Art biennials are gaining strength in Asia, but what does the future hold for these “global yet local” exhibitions?
On 14 June 2013, the informal talk “The Future of Biennials in Local and Global Context” took place at Art Basel Switzerland (13 to 16 June 2013). Five international biennial curators shared their personal experiences on curating biennials.
Watch the complete Salon discussion on YouTube.com below
Biennial Talk Participants
- Marieke Van Hal, Founding Director of the Biennial Foundation and member of the International Advisory Committee for the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale, Athens
- Riyas Komu, Director of Programs for Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012 and Secretary of Kochi Biennale Foundation, Mumbai/Kochi
- Carol Lu Yinghua, Artistic Director of OCAT, Shenzhen/Beijing
- Jessica Morgan, Director of the Gwangju Biennale 2014, President of the International Jury for 55th Venice Biennale and Daskalopoulos Curator, International Art at Tate Modern, London
- Moderator: Shengtian Zheng, Trustee, Vancouver Art Gallery, Senior Curator of Asia for Vancouver Biennale and Managing Editor, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Vancouver
The Biennial talk was part of Art Basel’s Salon series, and was held in conjunction with the launch of Yishu magazine’s special issue, “World Biennial Forum No. 1.”
Location, location, location
The curators generally agree that the location of a biennial is paramount and, as Carol Lu Yinghua reiterates, a Gwangju biennial could not take place in any other city as the local residents have adopted the exhibition as their own. She explains that the Gwangju Biennial is embedded in the local culture, that it has brought numerous international visitors boosting the city’s economy, and that even taxi drivers now know the English word “biennial.”
Marieke Van Hal agrees that capital cities already have strong arts infrastructures in place, while in other areas, the biennial can “offer new alternative models of artistic production, stimulate artistic discourse, support local artists” and can “stimulate urban regeneration.”
Where is the biennial headed?
Marieke Van Hal states that it is impossible to know all biennials, but that they have “made the art world more diverse and pluralist” and helped create multiple art centres around the world. Moreover, on a local level, the biennial functions as a catalyst.
Riyas Komu, the only artist in the group, agrees. He firmly believes the biennial can act as a catalyst for change. He implies that artists can be good at curating biennials, as they think creatively about issues such as space, theme, site-specificity and history, while coming up with innovative approaches.
What do you expect?
The old saying “too many cooks spoil the broth” can apply to the initial organisation of a biennial. Carol Lu Yinghua says all the people involved have different expectations of the biennial’s outcome. The curator, artists, the mayor of the city and the various funders can all be at odds with each other. For Yinghua herself, the most important thing is not to bring any expectations to bear upon each individual biennial.
Jessica Morgan laughs when talking about an amusing 2002 Gwangju Biennale essay written by the event’s artistic director, who wrote that organising the exhibition was a terrible nightmare. She says it is rare to find such truthful confessions.
The curators further agree on how the various and conflicting expectations can be disastrous and that by its very nature, a biennial can never be neutral. Marieke Van Hal cites the clash of Manifesta 6, which ended in litigation between organisers, as an obvious example.
Is a biennial a temporary museum or an institution?
Jessica Morgan points out that even though the Venice Biennale 2013 is referred to as a “temporary museum”, it is not a museum exhibition. She states that museums refer to their past, their collections, while the biennial is an opposite process. She does agree with the other talk participants that the biennial is a “new form of establishment” and will take on new identities, just like the museum as institution did in the 19th century.
According to Morgan, this may be partially where the future of biennials lies: in increasing institutionalisation and more of a reflective, relational perspective among biennial curators.
Biennial beauty is in the element of surprise
Shengtian Zheng notes that some biennials have recently introduced some innovations. Shanghai Biennale invited 50 cities to come to Shanghai and have pavilions. Zheng raises the question of whether this kind of transnational collaboration will become more frequent in the future. Will Manifesta happen in Asia in the future, he wonders?
Of course, international collaboration is already an ingrained characteristic of the biennial format, according to Van Hal. Jessica Morgan says this was paralleled in museum history in the Victorian era, when museums flourished: biennials, like museums, will in the future take on their individual identities and fit into their local context.
Van Hal notes that the beauty of biennials is in the event’s capacity to have so many forms and models and its capacity to keep on surprising biennial watchers. People should leave their expectations behind.
Yishu Magazine’s “World Biennial Forum No. 1” edition
Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art is a bi-monthly English language academic journal focusing on Chinese contemporary art and culture.
Yishu published a special issue in 2013, “World Biennial Forum No. 1”, which was the culmination of the forum proceedings of the World Biennial Forum No. 1: Shifting Gravity, directed by international curators Ute Meta Bauer and Hou Hanru in Gwangju, South Korea, from October 27 to 31, 2012.
Curators, artists and arts professionals gathered together to discuss the biennial: from practical information such as organising and fund-raising, to more philosophical matters such as a biennial’s social, cultural and political influence and its potential to ignite change.
The magazine, which focuses on biennials in the Asia-Pacific region, addresses questions such as: “In what ways can biennials affect, or even nurture, local art production? What is the influence of state, corporate, or institutional support on curatorial integrity? How can one produce something meaningful with only a limited budget?”
- Art Basel Hong Kong 2013: a fair to remember? – May 2013 – Art Radar rounds up media responses to the inaugural Art Basel in Hong Kong
- First World Biennale Forum 2012 – What to Expect – September 2012 – biennial professionals discuss industry practices in the First World Biennale Forum in Gwangju, Korea
- Art Basel takeover of ART HK: What did dealers at ART HK 11 say? – June 2011 – what various art dealers had to say about the Art Basel takeover
- ART HK versus Art Stage Singapore: ART HK 11 dealers debate Asia’s top fair – June 2011 – art dealers voiced strong opinions about the fair they selected as best in Asia
- 500+ articles on Chinese contemporary art available on new Yishu online – January 2011 – Yishu magazine’s online platform provides in depth resources for China art experts
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