What is a Biennial? Part II – Where do we go?

National Biennial 2012 installation view - small

Installation view at the National Biennial 2012, NGJ – central galleries

Here is part two of project manager Nicole Smythe-Johnson‘s reflection on the background to the Jamaica Biennial 2014:

The story I have given you so far is largely a European one. That same old story in which history was being made in the Euro-American West all along, while we (the rest of the world) only surfaced from the darkness somewhere in the mid twentieth century, after the West had finally taught us enough to permit our emergence as newly minted modern subjects. Not quite developed, but nonetheless “developing”. This, in addition to the spectre of the Crystal Palace, could have been the intellectual death knell of the Biennial as the preeminent exhibition format. Yet, the biennial has thrived on precisely this contention, and the resistance to it. In fact, the genre is in many ways defined by a grappling with the well-founded charge of Eurocentrism levelled against the global art establishment.

In considering a “Biennialogy” Filipovic, Van Hal and Øvstebø also consider the Crystal Palace/counter-museum narrative of Biennial genealogy but then ask: “…how much of what biennials have become, in the aspirations of many of them to represent cultures other than those of the West and to reflect a truly international art world, is the result of an entirely different kind of genealogy?”[1] They recall the problematic, but ground-breaking in its time, Les Magiciens de la Terre (1989.) That exhibition sought to address what curator Jean-Hubert Martin reportedly referenced as “one hundred percent of exhibitions ignoring 80 percent of the earth.”[2] The exhibition sought to revise the traditional Paris Biennial format by exhibiting 50 Euro-American (i.e. Western) artists shoulder to shoulder with 50 non-Western artists. Whatever we might think of the exhibition now, it changed the face of the biennial form, sparked many debates and broadened the horizon of what an international art world might mean.

At the 11th Havana Biennial - Colombian artist Rafael Gomez Barros mounted giant ants onto art deco Theatro Fausto

At the 11th Havana Biennial – Colombian artist Rafael Gomez Barros mounted giant ants onto art deco Theatro Fausto

The Bienal de la Habana in Cuba, launched in 1984, is also an oft-cited interruption of the centre to margin tale of Biennial origin. Unlike its predecessors, the Havana Bienal positioned itself primarily as a node for South-South (from one “developing” country to another) engagement. The first exhibition was reserved for Latin American and Caribbean artists, but since the second edition in 1986 artists from Africa, Asia and the Middle East have also participated. Havana’s shift in focus has meant that the tone of the Bienal tends toward issues of:

the existing tensions between tradition and contemporariness, the challenge to the historical colonization processes, relations between art and society, the individual and his/her memory, human communication in the face of technological development and the dynamics of urban culture … without distinction among the multiple forms of visuality that operate in culture as a system.[3]

Now that looks familiar. It turns out the history of the Biennial is also made in our image. This is saying nothing of the São Paulo Bienal (second only to Venice, with its first staging in 1951) or the Gwangju Biennale (1995) both of which had significant impact and did much to shift the contemporary art establishment away from its Eurocentric beginnings.

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What is a Biennial? Part I – The Matter of Origins

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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.

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At the entrance of the Giardini, Venice Biennale (photo source: Wikicommons)

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.

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2013 Rex Nettleford Arts Conference: Panel Discussion on New Roots @ Friday, October 18

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The National Gallery of Jamaica is pleased to partner with the Edna Manley College’s 2013 Rex Nettleford Arts Conference by presenting a panel discussion on the critical issues arising from its current New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists exhibition. This panel discussion will take place at the National Gallery on Friday, October 18 from 11 am to 12:30 pm and the panel will consist of Matthew McCarthy, one of the artists in the exhibition, Petrona Morrison, the Director of the Edna Manley College’s School of Visual Arts, and the exhibition curators Veerle Poupeye, O’Neil Lawrence, and Nicole Smythe-Johnson.

New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists, which was recently extended to November 2, 2013, features work by Deborah Anzinger, Varun Baker, Camille Chedda, Gisele Gardner, The Girl and the Magpie, Matthew McCarthy, Olivia McGilchrist, Astro Saulter, Nile Saulter and Ikem Smith who are all under 40 years old and new or relatively new to the Jamaican art world. New Roots was designed to identify and encourage new directions in the Jamaican art world, in keeping with the National Gallery’s mandate to support artistic development and to provide opportunities for young artists. It features are in conventional and new media – painting in various media and on various surfaces, digital photography, video and animation, and jewellery – and a variety of genres and styles, from the documentary to the fantastic. The exhibition reflects marked shifts in artistic and curatorial practice that respond to the current global and local cultural moment, especially with regards to the changing relationship between art work, artist and audience, and it presents new perspectives on art’s potential to foster social transformation in a time of crisis.

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Detail of Matthew McCarthy’s interactive Put Dis on Page 2 installation

Admission to the NGJ will be free on October 18 and free guided tours of the New Roots exhibition will be offered before and after the panel discussion. Conference registration is not required to attend this panel discussion. For more on the Rex Nettleford Arts Conference, please click here.

New Roots: An Invitation to Dialogue

girl and magpie installation view

The Girl and the Magpie – installation view

We at the NGJ are committed to fostering critical dialogue and our exhibitions are designed to do just that. The current New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists exhibition is a perfect example and it has already elicited a variety of responses, informal and in writing – we welcome both. This morning we received the following comment from a George Blackwell to one of our posts on the exhibition:

The New Roots Exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica is interesting to take note of for several reasons. Firstly, ‘New Roots’, as the title suggests, betrays a desperate bid to get away from any serious discourse that foregrounds the black as the essential constituent in local identity matters. Therefore, the exhibition is insipidly curated to avoid this discussion.

Secondly, new routes are not really new. Videos, installations, animations and graffiti art have had enduring presence in Jamaican art. Nor are the directions and messages of the respective artists new. What is new, however, is the irrational extent to which the curators have gone to scrape the barrel to find people who have no skills or claims to the art making process regardless of the media or medium they choose to work with.

The short film by Saulter suffers from a lack of interesting camera angles and a powerful metaphor has been sacrificed to a gruffly overdone gabble posing as narrative. The other videos are for the most part jejune, the entertainment value and cultural schmaltz become part of the naked technological seduction, while artistic endeavor is absent.

Nile Saulter - Pillowman (2013), video still

Nile Saulter – Pillowman (2013), video still

Nor is the graffiti display new. What is new about it is that though most graffiti works display a competent level of intellectual finesse in their political charge and their artistic ambitions, in McCarthy’s case, one would have to dig deep into the dense layer of clichés to find any smidgen of such. This he compensated for by his PR teamwork and media savvy.

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The Museum and the World: A Review of the 2013 CIMAM Annual Conference

"Time to Breathe" by Maria Nepomuceno, an installation at the Museu de Arte Moderna

“Time to Breathe” by Maria Nepomuceno, an installation at the Museu de Arte Moderna

NGJ Senior Curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson recently attended the CIMAM conference in RIO. Here is her report on the experience.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the CIMAM (International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art) annual conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conference theme was “New Dynamics in Museums: Curator, Artwork, Public, Governance” and discussions focused on the continued viability of museums and arts institutions in a climate of rapid change.

The participants were a diverse group, with people from all over the world working in the field of modern and contemporary art in various capacities. There were museum directors, curators (independent and institution-affiliated), and representatives from artist-run and emerging spaces across the globe. Professionals from places like the Tate Modern and MoMA, mingled and debated with those from places like the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and TEOR/éTica (an independent, non-profit art space in Costa Rica).

Nadín Ospina - Crítico extático (Ecstatic Critic, 2004), Stone, on view in "Cantos Cuentos Colombianos", Casa Daros

Nadín Ospina – Crítico extático (Ecstatic Critic, 2004), Stone, on view in “Cantos Cuentos Colombianos”, Casa Daros

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New Roots: Some Thoughts on The Artist as Author

New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists opened at the NGJ on July 28 and continues until September 30. Here is the first of a series of reflections on the exhibition contributed by Senior Curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson.
Deborah Anzinger - detail of installation

Deborah Anzinger – detail of installation

Art is a game between all people of all periods.

-Marcel Duchamp

Generally, society has quite fixed notions of who an artist is and what the process of making art is like. We imagine the solitary artist, blessed with super-human talent, spends his/her time engrossed in existential angst and strange pre-occupations, only to bring forth a manifestation of virtuosic mastery- a small slice of beauty, or truth, or “what it means to be human”. We talk about the “artistic temperament”, “artistic license” and “the starving artist”. Yet, any one who is paying attention to developments in local and international fine art circles must admit that these concepts are being challenged.

We live in a world where Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #1268, currently on display at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo New York, was executed three years after the artist’s death in 2007. The notoriously well-paid Jeff Koons has a veritable factory of over 130 assistants. Painter Angela de la Cruz, who suffered a debilitating stroke, relies entirely on assistants to execute her works but that didn’t stop her from being nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2011. Even younger artists are utilising assistants. Emerging artist Alexander Gorlizki, whose work has been displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, has his $10,000 USD paintings done by seven artists in Jaipur, India. According to Gorlizki, this form of artistic practice is liberating, freeing him from the requirement of “technical proficiency”[1]. Continue reading