In her landmark 2004 book, The Infinite Line, art historian Briony Fer begins â€œWe are lost without repetitionâ€. Her book is a radical interpretation of the innovative art of the late 1950s and 1960s at the moment of the disintegration of modernism. But her opening statement could equality be applied to the world of the Biennial.
Fer develops her theme darkly, suggesting: â€œIf we are lost without repetition, we are also in thrall to it. Repetition cuts both ways, both shoring up and shattering its fragile and precarious hold. It is a means of organising the world (and) it is a means of disordering and undoing. It can be utopian or dystopian.â€
Fer acknowledges a debt to Gilles Deleuzeâ€™s Difference and Repetition 1968, and my own reading of this seminal book encourages me to propose that recurrent exhibitions can never convincingly proclaim overarching theories – that any presumption to be definitive is just a bubble waiting to be pricked.
Recurrence promotes, explores and experiences what is new, what could never have been said before and wonâ€™t be said again. The consciousness of the present moment.
Biennials, wherever they are in the world (and there are between 100 â€“ 200 of them, variously labelled fairs, festivals, competitions, prizes, Biennials, Triennials or Quinquennials) have just one thing in common. They recur.
The question is, what purpose do they serve? And why do we keep coming back for more, year after year?
Historically, there are three sources of validation for art: the academy; the market; and artists. And, over the centuries, recurrent exhibitions have been set up by each of these three interest groups.
The Academy concerns itself with the discourse of art history and theory, through universities, publishers and museums. The Market, while enjoying a discourse of sorts, focuses on investors, connoisseurs and collecting museums. In theory, the Academy and the Market are separate bodies, but often they’re locked in a loving embrace, one giving â€˜relevanceâ€™, the other giving cash value, each to the other.
Between these two move artists, supplicant to the institutional and financial power of the academy and the market. There is a discourse of validation belonging to artists but, on the whole, they prefer to validate through deeds, not words: they validate each otherâ€™s work through their practice. The artist with the â€˜best practiceâ€™ is the one whose ideas and methods are stolen most frequently and blatantly by other artists.
The oldest form of recurrent exhibition is that organised by artists for themselves. The Royal Academy Summer Show, for instance, and the many annual exhibition societies and academies that flourished in the 19th Century are prime examples. While thereâ€™s always been a marketing motive in these exhibitions, I would argue that so long as they remain in the control of the artists they are fundamentally about peer recognition.
Many Biennials in developing countries are self-organised by artists, or organised around a dominating talent. So, the African Photography Biennial in Bakako, Mali, now in its eighth edition, has grown up around the internationally recognised and locally based practice of Malick Sidibe.
Something of that atmosphere can be found in the recurrent festivals and celebrations of the newer media â€“ video, kinetic, digital art â€“ like ISEA, for instance, the International Seminar of Electronic Arts. At any rate, these are events when the newness of the art is felt to be in the driving seat.
Perhaps the first recurrent exhibition validated by the academic / museum relationship was the Carnegie International. Recurrent every five years, this was founded specifically as an instrument to build a museum collection. Building a collection this way developed into a common method for museums to apply a sieve to contemporary art production. The same principle goes for the John Moores Painting Prize at the Walker in Liverpool.
There’s also the in-built need of the museum (and museum professionals) to historicise the present.
Last yearâ€™s Sydney Biennale, Forms That Turn, was billed in the marketing as â€œAustraliaâ€™s festival of contemporary artâ€ over the catchphrase â€œHere Nowâ€. It was surprising, therefore, to find that around one sixth of the artists represented were long dead!
The Artistic Director of Forms that Turn was Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who has now been appointed Director of the next Documenta (taking place every five years in Kassel, Germany).
Documenta was founded by Arnold Bode, painter and Kassel academy professor, on the occasion of a Garden Festival in 1955. Keen to regenerate Kasselâ€™s Fredericianum Museum, badly damaged in the War, he assembled an exhibition of modernist painting from the previous 50 years, re-branding it from the ‘Degenerate Art’ label the Nazi party had given it, as an impetus to rebuilding the museum.
Tourism and the regeneration of buildings have remained a constant in the history of Documenta, but most other things have changed. The arguments â€“ the struggle for the soul of Documenta â€“ have been about the motives behind the presentation of contemporary art. Was it to be about the past (in the shape of recovery and regeneration), or was it to be an artist-led celebration of the present moment?
The arguments rumble on to this day, with successive events see-sawing between the two competing remits. Catherine David, Documenta’s outspoken 1997 artistic director, wanted to move on from the idea of an â€˜exhibitionâ€™ in favour of a ‘manifestation culturelle’.
Ignoring the sense of megalomania behind the title of ‘Documenta’, one has to ask whether any single exhibition could or should document the state of contemporary art globally? And, even if that were possible, are the additional multi-disciplinary and historical dimensions of a manifestation culturelle needed? Or would an exhibition of contemporary art be able to stand on its own feet, give us just as much to think about with possibly a lot more pleasure?
For Documenta 11, in 2002, Okwe Enwezor adopted the mechanism of adding a series of discussion platforms held in cities around the world to the existing established â€˜100 daysâ€™ programme of talks and tours, which on this occasion involved not only talking but the rearrangement of the physical presentation.
What does a viewer (individually or collectively) actually experience of such an event? And how important â€“ in a manifestation culturelle – are artworks and artists, as opposed to talks and media coverage?
One of the characteristics that makes it hard to pin down the other best known example of a recurrent exhibition, Venice Biennale, is that it has a fantastic brand but an almost complete lack of institutional structure. As with Documenta, the grandiloquent curatorial overview has come in and out of fashion, but the lack of infrastructure has perhaps made it more vulnerable to market pressures than Documenta. If artists (or their dealers) have to fund their own participation, this results in a heavy bias towards those artists whose work is going to see a financial return on the investment.
Indeed, sometimes the Venice Biennale seems closer to being a marketplace than it does a survey of contemporary artistic practice. And the marketplace is of course the third form of validation.
Two Biennials (at least), Manifesta and Sharjah, appear to have been founded as a kind of market engineering, attempting to introduce to the â€˜internationalâ€™ market artists currently excluded from it. Many Asian and Middle Eastern events have been founded specifically for this reason too – and they’re beginning to network: the Asian Biennials now market collaboratively, helping to showcase (and make a case for) their validation far more effectively and convincingly.
The art fairs that have positioned themselves best, as market leaders – Art Basel Miami, Art Basel, and Frieze – have done so partially through the adoption of an academic discourse. This facilitates marketing the art for insertion into museum collections, but also of course to the many private collectors who value their own collections as serious rivals to those of leading museums.
Art Basel has been called the Olympics of the art world by the New York Times, and the organisers proudly quote this. It’s a curious analogy. Olympic sports look for no meaning beyond the bottom line. Itâ€™s the same with the art market â€“ after all, validation is reduced to a numerical sum. Maybe because of its simplicity, this is one of the most pervasive â€“ and persuasive – ways of looking at art.
The recent Tate Triennial, Altermodernism, sustained different perspectives. For instance, you can see it as a part of Tateâ€™s commitment to familiarising itself and its visitors with current art production; you can see it as part of Tateâ€™s research into acquisitions for the collection; or you can see it as part of Tateâ€™s desire to participate in the discourse of a manifestation culturelle. Even while itâ€™s evidently all three of these and more, sometimes the cracks show in a lack of integration or synergy between them.
A clearer ambition (and no attempt at manifestation culturelle) was evident in the introduction to the Second Tate Triennial, Days Like These. Here, curators Judith Nesbitt and Jonathan Watkins wrote â€œThe Tate Triennial is an opportunity to reflect on what is happening within contemporary British art. At an early stage we decided against prescription, preferring to curate a theme-free exhibition. There is no attempt on our part to translate or summarise contemporary practice…. On the contrary, itâ€™s more illuminating to see new work by artists of several generations, since all of it belongs to the present moment.â€
The battle for the soul of Tate Triennial seems curiously similar to that of Documenta. Should it, or should it not, be a positive statement of conviction about the present? If it should, then how can it step outside the (historicist) discourse of the museum?
I believe it’s difficult to act with conviction about the present moment, while having one eye on historical vindication at the same time. Curators who work in museums, or who want to work in museums, are required to do just this, because â€˜collecting museumsâ€™ are fundamentally about history: they can only validate the present through the past. Despite the acknowledged pluralism of the present, museums everywhere seem unable to resist the temptation of the â€˜unifying narrativeâ€™ that places a homogenised present somehow as the â€˜logicalâ€™ progeny of the past.
So why do recurrent exhibitions continue to receive â€“ as they do – a kind of anxious or impatient attention from the art world of the market and academy / museums?
One answer is because they are an irritating, constantly replenished piece of grit requiring to be digested by the well-oiled machine that is the system of art validation. Thanks to their state of hybridity, some recurrent exhibitions might be perceived as some kind of challenge to, or critique of, the status quo.
The second answer is that the validation system has been so efficient at appropriating recurrent exhibitions that these are perceived to be a new, useful and must-have tool with which the art milieu can get on with business as usual. I suspect that both answers are true.
As Director of Documenta 11, Okwe Enwezor wrote â€œcontemporary art continues to elude the universalising frames to which forces of the market tend to fix it, and therefore continuously rejuvenates our interest by not offering homogenising principles or world views.”
Heâ€™s right. In his introduction to the Gwangju Biennial (2008) titled Annual Report, Enwezor talks of the difficulties reconciling the perspectives of the local and the global (and with the grand claims of les manifestations culturelles) asserting: “I have found the growing importance of contemporary art is not properly captured only through the lens of globalising forces, as the very resolute localised conditions of production vividly remind us.”
Itâ€™s a perspective exemplified in the activity of Liverpool Biennial over the past ten years. Since 2000, Liverpool Biennial has followed some principles of operation that have remained constant. We commission as many new artworks as possible, typically 95% for each event. We donâ€™t work with more than 40 artists at a time, and the commissions are produced by curators based in Liverpool working collaboratively.
In 2004 and 2006 we also invited knowledgeable people based in other continents to suggest to us artistsâ€™ practices that would be appropriate to the context, but the responsibility for the production of the commissions has always been that of the Liverpool based curatorial team.
I donâ€™t know of any other biennials or recurrent events that are produced consistently with this combination of practices. To commission new art is relatively rare, and largely of course because its a big commitment for both artist and organiser.
All the artists invited to participate in Liverpool Biennialâ€™s International show make at least one and sometimes several research trips to the city in order to understand the local cultural context before they propose their project. Commissioning new art for the Biennial in this way is an attempt to guarantee that the artistâ€™s work is not merely represented – that the audience experiences a presentation of each work that has never been seen before and which may never be seen again. (An artwork made present).
Sometimes artists have chosen to make art with a specific local content, although we have never asked them to do so. We do ask them to make art to be seen in the here and now, that is, sensitive to its cultural context, at the intersection of the local and the international. And we have no plan to change our approach.
Biennials, triennials and the other recurrent exhibitions continue to punctuate the arts calendar with excitement, controversy and intrigue. Despite the media attention, the thrilling new discoveries, and the millions of pounds they inject into the market, they remain awkward in relation to the two dominant modes of validating art. That is both significant and welcome.
Itâ€™s also a welcome development that some recurrent exhibitions are beginning to collaborate in order to promote and secure their interests, to insist on their relevance despite their â€˜eccentricityâ€™ to the art milieu. Recurrent shows are increasingly the subject of literary and scholarly periodicals, so there might soon be a dedicated journal of recurrent exhibitions. Maybe there will also be a professional body for organisers and curators, and courses to teach the specialist skills needed to deliver recurrent exhibitions in a way to privilege the presentation of artworks in and for the present moment. Then these shows may be recognised as the essential way for artists to triangulate the perspectives of the market and the academy.
(This is an edited extract from a longer unpublished article).
Lewis Biggs, September 2009
Lewis Biggs is the Director of Liverpool Biennial.