15th Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale: A Dehumanized World

Lyon Biennale 2019, “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”: Rebecca Ackroyd, Singed Lids, 2019. Courtesy of Rebecca Ackroy and Peres Projects, Berlin. © Blaise Adilon
Lyon Biennale 2019, “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”: Malin Bülow, Elastic Bonding, 2019. Courtesy of Malin Bülow and Lyon Biennale. © Blaise Adilon
Lyon Biennale 2019, “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”: Eva L’Hoest, Shitsukan of Objects, 2019. Courtesy of of the artist and Lyon Biennale. © Blandine Soulage
Lyon Biennale 2019, “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”: Pannaphan Yodmanee, Quarterly Myth, 2019. Courtesy of Pannaphan Yodmanee, Lyon Biennale and Yavuz Gallery, Singapore. © Blandine Soulage
Lyon Biennale 2019, “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”: Trevor Yeung, Mx. Butterflies’ Private Party, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Allen, Paris. © Blandine Soulage
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Asia Society Hong Kong

Spread across different venues in the city of Lyon, France, and gathering about 70 artists from all parts of the world, the 15th Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale was imagined as an inclusive ecosystem questioning the place of human beings within an unfolding nexus of relationships and interconnected fluxes. 

TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale

 

The 15th edition of the Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale (Biennale de Lyon Art Contemporain) was mainly conceived around Fagor Factory, an abandoned industrial powerhouse where, through the 1980s, up to as many as 2,000 workers used to assemble washing machines. Most of the artists were invited to respond to this impressive site, with its recent social past and strong visual industrial vestiges. Titled “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water,” the international exhibition aimed at highlighting the constant flux of transformations that characterise our contemporary and transitional landscapes, while reflecting on the geography of Lyon. In particular, it insisted on the interdependence of human and non-human species, including the mineral kingdom and technological artefacts, with the idea that human beings are fully part of a complex ecosystem made of interwoven connections. We face here what has now become the conventional discourse about the duo Anthropocene / Capitalocene, with the forecasted and apocalyptic end of humanity on the one hand, and the necessity to re-invent our modes of inhabiting the world on the other hand. Unfortunately, lost in the huge Fagor site, or isolated at the Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon, the artworks struggled to reflect any kind of urgency and interconnection. Contrary to the curators’ objectives, the divide between nature and culture prevailed as we remain distant observers of a series of mutations and metamorphosis that exclude us from their own processes.

The first gigantic hall of Fagor Factory was the most difficult space to apprehend with its 13-meter high ceiling and strong visual floor markings. The curators, a team of seven from the Palais de Tokyo, chose to keep all these industrial signs in order to convey a sense of immersion (both physical and metaphorical), yet the artworks, even the biggest installations, seem lost and isolated in what rather resembles an art fair hall. Rebecca Ackroyd’s invasive remnants of an airplane crash, for example, looked absolutely anecdotal despite the red hues of the resin seats, broken windows and the bloody fragmented human shreds that constituted Singed Lids (2019). At the other end of the scope, it was easy to miss Magical Bow (2019) by Thao Nguyen Phan with its delicate watercolours on silk and discreetly hung crossbows. The Vietnamese artist continues her research on forgotten parts of the French colonial history and pursues her creation of original palimpsests. Here, she combined the forced labor of Vietnamese workers engaged by the French Air Force to apply lacquer to airplane propellers and a traditional Vietnamese tale translated in Romanized script, which is a legacy of French Jesuit missionary, Alexander de Rhodes.

 

Lyon Biennale 2019, “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”: Rebecca Ackroyd, Singed Lids, 2019. Courtesy of Rebecca Ackroy and Peres Projects, Berlin. © Blaise Adilon

 

Many artworks tended to be literal such as Roncier (2019), a huge aluminium sculpture by Jean-Marie Appriou which represented large bushes of brambles and supposedly “nature reasserting itself,” or Chou Yu-Cheng’s Good, Accelaration, Package, Express, Convenience, Borrow, Digestion, Regeneration, PAPREC Group (2019), which featured walls made from piles of recycled cardboards and which points to today’s industrial necessity to include recycling within processes of production. Felipe Arturo’s Thoughts of Caffeine (2019) documented the Colombian artist’s journey through the coffee production chain, including a video installation and several platforms revolving around the coffee plant. Inside a plastic cabin, the public is for instance invited to smell different coffee aromas, which had sadly lost their perfume when I visited the show. The coffee plant is also displayed within a plastic vitrine and looked depressing. Such an installation was typical of this hall: while we could expect warmth and physical interactions, we meet coldness and disembodied, often unaesthetic elements.

There were some pleasant encounters, though, such as Elastic Bonding (2019), a long flexible body sculpture by Malin Bülow that stretched from the floor to the ceiling, creating a human yet distorted membrane inside the architecture. More in resonance with the industrial history of Fagor, a smaller gallery covered with sand was dedicated to the Bureau des Pleurs (“Department of Tears”), a Lyon-based artist collective which gathered interesting proposals of local initiatives that connected to local inhabitants and former workers through various testimonies and the lost sound of the factory. Eva L’Hoest’s video triptych and hybrid sculptures Shitsukan of Objects (2019) offered also an innovative perception of the transitory state between the human figure, virtuality and scientific algorithms that tend to grasp it. The title referred to a Japanese term describing the human brain connections activated for recognising material objects, which might be challenged in our technological societies where things cannot be clearly delineated anymore.

 

Lyon Biennale 2019, “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”: Malin Bülow, Elastic Bonding, 2019. Courtesy of Malin Bülow and Lyon Biennale. © Blaise Adilon
Lyon Biennale 2019, “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”: Eva L’Hoest, Shitsukan of Objects, 2019. Courtesy of of the artist and Lyon Biennale. © Blandine Soulage

 

Among such a display of disparate proposals, with plentiful expressions of artificial bodies and biomorphic forms reduced to their materiality and exploitation, Lee Kit’s video installation Sketching the Weight of Idleness and Guiltiness (2019) in the second hall found its relevant place; the Hong Kong artist has always compared life to a shopping centre, and human beings to mass consumer products. His enigmatic, multi-layered projections and absurd karaoke (Frank Sinatra singing over images of a sandwich heating up in a microwave) celebrated non-productive situations and the living in its poetic, useless and humble dimension.

The most consistent hall is perhaps the third one with a relevant dialogue between two large-scale installations, Mire Lee’s Saboteurs (2019) and Thomas Feuerstein’s Prometheus Delivered (2017­–19). Both addressed new forms of cannibalism and internal violence, inspired by the industrial devices of the factory. Lee’s organic animatronics created a circular tension with a white and viscous liquid constantly absorbed and flushed out, while Feuerstein’s multi-media, chemical laboratory and large drawings suggested a new possibility for the human liver to regenerate itself through a closed system of alcohol production. The void, still, occupied the gallery but it gave space to these gigantic installations where materials and bodies leak, where pipes, cables, organs, motors, veins and silicone interweave and fight for dominance.

In the last hall, Yodmanee Pannaphan’s Quarterly Myth (2019) offered a beautiful and intimate experience inside concrete tubes where the viewer was invited to walk in. Drawing from her training as a Buddhist painter, and working as if she was decorating the walls of a sacred cave, the Thai artist gracefully painted the interior of these tubes with golden traditional Buddhist patterns combined with Christian imageries and contemporary motifs.

 

Lyon Biennale 2019, “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”: Pannaphan Yodmanee, Quarterly Myth, 2019. Courtesy of Pannaphan Yodmanee, Lyon Biennale and Yavuz Gallery, Singapore. © Blandine Soulage

 

In another district of the city, at the Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon, only eight artists were featured—and with an unequal occupation of the space. A few rooms were dedicated to Turkish painter Renée Levi and two floors to the British/French duo Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel. These curatorial choices are difficult to understand, but after the coldness of Fagor, these installations are welcomed. In particular, it took time to leave the enveloping and immersive installations Mia and Mi (both 2019) by Levi, whose solar colours and primitive abstract motifs created a halo of vital energy. Dewar and Gicquel’s wooden buffets and wooden bas-reliefs Mammalian Fantasies (2017-2019) represented surprising combinations and sometimes comic encounters between human beings and animals, finely carved in sensuous pieces of furniture. Their inventive bestiary marked a refreshing respite after the myriad and sometimes desolated assemblages of vegetal and animals’ elements that also dominate The Institut d’art Contemporain, Villeurbanne, the third venue of the Biennale.

In the city, Trevor Yeung’s Mx. Butterflies’ Private Party (2019) featuring 40 dancing palm trees installed along the façade of a car park intruded on the urban fabric. The spinning movement of the plants was very slow, inviting to an intimate and unexpected dialogue between passer-by and these organic beings. During nighttime, in contrast, pinkish colours attracted attention and the installation became more visible, creating a soft, fresh and poetic experience.

 

Lyon Biennale 2019, “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water”: Trevor Yeung, Mx. Butterflies’ Private Party, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Allen, Paris. © Blandine Soulage

 

Ultimately, while the exhibition failed to immerse the viewer into a shared landscape that would open life to its interconnected environment, it succeeded in conveying a general impression of fragmentation and isolation. Overall, matter prevails over the beings; devices, mechanics, technologies and fluid predominate over human contacts, affect and sensibility. As seen by the featured artists, we do not inhabit the world anymore but seem to be rejected from it, crushed, forgotten. Perhaps the constructive vision of the curators, based on a solidarity between all things and beings, is already outdated: moving away from our anthropocentrism, we tend to dissolve ourselves in a world that has in fact already overcome us. We thus remain external observers of this new landscape, this time not as dominant creatures but as passive spectators of our own destruction. More positively, and from an artistic perspective, forms and materiality seem to have taken back the lead over discourses. It is indeed often beneficial not to read the cartels alongside the artworks, and to leave space for materiality to fully express itself without any discursive and sometimes simplistic guidance. What remains is the joy of the artists to appropriate new resources and to restlessly play with their properties and infinite combinations or mutations.

 

 

The 15th Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale was on view through 5 January, 2020.

 

 


 

Caroline Ha Thuc is a French Hong Kong based art writer and curator. Specializing in Asian contemporary art, she contributes to different magazines such as ArtPress in France and Artomity/Am Post in Hong Kong.

 

 

 
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