What’s Wrong with a Fairly Good Biennial?

Julien Creuzet, "(...) Me sens tu par terre, petit jeux, cheveux dans la poussière. Source solaire, je suis sorcière. Tête dans les airs, vénère, endocrinien androgyne, sans ovaire, j’ai rdv à 9h, douceur du coeur, à 9h, j'ai des attentes à 9h, mésentente à 9h, j'ai des humeurs à 9h, sueur fureur à 9h. À 9h ou à n'importe quelle heure (...)," (Installation view), 2018. Courtesy of the Artist.
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What’s not to like about good art, hung well – not too packed, not too sparse – across venues of many scales and vintages, in a lovely French city? Add to that reliable formula: good attention paid to representation, good information for visitors, a good size (just enough art that seeing it all produces the anxiety of a nourishing surplus, not an irritating overwhelm), and a good early autumn opening party, under a big white tent, wherein good curators gave good speeches of not-undue length. Good, good, good. What’s not to like?

I’m not complaining, really. I genuinely enjoyed the scavenger hunt routine – across ten venues housing work by thirty-three artists – that comprised the sixth edition of Les Ateliers de Rennes, a biennial whose title humbly emphasizes art as an ongoing form of work. All the same, each time someone asked me what I thought of the show, I fumbled for an edge on which to foot an opinion. Searching for broad gestures to agree or disagree with, or tensions that resonated or fell flat, I repeatedly came up empty. But if we were to file grievance against a biennial so consistently good, we might start with this very smoothness. Large exhibitions, of course, require that curators prioritize judicious presentation of art, over their own creative conceits; those who tend towards the latter often disappear into a grim bardo reserved for minor demigods. But exhibitions are sites of affective and intellectual encounter; they have not only to serve the integrity of artworks, they also have to perform as experiential entities themselves.

No one would dispute that this is a difficult juggle. And when all the sums are counted, it might be for the best that, in Rennes, the perfect exhibition was displaced in favor of the greater good; viewers could traipse from one idiosyncratic, thoughtful, beautiful work to another, taking the works on their own terms, unimpeded by curatorial drama. For good reason, biennial favorite John Akomfrah’s 2010 film Mnemosyne was the talk of the busload of writers who visited the Halle de la Courrouze. Once a military armory, this venue has been converted into a capacious mixed-use space – for the biennial it became home to many films, sculptures, and paintings. Mnemosyne stirred a realist depiction of diaspora with the tonic of romantic myth. BBC news clips of immigrant life in England stitched together across nine chapters, and coupled with narrative verse. The work seemed timeless, but also paradoxically prescient – migration being one of the recurring, often tragic, stories of our moment.

It’d take some fairly creative free-associating to find meaningful concord or conflict between Akomfrah’s film and its neighbor at the Halle: Erika Vogt’s suite of big bawdy sculptures, entitled Rattlers (2018). These abstract and vibrant sentinels, forged in a language of papier-maché upsized with fabric and glue, featured large red arrows, pointing up and down, skewering enigmatic geometric forms and pieces of facsimile clothing. A train-ride away in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, a group of standing wooden and found-object sculptures by Kenzi Shiokava might have given magisterial echo to Vogt’s works had they not been so physically distant from one another. Instead Vogt’s deadpan, quirky sculptures sidled up next to Julie Béna’s Who wants to be my horse? (2018) – a film encased in sculpture, which brought the viewer, quite physically, through abstraction and into the bawdy. Béna’s film played on a monitor, within a curtained structure resembling an alternate-universe peep show. In the video, the artist dons a plethora of masks and costumes, delivering infectiously eccentric sex-positive monologues.

Julie Béna, “Who wants to be my horse?” 2018.

Just as this former military building was designed for myriad purposes, the show was a welcome meeting of heterogeneous styles: disorienting as a whole, but almost always magnetic on close inspection. Should we be willing to entertain this compromise? The easy answer says: “No! Give us conflict! Conversation! Dialogue! Dialectics!” Those attributes reassure us of the possibility that art is contributing to the discursive substance of society. But they also suggest another question: do shows that manifest such discord ever convincingly connect with concerns outside the cloistered artworld? If the answer is no, as it tends to be, then perhaps there’s something worthwhile about an exhibition that bypasses world-saving or paradigm-registering statements of purpose in order to simply foreground strong artwork across myriad aesthetic and political registers. This is not an argument for apolitical exhibition-making, nor an endorsement of the neoliberal ideal of society (and art) as a plurality of unique, insular voices. Rather, this show spurs necessary questions about whether we do more harm than good when exhibitions are misunderstood as artworks: a situation necessarily resulting in the filtration of good artists who don’t fit the frame.

Akomfrah’s and Béna’s films proved that a biennial that operates in this way can still generate meaningful personal and socio-political resonances on subtle, structural levels. The serious themes running through their works were hardly endangered by the riotous fun of Madison Bycroft’s Dead Pan Ham (2018). Nor was the latter’s bizarre exuberance dulled by the complex personal and political intensity of Sondra Perry’s IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection (2018), which was presented alongside many other works in a post-modern evil-genius lair of an exhibition space called Frac Bretagne. These works were too strong for their individual effects to suffer by way of the show’s heterogeneity. It’s true that the power of an exhibition curated around a consistent theme is to amplify each piece through carefully tuned harmonies and dissonances. But it might be just as true that such effects are nearly impossible to execute on a platform of this scale. Given the choice, and given how many people just seemed to like this show despite not being able to sum it up cogently, I’ll take this motley and vibrant collection of idiosyncrasies any day.

Bycroft’s installation was a kind of throwback avant-garde mise-en-scène, where found objects combined with poured concrete and papier-maché sat backdropped by densely layered paintings. Perry’s video installation had a decidedly different mood. With a playfulness markedly driven by incisive intention, Perry weaves appropriated video game imagery with interviews, plumbing systems of seemingly benign popular culture that ensnare people. Specifically, Perry’s piece hones in on the predatory use of young people of color for profit. The artist’s brother was an NCAA basketball player, and her work largely turns on a conversation with him, wherein they discuss a video game for which his and his teammates likenesses were appropriated. One by one, Perry’s brother describes the personal attributes of his teammates, who pop up on the screen as synthetic avatars produced by game engineers. As Perry plunges into the unsettling transubstantiation of humans into virtual commodities, Bycroft mined a tradition of avant-garde absurdity, whose strangest quality is that it seems so relevant.

Raymond Boisjoly, “Between and Beyond,” 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver.

The show’s combination of themes and approaches seemed confused on paper, but cohered on the ground. Venturing from Bycroft’s absurdist circus, I arrive to Raymond Boisjoly’s finely tuned Between and Beyond (2018), which mimics the affective nature of language. Various phrases, rendered nearly indecipherable by a skewing xerographic procedure, floated over the high white walls as purple and red-vinyl cut-outs. Again, there appeared fleeting colloquies between the work and its neighbors: a particularly attentive viewer might for instance find links between Boisjoly’s invocation of the magic and manipulative powers of language, and similar themes in Sonia Boyce’s multi-channel video Punk (2018). Boyce worked with local art students at the École Européenne Supérieure d’Art, arranging for them to give improvised lectures on objects from the Musée des Beaux-Arts’s collection. Played on five symmetrical monitors amidst the museum’s collection, her video worked in the same vein as the terse mockeries of art-institutional jargon that Andrea Fraser perfected in the 1980s and ‘90s. Only Boyce’s tone was a lot more fun – not undermining language’s power over art, so much as relishing in it to mischievously critical effect. Everyone giggled.

Three works in this biennial enjoyed their own venues. One – Katia Kameli’s Stream of Stories, chapitre 5 (2018) – combined altered drawings, painted cardboard masks, and video-projected interviews into a whimsical pedagogical setting. Its purpose was to reconsider Jean La Fontaine’s spuriously attributed seventeenth century fables. After La Fontaine translated his stories into French, they were adopted into the cultural fabric of France. Collectively, the objects and videos in Kameli’s installation unwind this nationalist interpretation, playfully reintroducing the fables’ widespread, poly-cultural roots.

Like so much of the work in Rennes, Kameli’s expression of cultural plurality held its own specific power amidst the show’s broad variety. The effect – unmistakably engaged with the poisonous resurgence of white nationalism and xenophobia in France and Europe – didn’t exactly quell my strange dissatisfaction produced by so much goodness. But this ambivalence is perhaps born of neuroses, as much as sound reasoning. All of the works mentioned here evidence the fact that the polyphonic effect of thoughtful art, presented conscientiously en masse, produces a field of resonances and conflicts that is inherently meaningful.

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