Exposing Artists

On the 14th January, a crowd gathered at Sek San’s Lucky Garden, mustered by the alliterative mantra, Bila Boleh Biennale?  But the punters may have been misled with a spirit of boleh rather than the answer to, “When can Malaysia have a Biennale?” Jammed with a hip art crowd eager to participate in a serious, independent discussion about the merits of a local biennale, the afternoon’s talk failed to answer the probing questions touted in its flyer: “What makes a biennale? Does biennale fever have anything to do with globalisation? Are biennales reflective of emerging trends and thoughts by artists and curators, or are they similar to circuses or the World Expos of a century ago? Are they political platforms disguised as cultural events by governments? Who benefits?” But then it is not surprising considering biennales worldwide are trying to find answers to same questions. Sure the model is broke – but do we need to fix it?

Initiated by Off the Edge‘s galleryw/owalls project, the forum was more a ‘guided-tour’ of three recent events: The Second Yokohama Triennale was presented by Adeline Ooi; Vincent Leong took us to the oldest and perhaps most successful, the 51st Venice Biennale; and then we went to the 9th Istanbul Biennale where lse participated as part of the Indonesian group Ruangrupa. We effectively had a look at a biennale from the perspective of a curator, an independent visitor/artist and a participating artist, but the discussion failed to progress beyond the guided tour to the illusive reality of what a biennale might mean for Malaysia.

The overall feeling that Saturday afternoon was the desire for a serious dialogue, beyond boleh, balai and differing opinions within the local arts community. Until such a discussion can be approached with informed consideration, the role of biennale in relation to Malaysian art practise cannot be identified. It says nothing about the quality of work that is produced by Malaysian artists, as the parameters of a biennale should remain outside any judgement of local artistic practice. Biennales operate in the realm of bureaucracy. They are reliant on professional museum practice, government funding, corporate sponsorship, international networking, diplomatic relations, art-world press, local marketing and tourism. This ‘biennale machine’ is what produces these mega­-exhibitions and is what will determine their future. My view may be extreme, but without this cohesive network, it is possible to mount an exhibition but not a biennale.


Firstly for those who couldn’t make the talk, Biennale is an Italian word, (its English derivative, Biannual), which means occurring every two years. However, it is the popular translation of the term that has shaped its contemporary use: an international, multi-faceted exhibition of visual art that occurs every two years, or in the case of a triennale, every three years, identifying the current ‘state of the art’.

A biennale is not just an exhibition recurrent on a calendar, it is a contemporary phenomenon that carries the baggage of its name. To deliver the ‘forever-new’ on the ‘the biennale circuit’, where audiences are harsh critics expecting wow factor, is a tough call. The result is a resounding feeling of sameness, and a pace that precludes contemplation. As Adeline wrote in her Off the Edge review of Yokohama, “It’s no longer clear who these events are made for” 1. We are left asking: is this the best way to approach ‘the international survey exhibition’ and what are the alternatives for Malaysia?


I recently came across a staggering fact in an article by Stephanie Britton, editor of Artlink magazine:

“Since the explosion of the mega-exhibition… [it has moved] from just six in 1980 to almost fifty in 2005… Incredibly Europe, Asia and the Pacific were responsible for establishing 18 new events between 2000 and 2005.” 2.

With such a proliferation, how does one define difference? Biennales historically have emerged for various reasons. For Venice it was a tourism initiative to bring visitors to the city, repelled by the stench of its canals, with the allure of an exhibition in a park, the Giardini, that the first Biennale was held in 1895. And, let’s be honest, with today’s attendance it has not drifted far from its original mission. Biennale of Sydney. the fourth biennale established in 1973, following Sao Paulo (1951) and the Indian Triennial (1968), grew out of the vision of two patrons, Guido Belgiomo-Nettis through the company Transfield and John Kaldor Projects, who bought projects such as Christo, Richard Long and Jeff Koons to Australia. For Sydney, it was a desire to combat the tyranny of distance and to bring the ‘art of now’ to local audiences at a time when Australian artists did not have the exposure they have today. Interestingly, the first Biennale of Sydney (BoS) focussed on the Pacific Rim, a mission that was usurped by the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane leaving the BoS somewhat lost. Having grappled with their Board in a Strategic Planning Process, I’ve witnessed how such an event struggles to define its place within today’s pantheon of biennales as it manoeuvres to maintain a “cutting” edge.

Biennales traditionally have grown out of shifting states, such as the breaking down of regimes, opening up of borders or rethinking of ‘centres’. This is perhaps why the emergence of biennales gravitates towards developing nations. For example, the Cetinje Biennale was founded to foster cultural exchange between Eastern and Western Europe; Johannesburg Biennale was started to herald a new society; Kwangju Biennale has a mission to expose artists from outside the ‘centre’, from Asia and Africa; The Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh explores the give and take between Asia’s cultural traditions and landscapes in flux, and so the list goes on. With new biennales in Moscow, Bali and Prague last year and Singapore for 2006, one has to ask what is left that is not being addressed? And with events in neighbouring countries Indonesia, Singapore and Australia the question should be asked, why consider another so close?

If it is contemporary discourse and access to current art from abroad that is needed, there are alternative ways of approaching this that better address this need. A half-baked show that falls short of the mark, such as the 2004 Biennale of Sydney with its ‘safe’ curatorial retreat, is fiercely criticised in this arena. Why open oneself to such harsh criticism when Malaysia is still a relatively young art scene? The question should not be Bila Boleh Biennale but what is needed and how can we go about addressing those needs?


As biennales emerge so too are events falling off the calendar. Jim Supangkat, curator of last year’s CP Biennale II (Jakarta) recently announced it will be discontinued, a decision following protests by the Islamic Defender Front (FPI) against Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar’s work “Pinkswing Park” (an installation with images of naked Indonesian celebrities in a garden). Venice Biennale also faced a similar censorship couched in religious sensitivity last year with Gregor Schneider’s work pulled from the exhibition (he proposed a 50-foot black cube to be constructed in the middle of St. Mark’s Place, inspired by the Ka’aba in Mecca). How would Malaysia approach the problems Jakarta and Venice faced? At the Bila Boleh Biennale discussion the question was posed to the National Art Gallery’s Zanita Anuar, “What if Malaysia’s Biennale was to show last year’s award winning piece at the Venice Biennale, a video performance work which showed a woman shaving her own public hair?” The answer floated in the realm of, submit a proposal and it would be considered.

Historically, biennales have pushed boundaries – questioning politics, religion, identity, nationalism, sexuality, globalisation… all difficult subjects for institutions, corporate sponsors and governments to fund. Working with such material garners a level of maturity and respect beyond the museum and exhibiting artists to local audiences who confront the work. Biennale curator’s are often from elsewhere, and are in the tricky position of gauging how far they can push those boundaries locally. This is not to say that all work in a biennale must be confrontational or that the Malaysia art scene lacks sophistication – quite the contrary. What is a prerequisite, however, is the artistic freedom to realise the display of an artwork selected by an independent curator. Are wider Malaysia’s audiences ready for this kind of contemporary exhibition and how do we begin to nurture them into this position?


Just as the myth that ‘controversy’ is a pre-requisite for a good biennale, so too is there the myth of an ‘elite group’ of biennale artists. In the spirit of myth-busting Artlink magazine conducted a survey of artists selected across 64 biennials between 1993 and 2006 (excluding representatives in national pavilions and with the disclaimer that the data was mostly obtained from the websites of biennales). In a nutshell a group of 112 artists from around 2,500 appeared in more than one of these events – doesn’t sound that staggering until they clarified the fact: “it means that every seventh participant in these 64 shows is one of this group… an elite membership of this club of 112… [what they] have in common is that almost none of them is a painter or a sculptor in the 20th century sense. All work is either in moving images, installation or photographic media.” 3.

What is this saying and why raise it? Increasingly, as the number of biennales multiply there is a growing sameness as “prescribed biennale art” usurps the place of what is really going on ‘back home’. Curators embark on their world-wind tours, a visual vacuum cleaner sucking in all that fits within their theme; they arrive with a prescribed notion of a place and what ‘they want’ for their exhibit, reliant on established networks. Do we find ourselves looking at exhibitions of ‘biennale art’ rather than exhibitions of current art from different places?

Adeline touched on one of the resulting problems that Yokohama 2005 faced, where a large proportion of the works had already been presented at previous biennales, such as Wolfgang Winger and Berthold Horbelt’s plastic crate construction presented in Sweden 2000, Atelier Van Lieshout’s “Bar Rectum” which debuted at Art Basel and Maaria Wirkkala’s “So What’, her high wire animal kingdom seen in Helsinki 2002. My experience with BoS was that a good third of the works were ‘reworked’ pieces for the 2004 exhibition, previously viewed by the curator – curating as a kind of cultural shopping, “yes, I will take one of those thank you… just send the bill to…”

However, some exhibitions successfully break the pattern, such as Okwui Enwezor’s documenta 11 (2002) and Charles Mereweather’s Sydney Biennale which, on running through the list of artists announced just last week, presents a refreshing guessing game of “who’s that?” 4. The question is, what makes these exhibitions successful and how can we emulate those elements without entering the biennale genre?

Venice could be an answer? Its collection of national pavilions curated by individual countries presents a counterpoint to the curated Arsenale exhibition. Maybe this is where Malaysia should be looking as an entree, by placing its artists within an already established forum? Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia have pavilions at Venice and at Bila Boleh Biennale it was revealed that monies had been set aside in 2003 for a Malaysian pavilion. Why did the torch go out on that idea?

It has also been suggested that funds could be used to send artists to experience these events first-hand, but a more egalitarian suggestion presented to me was rather than looking out, why not invite an independent international curator to look at Malaysian art, place it within the context of now, and take it to the world. What is the need here? To expose Malaysian artists internationally or to expose international art to Malaysians?

Reality Bites

The reality of any major event – within Malaysia or internationally – requires operational expertise, vision and funding. With the desire to include artists from the peripheral and developing nations in these mega-exhibitions, what is the cost to those nations where arts funding is fragile and institutional support networks are more-often still to be developed? Malaysia is the classic example.

To put it in dollar-terms, it was reported that Australia spent $AUD1.4m (roughly RM4.2m) on sending one artist to the 2005 Venice Biennale (5), a figure that was somewhere in the vicinity of the freight budget I managed to bring the work of 51 artists to Sydney for the 2004 Biennale of Sydney. A staggering amount of that Venice bill paid for a swag of curators and administrators travel to Italy on the gravy-train of Australia Council perks – a controversial use of the limited government, private and corporate funding. It is not just about the dollar-figure but the balance of that figure against other programme funding. This raises the question, are biennales a drain on local support structures for other projects, and other artists? The question to leave you with is how best should these professional, intellectual and financial resources be used?

My guess is that the idea of Bila Boleh Biennale is somewhat cavalier – we are considering a Porche when a Honda might be more practical. There is clearly a voiced need for greater access to international contemporary art here in Malaysia. There is also an unspoken desire for Malaysian artists to be more widely represented in these mega-exhibitions. All eyes will be on Singapore in September and the Asia Pacific Triennale in Brisbane in November, to see how well they will ‘perform’, and to gauge their position in relation to their contemporaries.


Foot Notes:

  1. Adeline Ooi, “Godzilla Returns”, Off the Edge, Issue 11, November 2005, pg 42.

2 – 3. Stephanie Britton, “Biennales of the World: Myths, facts and questions”, published in Artlink, (Australia), Vol 25 #3 2005, pg. 34- 39

  1. Biennale of Sydney 2006, Press Kit, released 9 February 2006.
  2. Stephanie Britton, “Biennales of the World: Myths, facts and questions”, published in Artlink, (Australia), Vol 25 #3 2005, pg. 34 – 39

Further Reading:

“The complexity of the Encounter”, by Shamim m. Momim
Curating the Venice Biennale in the face of a monolithic media culture.
Published in tema celeste (Italy), September- November 2005 Issue.

“BIENNALES in the Conditions of Contemporaneity”, by Terry Smith
Published in Art & Australia, Vol. 42 No. 3 Autumn 2005.

“CP BIENNALE’S STORY ENDS”, by Hendro Wiyanto
Published in Art Asia Pacific, No. 48, Spring 2006, pg. 26.

Universes-in-universe provides a comprehensive coverage of biennales around the world and the World of Art in general.

First Published: 16.02.2006 on Kakiseni

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