Since the late 1990s, there has been a growing trend towards what art critics are calling “biennalization”. The result is a multitude of events typed on the famous Venice Biennale mushrooming around the world. The trend does not seem to be waning and in recent months there have been a spate of press releases announcing biennials. New events are opening in 2017 in Honolulu, the Antarctic, Moscow (triennial), Kathmandu, Aarhus (Denmark), Karachi, and in the Californian desert, to name a few.
Each event has its own unique approach to find a niche in an increasingly competitive marketplace. The Antarctica event is being called “an international socio-cultural phenomenon that uses artistic, scientific, and philosophic methodologies to address shared spaces”. Moscow is betting on the local scene with its promise to feature the cream of young Russian creators. In Karachi, artists are invited to contribute on the theme of the “Witness”. Participants at Aarhus are asked to reflect on the way in which man has interacted with nature throughout history. However, despite the many variations in forms, the events are all creative laboratories. In Le paradoxe global des biennales [The global paradox of biennales], art historian Marie-Laure Allain Bonilla qualified them as “tools of legitimization”.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of biennials established on the periphery, away from major art hubs such as London, New York, and Paris. The events demonstrate a common desire for a local cultural identity, a trend that initiated in 1984 with the Havana Biennial, whose organizers decided at the time to give centre stage to Latin American artists.
“Biennials are important for art exhibition internationally, for tourism, for local and guest artists, and notably, everywhere there is little support from the goverment for artists and institutions”, notes Charlotte Bydler in The Global Artworld Inc. On the Globalization of Contemporary Art. Where the state’s budget does not provide for a national art museum, a biennial seems to be the best idea.” [Translation back into English by ArtViatic]. In other words, biennials act as ephemeral museums that also aid tourism by drawing art enthusiasts, collectors, and artists, in its wake.
Roxana Azimi talked about the financial stakes in an article in Quotidien de l’art in 2013, estimating that these kinds of events cost private patrons and public bodies on average €6.4 million, per a survey published in Shifting Gravity. Azimi went on to say that biennials could also benefit local tourism greatly.
It could quite possibly be the sizeable financial and touristic stakes that are attracting so much criticism for biennials. Back in 2013, Figaro journalist Valérie Duponchelle spoke out about the massive stakes of international competition, which have very little to do with artistic emulation and knowledge-sharing.
In French journal Figures de l’art (2011), critic Paul Ardenne presents biennales as “socio-political war machines” that aim to impose “a major point of view on art and, beyond that, on the state of culture, or even the world”. That is precisely what Marie-Laure Bonilla calls “the global paradox of biennales”. In appearance, they strive to affirm the cultural identity of the organizing country. However, they also want to serve market interests and benefit from global interests. Unfortunately, these dual ambitions are not necessarily compatible.
They are accused of standardizing art, notably by inviting a small network of international programmers who move from one event to another, inviting the same artists to join them. “Recruiting an international freelance curator as the artistic director is a bit like conforming to international standards for the contemporary art world”, explains Marie-Laure Allain Bonilla. “Instead of providing multiple points of view, [they] run the risk of formatting proposals into “biennalised” art. During a round table organized by the Fondation d’Entreprise Ricard in 2003, Bertrand Lavier lamented on the propagation of these events, which exhibit “fewer and fewer innovations”.
Will the new biennales on the horizon for 2017 silence critics? Some are succeeding, such as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which, in 2016, was applauded for its audacity and policy of art “by the people for the people”. Here is hoping that others will follow suit.