Founded in 2003 by the association Contour Mechelen, Contour Biennale is dedicated to promoting the art of the moving image. Over the past decade or so, Contour has successfully carved out its niche in the picturesque city of Mechelen, in the Belgian province of Antwerp, once renowned as a centre of the Northern Renaissance. The title of the eighth iteration, ‘Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium’, eloquently crafted by Natasha Ginwala (with input from critical theorist Denise Ferreira da Silva and artist Judy Radul) is partially inspired by Mechelen’s distant juridical past. The town played host to the Great Council – the highest court responsible for the multilingual territories of the Burgundian Netherlands – from the 15th century until the French Revolution in 1789. The title also references the polyphonic music that flourished under the aegis of the regent Margaret of Austria, who settled in the town in the early 16th century. This year’s biennale is not solely devoted to moving-image work and occupies six venues, easily accessible on foot, throughout the city centre, including landmark buildings such as the Court of Savoy, the Alderman’s House and the delightfully named House of the Great Salmon. The exhibition is accompanied by a bespoke graphic identity, an online magazine – Hearings – a published reader, and a sold-out public programme (which I did not attend). Navigating the show thus means negotiating both literal and figurative understandings of receptiveness and polyphony: in particular, how much reading, listening and dialogue, outside of the exhibition, we must engage in to access Ginwala’s curatorial thinking.
Let there be no doubt that it’s worth taking all of it in. The narrow thematic and site-sensitive foci don’t simply lead to analogies between the local past and global present issues of social justice and collectivity. More than this, they allow Ginwala to expand from there to identify and offer a more just reading of contemporary culture and society via works by 26 artists that resonate with her concerns. These include the audio-visual output of the Karrabing Film Collective, Otobong Nkanga’s sculptures and videos, and Rana Hamadeh’s opera in progress. In this way, the show fosters a broader understanding of contemporary art’s material and symbolic, as well as social and political, potential and relevance.
The law is extracted from the abstract realm of codes of conduct and juridical debates in works that appeal to the senses to locate and interpret its incorporation and effects. The opening gambit in the first venue, contemporary art space The Garage, is Ana Torfs’s video and slide installation Anatomy (2006). The work relies on filmed and recorded actors to reconstruct the testimony from the military trial following the 1919 Berlin murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The various versions of the truth offered by these talking heads are surveilled by a sequence of projected black and white images of witnesses dispersed around an anatomical theatre. But the competing accounts cannot blunt the brute facts of the couple’s execution.
There is an emphasis on collective assembly and production in this biennale, which means individual works or artists often serve as surrogates for a host of companions. Joscelyn Gardner’s exquisite suite of hand-coloured lithographs, Creole Portraits III (2009), represent the co-operative long-term and large-scale investigation that ‘Council’ (Grégory Castéra and Sandra Terdjman) has led into legal issues surrounding sexuality, gender and ‘against nature’ laws since 2015. Gardner’s treatment of the hairstyles of Carribean female slaves is as intricate as botanical studies of the plants these women would use to induce abortion. Here, the poisonous roots are depicted as being yoked to the women’s heads with the elaborate iron collars slaves were forced to wear. When collective association on a curatorial and artistic level cedes to experiential polyphony for the visitor, the exhibition enchants as well as instructs. This was most evident in the chilled and darkened warehouse and coworking space that the exhibition transformed into a setting for commissioned video works by Basir Mahmood, Adelita Husni-Bey, Filipa César & Louis Henderson, and Pallavi Paul. The visually enticing display of floating screens and flickering images unfortunately beckoned toward some discomfort in viewing and listening, as visitors perched on rickety stools and waited to share headphones.
When writing about group exhibitions, my enthusiastic anticipation for discovering artworks I’ve not seen before, or revisiting familiar works framed anew, is tempered by a nagging concern with their curatorial framing. This translates generally into the obvious question: what are the exhibition’s intentions? Sometimes those intentions can over-determine our experience and understanding of the art. Am I convinced, as Ginwala asserts in her introduction to the biennale, that Contour 8 ‘fosters the idea of “undisciplinarity” in such a way that several entangled positions from contemporary culture perform as non-linear praxes across horizons of thought and artistic media, while becoming linked in an affective bind’? I have no idea. However, I am sure you don’t have to neatly erect the discursive (academic) scaffold around your aesthetic experience of the artworks in this biennale in order to value them. As Ginwala’s advisor Radul says: ‘Images do not dictate how they are seen.’
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 187