Reckoning with the Biennial

Every art world institution has a go-to critique. For the European historical museum, it’s that its collections are synonymous with theft. For the contemporary art biennial, that there are so many of them. These criticisms are truisms, and their function is to detract from their substance: everybody agrees that the art world should urgently respond to challenges that are at once specific and fundamentally general. It is, however, difficult to make good on these issues when even the observation that ‘there are over 270 active biennials listed on the Biennial Foundation’s website’ itself is repeated ad nausem as though the incantation’s implied acknowledgement and critique of capitalist excess was an antidote to it.

One of the questions that we have asked of the biennial so often that we no longer wait for an answer is that of purpose. Who or what are these displays of irrational exuberance for? The answer should be different for each event: Documenta is not Venice, after all. But there are some signs of evolution and mission creep appearing in individual biennials that may help refocus on the original question. After the pandemic suspension, a new, bold vision for the biennial is emerging: the event’s role is to humour the art world’s intellectual and political desires.

The Liverpool Biennial, England’s most established, this week announced the theme and artist list for its 25th-anniversary edition. The curator Khanyisile Mbongwa spoke of her desire to bring ancestral and indigenous forms of knowledge and wisdom to the event. Given that her ancestry is South African, and that the majority of the thirty so-far named artists appear not to have yet exhibited in European contexts, this promises to be a treat for visitors to Liverpool next summer. A whole new world of ideas, references, and images previously unseen in England for the price of a train ticket to Liverpool: the art world’s consonance with globalisation truly has its advantages.

Binta Diaw, 1.12.44., 2022. Courtesy of the Artist, Galerie Cecile Fakhoury

I write this sincerely, despite feeling uninspired by the worn ‘decolonising’ rhetoric in the biennial’s press release. That from Mbongwa’s list I recognised only a small handful of names is an indictment of my professional acculturation. I may excuse this because, according to an analysis by Artnet, the biennial is dominated by a cadre of only 24 artists who appear in one such event after another. But that I never heard of Mbongwa or know anything about the Stellenbosch Triennale she previously directed troubles me more because I wonder about the flip side of this ignorance: what does Mbongwa know of Liverpool? How should a curator and an artist approach a city that plays host/guest/ghost, to paraphrase the title of a previous edition of Liverpool Biennial, to their ideas? In an earlier press release, Mbongwa said she was “curious to find out what the city would show her about her curatorial processes”. Who is supporting whom and who should end up enriched?

This is the paradox that, in part, plagued this year’s edition of Documenta. The event’s curator collective ruangurpa invited artistic projects originating mainly in the so-called Global South to relocate their work to the German city of Kassel for the festival period of 100 days. I’ll venture that the names and the nature of many of the practices were unknown to most of the quinquennial’s art world visitors. I’ll venture further that to most of Kassel’s permanent residents, the names remained unknown even after the event had finished and that many would not have understood the ‘artistic’ nature of the guest projects.

In and of itself, this need not be a problem. The contribution of a large-scale event like Documenta to the life of Kassel is primarily economic: the city invests in showing art so that it can live off the proceeds. In Venice, the locals enjoy a single day’s free entry to the Biennale exhibitions but, one assumes, are happy to be renting their holiday apartments to art lovers and seek cultural enrichment with the cash elsewhere.

Many biennials, however, claim to connect the economic with the cultural in cruelly optimistic ways. Liverpool Biennial’s 1999 founding mission was to regenerate the city through and with culture, not merely as a by-product of the visitor economy. This biennial’s art was supposed to be for the art world cognoscenti as much as for the city locals to the extent that the art became Liverpool itself. This model, developed and eventually collapsed along with Richard Florida’s creative class thesis, has been the modus operandi for so many biennials so that it is now usual to see year-round programmes or works commissioned with local communities as part of these events. I suspend judgment on the success and lasting value of such initiatives but acknowledge that to write them off completely would be a mistake.

What, then, can the next edition of the Liverpool Biennial do for Liverpool? There’s nothing in principle preventing Mbongwa and her artists from becoming as integrated with the city’s communities as the curators and artists of earlier editions did, particularly that the bar may have been far lower in reality than in stated aspiration. The illusive connectivity of Zoom could even embolden the next edition even if the event’s travel budget is unlikely to.

Lorin Sookool, project on going, 2022. Image by Tanja Hall.

There is, however, the precedent from Kassel that shows that a large art event can be run almost entirely independently of its locality and even of its audiences. When visitors to Kassel tried to engage with runagurpa’s programme, they honed in on the antisemitism of a banner display by the Yogyakarta artistic group Taring Padi. Notwithstanding the artists’ intention, I believe that the scandal was exacerbated by the fact that ruangrupa and Taring Padi were not trying to make work for Kassel or even for the mostly Western art world visitors. No, Documenta was a pow-wow of and for the Global South funded by a bunch of European and US states and philanthropists, held under the gawking eyes of elite Western art audiences bound to misunderstand what they were looking at. The worst kind of a travelling circus.

Liverpool and others should take this as a caution. Mbongwa squarely positions her interest in Liverpool as the beneficiary of the transatlantic slave trade. She’s not wrong to point to this legacy and it probably wouldn’t be hard to link the philanthropic funding that supports the Biennial to slavery itself. However, her idea of turning the wind that powers the merchant ship synonymous with the city towards a “reckoning” – a term used to describe the social fall-out from the murder of George Floyd – may blow against some resistance. There is a stark contrast between the modest way, epitomised by the ‘institutional’ inertia of the International Slavery Museum, in which the culture indigenous to Liverpool has so far been prepared to atone for this history and what Mbongwa wants to see borne out of her work. But what if, just as was the case at Documenta, the art world came and saw only a travelling human zoo and condemned it as they did Taring Padi? Worse still, what would it mean for Liverpool’s chances of truly contenting with its history if they applauded it?

Main image: Liverpool Biennial.