This major four-part lecture series written for Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT) as part of their Making art Different (MAD) public lecture programme with background research and primary source materials kindly supported by Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, amongst other biennials and biennial foundations, explored current international art practices, and how since the 1990s we have witnessed an astonishing spread and proliferation of large-scale biennials and triennials.
With no source agreeing on the exact number, there are currently thought to be a total number somewhere around three hundred around the world.
In her book-length study of the relationship between globalisation and contemporary art, The Global Art World, Inc.: On the Globalisation of Contemporary Art, art historian, Charlotte Bydler points out that with the growing popularity of electronic communications and transnational travel and migration, globalisation has prompted an explosion of international exhibitions. These exhibitions, mainly biennials and triennials, have also gained a reputation as powerful forms of cultural communication and manifestation.
The advent of international biennial and triennial is not the only phenomenon of globalisation. It is interrelated with a series of other developments in the art world, such as the emergence of global curatorial discourse, the vanishing boundaries between art and non- art categories, and the rise of contemporary art from non-Western countries such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The Biennial and Triennial have positioned itself against the traditional Western art institution, which has long been understood as conventional in form, heavy in its workings, and endowed with monumentally stable architectures full of supposedly neutral spaces, all of it overburdened by inflexible systems of accountability. For many, the utopian promise of the biennial is a site for experimentation, contingency, testing, ambiguity, and inquiry. They have functioned as new platforms for contemporary art and curatorial practice, aiming to open up the art world into a more pluralistic, international network of artists, art professionals and audiences.
If it can be said that for more than a century museum and gallery exhibitions have largely been “the medium through which most art becomes known,” then it is the biennial exhibition that has arguably since proved to be the medium through which most contemporary art comes to be known. And this is undeniably the case, no matter what one’s position on or opinion about it may be. Indeed, biennials have become, in the span of just a few decades, one of the most vital and visible sites for the production, distribution, and generation of public discourse around contemporary art.
Such demands a revision of how we think about not only the way in which art is being conceived and received today but also the way in which its history can be written.
For optimists the Biennial Triennial or large-scale recurrent exhibition of contemporary art is a critical site of experimentation in exhibition making, offering artists, curators, and spectators a vital alternative to museums and other similar institutions, whose institutional inertias do not allow them to respond with immediacy and flexibility to contemporary art’s developments. Some even see the biennial form is like no other art institution before it – for grappling with such issues as politics, race, ethics, identity, globalisation, and post-colonialism in art-making and showing.
For sceptics, however, they have come to signify nothing more than an overblown symptom of spectacular event culture, the result of some of the most specious transformations of the world in the age of late capitalism; in short, a Western typology whose proliferation has infiltrated the most far-reaching parts of the world where such events would be little more than entertaining or commercially driven showcases designed to feed an ever-expanding tourist industry.
They are closely connected to the emergence of the independent travelling curator and with the numerical growth of recurring, large-scale contemporary art exhibitions, alternative artistic and curatorial practices. Now biennials often take place in what would be anachronistically called the periphery and express an engagement with specific geopolitical, social and cultural realities. As a rule, most contemporary art biennials have their foundations embedded in political, cultural, social and economic grounds. There can be more emphasis on one or another, but generally, all four aspects traditionally appear at the roots of each contemporary art biennial anywhere around the world.
Some of the main objectives of the average biennial of contemporary art are: (1) surveying global contemporary art practice and creating a new platform for dialogue and exchange of artistic practices, hence stimulating the local or regional cultural infrastructure; (2) to gain a better image and visibility by integrating a peripheral city or remote region in a globalising world and culture, formulating a new geography for international art; (3) to foster the local, global dialogue by internationalising the local artistic circuit as well as the wider realm of related groups; and (4) to articulate or boost an international art economy, stimulate cultural tourism and potentially aim for urban gentrification or renovation.
The fact is that many individual biennial founding stories can be told, because, despite their emphatically internationalist ambitions, most large-scale recurrent exhibitions were made possible, or even necessary and urgent because of decisive local events and issues. These can vary from cultural, political, ecological or alternative needs, each of which differently impacts the tenor or scope of the resulting biennial project.
From the 1895 Venice Biennale and the current proliferation of close to two hundred biennial exhibitions, the founding of the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1951 the Paris Biennial in 1959 and the Sydney Biennial in 1973, biennials have reflected the transformation of the art world, where art fairs grew in importance, art journals rapidly increased in number, curating courses became institutionalised, and contemporary art started to attract general public (Filipovic et al. 2010: 13-14). Biennials launched in global peripheries, such as the Havana Biennale founded in 1984, started to increase rapidly their presence in the art world in the 1990s and 2000s, when Shanghai, Moscow, Liverpool, Bucharest, Taipei, Lyon, Johannesburg, and Berlin among other cities added biennial contemporary art exhibitions to their cultural profiles.
And because the biennial is, at its core, a global phenomenon that has played a crucial role in the dissemination of art from all over the world, the suggestion that contemporary art history should be written alongside a consideration of the biennial thus necessarily also prompts the exploration of its true impact on those local audiences it often seeks to reach.
It is this and other aspects of the specifics of international biennials and triennials are explored in these lectures.
Special thanks to Bienal de São Paulo; The Ghetto Biennale; dOCUMENTA; Istanbul Biennial; Gwangju Biennial; Shanghai Biennial; Los Angeles Biennial; Kochi Biennial; Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale; Kenpoku 2016; Manifesta; Yokohama Triennale; Sharjah Biennial; Setouchi International Art Festival; Venice Biennale; Havana Biennale and Biennale of Sydney.
Image: Catalogue documenta 5 “Questioning Reality – Pictorial Worlds Today” 30 June – 8 October 1972
Copyright and courtesy Documenta