Biennales de Lyon – the rules of the game
Since the first Biennale in 1991, I have invited my guest curators to think in terms of a key word. The word remains the same for three successive Biennales and is always a common word with topical connections and a fairly vague semantic range, a word capable both of artistic and societal interpretations. The first word, in 1991, was History. Then in 1997 it was Global, followed by Temporality in 2003 and, from 2009 to 2013, Transmission.
When I submitted the word Transmission to Gunnar B. Kvaran, he responded in literal fashion with the word Narrative. The term is no more a subject than it is a title. It is merely the starting point for a dialogue upon which we are constructing three platforms. In the first place an exhibition – however the works are combined and in whatever venue, whatever is chosen and whatever is left out, it is still all about designing an exhibition. Second, Veduta – the laboratory of visual creation and experiment, in which artists in residence, the collection of the Lyon Museum of Contemporary Art, works from the exhibition, and amateurs of all ages and social backgrounds combine to construct a new visual relationship with the world. And third, Résonance – a vast, polyphonic mass of creativity in which artists’ collectives, young galleries, neo-institutions, or just people taking risks with form, pay homage to the irrational in a sort of counterpoint to the exhibition, in the plural, and in the most valid of tenses, the present – the only tense that is independent of time.
Meanwhile… Suddenly, And then / Biennale 2013
Art, for some, is a structured language with an obvious narrative, for others it is a silent image with something that can vaguely be said about it. Like Italo Calvino’s Cloven Viscount, it is a split terrain with permeable front lines, an area in which two opposing and antagonistic factions operate.On one side the idea that anything other than language can tell a story is rejected. On the other side, like Nelson Goodman, people think that works of art exemplify form, feeling and ideas, and can construct whole worlds. The dispute is as old as it is insoluble.
People have always sought to explain the world through narrative. It began with myths. Then came gods and legends, and then History. And, quite clearly, everything pertaining to language, whether articulated or not, spoken or written or kept silent – hysteria, poetry, literature, thought.
But what do images tell us? Does Altdorfer’s Battle of Alexander have anything to say? Is it perhaps telling us that from Issus in the Hellenist period until William IV of Bavaria nothing ever changed, that things were always the same and History has to be reinvented? And does Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ reveal anything to us? Is it saying that the agreement between East and West is fragile or that the spirit is all one? Do these images relate all that, or none of it?
And yet, whether it is the work of art telling the story or History speaking, there is nevertheless something there which looks for all the world like a narrative.
In the middle of the 1980s a new ‘universal’ hero came into existence in the form of Text. Born of the sacred marriage of European structuralism and American academic textuality, it spread across the world, becoming in the process an ‘intertext’ and then a generalised ‘supertext’. Fredric Jameson put it like this: “The older language of the ‘work’ – the work of art, the masterwork – has everywhere largely been displaced by the rather different language of the ‘text’, of texts and textuality – a language from which the achievement of organic or monumental form is strategically excluded. Everything can now be a text in that sense (daily life, the body, political representations), while objects that were formerly ‘works’ can now be re-read as immense ensembles or systems of texts of various kinds.”¹ Thus the ‘dictatorship’ of the future, borne up until then on the shoulders of messianic History, the one of modern times, was eroded in favour of an infinite narrative encompassing the here and now, the event and, of course, the image.
It was at this precise moment that new modes of composition for visual narratives were seized upon by artists, or rather invented by artists. All of a sudden they were climbing up walls, filming things, wearing masks, drawing, sculpting, and all at the same time. They construct things, move things around, meander, concentrate and superimpose temporalities, supports, shadows and inversions, unfold things, uncover things. They have discovered the complexity of the world’s temporalities and the micro-narratives that inform the world. Whatever it is they are doing, they are telling stories, which is another way of saying that they are transmitting.
Tell me a story
For Gunnar B. Kvaran to place narrative side by side with transmission is to state the obvious about what happens (“Reality is what happens”, as someone said). Gunnar B. Kvaran’s response to the neo-modernism that covers our walls with a patina of soft nostalgia is to place a new emphasis on form, which is a totally new form of thought. And the form of that thought is probably what is most eloquent about it. A story can be as good as you like but what makes it stand out in the end is the relevance of its form. The form creates the meaning by forming the narrative.
The Little Prince said, “Tell me a story”. The poet drew it.
¹ Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 1991) p 76