Art from Asia is on the rise — or so it must seem. From Sydney to Shanghai, Busan to Berlin, Asian artists are all over the place. The year 2008 was a banner year for biennales in this part of the world. September alone saw several biennales and triennials opening, including Gwangju, Busan, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Singapore, Taipei and Yokohoma. However, research and analysis of contemporary art from the region have not kept pace with the spectacle of exhibition. And it’s arguable that this underdeveloped state of discourse is an urgent concern. What we need, perhaps, is less chatter, and more reflection. Hopefully, in this forum here, we’ll be able to serve up some of the latter along with some of the former. The Asian Biennales Forum, Part II, is a follow-up from the forum which took place in November 2008. http://northeastwestsouth.net/node/256
I’m Lee Weng Choy, an art critic based in Singapore, and artistic co-director of The Substation arts centre. I’ll be the moderator for the forum, which begins 17 March 2009, and continues till 22 March. With me are the following panelists: Susan Kendzulak was the moderator of the first forum; she is an artist and critic based in Taiwan. Thomas Berghuis teaches Asian art at the Department of Art History & Film Studies at the University of Sydney. Joselina Cruz is an independent curator based in Manila; she was one of the curators of the 2008 Singapore Biennale. Michael Lee is an artist based in Hong Kong and Singapore. Carla Bianpoen is a senior editor of C-Arts Magazine. Phoebe Wong is head of research, Asia Art Archive. Tiong Ang is an artist, and a co-founder of the n.e.w.s. foundation. To start off, I’ve invited the panelists to consider the following four registers: i) the epistemology of the biennale — what do we know about these events, how do we know these things, and what forms of knowledge do these events produce? ii) field notes — specific observations drawn from our own individual experiences as visitors to these events; iii) reflections on the making of biennales — comments from curators and participating artists iv) the discourses of biennales — reflections on the criticism, art history, and reviews of biennales. What follows are the opening remarks of the panelists, as well as my own contribution. The forum is open to everyone to comment. Please join us.
Opening remarks by Susan, Michael, Carla, Thomas, Joselina and Weng Choy.
The Asian Biennales Forum, Part I, began with a discussion of the biennale as “experience” or “rhetorical object”, and ended with confirmed interest to critically explore the aftermath of these exhibitions under a macroscopic lens.
To generalize, the biennale has helped in the process to positively shift the focus of art away from predominant European and North American art centres. This biennalization allowed art practice to become more encompassing, while allowing voices from diverse areas around the world to be heard. Art as we know it in 2009 is much more inclusive, more racially and culturally diverse, and much more interesting as compared to 1980. 
When the biennale is at its effective best, it often functions as a site of experimentation to explore the urban fabric and its relationship within the process of globalization, which means parts of the exhibition occur outside the traditional “white cube” museum spaces. For the viewer, the biennale then becomes a local history lesson (Sydney Biennale 2008 Cockatoo Island), or a walking tour (Singapore Biennale 2006), bringing the viewer to both physical and metaphorical places that transcend time and space. At its worst, the Biennale can become a tool of the bureaucrat. 
Cities saw the need to initiate their own biennales as development tools which explains why there are over 60 biennales around the world today as compared to just a mere 17 biennales during the hundred year period from 1890 to the 1980s.  On the negative side, the biennale was a cultural cannibal disembarking in foreign lands seeking its next meal; yet to its benefit, the biennale has broadened the art discussion both for the local and international art communities.
The biennale was a model that worked well for the past twenty years, but it seems to have reached its expiration date. The biennale as we know it may have reached its saturation point as it too often results in an art festival extravaganza that is easily consumed. The world has changed a lot since 1989, with nano and internet technology, the global tentacular reach of financial markets, devastating wars and human crises. It is now time for cultural production to accurately reflect today’s world.
Thomas Berghuis wrote that we put “blind trust in the role of the biennale” without really examining why some issues are deemed pressing to the exclusion and omission of other issues, and more importantly, he wonders who selects the issues. Since one third of the world’s biennales take place in Asia, perhaps Asia can start the discussion.
1. In 1980, I was a student at School of Visual Arts, NYC where the discussion of the time was, who was a better painter: Salle or Schnabel?
2. “Shanghai (Biennale) has become a weak bland affair, in part due to the interference of ministry of culture officials in the curation of the show. It never takes on tough political issues — though this year’s did include a video on coal miners by Yang Shaobin — and it never ever critiques the market. Taiwan, whether intentionally or not, embodied the virtues of democracy, in comparison.” http://barbarapollack.blogspot.com/2008/09/taipei-vs-shanghai.html
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Michael Lee Hong Hwee
In contemporary art biennales, the genre of the artist’s book faces a threefold challenge. The first is barrier to entry. Especially when (or since) biennales are heavy-handedly curated and invested with multiple interests and anxieties, there exist a variety of fetishes (a.k.a. “trends”) that favour certain art forms, scales and sensibilities over others. International contemporary art events have deep sympathy for large-scale installations, conceptual pieces and hi-tech gadgets that may be overlooked by the gallery market or art fair circuit, while biennales focused on artist’s books tend to have a preference for the handmade and bound, the one-off and the use of paper. Unless it is monumental (like Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky), or conceived by a mega art superstar, cerebral or hand-crafted, an artist’s book or book work rarely finds its way into an international biennale. This creates gaps that book artists, or artists whose practice includes the production of, or engagement with books, can identify, explore and promulgate. The second challenge lies in presentation and relatedly, preservation. If a book’s primary function lies in extending space by containing information to be revealed to a select audience, and compressing time, ideas and effort within the predefined space or volume taken up by them, then the most important use of an artist’s book or book art is necessarily and invariably its uselessness. This uselessness is the genre’s strength and liability. Offset prints (i.e. those with a print run of 1000 or more) presented in a biennale for visitors to take for free tend to be quickly lumped with collaterals (i.e. deemed as useful or useless as an exhibition catalogue) and easily forgotten. Unique pieces are gazed at, photographed and again, conveniently done with. If unprotected in a vitrine, one-off book pieces (especially if made of ephemeral material like paper) tend to be mishandled beyond recognition and recovery over the course of a biennale, which usually lasts at least two months. The third is sale. Book works do not have a readily receptive and respectful market. They are not paintings that can be hung on the wall and expertly preserved (as they are usually not made with more longlasting materials like oil and canvas) and yet they are also not quite sculptural (i.e. solid and hardy). Even when they exist three-dimensionally and “interactively”, they resemble catalogues and collaterals too closely to appeal to an art collector, or to fetch a good price. Its likely recourse is to blur the boundaries between the artwork as the primary content of an art exhibition and the published volume as its secondary content. Contesting this hierarchical division, a book work may engage (i.e. appropriate) the ideas and forms of art forms such as painting, sculpture, installation, video and performance, whilst revisiting and revising the histories of book conception, production, presentation and distribution. In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about an artist’s book project that I did as part of the Third Guangzhou Triennial in 2008.
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My “experience” with international Asian biennales is somewhat minimal, having seen only the first and second Singapore biennales, the Biennale of Sydney, the CP biennales in Indonesia, and the recent Jakarta Biennale. Of these, the biennale of Sydney and the Jakarta Biennale 2009 (JP09) were, for me, the most impressive — by their honesty of vision, by not pursuing “international” at all costs, and following the flow . I also appreciated their clear focus and professional display of art works. Amidst the rush for Chinese art at that time, the Sydney Biennale was an oasis, the quality of which was even more explicit by the thorough elaboration and integrity of concept of artistic director Caroline Christov Bakargiev. Amidst the flurry of commercial art domination at the time, the Biennale of Sydney 2008 provided alternative perceptions and basic norms. In the case of the Fluid Zone part of the Jakarta Biennale, the young curator Agung Hujatnikajennong had a fresh vision making a breakthrough by selecting for the first time promising artists from the region and all in their thirties, and with a display that we have not seen before. JP09 also did not have an objective economic, touristic or city-boasting objective as did other biennales. Small in size (only 39 participants in total, consisting of 14 Indonesian, 14 regional and 11 foreign artists who had had a residency in one of the countries in the region), it was like a boutique biennale — well cared for, crisp, innovative and visionary. The Jakarta Biennale, at least the part curated by Agung, provided a new vision and “mapping” of emerging young artists from the region, and could be a possible model for the future. The CP Biennale in 2003, launched Jim Supangkat’s statement of “Art with an Accent”, meaning that contemporary art from Asia was no less art than that from the West. Chinese artists like Gu Wenda, Yue Mingjun and Fang Lijun, endorsed the idea with enthusiasm. The statement refers to the reality that the English language has a different accent in England, America, Singapore, Australia, India and so on. But the various accents do not erase the fact that the language is still English. Looking back at the Singapore biennales of 2006 and 2008, the first Singapore Biennale was interesting, particularly the installations in Tangling Camp. But the second Singapore Biennale, I found less interesting. The theme “wonder”, I found too loose, and it did not seemed backed up with thorough conceptual elaboration. The City Hall spaces were not suited for the installations, and the large space at the Marina Bay development (Shigeru Ban) was not utilised enough. In addition, the latest Singapore biennale seemed too driven by the Singapore government’s economic agenda. While this is not necessarily bad, it might hamper the free flow of creativity, and innovation of curators. The linking of the Singapore biennale with the Singapore Showcase Art Fair — though it was unofficially linked, but it certainly appeared intentional — leaves a bad taste. For C-Arts magazine, as far as I am concerned, the important thing is how biennales are able to support the basic values of art and how they provide new perspectives in seeeing, creating and performing — in short, how significant could they be for the understanding, development and future of art. C-Arts magazine is interested in new developments and innovations in Asia, and Southeast Asia specifically. It was established in November 2007, amidst the lack of inside information about the Asian contemporary art scene. Its aim is to be a bridge facilitating informtion on what is really happening inside our world of art, and in so doing facilitate Asian contemporary art to takes its place on the world map of art.
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Thomas J. Berghuis
Excess Denied / Access Granted With three days to go before the start of the Asian Biennales Forum (Part II), multiple streams of thoughts rush through my mind. Could it be adrenaline that I am experiencing, or perhaps it is anxiety? Usually a session at the local gym, or a run around the track is what gives people an adrenaline rush. I wonder if “doing” a Biennale, Triennale — or a whole stack of them — can give the same adrenaline rush. No sweat, at least … Art has the power to provoke, or maybe that is just part of my personal anticipation. I am sure most of us are familiar with the pure pleasure in the encounter with its audiences, particularly at openings: “Wow!” Great!” “Amazing!” “Wonderful!” At the same time, discussions continue to emerge on why art matters. “Why?” A sporting facility matters by providing a space for physical exercise by a community. Physical exercise matters because it produces a healthy body, right? By now, I am starting to feel I feel that I deserve the “right to sleep” — reflecting on the well placed comments made by Stephen Wright on n.e.w.s. in the discussion of “Contemporary Art: Now or Never?” Then again, Lee Weng Choy’s question of “What do Biennale’s want from us?” (Broadsheet, Vol. 37, No. 1) is depriving me from sleep. Caution is also required, as to the use of “art” and “contemporary” (following comments by Weng Choy in the previous biennale discussion on n.e.w.s.). “Art matters” (art matter, art substance, art material, art materialises …). George Bataille already reminded us in the 1940s how, “Every time the meaning of a discussion depends on the fundamental value of the word useful — in other words, every time the essential question touching on the life of human societies is raised, no matter who intervenes and what opinions are represented — it is possible to affirm that the debate is necessarily warped and that the fundamental question is eluded.” The “accursed share” is destined for “waste”, and nowadays we also know that excess leads to effluence. How then do we explain biennales? As major art events that occur every two years? Now we are discussing “Asian Biennales” — that is, nine of them, or more — does it really matter? Does it matter that these Biennales are Asian; or Biennales? Doesn’t that open the discussion up to the same dubious political circumstances that invoke discussions on Asian values? or, for that matter, on (what is) Asia(n)? What drives the quest for this distinctiveness? Are we maybe trying to prevent in some way to talk more directly about art; or, for that matter, about substance? In economic terms, the world has recently awoken to the fiscal consequences of excess. What about the consequences for art, or for biennales? I am certainly interested in reading during the course of the forthcoming discussions about “observations on individual experiences” of these biennales. Yet, I am also interested in reading thoughts on experiences that are more or less external to these biennales, and the time and space of their occurrence. Indeed, as proposed in the announcement for this forum, to read about personal experiences “after these biennales have left”, and even about when they did not even occur. “No Biennale, this year”. Does this mean that the biennale did not have a function, or substance? In 2007, I was able to reflect on these questions. At the time it seemed everyone was going to Europe to “do” the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and the Munster Sculpture Project. For me, excess was denied. Instead I spent some time writing a catalogue essay for an exhibition in Sydney, and took the opportunity to read through the publications of all five platforms for the Documenta 11 (between 2001 and 2002), next to a whole stack of research materials. I also took quite some time reading through many of the online publications in the Documenta 12 Magazine Project. The biennale that I regretted not seeing was this year’s Jakarta Biennale XIII, but also the 2005 Istanbul Biennale. Not only did I hear it was “good”, but much more importantly I got the impression that these biennales made a significant contribution to the locale and the community where they were held. The same is the case for a number of artworks that have been produced over the years, as well as a great number of international performance art festivals that have been organised (including more than 20 in Asia over the past 10 years). If only more documentation, critical analyses, and research materials on the contribution of these events to society, culture, and community would be generated; that would generate better awareness of their long-term significance beyond the event.
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It seems that Weng’s introduction is entrusted to initiate, in some cases insinuate, certain issues regarding aspects of biennales that have been critiqued, or continue to be critiqued. That biennales have reached our part of the world in abundance reflects the continued hold of this particular exhibition model; it also tells of the economic ascendancy and cultural ambition of the cities/countries in which these events have taken place. Somewhat similar to the Asian penchant for re-working out a tried and tested model, biennales have become commodified. A model easily copied and inserted into contexts, each one striving for content and relevance. This phenomenon of the influx of Asian Biennales may in fact be a new paradigm, re-configuring how biennales are produced. The model is simple enough to copy. For Singapore Biennale 2008, I worked with Fumio Nanjo and Matthew Ngui. The three of us shaped this specific biennale. Our discussions looked at what might be relevant for the local population, but also something that had some resonance amongst international peers. I can say that I was hoping for a more incisive and tighter biennale. I think it was smaller, and tighter. Whether it was incisive is open to interpretation. When Weng asked me to participate, I knew I wanted more than anything to look at the work I/we had done in retrospect. However I was also sure that I didn’t want it to be simply a critical finger pointing out “what should have been”, or that of a defense of its failings. Neither would have been productive. Instead I am keen to hear what everyone else has to say and respond. All biennales seem to me as having the desire to show something, relate something, expound something, explore something. An international biennale has the added burden of the word “international”. An international biennale raises expectations of a democratic stance that allows access across all genres and sub-genres, genders, races, geographic location, etc. Curators who have been tasked to work on a biennale all have the curse of figuring out what this something is. Often curators and/or artistic directors have specific interests they have been looking at for a time. Sometimes, they look to the art world to see what is, or what is not, current. They may respond, react or reject. Curators also look at the context of where the exhibition will be held. How it will work locally, what the social temperature is, how locals might react. Unlike product tests, artworks cannot be tested on the public to see their reaction. There are no product launches to introduce the art to be consumed. Most exhibitions hedge on previous experience (curators, artists, artworks) from the public. Despite having been shown elsewhere, the reaction to some works cannot be predicted in a different context. Biennales, literally, mean nothing except that of an exhibition produced every two years. What has been copied across the world is that of the Venice Biennale, the original Biennale that reached outside of Europe to include art from other nations. From this, has spawned a body of derivatives from Documenta’s every five years, to Manifesta’s moving location. Each has kept one element or another from the original. I like reiterating the obvious because oftentimes these are overlooked due to the density of the discussions and thinking. We can forget. I once said in a talk that the discussion of biennales is like beating a dead horse. This is not to say that biennales are dead, however the discussions that have surrounded biennales have proved to be less than thought-provoking. Biennales are what they are, and continue to be: large-scale exhibitions that take on international art works as one of its defining elements. Marian Pastor-Roces has described the biennale as akin to that of 19th-century expositions and the re-creation of the world in miniature. Such desires to represent the world are stronger with biennales, as Marian pointed out, due to its roots in 19th-century expositions; the Venice Biennale model of having international pavilions; also because most biennales are funded by local or national governments. Weng also pointed out that biennales have conventions, but not tradition (“Biennale Demand”, Jan 2008, http://www.aaa.org.hk/newsletter_list.aspx?newslettertype=archive). This may be true to an extent, but following his definition of tradition, biennales, either through the foundations or offices that run them, or through the curators chosen, are hardly oblivious to past biennales that occur around the world. The derivative models from Venice’s formula are a reaction to the original biennale’s framework. The exhibition concepts, thematics, ideas are never realized while the curator is unaware of what’s been done elsewhere. Curators and directors are hardly, never reflexive. Most are. And the biennales they come up with are products of these. Are these then not the creation of a tradition?
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Lee Weng Choy
Some time ago, when writing about epistemology and contemporary visual art, a phrase came to mind which I thought apt in the way it characterised the dynamics of the “our” in “our contemporary art world”. My proposition was this: that knowledge about art is changing, radically and irrevocably, and in part because of some historical irruption on the global art scene called the rise of contemporary art from Asia. By the 1990s, art world professionals from everywhere — whether artists or critics, curators or academics — had decidedly acknowledged that the future of the field no longer belonged to the “West”, but to the whole wide world. And it was as if “Asia” had become the exemplary signifier for this increasingly integrated world system, with “China”, in particular, acting as a metonym for all of the region. The specific phrase I had in mind was: “the distance between us”. (One can imagine, in a black and white nineteen-fifties film, one of the spouses in a long married couple saying this phrase to the other, as they each finally recognise their irreconcilable differences, and go their separate ways. The image of history as cinematic montage, à la Walter Benjamin, is not irrelevant, but let us not detour too far from the point.) The “us” in “the distance between us” suggests a “we” which is comprised of a pair, if not a larger set, of actors. Those grand categories, geographically defined, the “West” and “Asia” — or at least Asia as a code for the “Rest” — they are separated by a distance and, yet, one can still assert a conjunction. The West and Asia constitute an “us” — an integrated global system. But within Asia there are as many distances and differences. Perhaps the more interesting and relevant ones are not the distances between the West and Asia, but for those who live in the latter, the distances within — the contests of what is, and where is, Asia — these may be more relevant and urgent. Or perhaps these too are more red-herring concerns. The actors evoked by this “us” are not only defined geographically, they are also temporally, that is, historically, placed. What the conjunction “and” tries to bring together is a profoundly disparate, unbounded field of actors — various pasts, various presents, and various places and peoples. In “the distance between us”, maybe the accent should lie not on the “us”, but on these multiple “distances”. Of the many cultural phenomena that are exemplary of late capitalism, spectacle and globalization, the international biennale (and similar exhibitions of contemporary visual art) has a certain pride of place. It is arguably the paradigmatic form of bringing together for display a certain “us”, at a certain moment in time, while eliding the great distances between. Geography and ethnicity are privileged in biennales, to the extent that one could describe their mode of knowledge as ethno-geographic. Moreover, there is an assumption that, no matter how great the distances — mainly in space, occasionally in time — art works from all over the world can be presented together, that is, seen together as part of an increasingly globalized world. But is this assumption valid?