Art Radar looks at some highlights from Floating Worlds, the 14th Biennale de Lyon.
This year’s Biennale de Lyon presents a diverse array of talented artists but leaves the viewer to figure out how it all fits together.
Lyon is a large city and on its gentrified surface, its 14th Biennale de Lyon leaves barely an impression, as if it were a flimsy craft swallowed up by the broad river – the river Rhône, that flows between the two principal venues, La Sucrière in the south and The Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in the North.
The two exhibitions in these venues, and a geodesic dome by visionary architectural theorist Richard Buckminster-Fuller, comprise “Floating Worlds”. This exhibition is a sprawling network of associated exhibitions and dialogue events that accompany these presentations and engage only tangentially with the main theme. One of these, entitled “Rendez-vous 17”, functions as a bridge between Lyon and ten other international biennales, presenting the work of 20 emerging artists.
It is difficult for the visitor to perceive the scope of this heterogeneous ‘archipelago’ but Lee Mingwei turns their dispersal to poetic effect by making a peripatetic work, Bedtime Stories (2017). The titular stories are broadcast from a slow-moving vehicle roving around the communes of Metropolitan Lyon. Elsewhere, Lee Mingwei takes the role of an ‘associate’. Separate from the main venues, he makes a compelling exhibition in the centrally located Fondation Bullukian. Here, a suite of expansive conceptual propositions is condensed into a few dense works. An Antonin Dvorak quartet plays in a darkened room. Its performers are shown on four separate monitors turned towards the wall. The audience discovers that any attempt to view the images shuts off that monitor, and so silences the performer, leaving the sound of a trio. Four visitors can achieve total silence. It is a simple but affecting device, drawing attention to the synchronism of the performance and the potency of individuals’ actions.
Sound and Movement
Works, augmented by technological contrivances, occur throughout this biennale producing venues filled as much with sensations, sound and motion as they are with visual phenomena. The two main exhibitions both greet the visitor with different instances of sculpture, including kinetic elements, linked by their origin in the 1960s. At La Sucrière, Cloud Canyons by Philippine artist David Medalla was first realised in 1963. What were then ‘funky’ kinetic soap bubbles oozing endlessly and inexplicably from a space-age sculpture, now have the association of effluence and unregulated discharge.
At MoCA, a bank of seven cathode monitors display works by Korean Nam June Paik (1932-2006). All except one also originate from 1963. Paik’s pioneering video practice at this time often involved interfering with the signal, such as in Magnet TV, where the image on the screen is pulled towards a magnet placed on top of the TV. In the contemporary context the influence of a bordering electromagnetic field that once seemed to create a benign and ‘far-out’ effect, now evokes the malevolent influences of surveillance and the distortion of facts. The inference of these introductory works, where a genial surface suggests conflicting bad things, is the prevailing mood.
The biennale’s Artistic Director, Thierry Raspail, evokes the end of Modernist ‘novelty’ as a turning point, roughly corresponding to the art of the 1960s in the transatlantic canon. Curator Emma Lavigne describes the theme as
the world as impermanent and continuously renewing itself (…) partly shaped by the omnipresence of water, in a city “born of the waters”, through which the rivers Rhône and Saône flow.
This renewal can be seen in Japanese collective Chim↑Pom’s Black of Death (2007-13). The video shows a flock of crows dancing above a figure carrying a stuffed raven. The image is elegant but ominous. The streets are in Fukushima, the site of the nuclear disaster of 2011. The crows have proliferated in the blighted landscape. Their balletic accompaniment to the figure perhaps celebrates the nuclear era that promised humans clean abundant energy but that produced the toxic wasteland that is hospitable to crows.
A similar dilemma is suggested in Pratchaya Phinthong’s Ephemeral Cinema (2004), an electric car that is lodged in the exhibition hall to recharge in the daytime. By night it goes into the city to project a mobile programme of films by other artists. The car looks like the Sebring Vanguard electric CitiCar of 1974, but unable to move, its batteries depleted, it is like a vampire. On its night time prowl through the urban streets, it will seek authenticity; however, in the whiteness of the art museum, it seems like a retrospective vision, a failed dream of future transportation.
As Phinthong’s vehicle quotes from a future directed icon of historic design, Moré Moré [Leaky]: The Falling Water Given #4-6 (2017) by Yuko Mohri engages unashamedly with the acme of modern art, none less than Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1923). She produces three versions of the work reimagined according to principles she observes from the makeshift fixing of leaks in the Tokyo metro system. Seen from the perspective of the present, even art of this moment has flaws when considered in a different cultural framework. Where Duchamp celebrated the chance occurrence of the work’s glass being aesthetically cracked during transportation in the United States in 1927, Mohri sees the work anew through the lens of improvised repairs in Japan. The exhibition further complicates dialogue between Mohri and Duchamp’s work by including both the miniature facsimile, part of La boîte-en-valise (1966) and the exploratory notes, published by Duchamp as La boîte verte (1934). With the absence of the work itself, these artifacts frame the masterpiece as a tentative venture, speculative and ripe for casual transcription.
The imaginative revival of past material is also integral to the work of Shimabuku at the biennale. In a participatory performance, presented as a film document, Let’s Make Cows Fly (2017), the artist invited people to fly kites in the form of cows. The work has the effect of grounding the whimsical legacy of surrealism by relating it to an everyday observation, his noticing cows grazing in Lyon’s Grand Parc Miribel Jonage. This seemed surreal only from the artist’s exotic point of view. Beside Hans Richter’s still inexplicable Dada film Ghosts Before Breakfast (1928), screened close by, Shimabuku’s film appears deadpan.
The Shock of the New
The perception of contemporary space is also a key theme. Lavigne quotes the Austrian modernist poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “Strange to see all that was once in place, floating so loosely in space”, and Raspail writes:
Today, the world has changed and the prevailing idea is that the most important properties of space can no longer be defined a priori by categories or by tying them down to a territory with borders and impregnable identities.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s video Fireworks (Archives) (2014) suggests just such spatial ambiguity, both by its presentation, on a suspended transparent screen, and because it reenvisions an old space, Sala Keoku sculpture park in Nong Khai, near the Thai-Lao border. The film explores the park at night in bursts of light from fireworks. The spectator cannot grasp the space or their proximity to the sculptures.
A different type of disorientation is produced by Madagascar- and Australia-based Mathieu Briand. I dream of You (2017) transports visitors to the shores off Madagascar via a VR headset. The device, however, is not interactive and the experience is of indeterminate poetic encounters with coastline and figures eternally held at bay.
A number of other artists in the “Rendez-vous” section of the biennale also challenge the perception of space. Mitsunori Kimura’s Face on Rope (2010) forces the visitor to navigate through a forest of tiny dangling heads. Each is handmade and the effect is both cute and sinister.
Dia Mehta Bhupal creates an environment that, at first sight, looks plausible, a clean bright lobby area with a yellow telephone on the wall. However, it is an illusion; everything is neatly made from tiny rolls of scrap paper.
Indonesian Aliansyah Caniago‘s The Sky Is Portable (2016) uses multiple video elements and performance to explore locations in Jakarta where migrants have settled, with the aid of a pigeon equipped with a video camera. The resulting work suggests a new imaginative narrative set in an expanded location.
Other artists create a sense of disorientation by presenting images out of context. Moroccan Hicham Berrada’s video Les fleurs #3 (2016) shows a hemisphere of iron particles. Attacked by bursts of high-pressure air and slowly recovering its shape, it gives the impression of a sunflower buffeted by the wind. Jingban Hao evokes shifting political perspectives in I Can’t Dance (2015). Four videos weave together a mixture of first-hand accounts and archive materials related to the subject of ballroom dancing in China.
The Floating World
If the crisis of modernity was a loss of belief in the spiritual essence that gave individuals purpose, this resonance still perturbs artists collected together in Lyon. This is perhaps most striking in Hao Jingfang and Wang Lingjie’s Over the Rainbow (2013). An area of grey material appears like a coastal flat blighted by industry. Step back, and from this position, an iridescent rainbow dances over the surface, like a promise of future repair; move forward and that fleeting hope is gone, leaving only the unrelenting infertile surface.
La Biennale de Lyon is on view from 20 September 2017 to 7 January 2018 at La Sucrière, Lyon Museum of Contemporary Art (MACLYON), Le Dôme – Place Antonin Poncet and Insitut d’art contemporain de Villeurbanne in Lyon, France.
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