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 below

Biennial Talk Participants  

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.”

Sheela Godwa and Christoph Storz showed their installation 'Stopover', 2012, at the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India. Image courtesy the artists and Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Sheela Godwa and Christoph Storz showed their installation ‘Stopover’, 2012, at the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India. Image courtesy the artists and Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

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.”

Gwangju Biennale main exhibition hall in Gwangju, South Korea. Image courtesy of  Gwangju Biennale

Gwangju Biennale main exhibition hall in Gwangju, South Korea. Image courtesy Gwangju Biennale.

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.

Houndingdown by Indian artist TV Santosh is seen at the 4th Moscow biennale of contemporary art. Picture: EPA/SERGEI ILNITSKY. Courtesy of The Telegraph.

‘Hounding Down’ by Indian artist TV Santosh, as seen at the 4th Moscow Biennale of contemporary art, 2011. Picture: EPA/SERGEI ILNITSKY. Image courtesy The Telegraph.

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.

Ali Kazma, 'Resistance', 2013, video still. Image courtesy the artist and IKSV Medya.

Ali Kazma, ‘Resistance’, 2013, video still, participant in the 55th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy the artist and IKSV Medya.

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?”



Related Topics: art biennials, curators, lectures and talks

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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