The dated tradition of The Grand Tour provided the mobile classes of England with an opportunity to travel the Continent, view its art and architecture, experience its culture, and relive a little of its history. Young men – privileged, moneyed, able – and, occasionally, women of means would embark on these trips and survey the choicest selection of masterpieces, artefacts, and ruins, which Europe had to offer. Although The Grand Tour all but disappeared as a custom around the second half of the nineteenth century, it would be interesting to see the modern biennale as fulfilling a similar purpose: educating and enriching the public (admittedly, some factions of it more than others) through the times’ most pertinent art, gathered together in one place.
Of course, the analogy works only thinly as the motivations behind organising and hosting a biennale, especially in the present day and age, is multifarious and ever changing. Simply, the biennale is a large-scale art exhibition that takes place every two years. The first took place in Venice in 1985, where it has, notwithstanding a few suspensions, continued and also accrued the prestige, repute, and authority that has led the term ‘biennial/biennale’ to become nearly synonymous with the Venice Biennale. It is not, however, the only biennale of the contemporary art world, as it was for a long time. Between 200 and 300 such events now take place in cities ranging from the historic and famed Istanbul to the tiny and obscure islet of La Biche off the coast of Guadeloupe.
The Cold War and its aftermath are partially credited for the boom in recurrent art events like biennales that subscribe to the concept of the city as a hub of modernity and culture. The widespread effects of superpower rivalry included the urbanisation of cities around the world that were geographically or politically strategic. Many became the urban centres, which they are today, and the idea of a cultural event that would involve the whole city and reinforce its image as a proud bastion of tradition and innovation gained appeal. Istanbul has attempted to present itself as such an institution. The Istanbul Biennale was launched in 1987 as a means of reviewing a historic, transcontinental metropolis in a new light. The title heralding its inception to the world was self-explanatory – ‘Contemporary Art in Traditional Spaces’.
In other cases, the biennale would be used as a medium for change or to deliver a political message. The Biennale of the Mediterranean, hosted by Alexandria, Egypt, in 1955, was anti-colonial and anti-imperial in character, in keeping with the political climate of the region then. More recently, initiatives like Haiti’s Ghetto Biennale have started challenging negative perceptions of the country by revealing the gritty, vibrant art being made therein, and the resourcefulness of its artists. The artist collective of Atis-Rezistans has organised The Ghetto Biennale in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, since 2009. They seek primarily to introduce international contemporary art to artists working in Haiti, who are often self-taught and unable to experience new media and new market trends. But the unique context of the biennale has also prompted a dialogue in the art world on social and racial inequality and immobility.
While central, renowned cities may have started hosting biennales in a bid to keep reinventing themselves and the appeal they held for tourists, for many smaller or more peripheral cities, the trend promised publicity and attention that they had not received before. Holding a biennial art event would allow smaller or remoter cities to connect with the wider art community on a regular basis; it would bring an influx of visitors and promote local businesses without the hosting bodies having to circumnavigate too much red tape – as can happen with organising other cultural events. In the most idealistic sense, a biennale can help bring together a city that has undergone zoning, partitioning, the territorial segregation of minority groups, the displacement of certain communities from their neighbourhoods, an increase in gated communities, and any other of the less salubrious effects of urbanisation.
But despite being a feasible tool for cultural development, the biennale has also courted its share of controversies and problems. A recent debate, for example, questions whether or not the art world’s numerous biennales have become exclusive events, set up by and for a small, mobile and elite portion of the populace only. It is feared that most biennales turn into high-end gatherings of curators, gallery owners, collectors, connoisseurs, and artists of means and mobility – eluding to a large extent the public they ought ideally to engage. This can in turn reinforce the more-or-less prevalent association of art with luxury.
Over the years, different instalments of different biennales have experienced other complications as well, and provoked other discussions. The debacle surrounding Kenya’s first participation in the Venice Biennale of 2013 – which saw ten foreign and a mere two national artists representing Kenya – opened up discussions on how the platform can be manipulated for neo-colonial agendas. Many biennales have eschewed the Venetian format of having national pavilions altogether, choosing instead to invest in the power of politically urgent themes to unite works from all over the world.
As the year draws to a close, two of Pakistan’s major cities prepare for the inaugurations of their respective biennales. The Karachi Biennale, with the word ‘Witness’ at its core, is scheduled to take place in October this year. The Lahore Biennale will follow in February 2018. These past two years have seen the founding bodies of both initiate a range of cultural activities and auxiliary events – comprising talks, public art commissions, exhibitions, and workshops – in an effort to mobilise the creative circles and generate interest in the laity. The venues that have been and will be involved include public spaces, historic buildings, and communal centres. The biennales promise to display and disseminate local and international art outside the perimeter of the gallery and in the public arena. For two of the most rapidly developing cities of a country that just celebrated its seventieth year of independence, the model of the biennial art exhibition holds immense potential.