Writing for ArtReview, J. J. Charlesworth asks if the international biennial format needs to be rethought, or perhaps even scrapped altogether. He observes that many biennials today—in particular, the current edition of Documenta in Athens and the upcoming 2018 edition of Manifesta in Palermo—strive to concretely address pressing political problems, especially those faced by their host cities. But Charlesworth argues that doing this in any meaningful way is made nearly impossible by the entrenched structures and top-down practices of biennials. If the biennial format is an inherent contradiction in the sense, do we need biennials at all? Here's an excerpt from Charlesworth's piece:
There’s a paradox to the evolution of the large international exhibition – even though the format may hit moments of crisis and self-doubt, the format itself doesn’t go away. Regardless of the content, the large international exhibition format is still in demand by the cities eager to attract cultural tourism and international attention. So, on another Mediterranean island, this year’s Venice Biennale – ‘Viva, Arte Viva!’ – curated by Christine Macel, could swim in its own high-minded hyperbole about how, ‘in a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human’. That may be so, but the 2017 edition is also the longest-opening of any edition of the Biennale in living memory. If the 1968 edition ran for just under four months, today’s Biennale occupies six and a half months of the tourist calendar, from mid-May to the end of November. In post-crash Europe, the value of a major cultural event continues to be irresistible to local and national politicians.
The 1968 Biennale, opening just after the student uprisings of May that year, was famously dubbed the ‘Biennale of the police’, as artists boycotted the Biennale in response to the authorities’ heavy-handed response to art students’ protests in the days leading up to the opening. In an issue of ArtReview’s predecessor Arts Review, the critic and historian J.P. Hodin fumed at all those ‘artists who cannot shed the ‘Cubist’, ‘Dadaist’ prejudice of first destroying what was there, without being able to put something in its place.’ As far as the traditionalist Hodin was concerned, protestors may have legitimate criticisms of the big show, but the show still had to go on. The option of not having something to put its place was unthinkable.
That, of course, is the dilemma for the biennial format today – that while it remains a reputation-engine for art’s economy the radical aspirations of curators push the big international exhibition to activate, facilitate and empower its host community, to be more political. But those aspirations are a delusion, since while curators can delegate their authority to various ‘creative mediators’, the large international exhibition is inevitably a top-down structure which, by definition, cannot be reformed. That’s not to say that the biennial can never be a format by which the best art from everywhere can be seen by the most people. But it does mean that what that art is, and who chooses, can’t be left to the judgement of one individual. Ironically, it was after the crisis of the 1968 biennial that the role of the ubercurator took shape. Half a century on, it’s time to rethink that structure. The show doesn’t have to go on.
Image: Graffiti in Athens protesting the presence of Documenta in the city. Via NY Times.