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|Grasping the Global
by Jason Edward Kaufman
|Biennale d'Art Contemporain de Lyon, June 27-Sept. 24, 2000, Halle Tony Garnier, 20 Place Antonin Perrin, Lyon, France 69007. Open Tues-Sun 12-7, Fri to 10 pm. Admission 60 FF. Tel: 33 (0) 4 72 76 85 70.
Yoke together a passel of artists from around the world, intone the word "globalism" and presto -- you've got yourself some millennium Zeitgeist. Consider the fifth Lyon Biennial of Contemporary Art. With 114 artists from five continents herded under the rubric "Sharing Exoticisms," this artful roundup exemplifies the globalism that currently dominates discourse in economics, politics and culture.
Biennale organizer Jean-Hubert Martin is no greenhorn globalist. He spent most of the 1970s and '80s as curator and director of the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris, where he organized the proto-globalesque "Les Magiciens de la Terre" for the Pompidou in 1989, one of the first major exhibitions to gather non-Western contemporary art in a western showcase. His "Sharing Exoticisms" is a sequel to that show, again presenting the mainstream and "the other" side by side.
"There has already been talk of 'the end of history,'" notes Jacques Leenhardt, an anthropologist who served on the Biennale's scientific committee. "Will we soon be talking about the end of separate cultures?" This is the sort of thing an exhibition about globlization can attempt to gauge.
The curators -- Martin was assisted by Biennale artistic co-directors Thierry Raspail and Thierry Prat -- seem at pains to demonstrate that the periphery can affect the center. In fact, despite the show's title, nothing here seems particularly exotic. The world is inexorably moving towards a monolithic hybridization of culture, one that clearly bears the stamp of commodity capital.
Unlike at Venice or Documenta, the Lyon Biennale's scores of artworks are all in one space -- a brick-and-steel hangar stretching 210 x 86 meters, dubbed Halle Tony Garnier after its early 20th-century Lyonnaise architect. Rather than arrange the art geographically or by medium, it's grouped by theme -- not the classical genres, which would be irrelevant when applied to many non-Western works of art.
Instead, a team of anthropologists settled on 22 overarching categories that seek to provide a "mosaic of points of view," free from the typically "tendentious exhibition context." These humanistic themes include loving, sexuality, suffering, war, death, eating, prayer, cosmos, interpretation, clothing, transportation, inhabiting, tattooing, and masks, among others.
Fair enough. But in the end, the categorization is desultory and clichéd. Applied unsystematically to the works on hand, it sheds little light on what artists might have in common the world over, and virtually none on what separates them. If an artwork's any good it will speak on multiple levels, and pigeonholing it in one or another category does it a disservice.
Nevertheless, it is marvelous to wander through the hall, encountering familiar names and works, discovering and evaluating new material. There may not be an abundance of truly extraordinary presentations, but neither are there many easily dismissible ones. In short, the Lyon Biennale is a varied and engaging world tour of visual expression.
The first thing one sees inside the main entrance is Belgian Jan Fabre's large globe on a wrought-iron armature, its entire surface covered with iridescent scarab beetles. It's a quintessentially exotic, surprisingly beautiful and mildly unnerving vision of Earth populated by a single species. Nearby is a sloppy cartoon painting by Australian Bjarne Melgaard in which the artist portrays himself masturbating on Gauguin's Tahitian grave, which we might generously interpret as a comment on the futility of seeking purification in the exotic primitive.
Also near the entrance is a hut by Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov containing a heap of Old Master paintings and objects by Roy Lichtenstein, Dan Flavin and Marcel Broodthaers, among others, each tagged with a label explaining how an African collector traded a few coconuts or some other trifle to acquire the work. Tinged with Marxist melancholy and postmodern irony, Solakov's absurd reversal of global economic relations posits an African collector who lacks the electrical outlet to activate his Flavin. But don't Western collectors likewise lack fundamental elements needed to comprehend African tribal objects?
The Biennale is rife with this sort of inversion -- though usually it is effected without the amusing narrative. The most common trope is the mixing of non-Western, pre-modern forms with Western images and materials. For example, African-style masks are adorned with bar codes, Harley Davidson logos, military camouflage and other Western motifs (Andreas Dettloff, Germany); skulls have pates glazed like ceramics with blue-and-white designs from English pottery (Christine Borland, Scotland); primitive masks are composed of hair dryers or high-heeled shoes (Willie Cole, USA); a ritual site has totems of computer monitors and jerry cans (Romuald Hazoume, Benin); faux pre-Columbian ceramics take the form of Disney and Simpsons characters (Nadine Ospina, Mexico); headless mannequins pose like landed gentry from a famous Gainsborough portrait, but wearing flamboyantly patterned Nigerian clothing instead of Georgian outfits (Yinka Shonibare, UK); and Afghan rugs substitute helicopters, tanks, jet fighters, and other machines of war for the traditional floral motifs of paradise.
In addition to this profusion of hybridization, the show features examples of ways that the Western can become exoticized. One example is the powerful floor installation of a toy-scaled industrial landscape by the French couple Anne and Patrick Poirier. Composed of model trains, trucks, gas tanks, factories, refineries and power plants coated in a sooty matte black, titled "Exotica" on the wall in pink neon, this sinister miniaturization suggests the sheer weirdness of human economy in the 20th century, and reminds us how odd it all must seem to people outside the western industrial world. It's more obsessively bizarre than any third-world religious altar.
The Biennale has its share of "festival art," a term that New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl coined to describe the in-your-face attention-grabbing large-scale installations designed expressly for consumption on the circuit of international group shows. Take Haim Steinbach's maze, built out of scaffolding atop which the Israeli artist has placed hundreds of pieces of used cookware from around the world in a simplistic metaphor for shared concerns, the basic product of industry being food.
Another universalist note is struck by Swiss assemblagist Thomas Hirshhorn's sprawling floor piece -- a cheap but effective antiwar installation. It's a walk-through landscape of knee-high bombed-out buildings slapped together with blackened cardboard, plastic and tin foil -- with sectors labeled Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, etc. Here and there the scorched terrain is relieved by gleaming white United Nations vehicles and tents, replete with sky-blue insignias -- creating an ironic portrait of the UN as a useless band-aid on a war-torn world.
Despite the globe-spanning surge in technology, the exhibition celebrates handicraft -- and not only in art from less-developed nations. American Liza Lou's eye-dazzling over-the-top beaded kitchen (1991-95) still packs a feminist wallop, and American Fred Tomaselli's laminated abstract panels use pills to decorative effect. Some of the African craft looks like folk art or tourist kitsch, like Sierra Leonean John Goba's painted-wood masks bristling with spiky porcupine quills, and Beninese Clixte Dakpogan's earnest but clunky car-part figures.
Other craft works are elegantly beautiful and conceptually resonant, such as Moroccan Farid Belkahia's hand-shaped panels painted buff and ocher, and decorated with mystical eyes, stars, numbers, and hieroglyphs. The American sculptor Charles Ledray whittles doll-house-sized chairs and tables out of ivory-like human bone, then stacks up the delicate miniatures into a rickety tower as a vanitas of human existence.
Several Western artists explore exotic forms of spirituality by documenting Asian or African shrines or constructing their own. The most soothing and spiritually refreshing interlude is Chinese Cai Guo Qiang's Cultural Melting Bath, a walk-in aviary in which canaries perch on gnarled scholars' rocks or flit among suspended pieces of driftwood. Visitors may watch the delicate birds, or change into bathing suits and soak in a mineral Jacuzzi in the center of the enclosure. (No critics got wet during the press preview.)
Qiang's installation evokes the notion of "sharing the exotic," but a lot of work seems to be here for some other reason. The French neo-Dadaist Ben cobbles together a pavilion papered with sophomoric slogans; venerated Spaniard Antoni Tapiès offers canvases with sketchy skeletal motifs; Annette Messager knocks off a batch of drawings riffing on the shape of her native France, turning the map's contours into the face of DeGaulle, for example; and Englishman Anish Kapoor is represented by graceful, but lackluster clusters of intertwined painted gourds.
There are surprisingly few abstract paintings -- exceptional are those by Ethiopian Gedewon, which recall Marsden Hartley's -- and figurative paintings, too, are few and far between. More prevalent are figurative sculptures, such as the life-size nude self-portraits by Polish Pawel Althamer, including a modern effigy in eyeglasses with waxen flesh like congealed fat, and a primitive version cloaked in hides and wielding a spear. Another example is Indian Reddy G. Ravinder's giant golden Under the Tree, in which a wide-eyed woman takes the place of the enlightened Buddha.
Several figures have a surreal edge, like the American sculptor Rona Pondick's nightmarish beast with a vulpine body and a human head and arm, suggesting genetic science gone all wrong. A personal favorite is the Freudian taxidermy of French artist Jackie Kayser, whose macabre socio-sexual satires include a coterie of stuffed, armless Venus de Milos with multiple breasts and the heads of pigs, and a svelte piglet who pushes his phallic snout through a ruffled Pagliacci collar, legs trailing behind as if soaring in flight. Exotic, indeed.
The emphasis on craft notwithstanding, the Biennale has a glut of photo-based work, including French valetudinarian Orlan's computer-altered self-portraits as African masks; Greg Semu's self-portraits showing off his Samoan body tattooing; Swiss Marcel Biefer and Beat Zgraggen's silly self-portraits as savages a la Lord of the Flies; and those big British babies Gilbert and George, who spread their homoerotic gospel in a three-panel billboard featuring massage ads and nude boys. Stranger than fiction are the photos by German Max Becher and American Andrea Robbins, showing an American town "Bavarianized" to attract tourists, and German hobbyists ludicrously dressed as American Indians.
Less humorous are Taiwanese Chen Chieh-Jen's bleak black-and-white computer-concocted horror shows of mass persecution and suffering; and a series of color photos by Japanese Daisuke Nakayama showing middle-class families and lovers smiling in feel-good advertising-land, with one twist -- they are plunging Bowie knives into one another. The few videotapes on view include Shirin Neshat's Rapture, whose power is sapped by its poor installation, and an assortment of mainland Chinese recordings of strange metaphorical performances, such as one in which live animals' hind quarters are embedded in a wall, and another in which artists press pigs' heads between plates of glass, then use the panels to make a dance floor -- not likely to win approval from the Communist authorities.
"It is vital that [non-Western artists] find their intrinsic worth given recognition on the status-enhancing circuits of the all-powerful West," says curator Martin. In this respect the Bienniale is a success, though whether it can have any real progressive political impact remains uncertain. What can be said is that the Biennale -- like many globalesque exhibitions -- projects a reassuringly moral, politically correct stance for the comfortable bourgeois elite who mount them, attend them and read about them.
An installation by Robert Morris at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Lyon (whose growing collection includes works by LeWitt, Merz, Baldessari, Kosuth, Turrell and others) is designed to make the city's conservative bourgeois a bit less comfortable. "White Nights," June 9-Sept. 17, 2000, is a circular labyrinth of muslin scrims on which he projects, from the center, images of Lyon during the Nazi occupation, when the city was a bastion of Fascism. As spectators try to leave, flight is frequently confounded by mirrors ingeniously placed to deceive. Visitors are forced to confront the uncomfortable past. It's an effective bit of theater, this mournful maze of memory, which conjures a certain sadness we all should share.
JASON EDWARD KAUFMAN is a widely published critic who writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal and the Art Newspaper.