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Biennials: Exhibitions That Construct Contemporary Art

Marjorie Bontemps

Documenta sets the standard for international periodic surveys of contemporary art. Held at roughly five year intervals since 1955 in Kassel, Germany, documenta was intended by its founding curator, Arnold Bode, to offer modern art as a rebuke to Nazi Era cultural darkness. The rise of international biennial exhibits began with the Venice Biennial in the late 19th century, and over the course of the 20th century, biennials and triennials had also begun to emerge globally, including Bienal de Sao Paulo, the Biennale de La Mediterranee, Africa Biennale and many others.  The wave of artists building site-specific work, such as Joseph Beuys’s Büro der Organisation für Direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung (Office of the Organization for Direct Democracy by Referendum) and Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum, (both of which were on view at documenta 5 in 1972), followed the rise of curators for these types of exhibitions which developed critical cultural themes that encouraged newer practices over old, temporariness over permanence, and a kind of artistic acuity that has come to be  known as “biennial art” which also seeks to combines site specificity with spectacle.  The peripheral of documenta 5 became the most dramatic event of this ascendant curatorial practice. The juxtaposition of “high” art alongside “low” mass culture became more and more common at documenta and other biennials. Paolo Herkenoff‘s curatorial premise, “Biennial of Anthropophagy,” at the 1998 Bienal de Sao Paulo and art director Roger M. Buergel and curator Ruth Noack’s “The Migration of Forms” at documenta 12 in 2007 reflect an ongoing fascination with the semiotics and Claude Levi-Strauss’s modish structural anthropology. With the prestigious brand of the Venice Biennale, funding and unique and experimental art were the driving force for exhibition directors and curators throughout the global sphere of biennial exhibitions. Curators determined the content of the biennials through their own arbitrary nomination of the theme that might provoke political and cultural awareness around the biennial location. Conceptualist biennial artists would monitor everything from the structure of their works to the distribution and interpretation of their texts. The complex, language-driven, biennials explores the multi layers of ideology and cultural difference in contemporary art. From documenta and onward, the international periodic survey has become the setting for social and cultural critique.

Paolo Herkenoff‘s 1998 Bienal de Sao Paulo

Artist: Soto-Ja Kim, “Cities on the move-2727 kilometers Bottari truck”, a national representation of Korea. 

© Juan Guerra

Venice Biennale 2007

Artist: El Anatsui, “Earth’s Skin” (2007).

Credit:  Chester Higgins Jr. /The New York Times

Performance by Nicole Vlado and Wura-Natasha Ogunji. 

Image © Leo Eloy / The Garage Studio and courtesy the São Paulo Biennial Foundation

Artist: Claes Oldenburg, The Street and The Store Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing

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