Thoughts to digest, while packing for Venice

While cleaning my desk and preparing for the coming artworld marathon, I came across the book “Curating Subjects,” edited by Paul O’Neill and given to me by Ann Demeester, director of Amsterdam’s De Appel Foundation, which offers Europe’s premier curatorial training program. The book is a treasure trove of thoughts on curating and I recommend it highly for those to whom the topic is dear. (Buy it at Amazon, or better yet directly from the publisher).

This particular week, by far the most topical article from “Curating Subjects” is Bob Nickas’ biennials-related contribution, a Q&A based upon questions from Christoph Cherix. At Nickas’ request I’ve posted the full text below rather than blog-style excerpts. Many thanks to Nickas and O’Neill for their cooperation.



To Be Read (Once Every Two Years)

By Bob Nickas

Do Biennials still make sense?

If you are a city that hosts one of them, the mayor of that city, its travel and tourism director, the owner of a hotel, a sauna, or a sex shop, the answer is yes. Biennials make a lot of sense. Dollars and cents. The population of Kassel, Germany is largest every ten years. In between the massive Documenta exhibitions, is anyone making a special trip to Kassel for the many no-star restaurants? For a pizza almost as bad as the ones you find in Venice?

In their defense, the average visitor to these big art shows is not an art specialist. Just look at the numbers. There can’t be that many critics, curators, collectors, artists, and dealers in the world. Many visitors to biennials are simply people interested in art. We forget about them, don’t we? You often see families, although the children look like they would rather be almost anywhere else. (A child, like much of the art produced today, is another portable object in a world filled to the brim.) Let’s not forget that these big shows have a function for people interested in art who may not otherwise have the opportunity to see as much as you or I over the course of two years. Or even one. Maybe biennials are a way for art lovers to catch up with the so-called art world. We are not so much a world as we are many small satellites in orbit around one another. And, as biennials often serve to remind us, there are many shooting stars.

So, as a critic and curator, how do you answer the question: “Do biennials still make sense?”

The answer would have to be no. Any critic or curator who thinks differently is a traitor to the cause. Biennials are about business and politics first. Art will always come in a close second or even third. And why should it be otherwise? The entire world is organized along lines of commerce and power. Art institutions and their wardens (to use Robert Smithson’s term), not to mention quote/unquote independents, are not immune to a perverse fascination with the game and how it is played. Are they merely drunk with power? Order another Mimosa at Harry’s Bar and try not to fall in the canal. You can always save your doubts for another day … So why don’t biennials make sense anymore? Because art is not in charge.

Art should be in charge. I second that emotion. Of course prizes are at the center of this issue. Let’s not forget that by the end of the ’60s, in the middle of global unrest and the war in Vietnam, the idea of prizes came under fire, and many were suspended. Imagine being given a medal for Best Pavilion in a time of war. How could you possibly accept? But today these awards are back in favor, and others have been newly minted. Rewards are in place precisely for those in control to maintain their power and influence, as well as to alienate artists from one another. This idea of competition brings up another question. Can we tolerate a show with national pavilions and prizes?

In a word: no. Nationalism has always gotten us into trouble and, at times, dead. Who’s representing Germany at the Venice Biennale this year? My vote: Kippenberger. Der Tod in Vendig. The idea of a prize is beyond anachronistic. Ancient, a thing of the past. Art is not a prize fight, or a science fair in high school. There are even little statues for them now, as if a prize for an artist was like an Academy Award for an actor. The Academy Award is generally considered to be a glorified popularity contest linked directly to the box office, to how much money the movie made. Maybe prizes in art should be based on auction results. Give the artists a little statuette, let them make a speech, and applaud politely. In England you have the Turner Prize. In France there’s the Duchamp Prize. Would those artists have been given awards in their lifetime?

Why the Americans don’t have a prize of their own remains a mystery.

Maybe they can’t decide who it should be named after. How about the Warhol? After all, he is at the same time one of the central figures in the art of the twentieth century and a complete sell-out. A commercial artist who became a fine artist in love with commerce. One day he pretended he didn’t know what to paint so he could wrangle more ideas from his entourage. One suggestion that was made was obviously taken: “You should paint what you love. What do you love?” Warhol went on to paint money and, in effect, continued to paint it for the rest of his life.

Biennials are often saddled with pretentious themes. How can an artist be expected to honestly produce a work for an exhibition called the Plateau of Mankind?

How about a pile of bodies? Maybe from Rwanda. Or have the show there. Pump up the local economy. The Rwanda Triennial. Of course there are other places to choose from these days. The Chechan International? How about the Beijing Biennale? The cost of building the pavilions would be almost nothing. Thousands of Chinese workers would be delighted to take part in a new cultural revolution. The catalogs, t-shirts, and souvenirs could all be produced right there in China, and certainly more cheaply than almost anywhere else in the free world.

And how do women feel about the grandiose idea of Mankind? Just look at any biennial list. 70% men, 80% men … This is a plateau to which women rarely ascend. Even when women are among those on the selection committee, the final list of artists in the show, more often than not, is heavily male. Compromise transcends gender.

Think of a curator choosing artists for big biennials as someone at the racetrack picking a horse. It’s a bet and you want to go home a winner. Is art all that different? Art in our time is too easily about winning and losing. How often have you heard collectors ask: “This is a young artist, just starting out. Where do you think he’ll be in five years?” It seems an innocent question on the face of it, but really what they are asking for is a prediction. What they want to hear is that in five years’ time the work will be worth five times what they originally paid. That, and the artist will end up in the Whitney Biennial …

With biennials, we always inherit a structure that seems stronger than its content. Manifesta, for example, is the biennial for young European art. The curators have to tour all over Europe in order to make their selection. The problem is that they meet the same people who met their colleagues two years before. And each time they have to go one step younger.

Maybe the choice should be made from women artists who are pregnant?

Now you’re being ridiculous.

Well, all this biennial talk can’t help but degenerate into the absurd. I mean, consider the central point: when did biennials become giant art fairs? How ridiculous is that? An art fair is a trade show. You always expect it to be commercial and a not a little bit repugnant. Any other response is completely disingenuous. You shouldn’t have the same kind of queasy experience in a museum or a biennial. But sometimes you do.

These days, museums look more and more like art fairs, and art fairs look more like museums. Visit any major art museum on the weekend: the idea of the Sunday painter has been replaced by the reality of the Sunday audience. Families, young couples on dates, babies in strollers … it looks like the crowd at the shopping mall. And this is not so far from the truth. In recent years, the trend has been for museums to move their gift shops front and center. You often have to pass through aisles of merchandise to get to the show. But as much as we are all amused by the perversity of a Jackson Pollock painting turned into a one-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle, wouldn’t you rather see the painting before you buy it in novelty form? Museums now also keep score. Almost ruthlessly. A show is ultimately judged as successful based on how many paying visitors come through the gate. The quality of the show itself almost never enters the picture. The numbers are the quality of the show. The numbers are the picture.

What was produced by biennials over the years? What is our memory of them? Who are the artists we discovered in these events? What are the pieces we liked?

David Hammons is one artist who famously refuses every invitation to a biennial. Having never seen a David Hammons piece in a blockbuster show that I didn’t love, you have to respect the integrity of that strategy.

Can’t you even pretend to be serious?

That was an honest response. But you seem to want a “greatest hit.” How about this. The premiere of Rodney Graham’s “Vexation Island” at the Venice Biennale. Who doesn’t remember that? The idea of being shipwrecked, a castaway, lost at sea … how absolutely perfect that the piece was presented there. Venice, the art world’s own Vexation Island.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts to digest, while packing for Venice”

  1. I guess that I have far too much I’d like to comment on re this topic so I had better not at this time and hour, at least not at length. It is a topic constantly on my mind though. I think that it will be very interesting to see how (and if) our perspectives will be different after this summer’s marathon. Will the whole biennial system quite naturally implode after Venice, Basel, Kassel and Münster? Or will we all trek to Istanbul, Lyon and Athens (and Gothenburg) come September?

    Even though it feels likely we will all suffer from an extensive Biennial-fatigue, my bet is for the latter. At a seminar named The Next Documenta Should be Curated by an Artist, in conjunction with the release for the book of the same title edited by curator Jens Hoffmann in Istanbul some years ago, one of the panellists gushed about how biennials are being merely a window for the market and nothing else. However, the muttering at the Istanbul seminar was not left unchallenged; Martha Rosler, who was one of the panellists, disputed that that we mustn’t ever forget that biennials also are important windows for ideas.

    I will have to agree with Rosler. Unfortunately Manifesta 6, which was driven purely on quite utopian ideas, failed with a crash just last year, but I still firmly believe that there are room for ideas. I’m most likely being overly romantic about the topic here and I keep flipping between being romantic and cynical just like any other, but for me it is a question of approach towards the material in question: theory, art, philosophy or science and not the material in itself that provides the general attitudes and context – which can be utopian and romantic or cynical and drastic.

    Another related book tip: “The Manifesta Decade – Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe” edited by Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic published by MIT Press books.

  2. Max Andrews of the Latitudes curatorial office in Barcelona emailed us this:

    Just a comment on Bob Nickas writing: “David Hammons is one artist who famously refuses every invitation to a biennial.” This is not strictly true, but almost. Hammonds 2004 Dak’Art Sheep Raffle was presented as one of the three projects for 3×3, the American Participation in the sixth Dakar Biennial held in 2004 in Dakar, Senegal.

    Also, although it was not apparent anywhere in the exhibition or the catalogue, the inclusion of a single painting by the jazzman Miles Davis in the 2006 Whitney Biennial was widely rumoured to be a Hammond’s contribution.

  3. Power writes above: “Will the whole biennial system quite naturally implode after Venice, Basel, Kassel and Münster?” I’m guessing not, because much as women are genetically programmed to forget the pain of childbirth for the good of the survival of the species, the artworld will forget all the visual overload by the end of August.

    Also, I think ideas are a biennial’s currency. Those ideas can exist on several planes. They can be embodied on the level of the art itself (a strong show with great works), or the thematic strength of the show, or by the way the show interfaces with the local environment.

    That said, the bigger the biennial in terms of prestige, the more inescapably there will be a market effect.

  4. Swedish artist Lars Viks emailed us this:

    In the old days art was in New York. In a number of known galleries and perhaps in some institution. Nowadays we have art that is everywhere. It is no longer an American affair. To find out what contemporary art is about, you can check out the more influential biennales, or those curated by influential or upcoming curators. That is how things are. The artworld no longer has a frontier with battles and provocations. Right now we are living in the world of neo-pluralism combined with soft social critique and neo-aesthetic.

    Is it possible to find an alternative outside the biennales? I would say no. If there was an alternative, then an alert curator would have taken it to – a biennale.

    And David Hammons does participate in biennales. He was in Documenta in 1992, in Venice 2003 and the Gwangju Biennale 2006.

Leave a Reply