I don’t travel to as many biennials as some writers do, and questions about their history, prominence and future are not amongst the art-related worries that keep me awake at night. Please don’t think me a philistine: I recognize their significance as a forum for the production, circulation and reception of contemporary art. But, as a regular exhibition-goer and occasional, primarily European, biennial consumer, I’ve lost track of the stakes in this global ‘biennialization’. Given that the subtitle of the tenth-anniversary edition of the Biennale de Lyon – ‘The Spectacle of the Everyday’ – seemed to link ‘the biennial’ with ‘the banal’, I hoped the exhibition might provide some clarification. It didn’t.
Curated by Hou Hanru, with support from Thierry Prat and Thierry Raspail of the Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon (MAC), the Biennale was spread across the usual venues: La Sucrière, formerly a sugar beet processing plant; the MAC; the arsenal Entrepôt Bichat; and the Fondation Bullukian. Though the previous edition of the Biennale arguably had more participants – since curators Stéphanie Moisdon and Hans Ulrich Obrist invited dozens of other international curators, who, in turn, invited dozens more artists – this time, the spaces seemed curiously disorganized, difficult to navigate and even more jam-packed with large-scale installations or cordoned-off areas or rooms devoted to presentations of art works by single artists or collectives.
A large number of these projects were specially produced for the Biennale, in record time, and their very presence was admittedly no small feat. Born in China, Hou is a long-time resident of Paris who currently commutes between San Francisco and France. He took the helm of the Biennale barely six months before it opened, after the original curator, Catherine David, withdrew. Hou responded to the challenge by confronting a trademark international roster of artists with two theoretical terms that have specific resonance in France: ‘spectacle’, defined by Guy Debord in the Society of the Spectacle (1967) as ‘capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image’, and ‘everyday life’, closely identified with thinkers Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, the French postwar reconstruction and the legacies of May 1968.
Hou’s claim is that ‘spectacle’ is our current worldwide condition and that resistance to, relief from or invention in spite of its omnipresence can be found in the various and diverse notions of the everyday as it is explored by artists. This sounds nice in theory. Yet, in an exhibition that traffics in representations, even the most talented curator would struggle to counter Debord’s severe observation that ‘everything that was directly lived has receded into representation’. Hou insisted that the art works included in the Biennale did not function as illustrations of the title, or of its multiple sub-themes: ‘The Magic of Things (Reinvention of the Everyday)’; ‘Celebrating the Drift’; ‘Another World is Possible’; ‘Living Together’; and a special section, linked to local artist residencies, called ‘Veduta’. Still, because these sub-themes were confusingly attributed via colour-coding in the exhibition guide to individual artists across the venues, rather than to a specific space housing certain projects, one was increasingly tempted to interpret each artist or work as representative of a theme. Otherwise, certain choices and juxtapositions made no sense.
On opening day, last-minute preparations in the Sucrière became part of the spectacle, with visitors swarming in and scrutinizing the mopping of floors and adjusting of lights alongside the art. It was impossible to know whether this was deliberate on the part of the organizers or whether they were just running late. Whatever the case, Jimmie Durham’s Regarde (Look, 2009) – video-surveillance cameras perched atop construction scaffolding installed at the entrance – captured it all. The route through the Sucrière was meant to allow for dérive, with discoveries and dead-ends at various turns. A highlight for me included Fikret Atay’s intense short video, Theorists (2008), which shows students in a religious school in the artist’s native Turkey walking around a room in an eerily intuitive choreography as they memorize their study material by reciting it aloud. The work is strident and its subtext critical, but the students’ vocal dissonance and meanderings are poetically incongruous with their unity of purpose.
Michael Lin’s mixed-media installation What a Difference a Day Made (2008) surprised as it veered sharply from his signature large-scale paintings based on Taiwanese textile motifs. Lin purchased all of the items in a hardware store opposite his house in Shanghai and displayed them first in colourful stacks and bundles in a closet-like space, then on shelves in packing crates neatly classified and organized, interspersed with videos of jugglers tossing the items. Here, Lin aptly illustrates how the everyday, quasi-disposable item can be easily absorbed into the spectacle. An ethereal, grisaille counterpoint to these more boisterous works could be found in Ian Kiaer’s Endless House Project: Convalescence/Kortrijk (2008), which included a softly inflated balloon, a Perspex vitrine, a luminous shape projected from an overhead projector and a magnetically attractive and inexplicably soothing sheet of glossy pink plastic fixed to the wall, somewhat askew, as if by static electricity. Humour is also a great antidote to biennial weariness, and Bani Abidi’s film Reserved (2006), which shows the absurd side of preparations for a visit by some official dignitary to an unnamed city in Pakistan, contrasted with her more poignantly amusing photographic series of the empty streets of Karachi at dusk during Ramadan (‘Karachi’, 2008), which depicts lone figures who have moved their domestic lives outdoors.
One of the key features of the Biennale is the strong presence of the MAC: its directors are also the artistic directors of the Biennale and, as Prat states in the catalogue, the museum and the Biennale are meant to ‘compose a single score’. Still, after all these years, the curation of that venue still suffered from the combination of an overly diverse body of works and an installation that lacked spatial and conceptual clarity. However, the museum’s loan of Fluxus artist George Brecht’s ‘Chair Events’ (mostly in the Sucrière) and ‘9 Event Glasses’ (1960–88), peppered throughout the Sucrière and in the MAC, were welcome breaths of fresh air in an otherwise saturated and somewhat nonsensical visual field. The ordinary chairs that make up ‘Chair Events’ and the ‘Event Glasses’ – glass rectangles engraved with the word ‘event’ that are mounted on stands – designate events through their discreet presence and our act of noticing or looking through them. When a friend honestly mistook a ‘Chair Event’ for a chair and sat down, he was hurried off by a guard who angrily informed him it was an art work. If the Biennale de Lyon is any indication, it appears that the spectacle trounces the everyday almost every time.
Vivian Sky Rehberg is a contributing editor of frieze and course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
First published in Issue 128