The term "biennial" is semantically empty. It refers, plain and simple, to exhibitions that take place biennially. That's all. Biennials can be dedicated to any topic, can involve a great variety of artists and artworks, can take place in urban as well as rural environments, can be critical or affirmative or both at the same time, and so forth. Probably it is precisely this openness and blurriness that accounts for the success of biennials. Biennials are blank screens for all kinds of projections.
However, there is a certain semantic quality inherent to the structural dimension of those biennials that have become particularly prominent in the contemporary art world and in the humanities: biennials as paradigmatic sites of globalization. Already the Venice Biennale was founded with a view to linking Venice and the world, of creating a hub for international art and tourism. In the second half of the 20th century, the number of biennials of contemporary art grew exponentially after a lean period of about 50 years—in parallel to the acceleration and intensification of globalization. Since arguably most of the newer biennials are, or aspire to become, exhibitions with an international, global and/or glocal focus; since most of them are intended as instruments for increasing the visibility of localities on the global map and to attract visitors from all parts of the world; since most of them are situated on the intersections of art, politics, tourism, entertainment, research, science, and discourse; since most of them are, by implication, genuinely hybrid, biennials can be regarded as the aesthetic twins of globalization at large.
Globalization is not an orderly process that can be easily grasped. As Arjun Appadurai has justly pointed out, it is rather chaotic and disruptive. I would propose to go one step further and define globalization, in the context of aesthetics and art, as a newer form of the sublime. By "sublime" I mean aesthetic experiences that are too vast, too boundless to be grasped, to be summed up adequately in words, or to be (re)presented in another way.
Traditionally, the contemplation of mountains or oceans from a distance was regarded as a typical instance of the sublime: the aesthetic experience of the great, the powerful, and the infinite, as both inviting and abhorrent, as "negative desire," in the words of Immanuel Kant. The experience of the sublime leads to overpowering but in turn—at least ideally—brings human beings to draw on their sense of reason, freedom, and morality.
Postmodern theorists of the sublime such as Jean-François Lyotard have extended the concept to cultural phenomena, for instance Abstract Expressionism (Barnett Newman, "The Sublime is Now," 1948). For Lyotard, the sublime is connected to the unrepresentable, to the incommensurable, and to the boundaries of reason. Precisely in this regard, "globannials" can be considered as sublime exhibitions.
In attempting to localize the transgressive, chaotic process of globalization or to tame it synecdochally, as it were, biennials inevitably fail. Globalization is only conceivable and representable through amputation and abstraction, not in its sensory totality. Being able to contemplate a much heralded “global culture” with uninterested appreciation, as if looking at a pleasant landscape painting, remains a utopia. Globalization has not led to it being possible to experience the world as one delightful entity. Thus, globalization is not merely a process of disinhibition and unfettering (of market forces, cultural and technical possibilities, identity options, etc.) as popularly propagated, but simultaneously a process of inhibition. Biennials, especially the large-scale hybrid ones that have evolved from the megalomaniacal world exhibitions of the 19th century, are the aesthetic twins to globalization, understood in this way. They attempt to show, (re)produce, and (re)present something that, in its entirety, cannot be shown, (re)produced, and (re)presented.
Just as globalization itself, today's typical biennials can be described as a "linking of localities" (Roland Robertson) insofar as they are metonymic with transcending confined exhibition sites and with temporal conjunctions of heterogeneous sites, among them often so-called "unusual" ones (art in churches, art in companies, art in ruins, art in restaurants, etc). Today’s biennials invite us to perceive the world as a potential endlessly expandable network, as a correlation of correlations.
In general, hybrid large-scale exhibitions flirt with infinity and, for this very reason, call for finite reflection—that's their sublime side. “Negative desire” is their congenial after-effect—a sense of frustration ("Can't grasp it all!"), being overpowered ("It's simply too much!") on the one hand; fascination ("Wow!"), inspiration, and freedom, in the sense of a personal point of view that does not have to—and in fact cannot—tally with that of the curators on the other hand. Perhaps the discourse about biennials in particular and large-scale exhibitions in general gains importance in fact for this very reason. It campaigns with a minimum of commensurability, it thwarts the—potentially—boundless with discursive boundaries, thus mitigating the unsettling experience of the global sublime.
Jörg Scheller (*1979) is an art historian, journalist, and musician. He is senior lecturer (since 2012) and head of theory of the BA Art & Media (since 2016) at the Zurich University of the Arts. Since 2014, he has been guest lecturer at the University of Fine Arts in Poznan. In his research, he focuses, among others, on exhibition history, pop culture, bodybuilding, and contemporary art. His articles regularly appear in newspapers and magazines such as DIE ZEIT, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, frieze magazine, Camera Austria. Among his curatorial projects are the Salon Suisse at the Venice Art Biennale (2013) and the group show Building Modern Bodies. The Art of Bodybuilding (2015) at the Kunsthalle Zurich. Besides, he is singer & bass player of the heavy metal delivery service Malmzeit and the regressive rock duo The Silver Ants. www.joergscheller.de