A Series of Spectacular Events: biennale extravaganza and those who display, decide, and turn up

Biennales have changed the rules for how art is displayed and why exhibitions should occur. Their method of display hinges upon grandiose spectacle and immersive atmosphere. On one hand, biennales have been hailed as the global platform for critiquing society’s obses-sion with spectacle, consumerism and market forces. However, on the other hand, their critics argue that biennales are intrinsically reliant upon innovation and sublime extravagance, which undermines their capacity to provide meaningful and objective critique. The biennale context has prompted the contemporary art-world paradigm, specifically museums, to reevaluate their curatorial practice in the hope to remain relevant in contemporary society. This report will address and analyse how the biennale model, and the shift in curatorial practice it represents and enforces, has impacted the relationship between art and the public.

Curatorial models for exhibition have become diverse to the point where the term ‘model’ may no longer apply to curatorial practice. Exhibition formats are inclusive of the-matic group shows, solo shows, or shows presented on their own intrinsic narratives – the blockbuster show (Graham & Cook 2010). Importantly, the shift of modernist to post-modernist perspective invalidated and replaced past curatorial models that enforced all-encompassing universal narratives with models of collaboration and dynamism (Schubert 2009). Over the past forty years, the global mega-exhibition model has experimented with new ideas for curatorial practice and has become a leading example regarding artistic display, production and perception (Gardner 2011; Griffin 2003). Indeed, Nedkova (2001) argues that holistic curating has become crucial; the ‘ultracurator’ embracing ideals that art and culture are all around us. In her opinion, the 20th century curatorial method produced projects that lacked depth, and were “fluid-starved”, while the shift away to a new method has gone too far in the other direction, and is now a method of over-curating as seen in biennales.

The shift in curatorial ideology saw the emergence of the ahistorical and mono-graphic models, which made the past historic-chronological model and MoMa model redun-dant. According to Schubert (2009), these two models now dominate display of art within museums and are “the complete antithesis of what come before”. He points out the shift in curatorial models occurred in response to the recent uncertainty of the museums role in con-temporary society and the lack of funding for museums. Townsend (2003) however argues that the influence and agenda of the museum remains at the forefront on the presentation of contemporary art, while the museum continues to exercise considerable authority upon artistic practice and production. An example of this authority would be the historic absence of new media art in museums, and although this is changing in practice the traditional image and ide-ology of art museums still places a significant barrier (Graham & Cook 2010). Upon reflect-ing on the role of curator and the curatorial model in general, Graham & Cook (2010) high-lighted how due to the myriad of collaborative contexts and practical incarnations of curating, the practice of curatorial models are more a fiction than a truth; that curating was more akin to a ‘mode’ in which curators function.

In general, the biennale model has created exhibitions of grand scales that often in-corporate several venues, present broad and ambiguous themes regarding significant social and aesthetic, and presents these themes to audiences as stimuli for constructive interpretation (McAuliffe 2016). However, the ‘innovative biennale’ model or ideal requires original themes to be continuously presented, and demands from the biennale curator compulsory re-writing and/or out-doing of any preceding biennale (Hlavajova 2010). This has lead to an in-creasingly difficult task for curator’s to construct new ideas for an increasing overabundance of biennales (Taylor 2016).

The phenomena of spectacle and event culture in relation to contemporary curatorial practice will now be analysed. Importantly, their are several topics beyond the scope of this report that significantly correlate with biennale spectacle and impact upon curatorial practice: funding and/or corporate pressures (Zenakos 2016); the shift away from geographic epicen-tres for art (Enwezor 2008); the de-valuing of artists and the growing labelling of curators as art producers (Buren 2010); and their effectiveness as mechanism for economic endeavour and political agenda (Mesquita 2003).

While biennales have certainly influenced curatorial practices, the extent in which biennales can provide a platform for social critique has become a point of debate. Hou Hanru (2016) defines the contemporary global society as one of spectacle, which develops an indi-vidual’s sense of perception, imagination, and reflection via a market capitalism and consum-erist ideology. According to Hanru, contemporary art biennales are an ultimate manifestation of society’s demand for spectacle. Indeed, their combination of numerous artworks makes them more akin to major sporting events than art exhibitions (Lowry 2012). Furthermore, the venues, resources, and preparation time provided by biennales (some more that others) have privileged artists to produce extravagant artworks and popularise certain art mediums, best exemplified in both cases by installation and video art, that are now referred to as ‘biennale art’ (Gardner 2011). However, the overall diversity of artist and artworks throughout bien-nales has been limited, the new global ‘circuit’ of biennale spectacle dominated by a small number of ‘star’ artists like Serra, Cattelan, Viola, Murakami, and Sherman, who’s works are continually represented and re-represented (Gardner 2011; McAuliffe 2016). Predictably, bi-ennales have thus been criticised for neglecting local concerns and local art practices, favour-ing instead the itinerant curators and artists who service international art markets and mobile global spectatorship (Blom 2010). The role of curators is key; if they are unwilling to engage in the first-hand research needed to discover new artists, than lesser known artists in fringe countries, such as Australia, will be consistently overlooked (Gardner 2011). Barker (2010) has criticised the sublime scale of mega-exhibitions, their layouts often presenting overly complicated narratives that are impossible to comprehend. Furthermore, mega-exhibitions are seldom accessible to a traditional public; rather these events are created by the elite for the elite, and propel and exacerbate a class system for art appreciation and viewership.

Hanru (2016), however, believes the global nature of biennales can provide an ironi-cally productive platform for art to expose, address, and resist society’s obsession with spec-tacle, consumerism and market forces – evident by his curating of the 2009 Biennale de Lyon ‘The Spectacle of the Everyday’. The point raised Hanru regarding biennales as a platform for instigating discussion is an important one, be it somewhat contradictory to his comments in the prior paragraph. The practice and theory informing resistance to spectacle can be traced back to Marxist political theory and the more recent Marxist inspired Situationist theory (En-wezor n.d). By reinventing Marxist theory, Situationist theory identified ‘spectacle’ as con-struct of capitalism’s impoverishment of interpersonal relationships through promotion, spe-cifically via mass media, of consumerism’s benefits and requirement for prioritisation (Debord 2014). Fundamental contradiction exists within mega-exhibitions; their intrinsic in-stitutionalism, spectacle and imperialism certainly questioning their legitimacy to provide any meaningful critique of such issues (Barker 2010). Although biennales and their role within society remains contested, the ‘spectacular biennale’ certainly provides a pivotal delivery sys-tem for influencing the display and reception of art.

The contemporary museum provides insight to how the biennale format of spectacle has influenced curatorial practices. Schubert (2009) explains how event culture has compelled museum curatorial practice to avoid risk by adhering to proven formulas for artwork display and arrangement. Society now expects exhibitions to be block-buster events, and from the curator’s position failure to deliver is not an option. Thus, curators stick to iconic, famous, perennial favourites like Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and prominent artists of the twentieth century. This perspective advocates the display of artworks that are inseparably linked to autobiography such as those of Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Modigliani, Freda Kahlo, Diane Arbus, and Tracy Emin. As a result of event culture, the new museum’s perspective has shifted to works that are easy to digest, easy to install, and/or immersive. Of particular note to Schubert (2009) is the emergence of fashion defined as artwork for exhibition. In this in-stance, he argues that the display of fashion is due to the museums’ alignment with ideals that require continually re-hashing social aesthetics in a way that is entertaining and anti-historic. Furthermore, in order to embrace event culture, curatorial selection process has replaced artis-tic judgement with aspirations to create spectacle and immediacy, the result being exhibitions that are open-ended resources for social trends and where examination of authenticity no longer matters. The expectations that art consumers now have regarding the definition and display of art has placed significant pressure on institutional bodies, so much so that curato-rial practice has experienced dramatic shift towards providing instantaneous understanding and satisfaction.

The recent 56th Venice Biennale, “All the World’s Futures”, in several ways high-lighted the inveteracy of ‘spectacle’ within contemporary society by exposing socio-politico-economical ramifications of capitalist and colonialist history. Curated by Okwui Enwezor, the biennale’s foremost endeavours were to critique capitalism and colonialism, and enable dis-cussion about humanity’s future by contemplating social injustices (Milliard 2015). The bien-nale displayed artworks that addressed the many tensions present across the globe (Baratta 2016), and in this way actively enabled the public to directly engage with social and institu-tional failings via a platform of global spectacle. However, the Biennale received criticism for its selection and presentation of artworks and the arguably quite confronting sentiments they embodied. Art critic Benjamin Genocchio (2015) described the biennale as “the most morose, joyless, and ugly biennale in living memory.” Much of Genocchio’s dislike for the biennale came from the experience, or rather lack of experience, he felt the biennale delivered. Genoc-chio (2015) criticised the biennale for having excessive focus on the past and present turmoils of humankind. In his opinion, the biennale was excessively moralising and didactic, to the point of annoyance, and created an unenjoyable visual experience due to its dispiriting and disconcerting content. Indeed, Buren (2010) argues the contemporary curator has gained li-cense to generalise artworks and artists by displaying artworks of tenuous relation side-by-side, and in doing so, has potentially diminished the intent and autonomy of each artist and/or artwork. True, the developing crisis in artistic authority has important correlation to event culture, which Buren acknowledges, and Enwezor’s artistic authority grants him ability he may abuse. However Buren’s points relate more to exhibitions with little to no legitimate ar-tistic theoretic foundation or direction, and so provide little support for criticism of ‘All the World’s Futures’. Enwezor deliberately used overlapping narratives, as opposed to a singular narrative, in order to symbolise history’s multiple and paralleled re-tellings (Milliard 2015).

Genocchio’s (2015) demand for visual pleasure, as if that was all that mattered, it seems, makes him more a propeller of spectacle rather than an advocate for derailing event culture or problematic artistic authority. He sought to delegitimize any constructive dialogue regarding the capacity of art to comment on confronting historic narratives. Genocchio felt the display of violence and death throughout the biennale overshadowed the few works he considered visually beautiful and joyous, such as “Earth’s Creation” by Kame Kngwarreye. Unbelievably, Genocchio implied that the significance and enjoyment of Kngwarreye’s work was lost due to the audiences’ education of “the appalling conditions in which Aboriginal art-ists live”. Genocchio stated that if he wanted to know such depressing details he would watch CNN or BBC news. As stated above, Situationist theory discredits mass media due to its bi-ased propensity for capitalist agenda (Debord 2014), regardless, the biennale’s purpose was to channel art’s obligation to reflect society as it is, not how we would like to imagine it; a cot-tonwool world of glitter and presumption where social empathy is left at the door. The use of artistic display by the 56th Venice Biennale highlights the influence biennales have gained via spectacle culture, the questionable and/or undiscerning expectations that event culture generates, and the biennales ironic potential to confront the spectacle enthralled audience.

The critical backlash against “All the World’s Futures” serves as evidence to the ex-pedience now placed upon the biennale model. Its’ failure to fulfil the basic tenet of any bien-nale – sensory overloads of enjoyable immersive experience – was criticised and took prece-dence over any important socio-politico-economic observations that were presented. And yet, criticism has also been directed at biennales for their adherence to this tenet; their intrinsic dependence upon spectacle, which significantly questions the format’s legitimacy to provide an artistic critique of capitalism. Perhaps the presentation and layout of “All the World’s Fu-tures” were not delivered with the clarity required to convey their meaning, and were testa-ment to Barker’s (2010) criticisms of biennale. Certainly, the curatorial model of display used by the biennale has divided many and, for better or worse, significantly impacted the manner in which art is displayed and interpreted.

Adam Buchanan 2016