We are pleased to present the first of this two-part contribution by writer and curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson, who has joined the Jamaica Biennial 2014 as project manager:
On the occasion of the NGJ’s 40th Anniversary, and the unveiling of its re-structured flagship exhibition – The Jamaica Biennial, I thought it might be worth pausing to ask: “What is a Biennial?”
Seems like a simple enough question, and at first I thought I had the equally simple answer. When people asked, and they often did, I replied confidently: “It’s a sort of mega-exhibition, mounted every two years, that focuses on art made in a particular place/region in the previous two or so years.” I would even think to myself: “Surely the name is self-explanatory?”
It became more complicated though. More questions came: Who are we mounting this show for? Who needs to keep abreast of what art is being made in Jamaica, or Sao Paolo, or Havana? What of the visiting (or “international”, as they’ve come to be known) artists or curators? They are not locals, where do they fit? Is this about showing “local art” to “internationals”, or showing “international art” to “locals”? And to what end? Where did this “Biennial” thing come from? And why is a Biennial sometimes a Biennale? I’ll try to give you the abridged version.
Most trace the origins of the biennial exhibition back to the Venice Biennale in Italy (turns out Biennale is just Biennial in Italian, and is sometimes used to reference non-Italian Biennial art exhibitions in homage to that first “La Biennale”). Some go back further, to the mid nineteenth century when Europe was riveted by universal expositions. Most notably, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Hyde Park in London, which sought to house (and order) the world’s newly discovered cultural, industrial and geographic diversity in a grand Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace and its particular perspective on global multiplicity, as well as its confident assumption of the authority to display and classify that multiplicity is the subject of much literature, but it was in this climate of flexing imperial muscle that the first Venice Biennale opened in 1895.
It started out much like the 2014 Jamaica Biennial. What was conceived as a biennial exhibition of Italian art, quickly evolved into a largely by-invitation exhibition, with a section reserved for international artists, and a jury that selected works from submissions by local (i.e. Italian) artists. Until 1905 the Biennial was confined to the Central Pavilion, then the Pro Arte building. There, work from invited and juried Italian artists, and international (read European) artists were exhibited with no internal division.
Given the success of the first exhibition, the Biennial invited other nations to establish their own national pavilions in the Giardini- the park in which the Central Pavilion is located- to exhibit work exclusively by artists from the various nations. In 1907, the first of the 29 permanent national pavilions in the Giardini was constructed by Belgium. By 1914, Hungary (1909), Germany (1909), Great Britain (1909), France (1912), and Russia (1914) had joined.