While the Momentum biennial in Moss remains open until 27 September, another three Nordic biennials, triennials and large-scale exhibitions will open over the course of the next three weeks. The biennial Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) in Svolvær and TRUST, the successor to Copenhagen Art Festival, will open in Copenhagen on the same day: 28 August. In the weeks that follow they will be joined by the Göteborg International Biennial of Contemporary Art (GIBCA) and the twelfth Baltic Triennial in Vilnius.
The Biennial Foundation, which operates a network for the various biennials, triennials and quadrennials in the world, is currently listing 167 exhibitions of this kind across the globe. And those are only the ones regarded as most important.
With such a vast number of large prennial group exhibitions, one might ask whether the analysis of contemporary society offered by Momentum – that the vast quantities of information available today quite paradoxically cause us to shut ourselves away in our own little bubbles, observing the world through tunnel vision – might not also be applied to the biennial format itself? If every city has its own biennial or festival, is there a risk of developing regional tunnel vision? If we disregard the largest and most firmly established events – such as the Venice Biennial and Documenta, which still succeed in setting the agenda for discussions in the art world – can these biennials reach audiences beyond the local? To what extent can they define and offer an understanding of the age we live in?
Kunstkritikk has spoken to the curators Arne Skaug Olsen from LIAF, Sonia Dermience from Trust and Elvira Dyangani Ose from GIBCA to hear more about the concepts behind their exhibitions and about their view of the biennial format in general.
IDIOSYNCRATIC AND INCONSISTENT
– Yes, of course Scandinavia is large enough to host these biennials, even when they happen simultaneously. No-one asks whether there are too many museums, galleries or art fairs in the region, says curator and critic Arne Skaug Olsen. He believes that compared to permanent art institutions, the advantage of the biennial format is that the biennial can – and should – be idiosyncratic and inconsistent.
Skaug Olsen and Matt Packer, who is from Ireland, are the curators behind this year’s LIAF biennial. The festival has a clear-cut Nordic-international profile, featuring a roster of twenty-four artists that includes Anna Ådahl, Tue Greenfort, Steinar Haga Kristensen, Katja Novitskova and Jason Dodge. The title Disappearing Acts refers to “the idea that our opportunities for changing the world are disappearing, and that this can be traced in the development of technology, ecology and history.”
– With this title we seek to point to the fact that there is a performative aspect to everything we do. It’s there in the ways in which we interact with technology, in how we swim, and in how we carry out aesthetically, politically or ecologically motivated actions such as elections or terrorist acts, says Skaug Olsen. – We try to view the ultimate disappearance, i.e. destruction, as something that will essentially be an overture to a play where we will play the main parts. We’ll need to be well prepared for that.
Skaug Olsen believes that Disappearing Acts definitely constitutes an attempt at saying something about contemporary society, but is reluctant to call it a diagnosis:
– Claiming that we offer a diagnosis would in itself suggest that society is sick and that treatment is needed. I believe that we have taken a more neutral approach to this point, and if it is possible to trace a sense of aesthetic and ecological disappearance and destruction in the exhibition, this is essentially more of a reflection of the state of things than a verdict that our current age is diseased.
But is the biennial format particularly well suited to saying something about our day and age?
– Art is certainly very well suited to saying something about the times. A biennial can most definitely be an excellent tool for helping art fulfil that potential. Partly because the biennial has a different mandate than museums and other institutions, which are more bogged down by history writing and long-term strategies. I believe that biennials should strive to be as free of history as possible, for there are only few chances to be historyless in a constructive manner today. Having said that, the LIAF has a history that goes all the way back to 1991, and at an early stage we invited Nord-norsk kunstnersenter (NNKS – North Norwegian Art Center) to curate a parallel exhibition about the history of LIAF. Really, I am thinking more in terms of the need for daring to say that art doesn’t necessarily have anything to say to us, and that history is useless as a tool for building the future.
FESTIVAL AND ART MONOPOLY
Even if biennials ought to strive to set itself free from history, as Skaug Olsen says, escaping the past is difficult. With their two-year or three-year cycle, biennials and triennials enjoy the benefit of a semi-institutional identity while still being perceived as a single event each time. A biennial is expected to present something new with every instalment, and each curator is quite naturally measured up against his or her predecessors. With some exceptions: the Belgian curator of TRUST, the second instalment of the Copenhagen Art Festival, Sonia Dermience, escapes such judgment for the very simple reason that the festival had no curator when it was last held.
When the first festival was launched in 2012, four years after the foundered attempt at establishing an international quadrennial for contemporary art in Copenhagen with U-TURN, pains were taken to emphasise that the festival was not a curated festival. In a statement made to Kunstkritikk at the time, the then-head of Overgaden, Henriette Bretton-Meyer, said that the festival represented something other than the “usual biennial format where you play host to a concept determined by an external curator.” However, the external evaluation commissioned in the wake of the festival criticised the fact that no curatorial editing had taken place. This may be the reason why this year’s festival – called TRUST – has made its own U-turn, as it were, by appointing Dermience as curator. She is one of the co-founders of the curators’ collective Komplot in Brussels and has worked with what she calls “nomadic creative practices”. Dermience herself believes that outside curators can offer fresh perspectives on the art scene of the cities they visit:
– As an outsider you get a sketch-like impression of a place, a kind of simplified or cliché view. My project description for the festival centered on an urban landscape featuring the archetypes of the Western city: the church, the palace, the salon, the stock exchange. These all proved to be present in the architectural history of the five art venues.
Based on this springboard, the five participating venues – Charlottenborg, Gl. Strand, Den Frie, Nikolaj and Overgaden – have been assigned fictitious identities – The Palace, The Salon, The Studio, The Temple and The Stock Exchange – which continues and embellishes their separate stories.
What can a curated festival do for these institutions that they cannot do themselves, apart from offering a synergy effect?
– At a purely practical level, the curatorial objective is to enhance the inherent qualities of the various art venues, but also to transform them into something more abstract, more fictitious. By foregrounding aristocratic and capitalist symbols from these institutions – Charlottenborg becomes a palace of culture, Nikolaj is no longer a church, but a temple of pleasure – I push the original functions of these places to their outermost limits. Playing with fictional aspects also allows you to prevent the artworks themselves from being subjected to specific themed interpretations. TRUST is the verb that connects all the players involved: the artists, the institutions and the visitors. You must trust the others in order to step into their world. But there is also an institutional critique behind it all: don’t trust the state institutions and don’t trust the market. A trust can also mean an association of companies seeking to establish a monopoly on a given market, and you could say that these five art venues in Copenhagen do exactly that with TRUST.
Dermience is not worried about the Nordic festivals and biennials crowding out each other. Rather, she has been interested in creating closer links between Northern and Southern Europe. Besides local artists such as Maj Hasager, Nina Beier and A Kassen, the festival primarily features Belgian and French artists such as Jos de Gruyter, Harald Thys, Laure Prouvost and Emmanuelle Lainé.
– I used this opportunity to have artists from Copenhagen meet artists from the rest of Scandinavia and Southern Europe; the mobility of people is more important than the mobility of goods. Accordingly, much of the budget has been spent on works in situ and on encounters between the artists. The objective is to establish lasting connections between the participating artists.
THE BIENNIAL AS AN OPEN WORK
A biennial for contemporary art should ideally have an overall theme or idea that is sufficiently poignant and precise to stand out in the tide of press releases that flood all media today, but at the same time it should be sufficiently open to be able to embrace and accommodate a wide range of artworks without shackling them to a too-specific theme. For the upcoming Göteborg International Biennial of Contemporary Art, called A Story Within a Story, curator Elvira Dyangani Ose chose “the openwork” as curatorial concept. Referencing Umberto Eco’s seminal essay “Opera aperta”, the Gothenburg biennial will be collaborative and horizontal, and it will explore history as an open-ended, incomplete work in progress. The biennial is largely international in scope, featuring artists such as Kader Attia (France), Maryam Jafri (Pakistan), Meleko Mokgosi (Botswana), The Propeller Group (Vietnam) and Pia Rönicke (Denmark). Dyangani Ose has been a curator with the international department of Tate Modern, and in 2013 she was Artistic Director of the Congolese Lubumbashi biennial. She informs Kunstkritikk that the most extensive example of an “open work” at GIBCA will be the social platform House of Words:
– This temporary pavilion was designed by Santiago Cirugeda and his office, Recetas Urbanas, with the aid of more than seventy volunteers. House of Words will be “activated” during the construction process and during the biennial itself through a programme devised by artist Loulou Cherinet in collaboration with members of the local community, artists, academics and local authorities.
While preparing the GIBCA, Dyangani Ose travelled around Sweden and Denmark to meet a range of different people from the art field. Kunstkritikk asked what questions turned up during these conversations, and whether she was particularly interested in specific local issues while working on this biennial.
– Those conversations were prompted by a desire to learn more about Swedish politics and society, and about the role played by art in this equation. Identity, representation and citizenship were recurring themes. This led me to address concerns about how power systems produce history, but also to explore contemporary experiences as a kind of fieldwork that may pave the way for a different kind of history to be written at some point in the future.
There is already plenty of global competition for attention among the many international contemporary art biennials, and three other Scandinavian biennials and festivals are in progress when the GIBCA opens. Given that so many major art events take place in the region at the same time, is there not a strong risk of each of these events becoming quite local in scope?
– One cannot produce a project focusing on its international visibility. What brings visibility to a project anyhow? Some of the most challenging initiatives have passed unnoticed by the “international arena.” I see “the local”, as you put it, as an opportunity. Each of the biennials will have its own distinctive character, and this is what ought to make them “visible”, regardless of whether such attention is paid within their specific contexts or elsewhere.
Recent years have seen a tendency towards a certain ambivalence towards the biennial format; a tendency that is evident in the way the exhibitions are organised. The 7th Berlin biennial, which was on the brink of abandoning the format altogether, remains freshly imprinted on our memory. According to the press materials provided by the Gothenburg biennial, it, too, supposedly “questions the biennial structure in itself”. Kunstkritikk asks Dyangani Ose whether she believes that such ambivalence testifies to an inherent problem in the biennial format. And if so, can that problem be overcome?
– I don’t see the conventional biennial model will vanish anytime soon; there are far too many stakeholders with an interest in keeping it going. But if we did not try to add greater complexity to the biennial format, the alternative would be to abandon the model altogether, inviting artists, audiences and art professionals to take part in a completely different kind of platform.
Do you have a suggestion on how biennials should be organised?
– I would generally say that biennials should respond to a necessary inquiry; a necessity that reflects something fundamental to their local setting, but which might also potentially be relevant to other parts of the world. This requires an open platform, an active audience, a committed art scene, and engaged local patronage. A difficult combination, but not impossible.
Lofoten International Art Festival
28 August – 27 September 2015
Anna Ådahl (SE), Sam Basu (UK), Sissel Blystad (NO), Eva La Cour (DK), Kristian Poulsen (DK), Ciarán Ó Dochartaigh (UK), Jason Dodge (US), Benedict Drew (UK), Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni (FR), Tue Greenfort (DK), Roderick Hietbrink (NL), Carl Johan Högberg (SE), Hedwig Houben (NL), Steinar Haga Kristensen (NO), Juha Pekka Matias Laakkonen (FI), Dennis McNulty (IE), Mercedes Mühleisen (NO), Isabel Nolan (IE), Katja Novitskova (EE), Émilie Pitoiset (FR), Elizabeth Price (UK), John Russell (UK), Jon Benjamin Tallerås (NO).
28 August – 25 October 2015
A Kassen (DK), Martin Erik Andersen (DK), Félicia Atkinson (FR), Jakup Auce (BE), Elena Bajo (ES), Jessica Baxter (BE), Nina Beier (DK), Maiken Bent (DK), Nanna Debois Buhl DK), Ellen Cantor (US), Mikkel Carl (DK), Cel Crabeels (BE), Vava Dudu (FR), Sophie Dupont (DK), FOS (DK), Ditte Gantriis (DK), Good Times & Nocturnal News (SE/LT), Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys (BE), Sofie Haesaerts (BE), Joachim Hamou (SE/FR), Maj Hasager (DK), Ilja Karilampi (SE), Seyran Kirmizitoprak (BE), Steinar Haga Kristensen (NO), Emmanuelle Lainé (FR), Adriana Lara (MX), Jacopo Miliani (IT), Cécile Noguès (FR), Officin (DK), Carl Palm (SE), Douglas Park (UK), Angelo Plessas (GR), Laure Prouvost (UK/FR), Torben Ribe (DK), Zin Taylor (CA/BE), The After Lucy Experiment (BE), Benjamin Valenza (FR/CH), Loïc Vanderstichelen & Jean-Paul Jacquet (BE), We Are The Painters (FR), Pernille Kapper Williams (DK), Ebbe Stub Wittrup (DK), Atalay Yavuz (TU).
Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art
A story within a story…
12 September – 22 November 2015
Anna Lundh (SE), Ângela Ferreira (MZ), Arvo Leo (CA), benandsebastian (UK/DK), Bouchra Khalili (MA), Carlos Motta (CO), Coco Fusco (US), Esther Shalev-Gerz (LT), Inmaculada Salinas (ES), Isabel Lewis (DO), Jacob Kirkegaard (DK), Kader Attia (FR), Kerry James Marshall (US), Leslie Hewitt (US), Loulou Cherinet (SE), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (UK) , María Berríos & Jakob Jakobsen (SV/DK), Maryam Jafri (PK), Meleko Mokgosi (BW), Nástio Mosquito (AO), Petra Bauer & Rebecka Thor (SE) , Phoebe Boswell (KE), Pia Rönicke (DK), The Propeller Group (VN), Runo Lagomarsino (SE), Santiago Cirugeda – Recetas Urbanas (ES), Sara Jordenö (SE), Serge Alain Nitegeka (BI), Shilpa Gupta (IN), Simon Starling (UK), Theo Eshetu (UK), Tris Vonna Michell (UK).