There has been much discussion in recent years about the pros and cons of the proliferation of Biennials and triennials, with a new one opening each year in a different place. Many of them respond to political agendas and/or efforts to boost the profile of a city through cultural tourism. But there are two things that remain valid regardless of the motivations behind a Biennial: one, they do provide the local artists with an opportunity to be seen in an international context, through exposure and new contacts; two, they provide the outside visitor with the opportunity to see a sizable group of artists from a given region, which allows him/her to catch a glimpse of the local and regional art scenes. Both have proven true in my visits to these events in Asia.
In Taipei I visited the Biennial, curated by Vasif Kortun and Manray Hsu. I met Vasif long ago, when we were part of the short-lived VOTI (The Vnion Of The Imaginary), an online forum for discussion about curatorial practice. I met Manray in Finland in 2005 when we were both doing research on art of the Nordic countries; at that time I was co-curating the Sao Paulo Bienal, while he was working on the Liverpool Biennial with the Cuban curator Gerardo Mosquera.
I arrived to Taipei last Tuesday, coinciding with a lecture that Vasif gave on the Biennial model. I decided to attend, because it is a rare treat to have a curator speak of the conceptual framework of his/her project as opposed to the slide walkthrough of the event (at worst) or a lecture on the chosen theme (at best).
Having curated two versions of the Istanbul Biennale, Vasif offered candid insights about the strengths, the dangers, the successes and the failures of these types of events—at least of the ones he has been involved with—and illustrated his arguments mixing images from Istanbul (a city he calls "contaminated") and from Taipei (where, according to him, it is still possible to create contamination).
He started by showing two meanings of the word Biennial: one was “something that happens every two years”; the other was “a plant that flowers at the second year.” He chose the latter to stress the fact that only after a two-year process—the process being what is really important—can something actually be achieved. If the plant is not well tended during the two years, it probably will not yield any flowers.
He contends that Biennales have turned into events, and the process tends to be neglected. And in most cases there is no connection to the host city. I completely agree; in most cases the curator does not spend significant time in the city that is hosting the event. These were concerns that we tried to address in MDE07, a six-month-long event that I co-curated in Medellín, Colombia last year: how to connect with the local scene in a way that was truly meaningful? We devised several ways to achieve this, with relative success. There is a link to the MDE07: www.encuentromedellin2007.com (sorry, only in Spanish).
Vasif proposed several guidelines for the curating of this type of events, although acknowledging that what might work for a given context might not be appropriate for another:
-Undo event culture: there should be a conscientious attempt at bypassing the “big and noisy event” syndrome in favor of something of a lesser scale that above all, serves the local public and the local arts scene. How to avoid “exhibition fatigue”? There is only so much a visitor can take, before one loses attention and interest. It is a question of scale, both of the scope of the event and in the size of the spaces chosen to house the exhibits.
-Institutional hospitality: one should strive to create the context so the city succeeds in articulating many other projects (in addition to those directly related to the Biennial) toward the same goal.
-Long-term residencies. A Biennial can be the ideal situation to invite artists to spend time in the city, mingle with the local scene, establish ties, and produce a meaningful work based on real involvement.
-Spanning the region: Vasif contends that biennials end up concentrating too much on the host city, neglecting the regions. In my opinion, this is true for certain contexts and not for others. Often when you try to cover too much ground you lose focus and become entangled in something that doesn't serve the local public and doesn't succeed in reaching a wider region.
-Rethink publications: instead of going for the usual catalog, it is important to think about what is really needed in each case, and how it should be designed and edited so it fulfills its role. I agree: too many trees have been felled to print fancy maps, flyers and guides that end up unused or thrown in the wastebasket.
-Ecology of the exhibition: in sync with the idea of only printing what is strictly necessary, an eye should be kept on the “carbon footprint” of the biennial: what is really needed? What is unnecessary, superficial or redundant? In Taipei they painted only those walls that needed to be a certain color for the sake of the work: the rest were left unpainted, in many places showing previous colors, the remnants of a side wall, etc.
Finally, he ended with a truism: biennials are a bundle of intelligent questions, at best an interesting narrative; they cannot purport to provide answers, nor to be conclusive about a subject.
The Biennial site (http://www.taipeibiennial.org/2008/index.aspx), provides a wealth of information about this event, although I personally find Universes-in-Universe’s coverage easier to navigate: http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/bien/taipei_biennial/2008
I found the Taipei Biennial a particularly pleasurable event to experience, with strong works that related with the others but not in an illustrative way. It was cleverly articulated in spatial terms so as to provide a varied viewing experience, with long-duration video installations being followed with paintings or sculpture, intimate works providing respite from overwhelming works, and humorous works providing a light note, in a conscious reminder to both artists, curators and the public to not take oneself too seriously.