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. (more…)