Biennales, of which today there are hundreds around the world, have become an important format or device for taking art out of the box, placing it in new contexts and reaching new audiences. “Biennial” is derived from the Latin word biennium, which designates a period of two years. Triennials are held every three years, quadriennials every four years. This framework can be applied not only to art exhibitions, but also to festivals and even conferences. Due to the influence of the first, most well-known exhibition of its kind, the Biennale di Venezia [Venice Biennale], the term is often used to refer to exhibitions of the visual arts—later it was also applied to film, music and architecture biennials when these were introduced in Venice and in São Paulo. When we use the term “biennial,” we are referring to a range of periodicities and formats that includes triennials, quadriennials, and other recurring exhibitions.
This is how the art critic Sabine B. Vogel introduces the term in her book, Biennials – Art on a Global Scale. Like her, we adopt the word “biennial” as an umbrella term, so allowing us to encompass a wide and heterogeneous range of visual art exhibitions, or more broadly visual art events. There is a history to biennales, even we might say a “biennale culture,” but equally they represent structures of constant change and adaptation.
The many and wonderful galleries and museums at our disposal around the world give access to all sorts of artworks, histories, and archives. Rooted in the practices of the Enlightenment, which spurred not only our thirst for knowledge, but also the methods for unlocking, maintaining, and regulating it, the “collections” of today’s museums offer a vital resource, helping us to relate to cultures, ideas, and history; to maintain our cultural heritage; and simply to take pleasure and inspiration. Museums and galleries have come to be seen as important institutions within the broader fabric of our “public sphere”—which is to suggest of a site or sites where we can think freely, exchange ideas, and raise questions and issues. Yet, equally, it has long been known that the art world can be elitist, exclusionary, and ”difficult” to understand. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, for example, has demonstrated how not only can we refer to economic capital, but also to social and cultural capital. In his well-known book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (first published in French in 1979), he argues that those with high “cultural capital” are most likely those who determine the “tastes” of society, which in turn can quickly exclude those with lower cultural capital (so prompting a self-perpetuating cycle of privilege). Such capital derives from non-financial social assets, such as education and social mobility. Regardless of whether or not two people may have the economic means to enter a museum, which can be made free to enter, for example, there is also required a set of habits and understanding that allow someone to feel able to enter such a space. Bourdieu argued how different educational backgrounds altered individual perceptions of art, with some expecting objects to “fulfill a function” and others attuned to the idea of an aesthetic realm beyond everyday life. The formation of “dominant” tastes, according to Bourdieu, amounted to “symbolic violence,” or a form of hegemonic power. Not only is the formation of good tastes a privilege, but also the acquisition of good taste is a subtle means of dominance, ensuring the status quo. In Marxist terms, for example, Bourdieu argued that “the working-class ‘aesthetic’ is a dominated aesthetic, which is constantly obliged to define itself in terms of the dominant aesthetics” of the ruling class. Despite the fact his work relates back to empirical research conducted during the 1960s, the book, Distinction, according to the International Sociological Association, remains one of the ten most important sociology books of the 20th century. His work, and similar studies that followed, prompted a great deal of debate and controversy about the provisions of arts in society and the need for “access” that goes well beyond simple economic considerations, but rather concerns deeper barriers based upon social and cultural grounds.
Today, biennales have arguably emerged as one of the key markers and drivers of contemporary exhibition-making, which by equal measure can be said to fall into the trap of the few setting trends and tastes for the many, as well as opening up not only new audiences for contemporary visual art, but also the very conditions in which we come to view art. If museums and gallery exhibitions have for the past century been the medium through which we access and receive art, then today it is perhaps the biennale exhibition that is the “medium” through which new forms of art and artistic practice are introduced. The shift in influence from museum to biennale develops slowly in post-war Europe, shortly followed by a “second wave” of biennales outside of Europe, notably with the advent of the São Paulo Biennial founded in 1951. During this period of economic growth and globalization, certainly through to the 1960s, artists were primarily shown in museums and galleries. Works were created in the knowledge that they would be displayed, consumed, and contextualized in such institutional spaces. Yet, in parallel to this growing institutionalism of modern art, the avant-garde was becoming restless within the confines of the museum space and began to break away from “the static atmosphere of the museum” by organizing their own “happenings and concerns.” Speaking in 1971, Harald Szeemann, one of the first self-declared “independent curators,” observed that artists were working with a new purpose, principally engaging with social and political concerns. Szeemann stated (somewhat prophetically at the time) that, “Artists are no longer interested in getting into the museum, but want to conduct their activities on a wider stage, for example the municipality.” Today, with well over 100 biennales taking place across the world in any given year, we have become ever more familiar with this format. As Chris McAuliffe suggests in this “Explainer: what is a biennale?” in The Conversation, “Chances are you’ve heard of an art biennale, even if you haven’t visited one.” He goes on to outline the phenomenon as follows:
Biennales are large-scale exhibitions of contemporary art, named for their host city and typically managed by a combination of public art museums, government agencies and philanthropic supporters. As for the two- or three-year cycle, that’s simply a reflection of the time required to organise a large exhibition. Originally more of a specialised, art-world affair, biennales now figure in the cultural menu supported by state and local government tourism agencies. A successful biennale will draw tens, even hundreds of thousands of visitors.
McAuliffe goes onto the suggest of the emotive powers of the biennale format:
Because each biennale is a brief, one-off event (usually of about 12 week’s duration), visitation is driven by an intensive promotional ‘call to action’. Increasingly marketing strategies focus on emotive effects, emphasising the biennale as an ‘experience’ rather than as a formal cultural affair. […] The titles of the 2014 Adelaide Biennial — ‘Dark Heart’ — and Biennale of Sydney – ‘You Imagine What You Desire’ – evoke emotional states. The curator of the first promises ‘a moving experience’ and the second, ‘splendor and rapture’. Canny organisers amplify these emotional effects with unusual venues (abandoned factories are a favourite), hands-on and interactive art works, and the placement of striking sculptures or installations in familiar public spaces.
Systemization of Culture
In the context of the Second World War, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenmen’ (1944), offered its prophetic warning as to the damage wrought by unchecked “intellectual standardization” and the “systemization of culture” upon mass society. The oppression that comes through what they termed the “culture industry” is based on those very schemes it proposes and affirms as a source of freedom, resulting in “a canon of synthetically produced models of behavior.” Since the time of their writing, the critical significance of the “culture industry” has only escalated, and always despite the apparent attempts of art to escape its incorporation. Ever in the shadow of this pessimistic prognosis, we might be forgiven for thinking that every biennale, every art event, is just one of many, and only more of the same. Indeed, how can anyone operating within these sites of practice (which require a great deal organization, finance, and partnerships) resist the clutches of standardization and homogenization?
If, in our contemporary, global circumstance, artistic practice is to be allowed to develop freely, to experiment and deviate from the norm, we must explore how collective, large-scale modes of operation might resist the self-propagating structures and forces of the culture industry, with its capitalist, imperialist antecedents. To consider, then, how we might be allowed to thrive on chaos, to allow for “better failure” and uncertainty, with a view to produce the sublime, the spiritual, and the transformational. We want to produce art, not institutions; to exchange, not transmit. And, if biennales are to “matter” (to continue to recur materially, and to be of value to us socially and culturally), their mode of practice must be understood and indeed practiced. Rather than feel we must fulfill some pre-defined expectation or adopt some kind of “model” of practice, we should look to who we are, where we are, and who we want to be with, in order to make, curate, and view art. Art is at its best when it is different and subversive, when it challenges the “now” and when it offers the potential of resistance.
The first Biennale was held in Italy, the Venice Biennale, which was established in 1893 by the Venetian City Council. However, this was an exhibition of Italian art only, in celebration of the silver anniversary of King Umberto I. It was a year later that the council decreed to adopt an invitation system, to introduce the work of foreign artists, too, with the first proper International Biennale in Venice being opened in April 1895, attracting up to 224,000 visitors. The event has been held ever since, every two years.
Subsequent biennales included the Corcoran Biennial in Washington in 1907 and the Whitney Biennial in New York in 1932, though these again had only a national focus. It was not until 1951 that the original, international model of the Venice Biennale was adopted again with the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil. Since then, the emergence of an apparent biennale model has proliferated, having now been popularized and multiplied around the world, redefining the political-economics and aesthetics of so-called “international art.” Today, more than three hundred biennials exist in diverse (and often unexpected) locations. The format’s growth in the second half of the 20th century, as exemplified by the creation of what has been termed “second wave” biennales (from the 1951 Bienal de São Paulo to the 1968 Triennale-India and the third Bienal de la Habana in 1984), led to a “biennale boom” in the 1990s with a marked increase in the creation of new biennales. In particular, at the turn of the new millennium, biennales have been appearing across the developing world, or what is termed the “Global South” by a generation of scholars invested in post-colonial, globalization, and developmental discourses.
Although some important biennales, such as in Tokyo (1951), Paris (1959), Johannesburg (1995), and Melbourne (1999), are now defunct, many new biennales have been sustained, even if missing some editions, or vastly reconfiguring in scale, reach, and scope. As Grandal Montero has argued, the success and longevity of the format is attributable to the “versatility, resilience and high degree of popularity” of biennales, which hold the promise of things to come—in short the promise of the new. In just one year, Havana and three other new biennials were launched in 1984, and by the mid-1990s more than 60 were in existence, mostly in cities, and represented on all continents. Overall, the number of new biennials, triennials, and the like have stayed stable and are still rising today, with newly created events vastly outnumbering discontinued ones.
Overall, then, biennales, and other recurring art events with close associations with specific sites and audiences, typically appear to strive for a balance between localism and globalism, artistic and cultural agency and cross-cultural difference, whilst asserting cultural prowess and soft power on the international stage. Importantly, the global proliferation of biennales has irrevocably challenged the “predominance of certain EuroAmerican art centres, such as Paris and New York—not as markets, but as [sole] art-producing localities." This is how Terry Smith describes the situation in his essay “Biennials Within The Contemporary Composition.” Biennials can even appear as an antidote to severe social and political concerns. The first Colombo Art Biennale in Sri Lanka, in 2009, for example, was themed in direct response to and indeed characterized by artists coming together in the immediate situation after the civil war. Biennales, then, have been related to ameliorating crises of post-conflict societies, as well as reviving depressed economic regions, which not only places one on the “global art map” but also improves property prices, encourages inward investment for job creation, and attracts talent and fosters innovation.
However, for all of the positive narratives we can attribute to biennales, there are significant issues at stake. The globalization of the art world is frequently seen in terms of postmodern relativism that sustained democratization through the pluralization of the art scene. As the art historian Charlotte Bydler has articulated in her dissertation, The Global Art World, Inc., art and artists have long held a fascination and love affair with travel, cosmopolitanism, and internationalism. Our cosmopolitan desires are bound up with an Enlightenment fascination with “other worlds” and the promise of universality. International biennales have arguably become “spectacular arenas” for the intersection of internationalism and nationalism. In the essay “The Black Box,” (in the Documenta11_Platform 5 exhibition catalogue, 2002), Okwui Enwezor argues that globalization is linked to a “double move” of postcoloniality: on the one hand it embodies a liberating strategy of decolonization, while on the other it “exceeds the borders of the former colonized world to lay claim to the modernized, metropolitan world of empire by making empire's former ‘other’ visible and present at all times, either through the media or through mediatory, spectatorial, and carnivalesque relations of language, communication, images, contact, and resistance within the everyday.” Enwezor goes on to argue that postcoloniality must at all times be distinguished from postmodernism, arguing that while postmodernism was preoccupied with “relativizing historical transformations and contesting the lapses and prejudices of epistemological grand narratives, postcoloniality does the obverse, seeking instead to sublate and replace all grand narratives through new ethical demands on modes of historical interpretation.”
Nonetheless, today, the proliferation of events around the world signals various shifts in the “centers” of the art world. Made clear, for example, in the number and diversity of locations hosting biennials, where an overwhelmingly local agenda is routinely intersected with the global. Although, of course, rather than decentralizing the art world, globalization may in fact further cement Western art history’s hegemony, if the direction of the communication (and assimilation) is one way. Indeed, the “globalization of the art world” in recent years has also led to a growing sense of homogenization in art production and discourse, supported by an ever growing “art market” and iterant globetrotting artists, cultural tourists, cultural producers, curators, corporate sponsors, and media personnel. In coordination with rapidly expanding markets, fueled through rampant and unregulated capitalism or the “hegemony of industrial capitalism,” standardizations have similarly spread across the art world with veracity and often scant concern for local and regional site-specificities. We must ask ourselves—not least in terms of the kinds of events we may wish to establish and propagate—do we risk a certain “flattening” of contemporary visual art and its related discourses? If so, what can we do to mitigate homogenizing forces? French curator and art critic, Nicolas Bourriaud, has argued that in fact a newly reconfigured modernity, which he labels “altermodernity,” has emerged as a direct result of globalization. He posits that increased communication, travel, and migration are affecting the way we live, and that a focus upon multiculturalism and identity concerns are being overtaken by creolization and the changing “public sphere.” He asserts that this new universalism is based on translations, and that today’s art can potentially explore the “bonds that text and image, time and space, weave between themselves.” In Bourriaud’s world-view, artists are “increasingly traversing myriad cultural landscapes saturated with signs to create new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication,” providing ascent to the emergence of a global “altermodernity.”
Writing in 1993, at the beginning of the (Global South-oriented) “biennale boom,” Thomas McEvilley suggested the postmodern shift of emphasis from “centers” to “margins,” meant that any city could act as an international hub. As such, biennales in these cities could offer new audiences and cultural functions of their own. In the case of Triennale-India of 1968, for example, he suggests that many artists of that era came to accept their multicultural heritage, and were interested in forging cooperation between East and West through incorporating elements of the other without losing a sense of selfhood. To quote the father of the Indian nation state, M.K Gandhi: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
It is observable that, increasingly, museums and art institutions around the world tend to have uniform appearances in their layout and administrative faculties—and, in certain regards, with the art that is displayed. Largely, in format and content alike, they cater to and follow “Western” examples. Many biennales, like art fairs, can be said to be very similar, too. Yet, equally, the staging of biennales and other art events, which are both defined by local circumstances and interest, yet also precarious and temporal, have allowed different propensities and perspectives to prevail.
Biennales have been extremely successful in the last 120 years or so and more recently since the 1990s in producing and spreading awareness about art and engaging new audiences around the world. A number of mutations and divergent strands within “biennial culture” and its discourses have emerged more recently. This is most apparent since the 1980s and the growth in Global South biennales, a period which saw the emergence of a spate of new host cities in the Southern hemisphere and developing world, including, Havana (1984), Istanbul (1987), and latterly in the 1990s, Dak’Art in Dakar, (1990), Sharjah (1993), Shanghai (1994), and Gwangju (1995). According to research conducted by Grandal Montero, the majority of biennales, as of 2011, were still located in Europe (50+), followed by Asia (20+), and then the Americas (20+). What is revealing is the locus of growth in recent years being firmly in Asia, where numerous examples of high-profile new biennales have been created since the mid-1990s (Gwangju, Shanghai, Busan, Guangzhou, Beijing, Singapore), following wider economic and political changes. More recently instigated biennales exist in various stages of gestation and development in cities across Asia, include those in Kochi-Muziris (2012), Yinchuan (2016), Lahore (2017), Karachi (2017), and Srinagar (2018). In the United Kingdom, there are over 12 biennale-style events in existence, which points to the vitality of the art scene and its geographical diffusion into the provinces and sites outside of London (which typically dominates the art scene).
Given this complex, global phenomenon and its impact and influence on taste and culture more broadly, a closer empirical analysis of international biennials is both urgent and timely.
Shwetal A. Patel is a founding team member of Kochi-Muziris Biennale (India) and PhD scholar at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.
Sunil Manghani is Professor of Theory, Practice & Critique and Deputy Head of School, Director of Research & Enterprise at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.
Professor Robert D'Souza is Head of Winchester School of Art at the University of Southampton. Ed is a designer, an artist and an academic whose practice brings together both the theoretical and contextual thinking about design and art.