Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink critically analyze the premise of biennials as hegemonic machines through Gramsci’s usage of “hegemonies as situated historic and geographic ‘settlements’ that are actively constructed and maintained by factions of a society that make up a ‘historic bloc’.” Van Meeteren and Wissink scrutinize ways in which very recently established biennials in Thailand are balanced between ideas of nation, religion, and monarchy with notions of authentic ‘Thainess’ foregrounded. Melody Du Jingyi and Wilson Yeung Chun Wai explore in “‘Tactic’ and ‘Execution’: Reflections on the Curatorial Dialogues of the 12th Shanghai Biennale” the historical context and today’s adjustments of the Shanghai Biennale—founded in 1996—as the first biennial of contemporary art in China. While the biennial is rooted in an avant-garde tradition (the first iteration followed the large-scale Chinese Avant-Garde Exhibition in 1989), the biennial is now operated under strict governmental supervision. In Xinming Xia’s paper, “The Yinchuan Biennale: The Belt and Road Initiative and the Artistic Practices Linking from the East to the West,” the author examines the history and context of the Yinchuan Biennale, a Chinese biennial established with themes of ecology and diversity alongside the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Sarat Maharaj’s co-curating of the third Guangzhou Triennial in 2008 makes us aware of a postcolonial imperative that “has generated its own restrictions that hinder the emergence of artistic creativity and fresh theoretical interface.” Maharaj’s catalogue essay, “Farewell to Postcolonialism, Towards a Post-Western Modernity,” expresses a certain unease about postcolonial critical tools ushering in their own hegemonic dominance. Patrick D. Flores describes his aim of setting up and artistically directing the 2019 Singapore Biennale in “Time to Unlearn: Urgency and Practical Intelligence in the Southeast Asian Museum.” Flores reflects on Southeast Asia’s history by escaping the traditional colonial narratives of the West, instead looking into “the civilizational discourses of China and India, Catholicism and Islam [...] and dense natural history that is close to the level of the Amazon.” In the text, “Freeing the Weights of the Habitual,” by Raqs Media Collective, the New Delhi-based artists and curators (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta) ask: “Are we implicitly trapped within an already assumed intellectual and cultural narratology? And: Are we continuously crafting ways of doing things that keep certain tendencies at bay and working out modalities that can bring in different kinds of co-habitation? And: What is the mechanism—and how do we seek it—of “freeing” the weights of habitual narrative entrapments?” The text builds from an observation by Vietnamese American writer Ocean Vuong speaking about the thinking process behind his new book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
“TOMORROW THERE WILL BE MORE OF US: ART AS A CONTACT ZONE” by Sven Christian examines South African biennials, namely both iterations of the Johannesburg Biennale—Africus (1995) and Trade Routes: History and Geography (1997)—and their spiritual successor CAPE 07. Christian describes how a sudden paucity of funding provided opportunities for more experimental and locally embedded exhibition formats. The contribution is initiated through the prism of the current Stellenbosch Triennale 2020 and its complex metaphors of sickness and healing. Yacouba Konaté examines the “The Invention of the Dakar Biennial” and suggests that the Dakar Biennial was launched for the promotion of African artists and artists of the continent. Through promoting alternative contexts and exhibition structures for non-Western art, Konaté suggests that the Biennial can help us rethink conventional classifications in the realm of art history. Conceptual artist, sculptor, painter, writer, and curator Rasheed Araeen’s essay, "Dak'Art 1992-2002: The Problems of Representation, Contextualistion, and Critical Evaluation in Contemporary African Art” examines the complexity of staging a biennial of visual art in Senegal and its implications for cultural autonomy and nation-building in the postcolonial era.
“Biennials and their Siblings: Towards an Interdisciplinary Discourse on Curating Performance” authored by Brandon Farnsworth observes a shift in biennial discourses, bringing the field closer to music and theatre festivals by discussing their shared common history. Farnsworth’s argument takes up as case studies the newly established osloBIENNALEN 2019-2024 and Florian Malzacher’s event project Truth is Concrete at steirischer herbst (2012). Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg Tverbakk discuss their ambition of setting up a new institution whilst shaping the first edition of osloBIENNALEN with Anna Manubens. Conjecturing a future biennial model, the osloBIENNALEN—a five-year-long endeavor—concentrates on the production of artworks in the public sphere, which has so far tended to avoid commissioned works from big name artists. Robert E. D’Souza’s article “Before, During, After Biennale” considers the overlapping experiences of both artistic inclusion and critical academic engagement in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India and the recently launched osloBIENNALEN in Norway. These biennials are considered in terms of their specific characteristics and contexts in relation to engaging with locality and public space. D’Souza considers the attendant issues, complexities, and “biennial effects” against a developing globalized critical biennial discourse and how biennial ‘knowledge’ and ‘genealogies’ might have impacted the practice for those engaged in developing these two art biennials.
Nora Sternfeld reflects on the realities of her role and ambitions as Artistic Director of the 2016 Bergen Assembly in Norway. Teobaldo Lagos Preller sheds light on two recent biennials in “Bergen Assembly 2019, 11th Berlin Biennale 2020, the Virus, Life, and New Places.” Both initiatives may have common curatorial and artistic strategies such as concepts of solidarity, affectivity, and cultural agency, encouraging changes to biennials and their formats.
Panos Kompatsiaris examines the idea of enabling resistant narratives to neoliberalism through dialogical and participatory works in his paper “Curating Resistances: Ambivalences and Potentials of Contemporary Art Biennials.” By investigating such dilemmas of the “biennial phenomenon,” the article lays out the incongruities and potentials of biennials within the current political-economic context. The interview with María Berríos, Renata Cervetto, Lisette Lagnado, and Agustín Pérez Rubio by Katerina Valdivia Bruch, titled “11th Berlin Biennale: On the Human Condition,” taps into a process-based, feminist curatorial approach of the Berlin Biennale team with its themes of care, vulnerability, affectivity, and solidarity. Their aim is to create sustainable relations and commitment toward the city and its people. Daniela Labra’s contribution, “Processual and transcultural: the 11th Berlin Biennale and the 34th São Paulo Biennial,” compares the curatorial concepts, contexts, and processes of 11th Berlin Biennale and the 34th São Paulo Biennial—whose openings both had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In “The Modern Paradigm and the Exhibitionary Form: The Case of ‘Altermodern,’” Catalina Imizcoz scrutinizes Tate Triennial’s fourth, and last, edition. Imizcoz focuses on modernity’s ideological infrastructure by critiquing the curatorial narrative put forward by its artistic director Nicolas Bourriaud. In Giulia Coletti’s article, “Overwriting: In Praise of a Palimpsestuous Criticality,” the author suggests using the palimpsest as a curatorial concept, and with this, as a “fragile, aggregative, and disruptive potential of interrupted narratives,” of retrieving historical layers and questioning “geopolitical hegemonies particularly in Europe.” Coletti highlights this hopeful method of re-establishing proximity with singularities for the transnational biennial Mediterranea 19 – Biennial of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean scheduled to be held in San Marino in 2021.
Miriam La Rosa examines the formation of the iterant biennial format Manifesta in “A Guest on the Edge: Manifesta and the Quest for European Unity and Solidarity.” La Rosa assesses the last two iterations in Sicily (2018) and Marseille (2020) and interrogates the initial idea of Manifesta—a spiritual successor to French artist Robert Filliou’s The Biennial of Peace—which is set up independently of their host cities. La Rosa argues that these projects may struggle with their long-term desire for bringing together a sustaining relationship between local art scenes and other European regions. “A Planetary Garden in Palermo: Manifesta 12 as Ambassador for the New Politics of Aesthetics?” by Nathalie Zonnenberg tackles Manifesta 12, the travelling European biennial format that highlighted the theme of migration for its 2019 edition in Palermo. The essay follows the question: To what extent can biennials be regarded as political instruments in their most direct sense? “The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence,” co-written by the Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, and Mirjam Varadinis, presents Manifesta 12’s concept of a garden as a metaphor for coexistence.In Omar Kholeif’s interview, titled “Curating the Revolution,” the curator and writer explores the 2013 iteration of Meeting Points. The seventh edition was curated by the curatorial collective WHW (What, How and for Whom?).
In “Is a Good Neighbour…? Semts, Scale, and the 15th Istanbul Biennial,” the curatorial concept of the 15th Istanbul Biennial was set up in the Beyoğlu neighborhood in Istanbul and dealt with the theme of the neighborhood, speaking to both local historical identities and a broader identification of Eurocentric and non-Eurocentric narratives on-site. But the biennial also managed to address the point that biennials in general seem to produce and replicate globalization in a ‘Western’ canon. In Vasif Kortun’s and Charles Esche’s interview about the 9th Istanbul Biennial, the curators explore the notion of “non-Western” biennials that present a new tendency: a relative distance from a purely commercial system and an engagement with local political conditions. In “Chronosites,” curator Henk Slager suggests biennials function in rather speculative ways and in discursive environments, framing questions of artistic and political agendas, of im/possibilities, in/visibilities, and agency. In that context, Slager examines the Bucharest Biennale as a discourse production-oriented biennial with a history of experimenting in form and of artistic and curatorial thinking “in a multiplicity of modes and models.” Răzvan Ion offers perspectives on biennials as civil society initiatives in “Edit Your Future.” Ion suggests that biennials should be viewed “as independent civil society initiatives, consciously distanced from the calculating powers of the global art scene.” Ion proposes that many biennials “have been realized through ongoing conflicts and crises that produced conceptual, visual, and functional knowledge providing us with many viewpoints in our quest for evocative and effectual biennales in any part of the world.” Vasyl Cherepanyn announces the “EAST EUROPE BIENNIAL ALLIANCE,” a newly established alliance of the Biennale Matter of Art in Prague, the Biennale Warszawa, the Kyiv Biennial, and OFF-Biennale Budapest. Tapping into the different historical formations of biennials in Eastern Europe—with their grass-roots approach, precariousness, and critical voice—and political concerns, the alliance intends to engage in a transnational collaboration and “inter-metropolitan friendship.” Ksenija Orelj envisions the exhibition WE’RE OFF, which should have been part of The 3rd Industrial Art Biennial (IAB) in Rijeka but was cancelled due to the shutdown triggered by the Coronavirus. The ‘imagined exhibition’ follows themes of labor conditions, and intends to remind us of the historical working-class struggles for an eight-hour workday, and new struggles of precarities in times of hyper-production.