Whether you think of it as a harmonic convergence, a cattle call or a clusterfuck, every ten years the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, Documenta and Sculpture Project Münster open one after the other over the course of a week. This is one of those years. Beginning on June 6, thousands of art-worlders from all over the globe flocked to the start of this season-long blitz, the usual combination of summer camp, convention, carnival and binge. And it has me thinking about biennial culture and who these wingdings are for, how they’re organized, whether they’re good for art and whether they’re outmoded.
Contrary to popular opinion, things don’t go stale particularly fast in the art world. As they say, everything changes but the avant-garde. Chelsea was a ghost town last week, but had you been with the crush in Europe you’d have observed, at each stop, the same cast of museum directors and trustees, art advisers and clients, curators and more curators, artists, dealers, journalists, PR people and who knows who else -- all talking one another up, all on the lookout for the next paradigm shift. It’s a bubble environment. Everyone goes to the same exhibitions and the same parties, stays in the same handful of hotels, eats at the same no-star restaurants and has almost the same opinions. I adore the art world, but this is copycat behavior in a sphere that prides itself on independent thinking.
Biennials are free-for-alls, but they’re also autocratic throwbacks to the time of kings. Often, they’re selected by one czarlike curator with absolute dictatorial power. These curators, however earnest, can simultaneously be annoying and sanctimonious while foisting their own pious, profligate or shaky taste on everyone else. Yet you have to feel for them; whatever they do, almost everyone will have 55 reasons why their shows stink. A common but almost never uttered one is, "It’s a bad show if I’m not in it."
There are currently more than 60 biennials and triennials around the world. Biennial culture is so prevalent that curator Dan Cameron and I have joked about publishing a monthly magazine called Biennial, dealing with nothing but these shows. The glossy back cover would permanently advertise Jorge Pardo, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick, Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, all of whom seem perpetually to be on view. There would be a column called "This Month in Relational Aesthetics," top-ten lists like "Messy Installations in Huge Spaces," artists discussing how they had "intervened with the local culture" and writers asserting that their work is a "subversion of biennials."
The scariest part of Biennial would probably be the "Tales of the Curators" section, which would recount true stories. Consider this (real) one, from a well-known curator who invited an up-and-coming artist to be in his biennial. The artist instantly asked what the budget would be, and if airfare and hotels would be provided to him and his two assistants. He then paused to take a call on his cell phone from his assistant in Moscow, who was installing one of his pieces and was trying to make arrangements to get to Turin to take another down but had to stop in Seville to repair yet another piece. Or, take Great Britain’s current representative in Venice, Tracey Emin, who according to the U.K.’s Observer toured five-star hotels in Venice last year, examining bedding thread counts to decide where she’d stay. She also requested her own boat, and had Julian Schnabel detour to Venice by private jet en route from Rome to Cannes to advise her on the installation. Not that it matters, but she made 60 of the drawings meant for the first room of her pavilion in just five hours. Not that it matters more, but the Museum of Modern Art just put a reserve on half of them. Biennials are big business.
I’d like to say good riddance to this system. It’s hard to imagine the process working this way in 15 years. A new generation is going to have to find new ways to do big shows. Biennial culture is already almost irrelevant, because so many more people are providing so many better opportunities for artists to exhibit their work. When an interviewer recently asked curator Robert Nickas, "Do biennials still make sense?," he replied, "No. Any critic or curator who thinks differently is a traitor to the cause." What’s disconcerting is that almost everyone in the art world who sees these shows sees them only at the opening. This is a horrible way to look at art. You’re constantly darting in and out of crowds, glimpsing snippets of work, greeting and avoiding people, elbowing your way through throngs, waiting in long lines to spend six minutes in a pavilion with 700 other weary souls who perpetually ask one another, "What have you seen that was good?" and "Where are you going tonight?" You can’t really see anything.
Which is why I decided to opt out this time. Poor me, lucky me: Even though I attended the last two convergences, I passed on this one, at least until next week. The crowds will have left, the exhibitions will be almost empty, and I’ll cover the shows in New York’s next issue. But although I didn’t mind skipping the zoo, I did feel sheepish about missing out on one part of the experience. As adrenaline-addled as these spectacles are, and as much as they’re about instant gratification, spin, speculation and networking, there is a weird tribal quality to them. The art world is now so spread out that events like these are one of the only ways to feel a sense of community. These fêtes are giant sleepovers where the art world does something very primitive. Antennae touch and complex rituals are enacted in which the codes of consumption, peerage and opinion-making are rehearsed and manipulated in plain sight. It can make you sick. But it can also make you smile. Now we have to see if the art is anything to smile about.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org