Defining Biennials

What do, and will, we remember of art? What of art in public places? What are biennials for – a small, inclusive elite, or the people of the cities that house them? What does a city and its people want or need? What could it have that its never had before?

Public artworks are often (sometimes fairly, frequently not) surrounded by a rather uneasy, sceptical set of perceptions and preconceptions. The term alone seems to catalyse a certain weariness in people: from the right-leaning red-tops, we hear those familiar cries about “£xxxx if taxpayers’ money, on THIS.” From the art world, there can be mumblings of derision at “design by committee.” Public art can never set out to delight all who come into contact with it. Visitor numbers are largely dependent on the site it stands it. So how do we consider  the “success” or merit of a piece? Who should be “interacting” with these pieces?

The art world institutionalised idea of biennials, despite their public nature, stands rather in opposition to these assumptions about art for the public realm. The former seems designed almost entirely for a small insider coterie; the latter for an undefined mass who may of may not really care about a local artistic intervention. It’s incredibly refreshing then that we’re seeing a visible drive to redefine and reconfigure exactly what “biennial” and art for the public realm mean, and their possibilities.

Instead of shining baubles and monuments for the public, the ongoing Oslo Pilot project proposes an experimental and research-based way of creating a biennial for the public of the city, and those who visit it. The project’s initial two-year phase of gathering insights and ideas has just come to a close with a seminar in the Norwegian capital discussing four in-depth artist case studies of single artworks: Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine by Mette Edvardsen (Norway), Second Time Around by Dora García (Spain), Gramsci Monument by Thomas Hirschhorn (Switzerland) and Every Tiger Needs a Horse by Rahraw Omarzad (Afghanistan).

For Oslo Pilot’s curators, Eva González-Sancho and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk, these pieces contain interesting revelations into the possibilities of a more conceptually focused way of approaching art for biennials, with innovative and unusual methods of engaging with the public. They’re aren’t necessarily dependent on one site or situations (excepting Omarzad’s piece, which directly responds to a tiger statue outside Oslo Central station); instead the works are situated within specific temporalities or interactions.

“We’re exploring an Oslo, biennial of art for public spaces, so there are three important elements there,” says Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk. “We want to reshape the idea of a biennial. It’s taking the institutional format as the point of departure, and we didn’t want to compromise. Oslo is Europe’s fastest growing capital – how can art be a part of that transformation? Some projects we’ve looked at confront the development or ask questions relating to the movement of the city, so we’re interested in the city as artistic material.”

The curators agree that at the heart of this unusually deep research and pre-planning is a desire to avoid approaching a biennial as an accumulation of public work, and escape the idea of permanent, physical public project. González-Sancho says: “We’re looking at the idea that artworks aren’t determined by site but by time. A pilot allows you to test out things… find out how to do things another way.”

As such, the case studies selected were driven by concept and content, and these are the elements that shape how the final manifestation of the piece is presented. As Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk and González-Sancho point out, such works could rarely before part of a biennial in the institutionalised structure that currently exists.

Aligning with the ambitions of the curators, Norwegian artist Mette Edvardsen’s ongoing project Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine has no fixed site or location. There is nothing really about it that is material: instead, she invites people to “become” a “book”, by selecting a text of their choice, memorising it in entirety, then “reading” the book from memory to another person, one on one. The final part of the process is for the “book,” (the reader, or person) to the rewrite the text from memory. The artist describes the project, which starter in 2010, as a “living library”, and it is inspired by Ray Bradbury’s 1953 sic fi novel Fahrenheit 451, in which books are banned and burned as free thought is declared to be dangerous. An underground rebel group decides they will begin to learn the remaining books by heart, to preserve them for future generations.

It’s a pertinent piece at a time when dementia headlines are rife [] and the value of memory ebbs away so fast in this “information age” of instant fact retrieval. There’s a certain anxiety and unease in the modern world about truth, memory, and recollection – as well as a fascination with all things mindful or meditative – so Edvardsen’s work tackles these in bold new ways. The repetitive and incantatory nature of learning by heart means, as scholar Johan Sonnenschein points out, “you both disappear as bodies to become texts… books offer the possibility to disappear; the possibility of a world. We are anonymous.” Edvardsen adds: “ “We try to become the book, rather than interpreting it… it’s more about listening than seeing, it’s not a visual work. The project isn’t really about the book–the book is a side effect.”

Veering even further from the city-centre sculpture model of art for the public is Dora Garcia’s work, which is “sited in the future” and as such, doesn’t actually exist yet. It makes for a challenging discussion about the concept of “work,” “art” and what it means to be an “artist.” She sees much of her practice as pieces that are self-generating; they do not exist until they are realised the public realm, whether within a gallery or outside of it. Viewing herself as a “fractal author,” Garcia proposes that authorship and the author are not dead, but are at the centre of a sort of mass of “agents” through which the project can be manifested. In her previous project, The Hearing Voices cafe, the artist invited people who hear voices (whether their propensity has been pathologised or merely experienced and expressed to others) to a cafe where they could openly discuss their auditory hallucinations. “by placing themselves in a contemporary art context, they escape the medicalisation and stigmatisation. They’re escaping being a ‘subject.’”

Much of Garcia’s work uses repetition, which she explains should be reframed as a positive thing: “repetition restores the possibility of what was, rendering it possible anew.” Other frequent concerns are marginalised people, psychoanalysis, and redrawing what the “audience” is, if not negating it altogether. She references Alan Kaprow as believing the audience should disappear; and extends that into the audience being a vital component of the work itself, totally inseparable from the core of the concept. She hates storyboarding and the performers in her piece are given little or no direction–she instead prefers to leave a camera rolling and remove herself form the situation. “When you tell someone what to do, you lose something that might have happened,” she says. However, despite her radical approach to making work – i.e. presenting pieces that don’t exist “yet” – she feels that there’s no such thing as art of artists railing against a perceived “institution.” She says: “We are all part of n institution. The idea of art as confronting institutions doesn’t exist.”

The most conventional and straightforward of the artwork case studies is Omarzad’s Every Tiger Needs a Horse, a peaceful and beautiful (by its traditional definition) bronze sculpture of a horse. The piece was conceived as a response to the huge, snarling bronze tiger caught mid-prowl outside Oslo’s central station. The work’s title is taken from Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s 1870 poem The Last Song, which describes a battle between a tiger and a horse. Omarzad’s impressions of Olso’s tiger were ones of sadness and confusion: “Why is it here?” he says. “It’s out of harmony with the surroundings.” So after a hell of a lot of stable-based searching for the perfect horse, he created the bronze piece at the antidote to the tiger, representing the “dangerous city.” His horse, says Omarzad, “is the opposite of the tiger – patient, quiet and thoughtful. I thought of the horse as just a horse – not an Afghan Horse or a Norwegian horse or a horse from anywhere else.” It aims to “rebalance the single message of the tiger, the horse stands for resistance and peace.”

This message of peaceful, art-led unity for city residents is brought to life in a dramatically different and utterly thrilling way in Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, a piece which ran for 77 days in 2013 in New York’s Forest Houses complex in the South Bronx. Present for the project’s entire duration, the artist facilitated a series of temporary “monuments” that could only be experienced for the duration of the artowkr. These pieces relied on their surroundings though, as well as their time: the residents of Forest Hopuses were crucial to the work’s creation, and without them, Hirschhorn would remain an unwanted guest. The piece destabilises the idea of authorship: the artist becomes more an omniscient apparition, while the people who are, as Oslo Pilot puts it, the “custodians of the space” are the principal agents of  change.

The artist has spoken of the project as “a Paradise – where residents of Forest Houses, without understanding, without knowing each other, both together and alone, share the space of their lives, their happiness and their failures, thereby creating and exploring new forms of living, new forms of thinking, and another form of reality.”

It’s clear from this statement why Oslo Pilot’s curators were so enthralled by Hirschhorn’s work. Their vision for a biennial is a bold one exactly matching the artist’s ethos: this isn’t about picture editor fodder spectacles or half-based graspings at “interaction,” it’s about rediscovering the potential of art; showing the capacity for art to live in a city and with its citizens; questioning inherited ideas of biennial models. If it works, it’ll be incredible. Even if it doesn’t – the decision is hoped to be announced in the new year – this thoughtful and academic approach to research and discovery is brave and admirable.  Oslo – we’ve got our fingers crossed. Other cities – look, read, interact and learn.

Emily Gosling

Find out more about Oslo Pilot:

1. Rahraw Omarzad. Discovering Democracy: Young Kabul Art, (2007). Photography series  C-print photograph. c/o AhmadyArts