Lyon Biennial 2007

Lyon, France
19 September 2007 – 6 January 2008

In a landscape of exhausted formats, the Lyon Biennial has built a reputation for curatorial innovation. Led by Thierry Raspail, Director of Lyon’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the 2007 Biennial was no exception. For the final instalment in his trilogy as Artistic Director, Raspail appointed über-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and critic-curator Stéphanie Moisdon to deliver ‘The History of a Decade That Has Not Yet Been Named’. Their show was premised on big historicising questions: How will we write history in the 21st century? How can we look back and forward at the same time as accounting for our own present?

Obrist and Moisdon’s novel response was to formulate the show as a ‘game’. They selected forty-nine ‘Players’, largely from their own milieu and from the history of the Biennial. The First Group—the curators—selected artists in response to the question: ‘In your opinion, which artist or which work has a vital place in this decade?’, and penned short manifesto-like justifications for the catalogue. The Second Group—the artists and authors—produced a show-within-the-show or text to define and comment on the decade more generally. Players also contributed to an ‘image journal’ and provided definitions of the latest buzzwords. This made the catalogue an essential element in the project.

In the catalogue, French archaeologist and historian Paul Veyne argues that there is no such thing as the spirit of an era. His advice for young historians is to ‘be pluralist, pluralist and pluralist again, recognising the specificity of everything—religion, art, ambition, whatever—without looking for global explanations or global style…’.1 Okwui Enwezor’s essay warns of the false autonomy of contemporary art, and maintains that postcolonialism and its ‘transnational enunciations’ are at the very foundation of the contemporary. Anselm Jappe says the problem with contemporary art is its total lack of clout in social reality. Ralph Rugoff and Louise De La Tour introduce a set of yet more definitions. These heterogeneous voices and agendas make an enjoyable if cacophonous portrait of a decade-in-progress. Veyne’s argument for plurality certainly appears to have been taken up by the curators, whose manifesto-texts were hard to follow with their diverse voices and patchy interpretations.

While the game plays out clearly ‘on paper’, the exhibition works were presented as self-contained in discrete spaces. As the First Group of Players were asked to nominate only one artist, they could not argue realignments or propositions. However, some respect was paid to formal synergies in the hang. La Sucrière, a converted 1930s sugar warehouse on the banks of the Saône River, contained several meditations on flight and suspension—Urs Fischer’s two sculptures of a balloon and a cannonball impossibly suspended by broom and a chair, Charles Avery’s epic reflection on seagulls entitled Islanders, and Tomas Saraceno’s utopian engineering spectacles of suspension.

Highlights from the cavernous spaces of La Sucrière included Ohad Meromi’s video The Exception and the Rule “Schitopolis” (1st reenactment) 2007 [2], a playful re-enactment of Brecht’s 1930’s play The Exception and the Rule, shot in the Roman amphitheatre at Fourvière, in Lyon. Its themes of rich-and-poor, right-and-wrong and xenophobia were resonant with allusions to current politics. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s Clamour (2006) consisted of a hybrid concrete bunker/rocky outcrop containing a dissonant brass band—invisible but for the tips of their instruments protruding from the slit windows—playing a selection of well-known national anthems and war songs from different places and periods, from ‘La Marseillaise’ (known in Brisbane as the anthem of the Brisbane Lions football club) to Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’. Triumphalism quickly became monstrous, as the racket spilt through the building. Brian Jungen’s poetic totem poles made of re-fashioned golf bags escaped interpretation as simplistic illustrations of post-colonial theory due to their sculptural scale and power, their space-age materiality and their competing symbolic registers of ancient religious power and corporate leisure/networking time. The Villeurbanne Institute of Contemporary Art was the most successful venue; its spaces paced well, the single artist format working best with video installations requiring discrete spaces. Here Mai Thu Perret presented her latest work An Evening Of The Book (2007), a three-channel black and white video installation featuring girls and women dancing in a Soviet-style performance of body/discipline-worship. Operatic in scale, these mesmerising sequences were projected onto blue patterned wallpaper.

Two French artists from the Second Group curated interesting shows-within-the-show at Lyon’s Museum of Contemporary Art: Saâdane Afif presented ‘Promenade au Zoo’, a crammed and urgent portrait of the local art scene around the Zoo Gallery in Nantes, and Pierre Joseph invited some new young French artists to interpret forms and concepts emerging from his work in a show entitled ‘Retrospective’.

It is easy to criticise Obrist and Moisdon for proposing to evaluate the first decade of the new millennium while opting for a curatorial structure that precludes such evaluation. It is more useful to consider the curatorial model they work from and how it has been shaped by their particular experience. Obrist has a reputation for dialogue. Through his promiscuous interviewing of artists, architects and theorists, the conversation has gained an unprecedented role in the interpretation of contemporary art. While we can criticise the assumption that the artist’s view of their work is correct and true, Obrist has certainly given the question of ‘the artist’s voice’ a new urgency. A critic and freelance curator, Moisdon co-curated Manifesta 4 (2002), making it a community affair focussed on exchange, facilitation and mediation. In 2006, she presented a pedagogical curatorial event, L’Ecole de Stéphanie for La Force de l’Art at the Grand Palais, Paris, inviting forty-two ‘masters’ and ‘teachers’ comprising artists, philosophers, critics, scholars, writers, producers, to present forty-two ‘Lessons of Things’. So the model of delegation is a familiar register for both curators.

What can this curatorial format bring to the discussion? It could be seen to challenge curatorial orthodoxy by permitting unexpected selections. Although, by the looks of it, most Players chose artists already visible in the international biennial circuit, mostly artists whom they had worked with before. One curator who did take the opportunity to surprise was 2003 Lyon Biennial co-curator Eric Troncy. He perversely chose David Hamilton, with his dreamy photographs of pubescent girls caught between prurience and propriety. Some obvious challenges were presented by the great stylistic variety of the choices. For example Wade Guyton’s abstract paintings—meditating upon a misregistered diagonal cross motif—sat uncomfortably in La Sucrière, having little in common with the rest of the show.

In his catalogue entry for Hamilton, Troncy says ‘the aesthetics of prediction’ found in biennials are ‘a bet you can hardly win’.2 Although I found myself wishing that someone would turn an opinion into an argument, I did find wit and innovation in this Biennial. The networks, alliances, relationships and prejudices of the two curators were rendered bare for our reading and judgement. The onus on the viewer to make sense of it all was a refreshing counter to the browbeating homilies and simplistic binaries of Venice and Istanbul. 

notes: 

1. Veyne, Paul, ‘Paul Veyne interviewed by Stephanie Moisdon & Hans Ulrich Obrist’, in Moisdon and Obrist (eds.), Lyon Biennial: 00s: The History of a Decade that Has not yet Been Named – English edition [exhibition catalogue] JRP/Ringier, Zurich, 2007, p.237.

2. Troncy, Eric, ‘David Hamilton’, op cit., p.258.