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by Shwetal A. Patel

Three Biennials in Asia (2016)

In September 2016, I embarked on a month-long journey to Asia to survey three distinct large-scale group exhibitions in Gwangju (South Korea), Suzhou (China), and Yinchuan (China). These diverse cultural properties, all at differing stages of development, were a stark indication of the contrary approaches taken by organisers and curators in the field.

The Gwangju Biennale, one of Asia’s oldest and most established biennials, was directed by Maria Lind and featured 101 artists and groups, with some participants working for more than a year on site-specific, community-based projects in the city. In Suzhou, Roger M. Buergel and Zhang Qing conceived a series of ongoing and overlapping exhibitions envisaged as an antidote, and riposte, to the growing biennialisation of the art world, bringing together over forty international artists from the US, Latin America, Germany, India, China, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. Following the growing trend of biennial creation in the region, the remote city of Yinchuan was launching its first edition of a recurring periodical event in a newly built museum of modern art surrounded by fallow land intended for commercial and residential real estate development. Exhibiting 73 artists from 33 countries, as well as six artists-in-residents who created site-specific work, an established template of biennial formulation was imagined by artist-curator Bose Krishnamachari for this first iteration.

The contrast between these three events was striking and alludes to both the popularity (and fatigue) in biennial staging in a region that has witnessed explosive growth of the format over the last two decades. The following reports offer a critical examination of these divergent events, alluding to future potentialities, and the inherent pitfalls, of this vastly popular genre of exhibition making and critical thinking.


11th Gwangju Biennale, Republic of Korea
2 September – 6 November 2016
Artistic Direction: Maria Lind
Curator: Binna Choi
Assistant Curators: Azar Mahmoudian, Margarida Mendes, Michelle Wong
Local Curatorial Associate: Mite-Ugro
Title: The Eighth Climate (What Does Art Do?)

Amidst atmospheres of uncertainty and infrastructural precarity, the number and scale of biennials has seen an exponential increase over the last thirty years. The Gwangju Biennale—Asia’s largest and longest running—is no exception to this phenomenon. It has in recent years mounted ever more expansive and ambitious exhibitions and public programmes, curated by many of the world’s leading artistic protagonists. This year’s instantiation, under the direction of Maria Lind, revels in and reflects upon these dual trends of expansion and uncertainty.

The title, The Eighth Climate: (What does art do?), presents a parallel paradoxical pairing of the epic with the banal. The Eighth Climate, a concept devised by 12th-century Persian theosopher Sohrevardi, is as expansive as it gets: it refers to an “inter-wordly” perceptive zone. Straddling the real and the mystical, it points to that which falls just beyond our ability to perceive or understand. To the state of the visionary. In pertaining to answer the comparatively well-trodden art historical qualm, “What does art do?”, Lind continually returns to the visionary nature of those contemporary artworks, collectively displaced in the zone of the Biennale.

This brings us to the question, raised by Lind and others on the curatorial team (an all-female cast consisting of curator Binna Choi, assistant curators Azar Mahmoudian, Margarida Mendes, Michelle Wong in collaboration with local curatorial associate Mite-Ugro): given the curatorial emphasis placed upon the artworks’ inherent uncontainability and generativity, and given that the biennale setting serves to amplify this through its own chaotic and unpredictable inter-relations, how is such an expansive project “embedded” within and “mediated” through the locale of Gwangju? What is drawn out by this specific context?

Lind’s introduction to the catalogue (energetically designed by Metahaven) describes South Korea as “split between progressive tendencies and conservative forces.” Within this context, and whilst anchoring the long-term research phase in the local context, Lind sees contemporary art as offering the potential to suggest “otherwise”. Setting this in motion, the first twenty-five artists were invited to make site visits to Gwangju in September 2015, almost immediately after Lind’s tenure began. They undertook year-long commissions involving on-site research, taking into consideration local materials, traditions, histories, techniques, and skills. The emphasis placed on commissions—which constituted twenty-eight out of the total 250 artworks produced by 101 artists and groups—acted as a generative starting point. Further invitations, novel “strands”, and a multiplication of “themes” began emerging.

This was also facilitated and encouraged through a series of regular Wol-rae-hol, or monthly gatherings, ongoing from January 2016. The “infra-school” higher education programme furthered the momentum build towards the opening week. The latter’s emphasis on research and debate, in an effort to raise a new iteration of questions, reached its culmination in the opening week’s far-reaching conference “To All the Contributing Factors.”

Nearly seventy representatives (from roughly 100 invited Biennale Fellows – small to mid-scale non-profit arts organizations from around the world) were brought together for the opening weekend Forum held on September 3 and 4. With the artworks now in place, the fellows were invited to relate their broader experiences of operating within this ecosystem to questions of “value, continuity and scale.” These pertain to broader questions of translateability, implicit in the exhibition’s title. As the 20th-century French philosopher Henri Corbin noted, we must hazard against a too-literal translation of the Persian na-koja-abad, which results in the English “land of no-where”—or in his eyes worse, “utopia.”

The spatial ambiguity of what the curators refer to throughout the catalogue and conferences as “placing art centre stage” is core to the broader economic and macro concerns explored throughout the conferences. The outward-looking and future-orientation drawn out by the Biennale team’s curation emerges in such design quirks as the physical displacement of wall texts into the digital realm (accessible only via QR code on a smart phone app), a new pop-up website and app and several off-site projects and sites, most notably Fernando Garcia’s community performance at the Hansaebong Agriculture & Eco Park on the outskirts of the city.

The initial selection of artists itself grew from an expansive search—incorporating visits to over forty cities through ten rounds of international and seven rounds of domestic research. This familiar framing was an attempt to calibrate the “global temperature” of art today. The implicit nod towards discourses and issues of climate change is combined here with a concern over the “climate change” facing the art world in the early 21st century. Gwangju itself—despite possessing perhaps the most well-endowed Foundation in Asia—is not immune to those “threats” to the existence of many smaller non-profit arts organisations. The Gwangju Biennale Foundation’s President, Dr. Yangwoo Park—in the context of city’s booming status as an art world centre (consider the launch of the colossal Asia Culture Centre in 2015)—explicitly points to the need for this year’s Biennale to justify its continued relevance to society.

This concatenation of concerns of scale is formulated, again, during the forum, through a nuanced discussion of artistic “value.” Some interesting comparisons were made between that which both these smaller, informal organisations and larger conglomerations of activity such as the Gwangju Biennale might strive to create. The dry economics term “deferred value” (developed by researcher Sarah Thelwall) was offered as a particularly apt parallel to the expansive curatorial theme. It refers to the generation of not-immediately-recognizable artistic value, itself something “in-between,” or even liminal. That is, until its (frequent) later usurpation or appropriation by larger organisations, those more comfortably positioned within the global economic roundabout.

The decision to host this mega-forum of small and medium sized organisations is quite telling at this juncture in the Biennale’s history. As perhaps the first time that many of these disparate organizations have met in one place, participants and delegates were able to catch a glimpse of the emerging “language” through which both institutional and artistic precarity and potentiality might be understood—including how this plays out in the context of Gwangju where such threats also make their presence felt. Whilst this drew directly on Lind’s own research and writing in the area, she does not herself purport to be able to read or speak this “language.” For the 11th edition of the Gwangju Biennale, Lind has consciously evaded the curation of any easily recognizable “spectacle.” Instead, where the “spectacular” does arise, it is in the context of the rather ambivalent contemporary nature of a mass artistic platforming.

Whether as a participant in the opening night’s karaoke gathering, or akin to one of the unusually multiplicitous light-based features in the Biennale’s dark room (in Gallery 2, perhaps the most memorable part of the exhibition), members of this growing international artistic community were provided with a space for contact and exchange, catching glimmers and incomplete or not entirely “translatable” glimpses of each others’ practices, modes of survival (dance moves), and plans for the future.

More information available at the Metahaven-designed blog www.the8thclimate.org.


11th Gwangju Biennale, Republic of Korea, 2 September – 6 November 2016, Photo: the author, 2016

Suzhou Documents, Peoples Republic of China
21 August to 20 October 2016
Artistic Direction: Zhang Qing and Roger M. Buergel
Title: Suzhou Documents: Histories of a Global Hub

Less than an hour on a bullet train northwest of Shanghai, in one of the most densely populated parts of the planet, lies the birthplace of Wu culture, the ancient city of Suzhou. First inhabited over 2500 years ago, the city grew to become the economic and cultural capital of the Ming Dynasty (1400–1700) during the Middle Ages. By the 13th century, Suzhou had established itself as the centre of the silk trade, a starting point in the flourishing economic and cultural umbilical cord that connected the region with the rest of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Despite this rich history, Suzhou’s artistic status was overshadowed by Shanghai’s mythological rise as a burgeoning global powerhouse. Indeed, both in China and further afield, many associate Suzhou’s art scene with classical traditions: its Imperial-era gardens, temples, fine crafts, and the quaint canal system that criss-crosses the city. Against this developmental backdrop, the authorities in Suzhou backed plans for the creation of a new, periodical exhibition: Suzhou Documents.

The co-curators of the inaugural exhibition Histories of a Global Hub, Zhang Qing (Founding Director of the Shanghai Biennial and Curatorial Head of the National Palace Museum in Beijing) and Roger M. Buergel (Artistic Director of documenta 12 (2007) and Director of the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich), set out to eschew what they saw as the “largely exhausted” biennial format. Describing the latter as a “bouquet of arbitrary themes” with an emphasis on spectacle, they argue for the value of depth and sensitivity in bringing together the ancient and modern in a sustainable, yet rigorous manner.

Their proposed alternative takes the form of an overlapping, ongoing series of exhibitions: a future-oriented “institution in its own right,” and a move away from the symptomatology of “biennialization.” Buergel and colleagues, as stated in the introduction to Suzhou Documents, are “keenly aware of the limits imposed on conventional exhibition-making” by the drive to evade either the “confines of the museum” or simply becoming another “biennale lookalike.” As they put it, Qing and Buergel hope to attend to the “widespread inability to look at art properly.” They lament a “top-down flip-flopping” between art touted as “an appendage of the fashion and entertainment industries [and on the other hand] a therapy for alienated communities.”

Perhaps inevitably, the result did not entirely escape the tried-and-tested biennial set-up. The first Suzhou Documents presented a large-scale exhibition (featuring the work of over forty artists), held peripatetically around the city at various historical and modern spaces. These included the famed Pu Garden, the popular Suzhou Silk Museum, and Twin-Pagoda. Other venues were the Yan Wenliang Memorial Museum and the Wu Zuoren Art Museum. The main body of the exhibition was concentrated in the impressive Suzhou Art Museum, believed to be the oldest art museum in China (established in 1927 by gifted painter and art educator Yan Wenliang).

A clear attempt was made to create an immersive and participatory exhibition, the objets d’art frequently rubbed shoulders with arrangements of everyday objects, historical artefacts, and archival ephemera, photographs, texts, paintings, and drawings. In a familiar intervention, Buergel and Qing placed contemporary furniture at various venues throughout the exhibition sites, recalling the display of antique Qing dynasty chairs, which artist Ai Weiwei collects, at documenta 12 in 1997. The frequent display of historical works alongside the contemporary speaks to a curatorial remit of looking-back-to-look-forwards, something again seen in Buergel’s documenta 12 offering. Qing concurs: “We can’t always look forwards […] sometimes we need to look back.” In the Chinese context, particularly in the decades following the Cultural Revolution, a rehashing of the past was discredited as a block to the onwards march towards Communist hegemony. Today, the recognized importance of “soft power” legitimizes the deft pairing of ancient and hyper-modern that constitutes the driving force of contemporary Chinese policy-making.

Some of the most striking parallels between ancient and modern artistic concerns were found in works redressing the familiar spectre of globalization, within and without (but here implicitly linked to) the Chinese context. A highlight (shown at the Suzhou Museum of Art) was John Akomfrah’s The Airport (2016). This elegiac and at times surreal three-channel film installation weaves together cinematic, literary, and philosophical references in a work meditating upon 20th-century Greek history and its recent financial crisis. The potent relevance of such retroactive approaches to addressing concerns of the present in a Suzhouan context is not left to audience speculation. As the exhibition’s introductory text reads: “Suzhou Documents will address Suzhou as a centuries-old but also futurist global hub, exploring through artistic and other speculative means a largely unwritten history of trans-cultural encounters between East and West in all their vagaries, conflicting timelines and unforeseeable beauties.” Other works embraced this dualistic (inwards and outwards) exploratory drive. Of note were works by renowned Chinese artists Liu Ye, Xu Bing, Yang Fudong, and Yue Minjun, which were shown alongside international participants including Thomas Bayrle (Germany), Sheela Gowda (India), Maja Bajević (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Imogen Stidworthy (UK), Willem de Rooij (The Netherlands), and Haegue Yang (South Korea).

The early research phase undertaken by Qing and Buergel in conceptualizing the exhibition is revealing. They began by looking at the historical exhibition 1937: Suzhou Exhibition of Documents, part of the Cultural Objects from Wuzhong exhibition (1937) launched by Keyuan Garden to showcase artworks collected or created by the city’s key artistic protagonists. This landmark exhibition displayed the intellectual and material resources of Suzhou’s artistic luminaries in a conceptual manner, and led to new arteries of thought for participants.

The 2016 instantiation (79 years later) is nonetheless referred to as the “first Suzhou Documenta,” perhaps attesting to an aura of artistic rebirth. The local documents from the Cultural Objects… exhibition are offered apparently with this in mind. Buergel’s introduction states that, “This reactivating Suzhou culture and history is the aim and mission of the exhibition, for this cutting-edge city, with its vision of the contemporary.”

What of the implicit nod to Kassel’s documenta? Buergel states the link is more than in the name, but also in this continual return to the identification of future possibilities in the past. The work, in fitting with this, is organized under the following key themes: “The Time of the Sea and the Empire”; “Modernity and Time in the Ming and the Qing Dynasties”; “Time and Traditions;” and “Time and the Mind: The Garden of the Imperial Court”. Despite these expansive themes, Buergel places emphasis on scale and sensitivity. He hopes to have created with Suzhou Documents something “small and delicate, echoing the atmosphere of the city itself […] not merely a big party for artists and social types, but a place to inspire all visitors.” Whilst expressing clear reservations about large-scale contemporary exhibitions and their role in society, Qing and Buergel understandably desire a certain international appeal to emerge from the first iteration of this project, amongst those “who have grown understandably weary of biennales and art fairs with all the meretricious charm of a supermarket.”

Attesting to the popularity of the term, and despite the stated (and emphasised) intention of the co-curators to move away from the biennial model, the Chinese mainstream and international art media hailed Suzhou Documents precisely as the creation of a new biennial, of which there are already several of in China today.

Herein lies a way forward for biennials and the ever-growing slew of new cities aspiring to join the over 200 list of mainly small, medium-sized cities around the world clamouring to position themselves culturally through the mechanisms of biennial-making. The flexibility offered by not calling oneself a biennial at the outset may offer organisers room to evolve and grow at their own pace, considering changing site specificities and evolving discourses. Qing notes that by bringing together a wide range of new perspectives in history and art, the Suzhou “documenta” marks the birth of the new discipline—“Suzhou Studies.” However, as Buergel notes, “History is not a linear process. It is determined as much by good planning as by luck and chance and therefore tends to defeat the laws of simple chronology.”

Looking forward, while Suzhou Documents will have to rely as much on its glorious past as its imagined future, that artists and researchers have been invited to speculate on these outcomes is a good second coming indeed.

More information available at:
http://johannjacobs.com/en/event/90345-suzdocpreview.html.


Suzhou Documents, Peoples Republic of China, 21 August to 20 October 2016, Photo: the author, 2016

1st Yinchuan Biennale, People’s Republic of China
10 September – 18 December 2016
Artistic Direction: Bose Krishnamachari
Title: For An Image, Faster Than Light


The First Yinchuan Biennale titled For an Image, Faster than Light opened to the public on 10 September 2016 at the Yinchuan MOCA. Situated amongst the expansive green fields and wetlands that surround the burgeoning city of Yinchuan, this museum is the first contemporary art institution to appear in northwest China. It constitutes a hard-to-miss visual pinnacle of the “River Origins” artists’ community and development project, which opened last year. The slick, shiny exterior of this sprawling 15,000-square-meter-complex was designed by Chinese firm We Architech Anonymous. Its positioning in the capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region will provide an anchor for the planned developments of Huaxia-Hetu Art Town, a colossal 18.8-square-mile development including a school, a theme park, and an artist residency programme. This accelerated programme of development is not new to China, but the unusual regional and cultural context has triggered speculation as to its underlying motives. As applied to the Biennale, this delivers a perhaps more enlightening critique than the mass media’s overwhelmingly singular focus on the last-minute removal of Ai Weiwei from the Biennale’s program.

The museum is owned and operated by the Ningxia Minsheng Group (under the auspices of new public-private partnership policy “build-operate-transfer”) who plans to invest US$5bn in the project over the coming decade. Corporate investment and master-planning has apparently embraced rather than bulldozed the rich tapestry of the region’s cultural history. It is home today to many indigenous Muslim minorities, particularly the Hui, of whom there is a population of around ten million in greater China. Located along the ancient Silk Road, the area has a long history of cultural exchange with Asia and the Middle East. The city has already hosted the biennial China-Arab States Expo, which draws business and government representatives from sixty countries and is seen as a key driver of the region’s future prosperity. It has long played a key role in intercultural exchange, before the arrival of this international arts institution.

How does the biennial then, a rather more “periodical celebration,” come to play a role in the evolution of this complex cultural landscape? Beyond an effort in city branding, economic and social benefits are thought to accrue to the locales of such international art events over a longer period of time. This is often framed as placing the host city on the “global art map.” Certainly, this implies cultural and commercial exchange—to which Yinchuan is no stranger—but it also implicates the creation of new audiences at home. The latter emerges within, yet also despite, larger-scale networks and its branding as a Sino-Arab cultural centre. As part of the Biennale, several cultural events were held that targeted the local audience, including a series of public education forums. A music festival also followed the opening week celebrations.

Within this urban planning and developmental context, prominent Indian artist and curator Bose Krishnamachari was invited to curate the inaugural Yinchuan Biennale at the museum. Krishnamachari began working on the project in December 2015, conducting exhaustive research around the world. Seventy-three artists from thirty-three countries were invited to participate in the main exhibition, and an opening weekend conference was organised by writer Manoj Nair. The symposium “The Gates of the Sun—Between the Mountains and Waters,” held at the museum on September 10 and 11, gathered twenty-five artists, curators, critics, and scholars from around the world. The exhibition’s own themes were discussed with a focus on cycles of activity: of creativity in contemporary art, the dynamic nature of society, and new interconnections emerging between “art worlds” and culture more broadly construed. The introductory text’s elaboration of the theme similarly draws out questions of cycles as well as conflict, framing the title as an attempt to “reveal the myriad conflicts facing the world today, and to convey constructive possibilities and ideas through a concentration of global creativity […] to respond to the shifting and destructive issues we face in society, politics and the environment.”

Krishnamachari’s presentation of an international array of artists within the unique context of MOCA Yinchuan as a prime gateway of Chinese and Islamic cultural exchange does not shy away from broader international connections, taken to define the biennial-as-event. He notes, “Yinchuan is an important point on the Silk Road, which stretches from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. Situated between the Yellow River and the Helan Mountains, it has experienced many cultural exchanges. It is a confluence of Chinese and Islamic culture, which can be seen in the architecture, food, people and traditional culture of the region. I hope that Yinchuan can become another major contemporary art center, alongside Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.” The unprecedented and highly impressive fête of international artists brought together and thoughtfully displayed in the museum and its environs attests to this ambitious drive. The long list of established artists includes: Anish Kapoor, Yoko Ono, Liam Gillick, Mary Ellen Carroll, Liu Wei, Cao Fei, Ivan Navarro, Santiago Sierra, Slavs and Tartars, Song Dong, Sudarshan Shetty, Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Jyoti Basu, Riyas Komu, Robert Montgomery, Khaled Sabsabi, Lisa Reihana, Valsan Koorma Kolleri, Yee I-Lann, and Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige. The exhibition also featured several young and emerging artists including Alaa Mahmoud Alqedra, Abigail Reynolds, Dia Mehta Bhupal, Kartik Sood, Farzana Ahmed Urmi, and Sushanta Kumar Maharana. Logistically, this was no small feat. The immense challenges of staging an inaugural biennial at a venue determinedly outside China’s major coastal cities presented complications at all stages—from funding to installation, shipping, invitations, and promotions. Amongst the most embedded and poignant presentations at the Biennale were the six artists-in-residence—the first batch of artists to occupy the artists village—which included Valsan Koorma Kolleri, Mohammed Kazem, and Benitha Perciyal, amongst others.

The withdrawal of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was put down to “pressure from above,” positioned outside the internal organisational challenges facing the Biennale. The ensuing global media attention points to the popularity of Weiwei outside mainland China, where he is often used as a cipher (or catch-all) for all that is perceived to be wrong with the Middle Kingdom. Although not officially participating, Weiwei’s presence was very much felt, whilst being conspicuously absent from conversations between artists and delegates at the opening. As the artist later posted on his social media, he was surprised that participating artists had not boycotted the event in protest against his exclusion. This rather misses the more complex form of change—in both perception and role of art in society—which biennials work to potentiate. Certainly, the project is situated within the not-entirely-unproblematic local context of expedited political and urban development, yet its execution is a testament to the resolve and drive of all those involved. It is a symbol of the potential of art as a catalyst for change, within the constraints of political forces “from above.” The real challenge now for the Yinchuan Biennale is to continue with the promising work started by Krishnamachari and the museum staff, including Suchen Hsieh, Artistic Director and Madam Liu, Director of MOCA Yinchuan.

As the organisers stated within the press release accompanying the launch, “Since it first opened its doors, MOCA Yinchuan has taken on the task of promoting the image of the city of Yinchuan, but more importantly, it has worked to spread contemporary art in the lives and hearts of the people. Every city needs museums to help cultivate the cultural character of its residents. Art can change and elevate a person’s thinking, perceptions, emotions, awareness and worldview, and thus catalyze the development and rise of the entire city.”

More information available at: http://u-in-u.com/yinchuan-biennale/2016/.


1st Yinchuan Biennale, People’s Republic of China, 10 September – 18 December 2016, Photo: the author, 2016

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Editor: Henrietta Landells

Shwetal A. Patel is a founding member of Kochi-Muziris Biennale and PhD scholar at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.

Henrietta Landells is a London-based writer, researcher, and curator. Graduate of Oxford University (Anthropology) and the Courtauld Institute of Art.

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Editorial

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