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Asian Biennales Forum ... DISCUSSION

A response to Joselina: Joselina cites an essay of mine, (“Biennale Demand”, Jan 2008, http://www.aaa.org.hk/newsletter_list.aspx?newslettertype=archive), where I contrast the notion of “convention” with that of “tradition”. She summarises me as saying that “biennales have conventions, but not tradition”. And then she goes on to say: “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?”However, that’s not exactly what I said, and if we look at what I actually wrote, I think what’s at stake is a much more nuanced debate, although not exactly one between critics and curators (of course, many individuals wear both hats). Here’s what I said: “The biennale, despite all the diversity, as its critics continue to complain, has become conventional. And a convention is not a tradition. Conventions are characterised by patterns and predictability; traditions, in contrast, are notable for their density of reflexivity.... What if, instead of always being disappointed ... of wanting more than what’s paraded in one city after another — what if, instead, we really listened to the demands that biennales make of us.... What if we recognised that what biennales truly want of us is to look at them, not in a flash, but slowly. And to see them as emergent traditions — or, at least, to contemplate that possibility as a horizon.” Maybe I need to nuance that further. It’s not so much that biennales are conventional, but as an object of criticism, biennales are deemed conventional, rather than as having enough discursive sophistication to warrant being studied as a tradition. Sydney-based art historian John Clark is writing a book that systematically analyses biennales, but — and I haven’t read the whole book yet — I wonder if he constructs them as being a tradition (like the tradition of English Literature), or if they are seen as something else, say, a complex system. Traditions, to reiterate, are noted for their very sophisticated reflexivity, and the density of this reflexivity. Think of Beckett, and you inelucatably raise the spectre of Shakespeare, and so on. A system, for example, the art market in Asia, can be highly complex, but it’s not characterised by the kind of individual reflexivity that is entailed by the notion of a tradition. Of late, I’ve been arguing that the criticisms of biennales are inadequate, and if critics of biennales find fault with these events, these criticisms themselves are often part of the problem, reinforcing these very problems that they point out. Joselina is absolutely right that curators are reflexive. But are they reflexive enough? That’s the question. Critics may be very envious of curators, but the former don’t always admire the latter. Sure, I’ve heard critics who acknowledge that someone like Okwui Enwezor is very smart, but they’ll also say, he’s no Walter Benjamin. And Hou Hanru isn’t talked about as a deep thinker, but of someone who makes things happen (no offense to Hanru). Is this snobbery of critics part of the problem? This snobbery is symptomatic of a contest of discourses, the critic’s versus the curator’s. And perhaps it’s the wrong antagonism. I think that’s what I’m working towards, by contending that the criticisms of biennales has been inadequate. I’m pointing toward a critique of this criticism.


The Space between Biennales

This from Phoebe Wong:

The term Biennale is such a loaded word nowadays that sometimes I find it difficult to think through it. I have been visiting a number of biennales in Asia in recent years, yet very often I was conscious of wondering whether I could enjoy disliking an exhibition, or a biennale as a member of the (art) public and as a practitioner who works in the development of art (and culture) in this region.

In his short article “The charm of foreign parts” (Diaaalogue August 2003), Prof. John Clark provides an overview of the recent developments of contemporary Asian art in world art discourses by mapping a range of strategies for circulating Asian art works, and biennials have taken central stage (http://www.aaa.org.hk/newsletter_detail.aspx?newsletter_id=173&newslette...). He puts Asian participation in biennials into three categories: 1) the “entry into the power centers”, chiefly the Euro-american biennales like Venice; 2) to make Euroamerica come to Asia, as shown in Gwangju and Yokohama; 3) to create an event within the context of Asian, that is, not necessarily including Western big names — such as Fukuoka.

Although in Prof. Clark’s view, “Types Two and Three are slightly disingenuous in practice …. because they are at least partly intended to make Euroamerica pay attention to Asia, and to "our" contemporary art being the equal of ‘theirs’,” this is a significant development. These are attempts to make peripheries the centre. After all, we need multiple centres.

After almost two decades, there are so many biennials in Asia (and the Pacific) — fall 2008 saw a biennale spree of 8 events. Joint marketing efforts needed to line up Asian tours so that art professionals could potentially visit one after the other. Do we need so many biennales in Asia? Or, do we need biennales that are more or less homogeneous and showcase the same artists? The answer is simple: No. We need different models of biennales. However, the proliferation of biennials does not lead to diversity.

The Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, established in 1999, is unique in the sense that it is the only perennial presenting an on-going survey of the development of Asian art through showcasing works from the same 21 Asian countries and places. East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia are represented in each edition of the Triennale. Countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Brunei, Mongolia, where art communities are relatively small or isolated, are spotlighted. Fukuoka tries to network the less networked. Asia gives attention to Asia.

Having visited every edition of the Taipei Biennial since 2002 I see this refreshing, less-ambitious event, gradually finding its own path. It features only thirty to forty participating artists in each installment in comparison to its counterparts, often with double or even triple head counts of artists, This biennial serves as a platform (if not a niche) for works having a political and social edge.


alternative models for Biennales?

This from Carla Bianpoen

After reading the introductory articles and comments, I am wondering where all this talk will take us. Are we pursuing a model of biennale for Asia ? In such case, maybe the discussion should perhaps have more focus on the organisers of the biennale, and those who hold the power to determine how the biennale should be conducted and what its content should be.

In the case of the Jakarta Biennale XIII, it was organised by the Jakarta Arts Council, whose members change every 3 years. The members of the current Council, whose term end in July 2009, are all young people. For the main event of the biennale, called the Fluid Zone, they consulted with curators, artists, and art-involved personalities, to select a curator. The joint decision fell on the 33 year old curator Agung Hujatnikkajennong, and it proved to be the best decision ever taken for an Indonesian biennale. Agung’s curatorial was groundbreaking: focused, young, fresh and visionary, in the fashion of a smaller “boutique”, rather than a big department store — I discussed briefly earlier. For many young Indonesian artists, it was the first time they saw a contemporary exhibition of this kind. But many missed the opportunity, partly because of the lack of resources from the organisers meant publicity efforts were limited. But many of those who did know and saw the exhibition, see this as a possible model for the future.

While the impact on the city and its residents may have been minimal, the other parts of the biennale which were community oriented may have left a mark on youth who had never or were just beginning to be involved in the arts (more in C-Arts Magazine, March edition).

The Jogja Biennale IX last year, had to face the worst ever critique coming from certain curators and artists who dismissed it as being “not selective”, and “bad curatorial practice”. But for Heri Dono, Indonesia’s most frequent participant in international biennales (over 20 biennales!), the Jogja Biennale IX was great. He praised the endearing localness and the way the Jogja communities and the people around the event spaces were drawn in to feeling ownership and evoking their interest the arts. Even the becak driver (a kind of rickshaw) who used to be regular outside the exhibition space, was interested in the contemporary art inside, as he was giving a hand to set up the exhibition.

I guess, there is no one model for the Asian biennale. Perhaps one might go for the features of a “boutique” international biennale combined with localness and impeccable organisation. The biennale in Asia should be fresh, creative and innovative.


diversity and disparity

Questions for Phoebe and Carla:

Phoebe, and Carla, you both talk about different models for biennales. Phoebe, you say that the proliferation of these events does not necessarily lead to diversity. That seems to be true. While the biennale may not yet have been subjected to very thorough study, each of us have some anecdotal experience, and our experiences suggest that there is a lot of similarity in these events: whether in the models of curation and exhibition, or in the artists and works exhibited.

And I think we all agree that we want more diversity. But a good notion to contrast with "diversity" is "disparity". Diversity refers to difference, but disparity refers to profound differences. One could imagine the same models of exhibition, for instance, the national survey exhibition, producing a wide range of artists and art works. In Southeast Asia, one would see considerable diversity, if each country had its own national biennale.

But a greater disparity would ask for some radically different approaches to the exhibition and selection of artists. Perhaps not just the usual suspect contemporary artists. Say Kuala Lumpur did a national biennale; Jakarta did one focussing on young artists; Singapore, a typical big boring show; Bangkok, with a emphasis on funky curators, and so on. For greater disparity, you might still want the big boring shows, as a contrast.

Carla advocates for one particular model, which she found very successful. And I think it would be interesting if this smaller scale biennale was given a chance to repeat itself, to see how it would evolve in different cities, and with different curators and artists. So repetition is not a bad thing, is it?, for that's how we test certain models.

My questions:

Carla, it seems that the key difference for "Fluid Zone" was that it was small in scale, and focused on younger artists. But what about a larger biennale that incorporated this type of show as one of its projects? You see this happen often: a big biennale is broken up into a number of different projects. And these separate projects could be quite disparate in their models of exhibition and selection. Does it matter that the whole show be small, or can we think of several small shows as part of a larger whole?

Phoebe, you also seem to suggest that a smaller overall size of exhibition would be good. But another of your points is the important of inter-Asia networking. Fukuoka is your example. Could you talk more about what they are doing? I have yet to go one of the shows. How does Fukuoka compare with, say, Brisbane's Asia Pacific Triennial, which, in my opinion, was a very important networking centre for Southeast Asia in the 1990s.

And questions for both of you: This concerns public relations. I'm not just talking about publicity, but how the experience of visiting a biennale might prompt the viewer to think about the relations between the art on display, and the publics that this art addresses, both in its original context (where it was made) and its exhibition context (the city of the biennale). How do smaller exhibitions engage this question of "public relations" differently from larger shows? Where is the public in the biennale? (Tiong's own work tries to address this.) How do biennales construct their publics? And are smaller shows necessarily more intimate, and thus more engaging?


From cranky videos to undemanding public/media

I enjoy Weng Choy's differentiation between diversity and disparity, especially its suggestion that distinct differences could be more valuable than superficial variety. Yet both are nearly always not accompanied by presentation rigor and logistic support in a biennale. We have our own experiences to share on instances of mis-positioned or destroyed artworks, videos not running, and gallery sitters unable (or unwilling) to double as user's guides. To attend biennales during (or not long after) the opening is not just to rub shoulders with key artists, curators and critics but to experience the works in their (usually) ideal state.

Weng's notion of "public relations" reminds me of stark disparity I observed in media representation of major art events in Singapore and in Guangzhou. During the period of "Belief": The 1st Singapore Biennale (2006), a local Chinese-language magazine programme 什麼意思 (literally, "What's the meaning?") screened over national television network Channel U, attempted to bring contemporary art discourse down to the level of the populace. It did so, in part, by posing multiple-choice questions to unsuspecting visitors to the biennale, on selected artworks' meanings. I am still unsure if a programme like this, while certainly entertaining and informative, facilitates deep understanding of the complexity of debates in contemporary art.

On the other hand, a news magazine programme (the channel and programme title of which I do not know) in Guangzhou was able to intelligently introduce the theme "Farewell to Post-colonialism" (e.g., by first defining what 'pre-colonial' and 'colonialism' mean before proceeding with 'post-colonialism' and finally, with 'farewell to post-colonialism') of The 3rd Guangzhou Triennial, in a way clearer and more nuanced than anyone could have during the several triennial symposiums, whilst reminding the TV viewers to go see the show if they had not done so. The same programme would have been deemed too chim (Hokkien term for 'deep' or 'heavy') for the mainstream Singapore TV audience often framed as seekers of entertainment; and too light for triennial symposiums, an arena defined for serious academic discourse. So I would like to add another question to Weng's list on public relations:

Should biennales serve current public needs, create new ones or recall old ones?

I think this basic question of Journalism 101 is always also relevant for artists, curators and their audiences irrespective of biennales.


Some thoughts on APT

This year I am working with Russell Storer of the Queensland Art Gallery as co-curator in developing a Mekong-based platform for the Asia Pacific Triennial. Lee Weng Choy asked of Phoebe how the Fukuoka Triennale differs from APT. Although I'm unprepared to provide any insight into the history of the two events, I can share some of the thoughts, challenges and interests that Russell and I have encountered up to this point in the development of the platform.

After our first research trip into the Mekong, we were naturally confronted with the issue of including representation from each of the five nations in the Greater Mekong sub-region: Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. After all, there's only five nations. And yet this approach didn't feel right. If our goal was to locate a narrative that spoke about the region rather than the nations, we needed to locate work that provided the right connections. Even if that meant that some countries might not be represented from a local artist. And in this case an absence has as much potential to speak of a situation as an artwork.

This was the case of sorts in Vietnam, where the implosion of the Saigon Biennale/Saigon Open City project of 2006 became a litmus test for the art community. I've written before that the failure of that event was a knockout combination of inexperienced arts management coupled with government interference. After reading several of the contributions to this forum, I now think it was more complicated than that. It also had to to with motives, ambitions and positioning. The scope wanted a little bit of each of John Clark's categories and as a result, became schizophrenic.

With regards to the development of our platform for APT, we hope that we'll be able to provide one perspective into this region. There will be some of the familiar names, there will be work that you may have seen. In the same respect, there will be many new works and names that you haven't. But the challenge, and one I hope we'll be able to meet, is that the story between the works will be one that you haven't considered.


Response to Weng Choy

At this point I am realizing that there are two levels of criticism that concerns Weng with regard to biennales. I don’t think each has been addressed singly. One is the form of the biennale, and the other is that of its contents. There is much to disparage both, and in my initial introduction, I pointed out biennale derivatives. I also brought up Marian Pastor Roces’s criticisms regarding the biennale model. Form and content feed into each other, and one can only do so much within a specific form. Carla Bianpoen in her recent response asks about ‘alternative models to Biennales’ but aside from pointing out the age of Agung Jennong for the Jakarta Biennale (Okwui Enwezor was in his late 30s when he did Documenta 11), does not look into the analyses of how the model can be disrupted and how some exhibitions (e.g. Havana Biennale, Site Sante Fe, Manifesta, Dhakak) have tried to do so in different ways. Again I return to these as being biennale derivatives, and Marian Pastor Roces’s critique. The re-construction of the form of such a behemoth as the biennale is one that will take a number of constants in its equation (institutional funding and control, for example) to be moved from place, replaced with other formulations and allowed to develop into something else. Question is, will this new form be recognized as the biennale we all love to vilify?

With regard to content. I appreciate Weng further deploying the apparent disjunct that exist between curators and critics (there are some who wear both hats. But do good critics make good curators, or vice-vers?); also the thought that perhaps curators aren’t the great intellectuals that the ambition of their exhibitions appear to project, unable to produce fully reflexive exhibitions to satisfy the nagging ache in the critics’ brain stems and frontal lobes. Not all are Hou Hanrus however, and could point to curators whose intellectual muscle have been put into play through exhibitions (but not necessarily huge ones or biennales). Off the top of my head I look to Catherine David’s 1997 Documenta 10, and Harald Szeeman’s seminal exhibition in 1969 When Attitudes Become Form, to the highly problematic Magiciens de la Terre by Jean-Hubert Martin. There are probably a few others, but surely these exhibitions have produced dialogue, aesthetic lines, negotiated ideas and political thought (good or bad, rightly or wrongly) to warrant being sites of some level of ‘discursive sophistication.’ Many, many exhibitions after have responded, some very thoughtfully, and I would think, on incredibly reflexive levels.

Not all the exhibitions I have pointed out are biennales (two however are large-scale exhibitions), my point being that, this underlying dissatisfaction with current biennale propositions may be that the biennales are not striking the desired chord. The rise in the number of biennales may actually have become the source of dissatisfaction. Future biennales will be addressing and serving up a slew of concerns, some of them discordant from what we consider to be contemporary concerns; they’ll be in all directions much like the links and pop-ups one can find on the net, each edition spinning off into a morass of ideas, and the more there are, the less critically astute, the less satisfied, and more faults. As I tried to say in the opening that biennales are now commodified. Excess in the market does not necessarily lead to satisfaction, it may lead to tastes becoming more discriminating, and those involved with biennales may have to play catch up. Or vice-versa.

There is also Weng’s insistence on good criticism from critics. I agree with this; I do not think that there is enough critical work coming from our critics to justify the wrangling that biennales are sometimes given. Biennales are hard work for curators! I would hope that a critic would take the time to work as hard on the writing and consideration given to biennales, or any exhibition for that matter. There is an interesting, if problematic blog regarding the lack of criticism in Singapore (http://www.artworldsalon.com/blog/2009/02/the-singapore-experiment/). I don’t agree with this. As an example, Manila for a time had a very active set of critics and writers that allowed for a very vigorous art scene that constituted of dialogue, as well as a lot of local color and drama; we are currently missing this, despite the spate of activity that seem to be taking place. Some local artists in Manila have actually noted the lack, and thus, the need. We need responsible critics and writers who, as you have suggested, take the time to sit through one video after another. To traipse through wet, snow or in our case, heat and enter (humid or freezing) exhibition sites and stay there and look. I’d like to quote frieze associate editor Dan Fox: “Critics have responsibility to these readers – the responsibility of arguing why something is bad, rather than dismissing it with one withering phrase. The responsibility of conveying facts. The responsibility of describing to readers what a work looks like or actually taking the time to sit through an artists video, no matter how interminable it may be, before criticizing it. The responsibility of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness. The responsibility of being sensitive to someone’s gender, race, age, sexual orientation or nationality rather than using them as an excuse for smuggling prejudice and cheap jibes in under the banner of art criticism.” This was taken from a very instructive and interesting discussion of the debate about and written criticism regarding the newest “-ism” proposed by curator Nicolas Bourriaud in his exhibition “Altermodern.” Which is incidentally the current exhibition for the Tate TRIENNIAL. I would suggest for those in the discussion to check it out (it is rather long, but worth plodding through—even some of the comments): http://www.frieze.com/blog/entry/altercritics/


the convergence of discourses

Response to Joselina.

What I’d like to begin to do here is sharpen where Joselina and I actually disagree. I think there’s a lot of mutual sympathy for the respective positions that we take (although we have yet to fully articulate them here in this forum). But perhaps what’s most productive, for this occasion, is to try and articulate where our positions substantially differ.

As for the two objects of criticism, (i) the form of the biennale, and (ii) its contents, I agree with Joselina, that I haven’t really made distinctions between these two. And I appreciate her remarks on that distinction. But at this point, I don’t want to pursue that. Let me, instead, follow-up on my remarks about curators and critics.

To reiterate: I think the antagonism between curators and critics may be the wrong one. When I said that I’ve heard some critics judge certain prominent curators in dismissive ways, I’m not endorsing that position, I’m just describing a manifestation of a tension or antagonism. So how does one move on from that antagonism?

I don’t think Joselina’s gesture is the adequate one: to list the curators who have done exhibitions that the artworld agrees is important. There is a consensus by critics, curators, etc. on this — these events are the events around which critical discourses, curatorial discourses, turn. But generating dialogue is not all that is required. As Joselina noted, the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition continues to generate discussion, but do Martin’s ideas generate discussion in the same way that Derrida’s ideas do?

Charles Merewether’s 2006 Sydney Biennale was criticised by Anthony Gardner as follows: “Zones of Contact shows [Merewether] to be an academic and decidedly NOT a curator; nor should he really be mistaken for one. It is this ambivalent relationship between curatorship and the academy that corrodes this biennale’s core” (See Artspace, Critical Reader, Sydney: 2006).

I’ve disagreed. Saying Charles is a good academic, but a bad curator misses the point. There is a problem with the theorising if it cannot support the curating. Curators employ theoretical discourse, even when they aren’t professional academics. Curating should be a test of theorising, and if we are disappointed with the exhibition, then it shows both curation and theory to have fallen short.

The problem, perhaps, is that our discourses of biennales are underdeveloped. And curators, critics, theorists, artists, academics — we are all responsible for this underdevelopment. Speaking specifically as a critic, I think it’s our job to reflect on our own contribution to this problem. For too long, we’ve been blaming everything else, capitalism, spectacle, and curators, and have not been self-reflexive.

I’m grateful to Joselina for pointing our the discussion about Nicolas Bourriaud’s latest “ism”. I have not found his ideas on “relational aesthetics” convincing, but let’s see what the fuss is about over “altermodernism”.

see Borriaud explain it himself (only one minute) http://tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/altermodern/



this will be quick. but what if we are to think conversely, and instead look at why the form of criticism is seemingly unable to deliver the necessary critique of biennales? In conversation with a local art historian, critic and curator, he suggested that perhaps the form of the biennale is resistant to critique. Its sheer size makes it near impossible to see all hundred or so works (even a biennale with 30 artists, may sometimes appear unwieldy). That perhaps there is another model by which to look at it and explore it seems to be an interesting trajectory to explore. These are thoughts. As to the gesture of mentioning specifics as being inadequate, I choose to point out examples with wide circulation as this is a general discussion and using examples which have no recall would defeat the purpose. And to place Martin's ideas on the same plane as Derrida's....are we not talking on different planes? I do not think this insistence to use Benjamin, Derrida, et al. as standards with which a curator is supposed to live up/aspire to/ be desirous of, is productive. Theirs are made up of systems of thought pursued individually, and these are share with public privately, through books expounding on their theories and their thinking. And while curators sometimes do employ these very discourses as core to their thinking regarding their production of an exhibition, exhibitions, or biennales especially, despite ideally being located within theoretical discourse, are different creatures (not more complicated, but surely a different set of complexities) and should be dealt with differently. Weng says, "Curating should be a test of theorising, and if we are disappointed with the exhibition, then it shows both curation and theory to have fallen short." Yes and no. curating is, sometimes, a test of theorising, and of systems and of ideas. Sometimes a space of experiment, of questions. Curated shows also test theories (rather than the act of theorising), and when we test, there is a certain percentage that it will fail the test, or in other cases, succeed. but then again we (I will have to ask who 'We' refers to) will be a homogenous group who will disagree to what success is, or what isn't.


intellectuals; size matters, or not; and fools

1) The Curator as Intellectual

Joselina says that my “insistence to use Benjamin, Derrida, et al. as standards with which a curator is supposed to live up to ... is [not] productive.” I disagree. Rather, it’s not that these dead critics and philosphers set the standards — let me elaborate more on the point of my provocation to compare. It would be unfair to Enwezor to say that he did not curate Documenta with all the intellectual ambition he could muster. His catalogue essay may not have been book length, but it expounded some serious ideas. The curator is an intellectual, a different kind from a philosopher, perhaps, but an artist is also a different kind of intellectual from a curator or a writer. If I said Jean-Hubert Martin’s ideas are not as compelling as Tehching Hsieh’s, my point would have been the same. Why can’t we demand of curators the best ideas? I demand as much from the artists that I write about. Again, let me reiterate: the antagonism between curators and critics is the wrong one. What I am saying is that all of us in the art world share in the making of curatorial discourses, and those of us who have expressed a generic dissatisfaction with biennales (and I don’t place my self in this camp, or if I do, then only very ambiguously), well, we have a responsibility to reflect very hard, and think through what these problems are. Our discourses need to be developed. Discourse is lagging far behind the spectacle of exhibition.

Joselina also says: “while curators sometimes do employ these very discourses as core to their thinking regarding their production of an exhibition ... biennales ... are different creatures (not more complicated, but surely a different set of complexities) and should be dealt with differently.”

Curating is a discourse. It may not be written in the same terms as some academic theories, but I believe they do meet. They are different, but they do speak to each other. So I don’t agree that a critic is being unfair to an exhibition to engage it as she would a single art work — that is, to test all her ideas about art, and so forth, by looking and listening to how that art work does what it does.

2) The Biennale as Big
I do agree with Joselina when she suggest that, “the form of criticism is seemingly unable to deliver the necessary critique of biennales”. She suggests that “its sheer size makes it near impossible to see all hundred or so works (even a biennale with 30 artists, may sometimes appear unwieldy).” This is a problem with the review, when the critic/reviewer flies in for a few days, and writes as if he or she has seen the whole thing adequately, and is in a position to “review” it. I’ve always disliked this assumption and convention. Writers need to develop other approaches. But surely the bigness of biennales cannot make them resistant to criticism. Only that kind of criticism that assumes to review so quickly is what fails to adequately address its object. But art criticism has long dared to talk about late capitalism, modernity, and so on. Size can’t be something that discourages analysis.

3) The Critic as Fool
Thomas says: “So far criticism has been the focus of discussion, with critics not being able to keep up with the ‘speed’ of the recurrent event, curators, artists, constellations. I feel this is different from some of the academic writing, which uses time to mature meaningful discussions. I am starting to see a need for historicizing the role, function, input, and output of Biennales, its curators, artists, critics, function, etc.”

Yes indeed. The critic, at least the one who writes in contemporary conversation with the events at hand, is ill equiped, if she doesn’t take the long view. And that’s also what I’ve been arguing for. A longer perspective.

But there’s still a role for provocative remarks. And I think one of the most important registers of contemporary criticism is: IRONY.


the "Asian" difference?

Reply to Thomas:

Thomas asks a series of questions: “How then do we explain biennales? As major art events that occur every two years? Now we are discussing “Asian Biennales” ... 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?”

I think one thing that is worth talking about when it comes to Asian biennales, with the accent on the word “Asian”, is not something peculiar to Asia, so much as it is a difference between Asia and the “West”. Something that Asia may share, to some extent, with other “non-Western” places. And it’s the question of the role of criticism.

In an age of “global pluralism” (a phrase that must be said ironically and sarcastically), one can no longer expect the modernist Greenbergian-type critic to thrive, let alone dominate, as he did, championing American art in the middle of the last century. This may be a good thing. But don’t we still want provocative critical voices?

These days, art critics have hardly kept up with curators, who have so thoroughly eclipsed the former as the spokepersons for the art of our time. If critics once thought that they could be counted among the privileged arbiters of taste, well, now they are struggling to find an audience.

Who reads criticism any more? Worse, criticism seems less and less a factor in influencing the production of art. Curators and artists are engaged in a conversation that critics do not interrupt. Ironically, however, writing on art is flourishing. For every biennale has its catalogue, its press releases, and its reviews. (As for what I mean by "critics", I’m not so much talking about personalities, but positions. An artist or curator may write criticism — I’m talking about the discourse of criticism, not the critic as a personality.)

It's arguable that the artistic achievements of Europe and America were possible because they developed in the context of criticism. The rise of art from Asia does not seem to have that same requirement. Are we entering an era where criticism no longer matters?

One can hypothesise the decline of art criticism in America or Europe, but that assumes a moment when criticism was relevant. And I think it’s hard to argue that the discourses of modernism did not have a significant force, as much as we may wish to criticise them for their errors.

But what intellectual forces drive Asian art? “Identity” may have been a driving force -- it may still be one today -- but it seems that pretty bankrupt now.


visualising vision

The Jakarta Biennale XIII was unique and, for Indonesia at least, groundbreaking by its clear focus, youthful vision and forward-looking concept and find display. Perhaps the small number of just 39 participants was an additional plus, but most important . VISION: namely limited age group from the region. it was also a mapping of contemporary artists in the region. So what is interesting in an Asian biennale is, in my opinion,  the creative concept and vision behind it and the ability to visualise it. I don’t know whether this could be a model, or whether it would work as part of a larger unit. In the first Brussels Biennial which opened in November 2008, they tried to move away from the Venice model, by inviting, not Artists, but art INSTITUTIONS to co-curate and participate. While the idea was fine in itself, they failed to visualise it.
And there wasn’t any information, brochure or hand-out that could enlighten on the curatorial display. I think information is most important, both for those who could be expected to be interested, and for those who visit without specific interest.  Whether the show is small or large, outreach should be handled properly. Biennales, and exhibitions in general, should be managed by skillful, creative managers who have a vision .


more than anything, I was pointing at 'time'

Thanks for the reply Weng. I must say that more than anything I am pointing at 'time', 'duration', 'sustainability', 'histories'. So far criticism has been the focus of discussion, with critics not being able to keep up with the 'speed' of the recurrent event, curators, artists, constellations. I feel this is different from some of the academic writing, which uses time to mature meaningful discussions. I am starting to see a need for historicizing the role, function, input, and output of Biennales, its curators, artists, critics, function, etc. Perhaps the last 'meaningful' discussion was held on 'Primitivism' and 'Magiciens de la Terre'. It maybe 'time' to move on. Part of this is done in ongoing research at many institutions across the globe, which are gradually making their way into the public domain. The next step would be to learn how to read again, followed by the introduction of a critical discourse. Unless we want mere 'twitters' on 'feelings' and 'experiences' of eventfulness. Besides these points, I would also like to raise the role of the 'institution'. What is the role of the 'institution' (of the Biennale, the museum, the art-space, the cultural facility'). It has long been made clear that Biennales are strategic. In 1993 Apinan Poshynanda pointed at how it is like 'playing with slippery lubricants'. He writes: ‘If sport has become imperative for countries to use as a launching pad for trade and foreign policy, then ‘selling nations’ as works of art has become like slippery lubricants that make political mechanisms function with ease.’ Indeed, increasingly I feel I should wear a latex-suit and bring my whip when 'doing' the next biennale opening. 'Cream...Fresh Cream... Whip Cream... Cum-on!' Maybe its time for that cigarette.


Time in/time out

Sorry, I'm just now coming into this dungeon when you all are leaving. Reading these comments,  I am interested in the manner that the image of the ‘biennial’ in this blog is represented, it seems, as if it are a figure seen from the back, just in front of us. We look over its shoulder, as it were, hoping to see what this social construct/contract (some sort of E.O. Wilson ‘group mind’) sees. There is a desire (and a competition of course)  in the discussion to catch a glimpse of, and to accurately describe, its ‘face’. In the mirror of our representations the biennial’s 'expression' takes on a kind of coherency, while the over-the-shoulder-shot offers us the biennial’s '(in)corporated' visual array as an extension or an enhancement of our own.

This over-the-shoulder-shot is a Romantic/Idealist invention, promising the awesome spectacle of the sublime –but goes hand in hand with desire for erotic possession on the one hand, the Dostoevskian desire for murder on the other –both threaded with Marx’s remarks on history as tragedy repeated as farce. 

Like Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Nebelmeer 1818 we want to possess the visual array of the one who stands between us and the image of the sublime, while at the same moment we want to rid our vision of this uncanny blot in the middle of our array.  Is the Wandering blot the Biennial... or is it what the Wanderer sees? (Or both?)

So, I am interested in this romance that remains just below the surface of the desire to define and the know the biennial, and what it implies about the ‘predestination’ of our rhetoric. What brings this to a head for me is the relationship between the over-the-shoulder-shot and the homunculus: the Wanderer in Friedrich’s painting. We find homunculi reappearing these days all over the place...especially in the form of avatars in virtual games like Second Life.
So, I am wondering whether biennials and avataric on-line games hold common epistemologies based in the Cartesian Theatre?

Do we seek what the biennial knows? Is it an incorporation in this sense, like other corporate bodies, with the rights of the citizen but with a administrative/cybernetic hedge on our mortal risks? Artifice: The 6th Kuala Lumpur Triennial, coming this August if I have my facts right, will take place in a Second Life construct that presumes an aesthetics founded on the avataric over-the-shoulder-shot. So, I assume that the KL Triennial may offer a theorisation of this biennial episteme and aesthetics that I'm suggesting is presumed in our phenomenology of ‘the biennial’ as  social construct/contract. 

But this game is almost over, and I came in only for the end. But, of course, the ritual or mythic element of the game never terminates...only the surrounding shell of rules, protocols, timings and brandings. Time out.


forum unwrapped

Thanks to everyone for participating in the forum -- panelists, commentators, and, especially, readers. I won't presume to wrap up the many diverse threads of discussion and argument.

As annoyed as I sometimes get with so much of the noise in the artworld, I remain convinced in the importance of talking about art, of speaking to art works. We have a responsibility to articulate our responses to art events, whether large or small. And to pursue these discourses in depth. Of course, what our talk requires -- as all good conversation requires -- is the capacity to listen.

In experiments such as these online forums, what's at stake is not only the content, but the way the discussions have been framed, the parameters and limitations of the platform.

So if I may bring my own participation to this forum to a close, it would be an appeal to readers to give feedback on what you want from discussions like this one. In what other ways can we engage the issues at hand? But let me clarify. This appeal is not like an attempt to survey how to improve or tweak the branding of some consumer good, or to engage a focus group on some potential blockbuster movie in the making. It's an invitation to do some serious reflection on the possibilities of online forums.

Thanks & cheers,
Weng Choy