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“Biennales – What Are They Good For?”


“Biennales, what are they good for?”

“The appointment of the Indonesian arts collective ruangrupa as artistic director for the next documenta has been greeted, for the most part, favourably across the art world, especially in Asia. It has also prompted another round of soul-searching about the larger purpose and function of biennale-type exhibitions. These platforms often paradoxically concern themselves with both the presentation of art at a specific time that is shaped by a particular locality and politics, alongside the idea of art’s timeless and non-geographically specific value. Today’s biennale seems framed by both the conditions of colonialism and postcolonialism, on the one hand, and global capitalism on the other. Even as the market for these projects is more saturated than ever, including far-flung, gimmicky additions like one in Antarctica, each new edition strains to be equitably representational, and not just relevant but urgent. With all this in mind, how should we receive, visit and think about biennales in our spectacle/event-driven contemporary culture?”


The song “War”, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1969, was first recorded by the great Motown vocal group, the Temptations. When re-recorded by Edwin Starr in 1970, it became a number one hit in the US. As some readers may recall, the opening lines are: “War, what is it good for? … Absolutely nothing!”

The juxtaposition with war may be coincidental, but it’s worth some elaboration. While Venice inaugurated the biennale in 1895, it was after WWII that the platform began to proliferate, with Sao Paolo being the second in 1951, and a few others joining the ranks subsequently, like Sydney in 1973. Then, leading up to the turn of the century, biennales proliferated and became, arguably, the dominant large-scale platform for global contemporary art. Our question today implies this connection with the post-war world order through the mentions of postcolonialism and global capitalism.

Historians may argue that certain conflicts back in the day, from the Peloponnesian to WWII, had their reasons and purposes, and I won’t discuss the issue here. But with regard to wars in my own lifetime, and I’m old enough to remember the Starr song when it played on the radio, I find it hard to disagree with the sentiment that they are indeed terrible and wrong. Sadly, war is a common theme in today’s art – sad less because of the art than because of the conflicts that devastate so much of modern life.

If one can be clear-cut and categorical about warfare, what, then, of biennales? Speaking as an art critic who has written about them many times (though rarely to review, but often to offer commentary), let me say that I started as a sceptic, and am now an agnostic. Whereas once I approached the biennale ready to find fault with its premises or execution, these days, I try and look past the spectacle, and instead, try and be open to surprise and being moved by good art and good curating.

At the Sharjah Biennial 2019, Khadim Ali (In collaboration with Bamiyan Art Space), Standing Flames,2019. From ‘Flowers of Evil’. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist

It is important to emphasise that there are many aspects of contemporary art around the world that have yet to be captured by the biennales on offer. For curators of such projects, there is always yet another “peripheral area” to be included. For example, in 2015, countries like Mongolia and Tuvalu, a small island nation in the Pacific, were represented for the first time at the Venice Biennale.

Moreover, art and cultural practices from “conflict zones” like Pattani in Southern Thailand, or Mindanao in the Southern Philippines, are now beginning to receive consistent attention from the international art world. The conflicts are old; it’s the circulation of the art that’s new. This mission of trying to better represent the art, cultures, traditions and tensions from everywhere has become a defining characteristic of the biennale.

It would seem these projects are predicated on their radical incompleteness. Curator Fumio Nanjo’s essay for the TransCulture exhibition of the 1995 Venice Biennale was titled, A Book that is Never Finished. There, he described the ideal catalogue of contemporary art as an “endlessly expanding world, an abundance which can never be completely contained”. Fair enough, but it also suggests the convergence of the biennale’s mission with capitalist consumerism – more art! more new things!

To be clear, I have lots of problems with the current neo-liberal capitalist world order, which, among other socio-political ills, creates systemic inequality (in a previous Plural column, I touched upon this). As Noam Chomsky puts it, the crucial principle of the neoliberal era is “undermining mechanisms of social solidarity and mutual support and popular engagement in determining policy”, as well as subordinating public needs and interests to “the decisions of concentrated, unaccountable, private power.” Many of today’s biennale curators and artists engage precisely with positions such as Chomsky’s.

But in responding to today’s question, I don’t want to debate capitalism or, more pertinently, whether biennales should exist or not. My understanding of the query is that it accepts that these exhibitions predominate, and asks how should we approach them.

Yet, having just said that, what if, as a general strategy, we should consistently interrogate the very terms of their existence? There is a book by David Carrier, Museum Skepticism, which examines the arguments of what he calls “museum sceptics”. These persons claim that “museums preserve old objects, but fail to preserve the works of art constituted by these objects”; they “reject the claim that this old art gives us true beliefs about the past”.

What about “biennale sceptics”? Would they likewise admit that biennales showcase art from around the world, but reject the claims that (a) these exhibitions give us true beliefs about the different places and practices represented, and (b) provide the best experiences and examples of new art today?

I’ve raised a number of questions, and even if I had much more space, it would be hard to answer any of them satisfactorily. But I think the main problem here is that I’ve been speaking of the biennale as if it were a singular thing, rather than a very loose notion that encompasses a wide range of diverse projects of different scales and various purposes. (Check out this empirical study of 320 biennales).

If anything, the point I would like to make is that we should recognise the limits of our generalisations – even if we cannot help ourselves, and always fall into the habit of seeking patterns, making interpretations and drawing conclusions from our observations. Thus, it’s good to think about specific cases as well, keeping in mind that we should not over-extend the lessons we might learn from them. This balancing act of looking for larger patterns as well as exceptions to the rule is what art historians do.

So let’s turn to a specific case. Recently, I was involved with the 14th Sharjah Biennale (SB14), helping co-curator Zoe Butt with her catalogue and conference. Before the show opened, an interview with Butt was published, which started with the curator admitting her coexistent scepticism and fondness for biennales. She also said we should recognise the limits of their globalist assumptions and aspirations:

“I hear things like: ‘Oh you’ve got the chance to work with anybody in the world, so I guess you must be traveling the entire planet.’ My answer has always been: ‘Is that even feasible?’ It’s delusional to think: ‘Yeah, I can go to places I’ve never been to before and know nothing about, meet a couple of artists, include them in the show, and then suddenly this is globality.’”

The 14th Sharjah Biennale featured over 80 artists and collectives. It was led, not by a single artistic director, but three co-curators (Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons being the other two), who worked within a shared framework, but developed their own exhibitions somewhat independently.

Kidlat Tahimik,
Ang Ma-bagyong Sabungan ng 2 Bathala ng Hangin, A Stormy Clash Between 2 Goddesses of the Winds (WW III – the Protracted Kultur War)
, 2019. Commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist.

As with many a biennale, the aim was to offer a wide representation of contemporary art and culture, and to put the artworks into conversation with each other. This is already challenging when there is diversity among the artists, their intentions and contexts, but what about disparity? — that is, when there is not just difference, but great difference. For example, how does an artist from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, speak with an artist from New Zealand of Maori descent, and an artist from Baguio, Philippines? Are such conversations doomed to be just a cacophony of voices?

Harry Thorne, in his review for Frieze  seems to think so. For him, SB14 was “frantic, disjointed and diverse”; a “predictable upshot, perhaps, of the decision to appoint three co-curators who each lay faith in the sheer unpredictability of new commissions”. Because the biennale was “barraged by so many stories from so many timelines and tongues and temperatures, inaudibility remains a problem”. Thorne faulted many of the works for a lack of subtlety. Where he did find nuance and “quietude” was in an exhibition of what could be described as modernist painting.

To me, Thorne’s review speaks more about his own blinkered worldview than the challenges of biennale curation. The point is not to offer, in rebuttal, a positive assessment of Sharjah. The question isn’t whether Thorne, or any other reviewer, liked or disliked any particular show. The question is about how we approach biennales. Having seen SB14 myself, I’m struck with the feeling that what Thorne mostly saw was art that was unfamiliar to him. When he encountered something he could recognise, he appreciated it. But for the rest, it seems that he reacted rather than reflected. He heard noise, rather than listened.


[Note: The feature image is of visitors to the Venice Biennale 2019, viewing Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installation, Can’t Help Myself, 2016.]

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