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


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.


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.

Today, the art section of the Biennale is structured around the international exhibition in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion (or main exhibition hall), featuring the work of invited artists from across the globe and curated by that year’s Biennial director. In the Giardini’s national pavilions work from artists that have been invited to represent the participating countries is exhibited. In addition to the traditional permanent pavilions, several nations lease pavilions in the Venetian Arsenale[1]. In fact, the Italian pavilion is housed at the Arsenale. At the 2013 Biennale, artist Tavares Strachan represented the Bahamas in their inaugural pavilion at the Arsenale.

Each national pavilion is the property of the individual country, each country funds and maintains its pavilion differently. The British pavilion for example is managed by the British Council with funding provided by the British government, the 2013 Turkish pavilion was backed by Italian car company Fiat, while the cash-strapped Italian government used crowd-sourcing to bridge the gap caused by austerity cuts in funding its 2013 Biennale participation. All this to say, the business of who exhibits at “the world’s most prestigious exhibition” is not merely a matter of good art/bad art, it is also (if not more so) a matter of funding and political wrangling[2]. Nonetheless, the story of the Venice Biennale, its increasing internationalism, and the export of the Biennale model to cities like São Paulo, Paris, Berlin, Havana, Johannesburg and eventual proliferation to over 200 Biennials across the globe is one narrative about where Biennials came from.

Crystal Palace (photo source: Wikicommons)

Crystal Palace (photo source: Wikicommons)

That’s not the whole story though. The Biennial is not the only modern institution that came out of the great expositions. The museum also traces its origins back to the Crystal Palace. Regardless of these shared origins, and the continued institutional links, since many museums host Biennials; the two exhibition formats have evolved in opposition to each other, at least in theory. In their introduction to The Biennial Reader, art historians Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø outline the distinction:

The utopian promise of the Biennial was that while the museum (that Enlightenment institution par excellence) was the place for authoritative pronouncements, classifications, canonization, and preservation, the biennial’s raison d’etre was to provide a site for experimentation, contingency, testing, ambiguity, and inquiry.[3]

So, the museum more or less maintained the Crystal Palace’s will to order: feast your eyes on all the world’s diversity- its peoples, cultures, and their achievements. And classified them to suit the needs of what Donald Preziosi describes as “[European] modernity’s core problematic, namely, the orchestration of orderly, describable, and predictable relations between subjects and between subjects and objects.”[4] On the other hand we have the Biennial with its fevered search for the new- an ever evolving, always bigger, better new- focused on tracking and encouraging curatorial and artistic experimentation. This feature of the Biennial format has gained it both supporters and detractors.

Detractors worry that as the mega-exhibition proliferates, art devolves further and further into sense-less spectacle, each player (artist, curator, director) focused ever more on dazzling audiences and critics, each hoping to one-up the last great spectacle in an endless drive toward vapid excess. Furthermore, can we really say that the biennial is related to the Crystal Palace only temporally? Did it only come after? Or did it descend from?[5] If we consider Preziosi’s assertion that,

The Great Exhibition, as an “impartial instrument like the infinitesimal calculus” as Freud said half a century later of psychoanalysis, in fact crystallised and put into its proper place an Imperial fantasy-world or imaginary geography of all peoples and products, with the modern citizen-consumer… at and as its centre.[6]

The question arises; in biennials, these latter day Crystal Palaces, what is the “proper place” and who determines it? What new fantasy-worlds and imaginary geographies are being generated by the “impartial instrument” of our contemporary great exhibition? Who is at the centre? And most damningly, is the new fantasy all that different from the old imperial one?

The biennial’s supporters on the other hand, hold fast to its flexible format, its open-ness to the new and un-tested, and its (fabled?) power to activate the transformative potential of art as a space for reflection, critique and resistance. American art critic Thomas McEvilley articulated the aspirations best when he wrote: “a sensitive exhibition defines a certain moment, embodying attitudes and, often, changes of attitude that reveal, if only by the anxieties they create, the direction in which culture is moving.”[7] The result has been that the Biennial is an exhibitionary genre constantly seeking to reinvent itself, to keep up with, respond to (and maybe even generate) a contemporary.


[1] The Venetian Arsenale is a complex of former shipyards and armories clustered together in the city of Venice in northern Italy. The Arsenale became an official Venice Biennale venue in 1980, on the occasion of the 1st International Architecture Exhibition. In the following years, the venue hosted other Biennale Art Exhibitions for the Aperto section, devoted to the promotion of young artists and those from nations not represented in the permanent pavilions.
[2] Harris, Gareth. “Down but not out European countries invest in Venice Biennale pavilions.” The Art Newspaper. The Art Newspaper, 15 May 2013. Web. 13 Nov 2014.
[3] Filipovic, Elena, Marieke Van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø. “Biennialogy.” The Biennial Reader. Ed. Filipovic, Elena, Marieke Van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø. Bergen Kunsthall and Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010. (p. 20)
[4] Preziosi, Donald. “The Crystalline Veil and the Phallomorphic Imaginary.” The Biennial Reader. Ed. Filipovic, Elena, Marieke Van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø. Bergen Kunsthall and Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010. (p. 40)
[5] Curator Marian Pastor Roces writes: “Certainly the phantom links between the universal expositions and the current biennials and triennials are fleshed out, as it were, only thinly- caricature-like and emptied of fulsome menace- in temporal terms, as lineage.” (Pastor Roces, Marian. “Crystal Palace.” The Biennial Reader. Bergen Kunsthall and Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010. p. 51)
[6] Preziosi (p. 45)
[7] Filipovic, Elena, Marieke Van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø (p. 15)

3 thoughts on “What is a Biennial? Part I – The Matter of Origins

    • We have received the following response from Nicole Smythe-Johnson:

      “The following reference is cited in the article:

      Filipovic, Elena, Marieke Van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø. “Biennialogy.” The Biennial Reader. Ed. Filipovic, Elena, Marieke Van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø. Bergen Kunsthall and Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010.

      As the citation indicates, Marieke Van Hal was one of the writers and editors involved in The Biennial Reader project. It is quite likely that her MPhil work (which I have never read) informed the article cited above and her editing of The Biennial Reader, which I used extensively in my research for this article and directly cited five times within the actually body of this essay.

      Given all this, no doubt there are similarities between the MPhil research you cite and this piece. I can verify that neither is a “copy” of the other however, since I have never read the paper you reference, even if I have read several papers that quite likely emerged from/developed in tandem to it.

      In short, there is a freely acknowledged relation between the work of Marieke Van Hal and this essay, though not the relation that your comment suggests.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s