To Biennial or not to Biennial? Pt. 2
The second in a two-part report from the recent Bergen Biennial Conference in Norway
Each afternoon would feature a choice of two dialogues: that first day, I attended the conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Anri Sala on the influence of biennials on art production and site-specific work. As we took our seats, Sala punched a key on his open laptop and an instrumental version of The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ (1981) began to fill the room. As the crowd, relaxed from lunch, giggled, Obrist launched into his thesis: ‘We think biennials should create reality’, he said in his rapid, double-time delivery. Sala started a slide show of works from the 2nd Tirana Biennale (2003) which he co-curated with Obrist. The project on view gave international artists local apartment buildings to paint, which extended a famous urban painting project that Tirana’s mayor (who is Sala’s best friend) had initiated in 2000. The slides cycled through brilliantly hued housing blocks by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose contribution included the line ‘THESE ARE THINGS WE ARE FIGHTING FOR’ painted across a building’s girth. (Like ‘event structures’, Tiravanija’s name and work would be one of the constant refrains of the conference, in that nearly everyone evoked him and some project – inevitably experiential and culturally sensitive – that he had done.)
Obrist and Sala pointed to their building-painting project as one that went against the sometimes ‘on/off’ nature of biennials, transforming the biennial from “event” into something more sustainable and ‘sedimentary’. Obrist made the sweet point that the archipelagos of Bergen were the perfect model for a biennial, as opposed to the ‘biennial-as-continent’. After touching on their ‘Il Tempo del Postino’ (2007) project – for which artists were given ‘time rather than space’ to work with – and their ‘Utopia Station’ for the 2003 Venice Biennale, they opened up the room for questions. Laura Steward, the Phillips Director of SITE Santa Fe, offered perhaps the funniest observation of the conference. Sighing, she asked: ‘Do you think it’s possible to exhaust your local audience?’ Pointing to biennials in ‘exotic’ locales like Santa Fe, Tirana or Bergen, she cited her own biennial, for which international artists often want to do site-specific works with the local community. ‘The Navajos are telling us: enough with your German artists already!’ To laughter, she offered an example for Bergen: ‘Will there be a work about the fish market in every biennial?’
From the academic theorizing of the morning, we had suddenly entered the practical: how would a biennial function in Bergen exactly? Obrist gingerly cited the Skulptur Projekte Münster, which only happens ever 10 years, as a worthwhile example of sustainability, then, shaking his head, moved on.
That night, the Bergen Kunsthalle threw a party for the conference’s participants. Flaming torches flanked the entrance to the lakeside Kunsthalle’s long, low building, and a short red carpet had been rolled out. Inside, sushi and wine were downed with some alacrity, and I met Sala, who proceeded to tell me about Tirana’s recent election, a surreal story of unlikely alliances and subterfuge; the government’s ongoing corruption problems, which he said are not likely to cease until the European Union gets more serious about making Albania a member; and the wonderful daily drawings that Tirana’s mayor still makes. Before I called it a night, I spoke with Tone Hansen, curator of the Henie Onstad Art Centre outside of Oslo, and some local Norwegian and Swedish critics: despite less-than-stellar reviews of the current Norwegian biennial in Moss, all stressed Bergen’s outsized role in the Norwegian art scene, and professed hesitant support for a biennial in the city.
The two days that followed were a similar blur of presentations, panels and drinks. The best talks pressed past academic jargon and jaded weariness to deliver a blend of gimlet-eyed pragmatism and optimism. Ann Demeester (pictured above), director of the Appel Arts Centre, gave a wonderful presentation on the history of the Vilnius Triennial, the newest incarnation of which she was in the last stages of curating, having just flown in from Lithuania. Paul O’Neil’s talk – entitled ‘The Fast and the Furious’ (which anticipated the speed with which he would run through it) – was a somewhat revelatory series of examples of socially-minded art projects in the wilds of the UK and elsewhere. Ingar Dragset gave a funny and humble look at his most recent curatorial endeavour, the extraordinary Nordic and Danish Pavilions that he and his collaborator, Michael Elmgreen, staged. He offered one of the most memorable lines of the conference, when, as he shuffled through slides of homoerotica, high and low, Tom of Finland et al., that filled the pavilions, noted that critics had said there were too many penises in the pavilions. He smiled guardedly, and countered: ‘Personally, I think you can never have enough penises.’
By the last day, most of the participants seemed both giddy and tired. The three organizers’ charm, acumen and sheer feats of organization had paid off in a smooth and pretty much consistently interesting series of presentations. If the conference’s subtext was to lay the PR and support groundwork for an inaugural Bergen Biennial in 2011, the organizers had created enough goodwill that this seemed entirely and successfully achieved. As a think tank on the state of biennials – their history, hype and future – the conference, seemed, to me, a success as well. If the realizations about the pluses and minuses about how biennials are practiced at present were not always revelatory, the range and depth of knowledge that accumulated over three days did seem so, giving a sense of gravity to a biennial culture that can often seem superfluous in the extreme.
The concluding talk – called, sigh, ‘To Biennial Or Not… And Bergen?’ – was given by Hayward public programmes curator Rafal Niemojewski, who had spent some time in Bergen collecting research that ostensibly was supposed to tell us whether Bergen was ripe for a biennial. His flustered nervousness seemed more than just personal jitters: how could the random stats he compiled compete with the work that had already been accomplished here, much less come to some conclusion about the feasibility of a Bergen Biennial? But it was a false step in an otherwise surefooted and overwhelmingly inspired conference, one that, in turn, inspired some measure of hope in both the potentialities of future biennials and in the art-world professionals – including many among us – who would be in charge of guiding them forward. As Maria Hlavajova, the immensely likable artistic director of BAK in Utrecht, had put it the day before, the biennial ‘is not a hydra-headed creature, it’s rather a blunt instrument wielded by professionals.’ Here’s to their finesse then.