Inviting most recent art, cities want to enrich and enliven their image and make it more modern, to show that they are an active player in the field of culture. So how do they see contemporary art within their walls? Is it to be just a kind of decoration or perhaps its role is treated more seriously?

For the last two decades a phenomenon, which someone called the biennial craze, has been gaining an ever wider scope. It concerns an unprecedented popularity of large-scale cyclical exhibitions of contemporary art. In the 1990s biennials ceased to be extraordinary events, which only a number of cities in the world could afford to organise. They proliferated to such an extent that there were not enough artists and curators to conceive and fill them. Large cities, world metropolises, but also cities of more historical importance have been catching the biennial fever. In 1991 the Lyon Biennial was created, in 1992 Dakar launched its own exhibition, in 1993 Sharjah was entered on the list, in 1995 the biennial club was joined by Gwangju (Korea), in 1998 by Liverpool, and in 2004 by Seville. Moscow, Sydney, Bucharest, Havana, Beijing, Montreal, New Orleans, Cuenca, La Réunion Islands and many other places have their biennials. The list of cyclical exhibitions around the world, published on the website of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), numbers seventy two items, including two Polish ones: in Poznań (Mediations Biennial) and in Wrocław (the WRO new media festival).

The mother of them all undoubtedly is La Biennale di Venezia, created as early as 1895. Another model is the São Paulo Biennial, which came into being in 1951. The Young Artists Biennial in Paris, active in 1959–1985, also made its mark. A contemporary biennial is not just an event taking place every two years. Until recently a majority of exhibitions called “biennial” were devoted to one artistic domain: tapestry, poster, graphic art, stage design, etc. By now the meaning has changed: it is a large exhibition aspiring to a diagnosis of contemporary world and currently created works. A contemporary biennial fulfils the following conditions: it has a leading theme of current interest from outside of art, it is headed by a well-known or promising curator and it features at least several dozen artists from all over the world.

The popularity of so conceived biennials and similar undertakings stems from the changes in the global organisation of the world and in the role of culture. The biennial craze follows from the ambitions of cities liberated from obligations towards larger wholes: regions, provinces, countries, geographic areas. The largest cities in the world are developing dynamically, turning into megalopolises. This is the case of Istanbul, São Paulo, Beijing. Smaller cities, without aggressive expansiveness, also see their opportunity in culture. It concerns many European cities, but also New Orleans. Both types of metropolis are governed by mayors-managers, who in culture see a great chance for their city. Culture is an excellent tool for changing the image, allowing to attract tourists and tangible profits, especially culture in its spectacular, festival form.

One consequence of the biennial craze is a growing demand for specialists in creating this kind of events. They are curators, forming a cosmopolitan, globally mobile group working all over the world. Many of them could be called star curators. Such a professional is a warrant of success. He or she has to fulfil contradictory requirements: be capable of overseeing a festival with hundreds of events and a team of people, but also possess a wide-ranging knowledge of culture and contemporary problems of the world. The charismatic figure of Harald Szeemann might be mentioned here. He played a very important role in creating the concept of the curatorial profession and the idea of the so-called great exhibition, which formed the basis for today’s biennial. This Swiss art historian, organiser, but above all visionary, since the 1950s has staged exhibitions, which he conceived as a polyphonic set of works of various origin and quality. Poetic and anthropological thinking met here with an attitude of an art historian.

Inviting most recent art, cities want to enrich and enliven their image and make it more modern, to show that they are an active player in the field of culture. So how do they see contemporary art within their walls? Is it to be just a kind of decoration or perhaps its role is treated more seriously? What is the relation between contemporary artistic productions and the cultural heritage of a given place? For contemporary art may merge with the existing traditions or disarm them and create new ones. It may engage in argument with the legacy of the place, to show it in a new light, to make it relevant again. Let us take a look at the coexistence of contemporary art and the fabric of the city and let us ponder the question of what ambitions and attitudes of the city towards its cultural heritage are reflected in this relation.

La Biennale di Venezia

The International Art Biennial in Venice was started in 1895. Two years before, the city authorities had decided to create a great exhibition of Italian artists taking place every two years. The original idea was later modified, but Italians did dominate in the initial period. The first edition of the show proved to be a great success, the opening was graced by the presence of King Umberto accompanied by Queen Margerita, and the exhibition was visited by two hundred thousand people, encouraged by free admission. Later it became even more exciting: in the early twentieth century the Biennale was attacked by the Futurists for extolling antiquated trends and in 1934 the show was seen by Adolf Hitler.

The initiative of organising a large exhibition in a city like Venice, blessed with its location, history and an extraordinary accumulation of artistic masterpieces, but already long past its days of greatest glory, was a farsighted one. At the turn of the 20th century Venice was a mortally ill city, but still stunningly beautiful (Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice in 1912). Poor life conditions, overcrowding, high prices and damp made ordinary residents flee the city and the urban space was slowly commercialised. Tourist industry and culture were becoming the main sources of revenue for Venice.

Creation of the Biennale set in motion a process already belonging to the modern era: a process of using culture for changing the character of a place and launching its development in a new direction. The Biennale allowed Venice to survive and became such a success that in 1930 other events were started, providing for a steady inflow of visitors. The best known among them are the Film Festival and the Architecture Biennale.

The Venice Biennale was based on the model of World Exhibitions as a presentation of the greatest achievements of particular countries. It was to take place in a specially designated area, the only park in the city – Giardini Publici. Forty national pavilions were raised, designed by the best architects: Josef Hoffman (Austria), Gerit-Thomas Rietveld (Holland) or Alvar Aalto (Finland). The Venice Biennial is founded on the principle of artistic competition, with prizes awarded in many categories (best national pavilion, life-time achievement, etc.).

National presentations have always been a prestigious challenge for each country. Until today, the number of pavilions is officially announced, including the pavilions of new participants. The Vatican is striving to have its pavilion, the Roma have one since recently and there is an unofficial Belarusian pavilion created by the artists themselves.

Since the 1970s, thematic exhibitions have been shown in Venice. In the 1970s curators responsible for the direction and profile of each edition appeared. They are the best experts in this profession, well-known authorit: Harald Szeemann, Jean Clair, Francesco Bonami, Rosa Martínez, Robert Storr. And as far as the way of linking contemporary art with the historical fabric of the city is concerned, no one cares about it in Venice. The historical city and its monuments are all around. There is no reason to specially highlight their presence, to reevaluate them against new art. An exception to this is a gesture by the curator Bice Curgiger, who at the most recent Biennale (2011) hung three 17th-century paintings by Tintoretto in the most prominent place of her exhibition ILLUminations. The critics praised the idea, saying that besides referring to the local context, it reminds us about the energy of the pictorial gesture embodied in the forceful work of the Venetian. It is also a bold statement of faith in the art of old and of today.

The Giardini area soon ceased to suffice for the expanding Biennale. In the 1990s it acquired a part of the former Arsenale shipyard, namely the disused rope factory Corderie. Additional exhibition space is also provided by the former salt warehouse on the other side of Canale Grande. The exhibitions are scattered all over Venice, in dozens of more or less prestigious places.

The relation between the Biennale and Venice is very close. Wanting to see this huge event, you have to penetrate the city and get to know it from a less tourist-oriented side. The shows are located not only in public venues, but also in private gardens, apartments and palaces, normally locked up, as well as churches – all these places open their doors for the visitors. Art on boats and barges moored at the canal side, sculpture in the streets, an avenue with flags, façades covered with art, painted mooring posts – Venice knows thousands of examples of new art coexisting with old architecture and cultural landscape. But the Biennale does not change the quality of this landscape, it introduces certain refreshing elements, but in terms of attractive views rather than working on the most precious heritage of this city and reevaluating it, in which no one is interested here.

İstanbul Bienali

The Istanbul Biennial was started only in 1987, almost one hundred years after the Venetian one. The initiative had been launched by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Art. Its aim was to strengthen the image and function of the city as a bridge linking the East with the West – also in the domain of the newest culture. In the Istanbul Biennial the old-fashioned model of national presentations was deliberately rejected. Starting from 1992, the organisers decided to invite curators creating the conceptual framework of particular editions. They include star curators such as Vasif Kortun (1992, 2003), René Block (1995), Rosa Martínez (1997) and Hou Hanru (2007). The Istanbul Biennial is marked by a high level of self-awareness, asking questions on the role of great exhibitions – in such a unique place as the former capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and also a metropolis in the first modern and secular Moslem state. It has been referring to the city and civilisation it originates from, to its current location at the “Asia-Europe” meeting point. Hou Hanru declared in 2007: “The Biennial (…) should be regarded as part of the Turkish modernisation project in the striving of this country both at its cultural development and enhancing its international stature.” The Zagreb team of curators called What, How & for Whom, responsible for the 2009 exhibition, wrote: “Biennials are elements of cultural tourism, thanks to which cities, exploiting the specific character of particular regions, try to find their place on the map of the globalised world…”

The assumptions behind the biennial stem from the EU membership aspirations of Turkey, but also from the cultural potential and ambitions of Istanbul itself. In contrast to Venice, it is a dynamically developing city expanding in population terms; cosmopolitan and multicultural from the outset of its history. The biennial here enjoys the support of the artistic community (also in contrast to Venice), hence from the very beginning it had a specific and experimental form. The first editions were situated in the best-known and touristically exploited venues, but later less obvious locations were chosen.

The 2005 exhibition was called simply Istanbul and its curators were Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun. The centre of gravity was moved to the principal districts of the European part of the city, progressive, multinational and multiconfessional: Pera, Galata and Beyoğlu. Particular parts of the biennial were distributed in various types of buildings: an old house preserving traces of the inhabitants’ life, a tobacco warehouse, a shop, a school, a hotel. These locations were lost in the labyrinth of streets and alleys. The viewers were asked to wander around the , real, living, grimy, neglected, sometimes dangerous city. The curators announced that that the city was becoming a co-author of the exhibition, that experiencing it was becoming part of the biennial. Less known artists were invited, half of whom had had an opportunity to stay longer in Istanbul, while the rest came from cities of similar character (for example, Alexandria, New Orleans, Sophia). The works created join the multicultural legacy of the city. For instance, in Deniz Palac Michael Blum created a fictitious, but enchantingly authentic museum devoted to Safiye Behar, one of the first feminists in Turkey, a woman of Jewish origin reputed to have been a lover of Atatürk. In another apartment, Nedko Solakov made a pictorial story about abandoned things in deserted rooms. Hidden under the nostalgia is a dose of sharp criticism connected with evicting the residents and gentrification of the districts. A deliberate, well thought out and critical making references to the current situation of the city, in Venice virtually absent, is a staple in the Istanbul Biennial.

Prague Biennale

The biennial in Prague is the youngest in this group, the year 2011 seeing its fifth edition. When it was conceived in 2003, there were hopes in our part of Europe for an opinion-making exhibition promoting artistic developments in Central and Eastern Europe and confronting them with the rest of the world. These plans have not been fulfilled so far, despite the declarations of the artistic directors Helena Kontova and Giancarlo Politi, who are also editors of the Flash Art magazine. The biennial is based on a formula closer to that of an art fair, which is reflected in dividing the exhibition in many small presentations crowded side by side and showing miles and miles of generally mediocre paintings. The biennial has a Russian Babushka structure, with many sections and subsections, each with its own curator.

An attitude which could be called colonial is to be observed. For the owners of Flash Art the aim of the biennial is to discover new artists. Prague plays the role of an attractive stage set and the source of cheap, but good quality art. The biennial could just as well take place in any city of Eastern Europe or the Third World. By the way, before Prague Politi organised the first Tirana Biennial in 2011. Neither in content, nor in form does the biennial in Prague offer a deeply conceived reference to the city hosting it – or a critical reflection on its ambitions, specific character, problems, direction of its development.

The initial phase of the biennial was marked by a conflict between Giancarlo Politi and the director of the contemporary art branch of the National (Veletržní Palace), Milan Knižak. Knižak, legendary performer and dissident, member of the Fluxus group, co-created the exhibition. But then a split occurred and in 2005 we saw two biennials in Prague. The other one, organised by Knižak, proved to be a one-time project. For the first four editions the venue of the Prague Biennale (I have never seen a Czech version of the name) held under the aegis of Politi and Kontova was Karlín Hall, a dilapidated post-industrial facility in the Karlín quarter. The process of its revitalisation had just been launched. Advertising companies moved into the warehouses and small factories, offices appeared, cafés and bars sprouted. The biennial fitted into this trend, but ultimately became its victim. Karlín Hall was chosen for its location, industrial exoticism of the interiors and low rental costs. The most recent 2011 edition was held in a new venue, hitherto not associated with cultural events, namely the Mikron building, where airplane engines had once been made, in the Prague 4 district.

The Prague Biennial always finds a place for a review of the newest artists on the Czech, Slovak and Polish scene, and often also the Georgian, Hungarian, Romanian or Albanian one. But there are no deeper references to the venue itself, to the city, its cultural achievements, its current situation. There is no mention of the position of culture in our part of Europe. The occasional works on the subject of the city do not result from a deliberate policy. The most interesting of them was the work of Jesper Alvaer from 2005, who offered a tour of the great Vietnamese market in Prague, including a visit to the adjoining Vietnamese cultural centre.

The Berlin Biennale

The Berlin Biennale is just two years senior to the one in Prague. It seems that they offer a straightforward comparison, since both Prague and Berlin are Central-European capitals with cultural ambitions, but this is misleading. These two events are worlds apart in terms of the quality of reflection on contemporary culture and artistic merit. The Berlin Biennale was launched in 1996 by a team of curators and critics, which had created an influential Berlin institution, namely KunstWerke.

The Biennale has its own style and great ambitions of enhancing the position of the German capital as the main cultural centre of Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time, as the organisers declare, it is open to works by young, less known artists. From the outset its main area of interest is the city itself, the recently united Berlin, with the old division still visible. The Biennale generally takes place in the eastern part, and the venues change from edition to edition (only the KunstWerke is a permanent feature). For example, the Of Mice and Men Biennale from 2006 (curators: Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, Ali Subotnick) was held in one street – Auguststrasse in the Mitte quarter. The venues of particular exhibitions were described in detail, so the visitors got to know not only the art, but also the story of the street: from the church and school to private apartments, warehouses and stables of the post office, a factory, a cemetery. This story also offered a kind of history of Berlin in miniature, thanks to which Berlin itself and its quarter became the material for the exhibition and to some extent succumbed to the fictional narratives told at the Biennale. An example of subjecting the actual fabric of the city to exhibition themes and creating new values in contact with a work of art may be the work of Robert Kuśmirowski Railway Car (2006) in the former Jewish School for Girls. A replica of an old freight car on a railway siding, which in Poland did not provoke such associations, here became a reminder of the Holocaust. During the next edition, curated by Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipović and called When things cast no shadow (2008), the visitors journeyed along the Berlin Wall, this still throbbing scar on the city’s flesh, whose painful power will be felt for years to come. The exhibitions also featured many works referring in a profound way to the current situation of the city, for example to the mental state of its inhabitants. One instance is a film (directed by Lars Laumann) about Mrs Berliner-Mauer, married to the Berlin Wall.

This review of selected biennials shows that despite the constantly declared desire to engage with the locality and draw inspiration from it, as well as enriching it with new interpretations, such attempts often disappoint, they are superficial and naïve. But such references, whether fictitious or real, may enroot the exhibition in a given place, and hence make it unique. Art will not replace the tools of a historian, sociologist or anthropologist, but it may successfully enliven the historical heritage of a city. But few are aware of this potential, few deliberately exploit it.

About authors

Magdalena Ujma

Born 1967 in Lublin, art historian and critic, curator. Co-edited the literary quarterly Kresy, worked with Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź; now she cooperates with the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery in Krakow. Published essays “Ani rewolucja, ani konsumpcja” (“Neither revolution, nor consumption,” in Nowe zjawiska w sztuce polskiej po 2000 roku [New Developments in Polish Art after 2000], Warszawa 2007) and “Transformacja. Kobiety tworzące w postkomunistycznej Polsce w latach 1989–2000” (“Transition: Polish female artists in postcommunist Poland in 1989-2000”, in Artystki polskie [Polish Female Artists], Warszawa 2010). Co-curated Bad News (Kronika, Bytom 2006), Last News (Łaźnia, Gdańsk 2007) and a cycle of exhibitions Transkultura (Transculture, Bunkier Sztuki, Kraków 2006– 2008), and curated the show Dziennik Polki (Diary of a Polish woman, Uppsala, Berlin). Writes a blog Krytyk sztuki na skraju załamania nerwowego (“An art critic on the verge of nervous breakdown,” Lives in Krakow.


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