthetics” and the role of public art in society.

But really, last November’s event was all about one question: should the Norwegian capital climb aboard the crowded urban bandwagon and host an art biennial?

Oslo is expecting 30% population growth and two major museums re-launches (the Munch and the National) over the next few years. As one of the curators of Oslo Pilot, Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk says: “Oslo is already rich in culture, with two sculpture parks in a city of just over 600,000” (The Guardian, 24/02/2017). In which case, what’s the point of having a biennial?

There’s been an explosion of biennials, triennials and their ilk, and so many cities now have one,” observes Charles Esche, director of Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum and a veteran curator of several biennials (most recently, Jakarta).

Normally a temporary but recurrent exhibition, the every-two-year form is the most prevalent. And they are indeed blossoming: from Beijing to Berlin, Taipei to Sao Paulo. Next month, the inaugural Kathmandu Triennial in Nepal will join that list.

So legion are these exhibitions that it’s hard to quantify how many cities now have them, although rough estimates put the total at between 200 to 300 –up from single figures in the 1960s and 70s.

And while biennials have traditionally focused on contemporary art, an increasing number are breaking into sectors such as design and architecture.

Biennials represent a mobilization of art and visitors; they’re a feel-good moment for cities to connect to a wider network. People in remote cities can see international, contemporary art without having to travel to New York or Paris.

Esche dates the biennial boom to the late 1980s: “When the cold war ended, cities across the world started to compete with each other,” he says. This model lives on in the boosterish boilerplate of contemporary biennials: the Toronto biennial, mooted to start this year, is trumpeting “Toronto’s arrival on the international stage as a global visual arts powerhouse”.

It’s notable that London, Madrid and Barcelona don’t have biennials but Lyon, Seville and Liverpool do. Esche says biennials are often driven by local politicians seeking to “circulate symbolic capital” for intangible future gain; and that they’re a “quicker fix” than an “iconic” new museum, with none of the aggravation.

“City councils tend to love them,” says Christian Oxenius of the Institute of Cultural Capital: “Biennials have become a kind of ‘brand’ in themselves, and they indicate membership of a wider club.”

The first biennial is still the most famous: Venice, born 1895. When it was started by then mayor, Riccardo Selvatico, the Venice biennale hoped to ride the growing move in bourgeois cultural tourism.

Venice Biennial was a promotional tool for the city,” says Esche. In the 1950s, a few biennials emerged which widened reasons for staging them. For example, in 1951 the Sao Paulo biennial [said to be the second oldest in the world] was founded when Brazil was forming a modern national cultural identity.”

Four years later, Alexandria in Egypt hosted the Biennial of the Mediterranean as a post-colonial message.

As biennials are often seeking a breakthrough in global awareness for their host cities, but that they often tend to be held in more peripheral cities.

Oxenius suggests another key reason why they’re attractive: “Biennials are relatively cheap ­– far cheaper than a big sporting event.” And because they are temporary they can bypass planning –yet claim to be a catalyst for change: creating cultural infrastructure just as the Olympics aims to motivate sports in local populations.

Istanbul, which started in 1987 (when it was only the sixth biennial in the world) became a “tool to explain the city anew”, according to Esche.

At best, art biennials can positively transform our engagement with cities. But there are perceived disadvantages to this phenomenon. They have, for example, been seen as a precursor of gentrification, and there are also the suggestions that biennials drive a kind of top end, transnational tourism –as if they are a moving playpen for the 10,000 globe-flitting critics, collectors and curators that constitute the international art world.

At worst, biennials are dominated by VIP sections and can become part of a global search for art as a luxury asset –an attitude that sits particularly ill at ease in poorer cities.

Another vague criticism is that biennials are losing their cerebral edge, and indulging passive “festivalism” and “spectatorship”. Worst of all, some have been accused of massaging a city’s reputational difficulties.

The art world has an uncanny ability to go where the money is. And that’s true of biennials too…But, they are blooming…

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