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Biennale: A Neo-Political Phenomenon

 

 

In the art world, there is a constant negotiation between two poles: poiesis (poetic production) and oikonomia (management of poetic production). A curator is someone who connects these two poles. Two further roles are those of the audience and the buyers. A Biennale is a large-scale event that puts all these stakeholders in a blender and blends them up. The Biennale’s aim is to bring aesthetic and sensory world into a solitary, didactic space.

 

The oldest arts festivals, including The Three Choirs Festival (1719) and the Norfolk and Norwich Festival (1772), were held in England. The Great Exhibition (1851) held at the Crystal Palace, London, can be seen as the first attempt by a world power (the British empire in this case) to affirm its spectacular wealth and high taste. The world fairs held in the 19th century provided a prototype for the modern art fair. While the overt desire was to provide a venue for a proliferation of arts and crafts, a covert goal was the affirmation of the hosting country as the hub of power and culture. This is the common agenda of capitalism and consumer culture, that is to dissipate itself through spectacle [Guy Debord, Society of Spectacle], and even use its own critique to its advantage by swallowing it up.

 

While an arts festival features the arts in a wide sense of the word, a Biennale is a specific type of arts festival that exclusively features the contemporary visual arts. Biennale is an Italian word for “biennial” which means “every other year”. So the Biennale is any event that happens every two years. Within the art world, the term is used to refer to any recurrent large-scale international contemporary art exhibition. The term was popularized by the Venice Biennale held in 1895, which was also the world’s first such art exhibition. The Venice Biennale was a prototype for the other fairs that followed suit. Now there are more than 150 biennales worldwide. Some of the world’s most famous Biennales include Beijing Biennale, Berlin Biennale, Liverpool Biennale, Sharjah Biennale, Venice Biennale and Whitney Biennale. The Biennale Foundation was established in 2009 and the first World Biennial Forum took place in 2012. A journal dealing with the Biennale phenomenon by the name of Seismopolite was first printed in 2011.

 

The Eurocentric model of Biennales came under challenge as the art market expanded into regions previously considered marginalized. The Havana Biennial (1984) is considered a pivotal moment in this regard, when the art scene broadened beyond Europe and North America.

 

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of Biennales all over the world, especially in regions previously considered to be on the peripheries as far as the art market is concerned. Gwangju Biennial was the first Biennale to be held in Asia in 1995, just two years after the democratic government was elected in 1993. A number of biennales have sprung up in the South Asian region as well. These include Dhaka Art Summit, Kathmandu Triennale, Kochi-Muziris Biennale and India Art Fair. Founded in 2008, India Art Fair was the first in the region. The inaugural edition of the Kathmandu Triennale titled The City, My Studio/The City, My Life, organized by Siddhartha Art Foundation (SAF), opened in March 2017 (24 March – 9 April 2017). It builds on the past successes of Kathmandu International Art Festival held in 2009 and 2012, both of which were extremely successful. The Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) was founded in 2012 by the Samdani Art Foundation – who continue to produce the festival – in collaboration with the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, every two years at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. The fourth edition of the event is scheduled to be held from 2 February – 10 February 2018.

 

Asia is going through an upheaval that can herald-in a new Asian century in the art world. This is already apparent with the expansion of the art market in Russia, China, India, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and South Korea. Beijing rivals New York in the opening of new art galleries. There are 1200 museums under construction in China alone. Africa and Latin America may be the next to follow Asia’s example.

 

Even in Pakistan, a country internationally known for its nuclear arsenal, political corruption and terror networks, two art fairs have been scheduled to be held in the two major cities (Lahore and Karachi). The first Karachi Biennale, with the title Witness, is scheduled to be held from 22 October – 5 November 2017, while the Lahore Biennale, previous scheduled for 2018 might be delayed due to a rift between the Lahore Biennale Foundation and the curatorial team. Karachi being the pub of Pakistani art market, the Karachi Biennale will make use of the network of art galleries and their regular clientele, to make the event a success, while Lahore Biennale would be more spread out and centered around the art academy due to the presence of Pakistan’s two biggest art colleges (National College of Arts and Beaconhouse National University) in Lahore.

 

Recently, there has been a trend in using the hosting city as a backdrop or framework for commissioning and curating projects for the Biennale. This trend is apparent in the “City” as a recurring theme in the manifestos of Biennales, for example, Lahore Biennale, Karachi Biennale, Kathmandu Triennale, etc.

 

Another new model that has come up is the organization of discursive activities centered around the Biennale as a pivot. As Ranjit Hoskote has said, that a biennale is “a discursive environment, a theatre that allows for the staging of arguments, speculations and investigations concerning the nature of our shared, diversely veined, and demanding contemporary condition.” One such example is the vision of the previous curator, Rashid Rana, for the 2018 Lahore Biennale. It is interesting to see that the Biennale format which came into existence in order to converge and squeeze discursive year round art related activities into a single concentrated event to make it possible for a global audience to experience the art scene of a particular region, has again fragmented into project-styled activities. What remains to be seen is how far this discursive model can be stretched before it fails the purpose of a Biennale and gets reduced to a general art scene.

 

As a site and time specific organism responsible for bringing together state players, museum and gallery directors, curators, artists, media and public on a large scale, the Biennale becomes a site of contestation where different groups maneuver and strategize for greater representation and advancement of their own self-righteous agendas. Keeping the above in mind, a curator may take an activist approach and through his curatorial vision, may open up conversations about a specific socio-political problem in reference to the site. Hedwig Fijen, the Director of Manifesta 10, wrote in his statement: “Biennials like Manifesta should play a vital role in helping us better understand our place in this complex world. Biennials need to prove their relevance to today’s issues in society, and to involve an audience in a critical dialogue that is not just about what they do, but why they do it.” [http://manifesta.org/2014/03/statement-hedwig-fijen-director-of-manifesta-10/] Federica Martini, in Just Another Exhibition: Histories and Politics of Biennials (2011), writes that “what is at stake in contemporary biennales is the diplomatic/international relations potential as well as urban regeneration plans. Besides being mainly focused on the present, because of their site-specificity cultural events may refer back to, produce or frame the history of the site and communities’ collective memory”. In the wake of political opposition to the 19th Sydney Biennale, Julian Meyrick wrote to one of the Ministers: “Whatever happens in politics ends up in the arts. That’s because it’s artist’s job to be socially responsive. So no Fake Shock when art ends up a battleground for the issues of the day. This socially responsive role for artists is the one envisioned by Engberg in Istanbul. A nation’s political climate ought to be mirrored in an event such as the Sydney Biennale. Another such biennale that unfolded amidst political turmoil is the 13th Istanbul Biennial titled Mom, Am I Barbarian? (14 September – 20 October 2013), curated by Fulya Erdemci. At the time protests had erupted in Turkey following the demolition of Gezi Park on Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The curator had to maneuver, push back and give way, when needed, to make the event possible. In such situations the role of the curator becomes extremely difficult.

 

Or, the curator may take the opposite approach of and keep the Biennale completely aloof from any set political agenda to demonstrate that art is above politics and provides a safe unprejudiced space for discourse. For example, when Chto Delat, in solidarity with the Peace March in Moscow, withrew from Manifesta 10 that was to be held at State Hermitage Museum, Petersburg, the curator Kasper Konig refused to cancel the Biennale in protest, emphasizing that the Biennale could be “misused by political actors as a platform for their own self-righteous representation,” and adding that “it is [his] hope that to present far more than just commentary on the present political circumstances” [http://manifesta.org/2014/03/manifesta-10-will-stay-in-st-petersburg/] This brings to mind a comment by the Pakistani art critic, Quddus Mirza, which I have heard him voice a number of times. He says that it is a good thing that the Pakistani government is not interested in art; yes, it creates financial problems but at least it keeps censorship out.

 

As biennales proliferate all over the world, their effect remains to be seen on the regions in the peripheries and also in countries where the art market is estranged from the rest of society and where governments are at best disinterested in the scene, and at the worst, actively pursue an agenda of censorship and control. Whatever the outcome, it is definitely an exciting time for artists in countries like Pakistan, where for the first time, the west is going to fly to see an art fair and not the other way around. My only word of advice for the organisers is that the biennale should connect with the local community at large and should not become another exquisite product of the east that we present to the west. Making it accessible for Pakistanis may mean a compromise on the quality and standard (for example, the signage may be done in Urdu as well as English), but the only way to make it successful in the long run is the take on board the local stakeholders. If this is not the top priority then it may become just another spot for only the elite to hang out and exhibit their refined tastes in art and culture to each other.

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