An interview with Anthony Gardner about biennales

Crowds outside a lecture presentation featuring Kazuyo Sejima, Venice Biennale 2010. Image: Luke Kakizaki

I’ve been away on holidays over the Christmass – New Years break, but with 2011 well and truly underway, it’s time to dust off the WordPress passsword and get blogging again.

Kicking off this year is something I’m very excited about: an interview with University of Melbourne researcher Anthony Gardner. Gardner came to my attention as a outstanding early career researcher who late last year was awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council grant to study the international visual arts biennale circuit.

It’s a subject I’ve covered peripherally here before, and one that has been dealt with by some important recent books I’ve mentioned here such as Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World and Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark.

I emailed Anthony before Christmas with some questions in bold; below are his responses:


Anthony Gardner in 2010. Image: Anthony Gardner.

Can you tell me briefly what you’ll be researching?

The main and overt subject matter is the development of so-called “mega-exhibitions” worldwide since the Second World War: the biennales, triennales, quadrennials, quinquennials and so on that have emerged in places as diverse as Dakar in Senegal, Tirana in Albania or Guangzhou in China. These perennial exhibitions – perhaps we should really call them perennales, no matter how uglythe word – have been one of the main driving forces in the display, production and thinking of art in the last 40 years or so, and what I want to track with this project (together with my co-investigator, Charles Green at the University of Melbourne) are three (maybe even four) waves of biennialisation that have emerged since the development of the Venice Biennale in 1895. This wouldcomprise a first wave in the late 19th century, a second in the 1950s to the mid 1980s, a third from the early 1990s on, and if there is indeed a fourth, then it is only in recent years as biennales have supposedly begun to decline and become discursive, have reflected on their own conditions, as they age.
The more meaty subject, however, is the shift and changes that histories of exhibition and curatorship have brought (and on occasions wrought) on art history, and how the ideologies driving these exhibitions signify important shifts from “world art” and its grounding in internationalism, to globalism and globalisation in art and culture, and the re-emergence of regional and very localfoci amid the global. What complications do histories of art’s display present to our usual understandings of the history of art works as discrete entities? And how can a broad yet thorough understanding of these waves of biennialisation provide us with a richer of art’s globalisation through the twentieth century?

Do we know how many biennials there are out there nowadays? Globally they must now be a huge distribution/exhibition network for the dissemination of contemporary art.

Biennales are among the most significant and highly networked institutions within contemporary art (if not the most significant – yet…). How many are there? Most views place the figure between 100 and 200 worldwide, but this usually ignores the many smaller biennales of graphic design, for instance, or of national art practices (such as U3 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, or the Adelaide Biennialof Australian Art). The figure also ignores the (for me, more fascinating) history of biennales that developed in the 1960s or 1970s (or even the 1990s!) that are now almost completely forgotten: the Bradford Print Biennial in England, the Biennale Balticum among Baltic countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, the roaming Biennial of Arab Art that began in Baghdad in1974 and continued in Rabat, Morocco, and to Jordan (and which prefigured the much more famous ‘itinerant’ biennale in Europe, called “Manifesta”, by 20 years – remarkable!). If biennales (and many curators’ fixation on the newest product or thinking available) are considered key to an amnesia within contemporary art, then one task for us is to remember and re-engage the history of these biennales, and to reject that amnesia from within.

Readers of my blog are often from what you might call the “cultural political economy” (Hesmondhalgh, Pratt) or “social production of art” (Becker, Wolff) schools, so I was wondering whether you think your work will be able to speak to these research programs?

I would hope so. One of the intriguing shifts for me in recent discourse is the so-called “aesthetic turn” in international relations and, as Anca Pusca (an academic from Goldsmiths College in London) has noted in relation to Tirana, biennales sometimes lie at the core of this “turn”. Whereas art history is notorious for absorbing or cannibalising methods and ideas from other discourses (especially political philosophy), I think this project can allow for a much more two-way street for rethinking the relations between art history, cultural production and political economy. This has been important for me in the past: one example is my analysis of the ways some artists have responded to the shifting political economies of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe since the 1970s, up to and including the current war (and “democratisation”) in/on Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the most exciting aspects of this new project for me is to see what a longer-term approach to biennialisation might provide for evaluating “globalised” cultural production, and whether exhibitions and networks from the “peripheries” of the art world can proffer different models for imagining such cultural production.

Why have governments and philanthropists been so enthusiastic aboutfunding biennials? Is it a type of Richard Florida-style “boosterism” orare there artworld dynamics at play?

This enthusiasm is true in some instances, but not all. The Istanbul Biennial, forexample, has had an on again-off again relationship with local philanthropists and especially the state, for various local, political and economic reasons. If we were to generalise a bit, though, I think boosterism plays a large role –the “coincidence” of the development of many biennales and American neoliberalism worldwide since the 1970s is pretty clear about this. Biennales can certainly provide a city with a new image, with sparking or articulating a city’s international or global ambitions (especially for often-overlooked “second” cities like Gothenburg in Sweden), with a quick injection of money for targeted culturaland infrastructural development, with making a city a spectacle for internationalart world tourists. But that doesn’t mean that all biennales are or should becondemned as mere handmaidens to boosterism or the cultural arm of US-style neoliberalism and globalised service-sector economics. They can provide opportunities for artists, curators, critics and publics to engage with one another, and with time and space and culture/s, in different ways and with great potentiality. Participants can create unexpected possibilities in even the most problematic biennale (the repainting of residential buildings organised by Anri Sala and Edi Muka for the Tirana Biennial, which was largely sponsored by aparticular commercial art magazine called Flash Art, and thus an interesting example of a trade mag creating a biennial that it could then use the magazine tosell internationally, might be an example of this). In reality, the circumstances offunding and enthusiasm are often particular to the contexts in which eachbiennale is exhibited, and even to particular editions of a particular biennale.Sponsors may love a biennale for one edition and shut it down for the next (as happened in Johannesburg and, to an extent, Melbourne).

What about the art we see at these events – we often seem to see a smallnumber of the same “art stars” at all the important biennials, figures likeSerra, Cattelan, Viola, Murakami, Sherman etc etc. Is there a “Matthew effect” going on here (the successful get more successful)?

This can certainly be the case, and a scholar like John Clark at Sydney Universityhas provided some amazing statistics about how often certain key figures arepresented and re-presented at biennales worldwide (often with the same workin different sites at the same time, as with Jun-Nguyen Hatsushiba at the end ofthe 1990s, or perhaps Dan Perjovschi now). This is one basis for the emergence of the “biennale artist”, the artist who exhibits frequently in biennales in cityafter city after city. Artists also respond to some of the privileged conditions of(some) biennales – such as large spaces, large funding, large amounts of time– with large, even bloated works (the frequency of installations and space- andtime-consuming video in biennales are very suggestive here). This is what somepeople consider “biennale art”, though both terms – biennale art and biennaleartist – are very much open to dispute.

I would also pin a lot of blame on lazy curators here, too: curators who don’tengage in the kind of first-hand, long-term research around the world that isnecessary to avoid returning constantly to the same names. It is very easy to feel dispirited by what seems to be a prevalence of research-by-catalogue-entry: curators flipping through other curators’ and other biennales’ catalogues to findnames and works for (re)showing. To hear even wonderful curators like Vasif Kortun from Istanbul say that Australia is too far, physically and mentally, for engaging in a biennial like his 2005 Istanbul Biennial – that is indicative of amajor and profound blindspot that has re-emerged in much contemporarycuratorship, and is not limited to Australasia of course. (Nor to Kortun; it’s far far too common, and by curators in other institutions as well, like the Tate in London or MoMA in New York, who have oodles of travel money and time, but a limited curiosity). What is called for, then, is strong research to counter that laziness,whether by curators, historians, critics, artists or others – research that is historical, yet has a greater curiosity than what has been shown through themyopia that’s increasingly emerging in the name of “global” art exhibitions. Andhopefully that kind of research can spark further curiosity, to keep producingknowledges and practices and potentials that are properly transcultural andtranslocal, that are opened rather than closed, and unexpected rather than repetitive.

One thought on “An interview with Anthony Gardner about biennales

  1. Pingback: Phỏng vấn với Anthony Gardner về biennales* – Cực Lực

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