What is the cost of 97 good ideas? Thoughts are free, but the production and administration of a major exhibition across four main venues is not, and the State Museum of Contemporary Art orchestrated the Thessaloniki Biennale 6 with only 20 percent of their typical budget. About half of the participating artists were selected from the 1,352 respondents to an open call organized by the museum staff around the theme of ‘Imagined Homes’. According to the biennale director Syrago Tsiara, the organizers responded to the challenge by taking ‘extensive advantage of the cultural reserves of the city’ – but that wasn’t its only resource. At the opening, the curators sheepishly expressed their gratitude to the artists’ for their willingness to cover many of the costs. ‘We didn’t want to cut back on the number of artists just because of the limited funding,’ Maria Tsantsanoglou, Director of the State Museum told me. Among 97 exhibiting artists from 37 countries, 33 of them are working in Greece. Yet, the biennale’s laudable ambition for inclusivity is undercut by the vast quantity of works, more than the curators could manage to install carefully or thread together conceptually.
The show’s strongest works connect to the theme through vivid cinematic narratives. Hong Kong-born British artist Bo Choy’s video Un/folding in (2016) offers some of the show’s most lucid writing in the form of a voiceover letter to her mother. She handles different childhood objects, considering how their presence conjures multiple temporalities, ending with a casual rejoinder, ‘gestures are not enough … thoughts and images need to work harder to project the not-yet and the to-come in the horizon.’ Choy’s notion of home is less a physical site than a web of strangeness and familiarity that is formed through resolutely imaginative work.
The 22 video works in the exhibition tend to be most adept at complicating clichés of home, offering scenes rife with desire for belonging and for reconciliation with difficult histories. Russian and Bulgarian artists Oleg Mavromatti and Boryana Rossa’s disturbing No Place for Fools (2015) intercuts Youtube footage of swirling flocks of birds, gas explosions and reversed suicide jumpers with home videos of a Russian man, revealing his complex worldview inflected by homosexuality and orthodox Christianity. Another feature-length film by Ascan Breuer traces the German artist’s journey to his ancestral homeland in Java. He searches for his grandmother who haunts her former home as a tiger spirit in Riding My Tiger (2014). In their documentary Anamones (2016), Cyprian and Greek artists Michalis Charalambous, Stefanos Papados, Giorgos Stylianou and Andri Tsiouti investigate a widespread Cyprus phenomenon of steel bars left poking from the roves of homes. Interviewed parents explain that this practice facilitates upstairs construction for their children’s hypothetical future family. The specificity of these cultural nuances and the artists’ critical approaches to symbolism of the idea of home are a welcome rarity in the biennale as a whole.
Many works use collage or documentary strategies that either give a didactic determination of an appropriate reading or do little to present a new approach to found material. Belarusian artist Marina Naprushkina uses two distinct types of photographs in her wall-mounted assemblage Home Aerobic (2012). Although the juxtaposition of images of women under arrest and women in gymnastic poses hints at the connections of force and obedience to female bodies, the work feels more preparatory than a fully realized work. Greek artist Dionisis Christofilogiannis also works with binary source material in his series Feels Like Home (2017), with Syrian rubble superimposed on city views of Athens and Thessaloniki, yet his simplistic political gesture offers the viewer a feeble choice between vague fear and guilt. Although many of the included works might have been effective in a more rigorous context, the curators couldn’t bring themselves to reject less mature works that make the raison d’être of the biennale unclear.
An insufficient budget does not necessarily equate to a substandard exhibition. On the contrary, a judicious use of resources is the onus of organizers who determine an exhibition’s scope. An international biennial may bring greater visibility to local art scenes, but if struggling artists and under-funded art spaces must absorb a significant financial burden, we must ask if the sacrifice is really worth it.
Thessaloniki Biennale 6 runs until 14 January 2018.
Main image: Ascan Breuer, Riding My Tiger – Trilogi Jawa III, 2014, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Dokumentarisches Labor