Do Biennales Have A Future In Today’s Digitally Disrupted, White Noise Filled World?

Installation view of (As yet untitled sculptural theater) (2016), exhibiting Ryan Trecartin’s Mark Trade (2016) at the 9th Berlin Biennale, 2016. Photo by Timo Ohler. Image courtesy of Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin; Sprüth Magers; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.
Installation view of Kader Attia’s Shifting Borders (2018), mixed media installation; chairs, prosthetic legs, shoes, three-channel HD digital film projection on four screens, at the 8th Gwangju Biennial, GB Galleries, Gwangju, Korea, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Gwangju Biennale.
The Biennale of Sydney participants including (from left) Cave Urban (Mercurio Alvarado, Sophie Lanigan, Juan Pablo Pinto and Jed Long), David Haines and Joyce Hinterding and Clare Milledge, pictured with Lleah Smith (centre), Curator of Programs and Learning at The Cutaway, Barangaroo. Photo: Daniel Boud. Image courtesy of the Biennale of Sydney.
Installation view of (As yet untitled sculptural theater) (2016), exhibiting Ryan Trecartin’s Mark Trade (2016) at the 9th Berlin Biennale, 2016. Photo by Timo Ohler. Image courtesy of Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin; Sprüth Magers; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; the Berlin Biennale.
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Biennales face a series of challenges in the year ahead and beyond—a jam-packed art calendar, the ongoing pandemic, leadership issues, accelerating technology and a lack of in-depth engagement. Does this century-old platform have a future?

TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Due to the onset of COVID-19 and a series of inevitable postponements, 2022 is going to be a rare landmark year for the art world, with a slew of biennales and major international art shows set to take place.

During the first pandemic year, La Biennale di Venezia pushed its 59th edition back one year to 2022, coinciding with documenta, held every five years in Kassel, Germany, and slated to open in 2022, as well as the Berlin Biennale. Meanwhile, Biennale d’art contemporain de Lyon in France, which was originally scheduled for 2021, will take place in the fall of 2022. Beyond Europe, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala was postponed twice to December 2022, set to run till April 2023. The Bangkok Art Biennale, which went ahead in 2020 with a slightly scaled back version, will return in 2022. The Asian Art Biennial launched in October last year and will run till March 2022. (These are only some of the major international art shows happening this year—for a comprehensive list, click here.)

Yet the upcoming crush of events and its ensuing biennale fatigue are not the biggest challenges facing major international art shows. A larger, more exigent question looms: can biennales still resonate with audiences in the art world and beyond, people who have been transformed by ongoing collective catastrophe and accelerated technological disruptions?

 

Installation view of Kader Attia’s Shifting Borders (2018), mixed media installation; chairs, prosthetic legs, shoes, three-channel HD digital film projection on four screens, at the 8th Gwangju Biennial, GB Galleries, Gwangju, Korea, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Gwangju Biennale.

 

The fact is some of the cracks in the century old platform were already showing before the current global health crisis. Back in 2018, the 12th edition of one of Asia’s longest-running and most respected biennials, Gwangju Biennale came across as “overloaded”. The exhibition fell into the same trap as other ambitious mega-exhibitions of its time, featuring way too many artists in a bid to appear inclusive, diverse, and not leave anything out. In doing so, most of these sprawling shows wind up missing the mark when it comes to deeper engagement, which tends to be a strong indicator of a truly inclusive art show.

Fast forward to present day, in a world where almost everything is absorbed by the “information/media/entertainment machine”, only to be blasted out at the same volume as dozens of daily clickbait outrages and soon forgotten, in-depth engagement via large-scale exhibitions is a much sought-after unicorn.

Then there’s the matter of leadership. The gatekeeping that goes into biennales is increasingly contentious, from its overly publicised appointment of the artistic director to the arbitrary process of commissioning artists and artworks. By the time the 2020 Bangkok Art Biennale took place during the current global health crisis, running from October 2020 to April 2021, it became clear that tolerance for the “smart-casual showman” schtick, most often perfected by those at the helm of major international art shows, was running thin. Not to mention pre-existing issues such as alleged sexual misconduct, poor staff welfare, and environmentally unfriendly practices – all of which and more look set to become a flashpoint during these times of worsening social inequity.

Nonetheless, there are some directors who are paying attention to ongoing real-world crises, evolving appetites of audiences, and the overall need for something far more profound and authentic in their exhibitions.

 

The Biennale of Sydney participants including (from left) Cave Urban (Mercurio Alvarado, Sophie Lanigan, Juan Pablo Pinto and Jed Long), David Haines and Joyce Hinterding and Clare Milledge, pictured with Lleah Smith (centre), Curator of Programs and Learning at The Cutaway, Barangaroo. Photo: Daniel Boud. Image courtesy of the Biennale of Sydney.

 

Australia’s largest curated showcase of contemporary art, the Biennale of Sydney, is banning the PowerPoint presentation from public programmes during its upcoming 2022 edition. The Biennale’s artistic director José Roca opined that following COVID-19 lockdowns and living virtually for two years, lectures and slide presentations would be rather unappealing to audiences who are instinctively craving for “bodily as well as conceptual experiences”, and “bumping into people, direct conversations”.

While PowerPoint slides are definitely not the answer, thanks to our digitally saturated lives over the past two years, major international art shows cannot afford to ignore the art world’s current technological awakening either. In doing so, they run the risk of losing swathes of audience, as well as tech-friendly artists who could transform the platform into something timely and inclusive, altering the very trajectory of biennales.

Just last month, a major finding from the report Tech as Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium by the US National Endowment for the Arts revealed that numerous cultural organisations “lack the capacity and the resources to adequately support the growing needs of tech-centred artists and their audiences”, even though these very same artists “demonstrated their unique ability to respond creatively to the challenges of the pandemic by engaging with audiences and responding to calls for greater equity and inclusion”.

 

Installation view of (As yet untitled sculptural theater) (2016), exhibiting Ryan Trecartin’s Mark Trade (2016) at the 9th Berlin Biennale, 2016. Photo by Timo Ohler. Image courtesy of Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin; Sprüth Magers; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; the Berlin Biennale.

 

In fact, the growing digital art world needs the vast, transcending narratives offered by biennales to make sense of its storied history, evolving present and accelerated future. Also, everyone—audiences, industry insiders, and artists—needs the chance to step back from the white noise and daily grind and take a bird’s eye view of all that is unfolding in the world.  Biennales offer this unique perspective. There is a clearly an observable future for these types of exhibitions but it might take an arduous journey to get there. For starters, it involves a less-is-more approach, IRL experiences, carbon friendly practices, tech-centred and reflexive artists and leadership.

Ultimately, biennales, or large international art exhibitions, which tend to impact the very threads of history and society, are those that connect with the collective consciousness. Perhaps, biennales should endeavor, first and foremost, to be like our most vivid and potent dreams, functioning as mirrors that help us look at something we are not able to see head-on as individuals and a civilisation.

 

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