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?” 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.” 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.
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.
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.