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vanessa_lam

Vanessa Lam is an emerging contemporary abstract artist based in Canada. Working with mixed media painting, Vanessa explores the relationship between unconscious, form, and space. The artist loosely uses paint to create spontaneous brushstrokes, maintaining a balance between chance and control. Expressive nature of Vanessa’s work establishes a contrast between the placement of paint and collage elements found in her work.

Recently, Vanessa won the 8th Annual BOMBAY SAPPHIRE Artisan Series award and decided to collaborate with ARTSY, the global art platform, and Bombay Sapphire to create a new public exhibition in New York City.

I spoke with Vanessa about her journey up until now, ‘There Is Another Sky’ exhibition and her future artistic aspirations.

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Vanessa Lam, Come Away, 2017
Courtesy of Artsy

Hi, Vanessa! Before we dive into a discussion about your new show in New York, tell me about when was the first time you realized you want to be an artist.

I always liked drawing when I was young. Pencil and paper were all that I needed to start expressing my ideas.  I had taken some classes during university, but it wasn’t until over a decade later that I reconnected to art again after taking a mixed media course at Emily Carr University Art & Design. Taking this course was the turning point for me to continue exploring art. I was curious to uncover my potential. After a few more classes at Emily Carr, I decided to give myself a five-year window to pursue a fine-art practice and see where it takes me.  It’s been about five years now.

What was your journey up until now?

I worked as a healthcare professional for over a decade and continue to juggle my day job with making art. I took over a small spare room in my home and painted mostly at night after work. One of my instructors became my mentor. Although I began finding other artists to connect with to build my community slowly, I still didn’t know many people in the local art world and became my teacher for the most part. For the first few years, I read a lot of books, tried to make as much work as I could and submitted work to any exhibition opportunity that presented itself. During this time, I was working very hard, but soon I found that I took on too many projects and I burnt myself out.

It was at this time that I happened to move into my current studio space.  It’s a shared, open studio space in an industrial area and it turned out that it was the change that I needed.  I not only had more space to grow and experiment but I had the chance to physically connect with artists from a variety of other disciplines on a regular basis. I took a break from exhibitions to enjoy my new studio space. During this time, I created work without any deadlines and pushed exploring both collage and painting.

Then, I began looking into residencies and was offered a month-long residency in Berlin last year. It was my first residency and my first time in Berlin. The combination of being in a new city and having a dedicated month to develop new ideas was extraordinary. It gave me exposure to international artists and different perspectives which helped raise my confidence in the work that I was doing. The ideas generated from this residency led to some of the new work that is in the upcoming show in New York.

I noticed color takes the main stage in your work. What inspires you?

This new body of work is a culmination of my experiences and observations translated into color and form. I take notice of textures, shapes, and colors around me, particularly ordinary objects, like a piece of rusted metal that I have walked by on the roadside. Whether I’m in the city, traveling or in the mountains, I pull from all these experiences and feelings. My process is very intuitive in how I apply paint as well as color choice.

I wouldn’t say that color is my primary focus, but it’s more the feeling I get from seeing a specific intensity or combination of colors together within the context of where I first observe it. It could be one of many jumping off points that leads to trying a new color palette. Color doesn’t often come naturally to me, so I think that is why I look for ways to experiment in this area. Overall, I’m trying to find new ways of doing things, and it’s those unexpected outcomes of those experiments that keep me motivated.

‘THERE IS ANOTHER SKY’ EXHIBITION

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Vanessa Lam, Suspended Disbelief, 2018 Courtesy of Artsy

Tell me about your upcoming collaboration with Artsy and Bombay Sapphire.

This year I began regularly connecting with Artsy to discuss ideas for the exhibition and venue. I had only seen photos of the site, so it was a challenge to create work for a space that I had never set foot in before. I chose to create a lot of the new work on canvas given the logistics of shipping. These pieces have a lot of loose forms through the staining and pooling of paint but also contrast against more drawing and solid, hard-edged shapes. Throughout my meetings with Artsy, I was encouraged to use the opportunity to stretch myself artistically.

Some of the pieces are the largest I have ever made, one of which is an 11.5’ foot long painting. Working on this large of a scale forced me to change my process. It was a very physical process, and I immersed myself into the canvas so I can reach all the areas to paint. Also, I wanted to somehow shift painting into the three-dimensional space. The concept came from some cut-outs of paintings on canvas that I made during my residency in Berlin. I had also been experimenting with paint skins but found that it would be hard to maneuver on a large scale without some support.

This installation incorporates draped canvas which plays on the idea of dried paint skins. Layering together these shapes brings in my interest in collage and shape-making. I created another four large paintings on canvas which will be layered together over wooden frame support to create a sculptural form. I have learned so much in creating and coordinating the work for this show.

‘There Is Another Sky’ will create an immersive experience for audiences. What’s the key idea of the show?

The title of the show is from the first line of a poem by Emily Dickinson. She refers to the existence of new sky that belongs to another mysterious place which behaves and feels differently from the world that we physically see and know. The invitation to enter the garden implies a message to her brother to read her poetry and enter the world she has created.

My work makes reference to space much like the expanse of the sky, and use of ambiguous forms in space is suggestive of another “realm”.  There is also an invitation to experience “entering into” the art and as well as move amongst the works in the exhibition ranging from sculpture to collage and painting. The sculptural piece was a key component in the space where I’m releasing the layers of a “painting” from the usual confines of two-dimensional rectangular structure.

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Vanessa Lam in the Studio
Courtesy of Vanessa Lam

ARTIST AS ENTREPRENEUR

Do you think nowadays artists need to become entrepreneurs to build and manage their brand?

I do believe it is vital for artists to be entrepreneurs. The definition of what an artist can be is so varied which offers more freedom but also can make it hard to know what direction to take. My understanding of a personal brand is that it is an extension of who you are, and generally, it’s the what and how you want to present to others.  For me, I’m still figuring things out and is an ongoing process. But what I do know is that people are interested in knowing the story behind your work, who you are as a person, and the influences in your life. How I share my story is through social media, mostly Instagram.

I’m trying to find ways to connect with others, and hopefully, it will resonate with them. I recently did an Instagram takeover with Create Magazine which made me think carefully about what kind of impression I wanted to leave with people. I wanted it to feel polished, like the work I create, be reflective of my style and be authentic. The projects that I choose to take on also contribute to who I am and where I would like to go with my art practice. Everything I do has some element of risk as I don’t always know what the response will be.

I still need to try and take these risks so I can grow as an artist.

 What’s next for you after ‘There Is Another Sky’?

I have some possible commissions coming up, but mostly I want to expand on some of the ideas that I created from this show as well as continue to experiment with collage and different painting techniques.

 

LEARN MORE ABOUT VANESSA LAM’S WORK ON HER WEBSITE

 

‘THERE IS ANOTHER SKY’

168 BOWERY, NEW YORK, NY

JULY 7-18TH

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Louise O’Kelly. Photo: © Louise Greidinger

Louise O’Kelly found Block Universe London, the performance art festival, four years ago.

Coming from the art background, Louise discovered her interest towards performance art while working in a gallery that represented the estates of many performance artists from the 60’s and 70’s. She then continued to study Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths and focused her research on performance and memory studies.

We talked about how Louise came up with the idea for Block Universe, how she accepted the challenges, backed the venture and became a successful female entrepreneur in the art industry.

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Maria Hassabi, STAGING: Solo #2, 2018. UK premiere presented by Block Universe and The Store X. Photography ©Manuela Barczewski.

ABOUT BLOCK UNIVERSE

Hi, Louise! It’s so nice to meet you. Tell me about how you came up with an idea for Block Universe.

Hi, Daria! Block Universe was born out of a desire to support artists who work with performance and to create a platform to promote this medium. As someone who loved going to see this type of work, I was conscious that it was primarily being programmed in galleries and museums as either a form of entertainment at the opening of an exhibition, or as part of the public programme in response to the main show. Rarely, if ever, it was being given space in its own right. I felt it was important that this new generation of artists working with the performance was acknowledged and that space was created where performance was the focus, even if that was just for one week in the year.

How did you back your idea?

We still work with very tight budgets, but the first year was on a complete shoestring. We put in a successful bid to Arts Council England and called in as many favors as we could to make it all happen. I and two friends – Nicky van Breugel and Xica Aires – put in many late nights to pull it together. I knew that many artists received little or no pay for their performances and that they were often under-resourced, so my goal was to ensure that the artists were fairly paid and received appropriate support. To supplement what we had already raised, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to secure fees and costs towards the productions.

Why performance art?

To me, artists working with performance are making some of the most exciting work in the contemporary art field today. I see a new generation of artists creating work that is genuinely interdisciplinary and approaches live experience from a different perspective than previous generations of performance artists.

Having that element of live bodies moving, speaking, feeling, and sharing the same space as you create an intangible quality and an immediacy that I find compelling.

How do you find new artists?

I spend a lot of time researching, seeing shows and getting to know an artist’s practice as well as following recommendations. The internet is, of course, an incredibly useful tool, but doesn’t compare with seeing something live. There is no submission process, the selection of artist is lead instead by mine and my colleague’s research.

Why did you decide to have a pop-up structure, rather than a specific location?

I feel it’s important to look at the different contexts in which performance is presented and experienced, and how this alters audience expectations or adds another layer to the conception of the work. That shift between a white cube to a black box, a historical museum or space, which is none of those things, becomes a useful tool to think about where performance sits within traditional gallery models in the visual arts world, or how it operates within traditional theatre confines.

 What was the theme for this year’s fourth edition?

The theme this year is looking at ways of being together in the world, whether that is on a communal or societal level, or in our intimate, personal relationships. It felt necessary to think about how we can exist together in an era of very divisive and discriminatory politics in the UK, including the looming specter of Brexit. On a one-to-one basis, these power structures play out in our relationships also, so many of the works in the festival this year also look at the politics of love and sex. For example, on the 31st May at Senate House, we have Australian artist Giselle Stanborough looking at the techno-capitalization of our love lives in a 4-hour durational lecture-performance that is kind of like a tongue-in-cheek, ramped up version of a TED talk.

What have you learned since the first edition of Block Universe?

So, so much. We all just threw ourselves into it, and I can see how passion and determination make so much in the world possible if you believe in what you’re doing.

Laura Wilson “Dance Meets Fresh Dough.” Courtesy of Pickles PR

ABOUT BEING AN ENTREPRENEUR IN THE ARTS

 What do you think are new trends in the arts startup/entrepreneurial hub?

I think there is a lot of potential to look at ways of engaging with time-based work using new media, such as video and digital works. Suitable examples of re-thinking how we experience these or how one collects these type of works are organizations such as Opening Times or Daata Editions. There is indeed plenty of potential for disrupting current models of buying and selling artworks online, although so much of the art world is based on relationships that it may require generational shifts for that to evolve in the long-term.

Do you think it’s harder to find financing for a startup in the art world, rather than in any other industry?

I do think it’s a real challenge. Philanthropy for the arts does not exist in the same way in the UK as it does in the US. Government funding to the arts is continually cut, even though it provides a very significant return on investment to the economy. As a performance festival, we can offer a ‘return on investment’ regarding experience, but not necessarily a monetary one in the same way an investor would hope for from a tech startup.

 Is there a high potential then for disruption by new entrepreneurial ideas in the art market?

Having contributed something new to London’s cultural landscape, it made me realize that there is still plenty of space to introduce new ideas and ways of operating within London and the art world more widely. I feel that it’s a space that welcomes innovation, and there is plenty of scopes to shift or disrupt existing models within the arts, on either commercial or non-profit levels, though of course, these things take time and shifts are often subtle.

 Tell me about your personal experiences as a female entrepreneur in the arts. What have been your challenges, findings, revelations?

It’s nice to be referred to as an entrepreneur, as that entrepreneurial mindset feels relevant to what it takes to launch a new organization and idea into the world as I have done with Block Universe. I’m acutely aware of the imbalance of power structures and how this negatively impacts upon women, but I can’t say that I can identify any particular challenges or revelations that relate to my being female in my experience of setting up Block Universe. I feel that every challenge I have encountered throughout the process has been a positive process to learn from, and relates more to the fact of me realizing my vision in the world than it does to my experience of being a woman.

 What’re your plans for both Block Universe and beyond?

Next year is our 5th year, so we’re already looking ahead to this special anniversary! We’re planning more events throughout the year in the run-up to our next edition. And beyond that…  you’ll just have to watch this space!

 

Learn more about BLOCK UNIVERSE on its official website

I am Brunno Silva, curator of the series Unimagined Surroundings that just had its debut at Trace with the exhibition “Dispossession” by English artist Heidi Locher. The series explores the boundaries between art and architecture through different takes on architecture by four artists. Monthly Trace will exhibit one artist between April and July, where visitors will have the chance to discover each artistic practice at a time. As a group show, Unimagined Surroundings will be exhibited in Italy later this year.

Heidi Locher, Dispossession. Trace Projects. Courtesy of Viola Cafuli


Hi Heidi, can you tell me about the process behind Dispossession? What was your inspiration for creating the show? 

I think you and I were chatting about the relationship of architecture and fine art, and I was saying that in the hands of great architects “Architecture is the highest form of art and that it should encompass within its sculptural light-filled spaces all the delights of life as well as offering within beautifully crafted shadowy recesses sanctuary and retreat”.

This lead me to describe a little hut that sat quietly in the landscape where I live in Puglia, Southern Italy. The hut kept drawing me in, as it seemed to embody all the basic elements of Architecture, basic but beautiful and instigating. Seemingly offering sanctuary and shelter, holding within its walls the whispers of peoples hidden memories and lives. The title is a personal connection with a poem by the Canadian poet Anne Michaels where she describes poetry and the human condition, which I felt had a direct connection to this hut somehow. Michaels wrote, “Poetry is insurrection, resurrection, insubordination against every sort, against every form of oppression, dispossession, and indifference”.

The show is composed of different media:  newspaper, photography, video, and sculpture. What were your interests whilst making decisions for each medium? 

I felt that I wanted somehow to convey the feeling and essence of the hut, so the show was a totally immersive experience, but also to allow for various imaginations to flow and wander through the work, as mine had done time and time again. Sometimes experiencing it as purely architectural, sometimes wondering what it would be like to take refuge or step across a threshold that was not your choice. I also wanted to set up a tension between the large-frame doors and the large-scale images.

The doors are especially empowering; I am happy we got them all the way from Italy to Berlin, they make such an impact. It was incredible to observe your decision making in choosing which image to use. Could you guide me through your creative process?

There are a lot of ideas that are there initially, as if my brain will explode if I don’t get them out, turn them over, then hold on or let go. The newspapers, for example, were a way of conveying an idea about disposable culture we live in, and the Photo Roman piece felt precisely the right way to describe the feeling of the hut in the tough and windy climate.

 

Heidi Locher, Dispossession. Trace Projects. Courtesy of Viola Cafuli

 

I remember also discussing how the newspaper gives visitors the chance to take possession of the artworks and the hut itself, a shared use between the hut and the exhibition.

Creating this exhibition and all its elements was phenomenal, people during the opening brought different views to the newspapers and the doors too. I enjoy very much to listen and see a growing interest in the hut and my work.

Dispossession is your first show in Berlin, how was the experience in showing for the first time in the city? 

Berlin felt exactly like the right place to show this work given its background of borders and zones. The doors sculptures look exactly how I wanted, and it will be interesting see them in new venues later this year. Also, it was an opportunity to be part of Berlin Gallery Weekend, a time of exploration and exchange, thank you Brunno and thank you Berlin.

Thank you! What are the plans for the future? Can you tell us a little about your upcoming projects?

Exciting times I hope. As you know, Dispossession is part of a broader dialogue which encompasses three other artists, David Ebner, Randi Renate and Henrique Neves. I am very excited to see all works together after July in one group show. After Berlin, I am traveling to Italy, where I am going to expand Dispossession series with some additional pieces.

Architecturally we are making a beautiful space to house the Zagara Foundation, in Puglia. The project is the collision of ruin and innovation, where simple ordered modern elements are inserted into a vast scale historic ruin in order to create a gentle harmony. The Foundation will be an international artist residency, hopefully, I will be able to share more details soon.

 

Learn more about Heidi Locher’s work at Studio Locher

As part of “Dispossession,” Sedition released the video artwork as a limited edition available by clicking HERE

If you’re an artist with innovational techniques (think technology or quantum physics) and still don’t have a gallery representation, listen up! MTArt, the first artist agency, could be the ideal place for you to become a greater artist and get recognized.

Founded two years ago, MTArt is the first artist agency (working similarly to more common music or film agencies). Marine Tanguy, the founder, came from a cultural background and always strived to work with artists and help them get known. The result? MTArt Agency!

We met a few months ago at Marine’s artsy flat in London and spoke about MTArt and her latest endeavor, art festival Unfold, that took place in October 2017.

Marine Tanguy

Hi, Marine! So nice to finally meet you! I’ve been following your business, MTArt, for a while now. How did you get an initial idea?

Hi, Daria! I never thought it would become a business really. We created MTArt back in 2015. I always loved contemporary art and especially artists and I always thought how I could find a better supporting system for them. I was a young gallery manager in London when I was 21. So I knew I wanted to work in the industry, but I was not as close to artists as I wanted to be. Something expectable from a traditional art business model. Then, I got a chance to move to LA.

I love Los Angeles! It’s so different from London though…

It was a mind-blowing experience. I looked a lot at music and film agencies, so I thought why can’t something similar work for artists? It got me moving. After raising the capital, we’ve established an artist agency. Our primary focus is not only on works of art, it’s a more grounded approach towards art. It’s about building a visibility, making art more accessible. We want to establish a name of an artist with a significant content. MTArt is an agency that is all about a continuous collaboration with artists on a long-term basis.

How do you find your artists?

We get a lot of submissions via social media, texts, emails… What makes us choose is the degree of innovative techniques and valuable content. Now ‘innovation’ is such a buzz word! What I mean by it, is that every MTArt artist questions the status quo; content is the key.

But when do you say ‘yes, this artist is the one’? What is the selection process?

So, first, we meet the artists and we start testing them. In the agency, we want hard-working and committed people. I know that those who will do very well in the future, can handle stress easily. That is why we look for team players. Artists usually work alone, but during stressful moments they start working as a team.

After we select the artists, we support them for three years. It works like a typical music or film agency in Hollywood. We talk to our artists and try to understand what they want to do in the future, what their aspirations and interests are. Then, all we need to do is complement the artistic vision with exposure. Basically, what we do is accelerating and financing our artists. There’s constantly trust between us. I even have a spare bedroom upstairs so they can always stay for a night or two! ‘laughing’

Unfold Exhibiton View. Courtesy of MTArt

Sounds very inspirational! And what about your latest endeavor – Unfold Festival? Is it connected to MTArt?

The vision is similar. There were four of us, four co-founders. We all came from different art businesses. The idea was to help people to engage with art in a different way. So, we decided to take art to the streets and new exhibition spaces. Unfold emerged as a street festival during the Frieze Week.

Why did you choose to host the festival during Frieze? Not too crowded?

The timing helped a lot since everyone comes to London in October to see art, but we wanted to do it differently. We did not like putting works under a tent, as it happens in other art fairs. It lessens the experience. We decided to take a historical street in London (Church Street) and enhance it with art. No more walls and psychological barriers that come with gallery spaces. It was all about people being surrounded by art, together with a series of talks and artist studios curated in the main exhibition space.

The wine was blue as well!

Oh yes, my French friends did not approve! ‘laughing’ Very artistic and alternative to a traditional art fair. The crowd was very mixed as well. We had collectors of course, but also people who have never been to an art event before. The partnerships we had (e.g. with Aston Martin) have never taken place with artists. So, we tried to approach new people and get them interested in art.

Unfold was fun. There was wine and art… what not to like?

The festival showed that the content of art was meaningful, but also entertaining. We want people to engage, it’s our main priority.

Will you continue Unfold on an annual basis?

We had another festival, called MELT, last year. It was all about integrating art into urban landscapes. I’ve always attempted such projects to get a conversation going. It’s a way to try new things. Now we commission urban exhibitions, so I want to scale it up. Eventually I would like to have a lot of collaborations coming out of Unfold.

I cannot wait to see these new collaborations! So, what do you think is yet to be done?

What’s lacking is an art and tech festival. A lot of artists are experimenting with these mediums already. We want to create evolution in art and celebrate revolutionary artists, so we hope to do the art and technology festival next year and recognize the artists who are pioneering this new medium.

I can see one of your goals is to attract new people to the arts. Why do you think it can be hard to get new people interested in art?

The art world is considered to be a part of the luxury industry. So, by definition it needs to be exclusive and inaccessible, but that works only for a small percentage of the population. If you think of music and film industries, they focus on entertainment, not luxury. That’s the biggest conflict in the art world. You can’t be luxury and for everyone. I think, we should educate more people about art and get interested in new practices.

Thank you so much for your time, Marine! I hope to see our new projects in London soon.

Thank you, Daria!

#investinartists

The South African artist, Jenna Burchell sits opposite me. Despite the fact we are surrounded by the creative bustle of the 1:54 (where she is currently exhibiting), she captivates me by the undeniable devotion she has to her work. Represented by Sulger-Buel Lovell, Burchell is fascinated with the theme of time and has used technology as a way to enhance her subject matter.

Burchell has a particular resonance with technology as her parents migrated from South Africa when she was younger, and thus programs such as Skype were her only forms of communication that produced an emotive response. She explains to me how technology not only helps to reveal previously hidden meanings and emotions but also connects and brings people together.

Jenna Burchell, Songsmith, 2016. Courtesy of Sulger Buel Lovell

As a self-proclaimed anti-disciplinary artist, Burchell has designed her language to create a new form of art. When presented with the question of how she would describe her artistic practices, she explained how it is difficult to develop an idea that is unique; one can only improve what has already been conceived. The artist notes how what were once singular disciplines can now be joined and explored together to create something beautiful; for example, science and art can now work together to shape something new. She states passionately, “You must twist the ordinary on its head and question the conventional.” Her outlook of manipulating disciplines and borrowing techniques is especially prominent in her most recent project Songsmith (Cradle of Humankind), nicknamed ‘the singing rocks’ by her audience. Within this project, she has transformed a relatively ordinary historical object into one of beauty and functionality.

Jenna Burchell, Songsmith, 2017-2018. Courtesy of Sulger Buel Lovell

The artist has collected some naturally broken fossils and rocks from three ancient sites in South Africa. She then repairs the fractures following the Japanese method of Kintsukuroi in which gold lacquer is inserted into the cracks of the object. As a result, the piece becomes more beautiful from the destruction which it faced; it has been gifted with a new lease of life. Not only does the rock become a form of beauty, but it also encompasses a historical tradition. In this sense, Burchell has connected and interlocked cultures, communities and individuals in a single rock. She captures an essence of humanity, and our desire to be bound together, united as one entity. Her work, therefore, generates a cultural capital in which common ground anchors people.

Although the rocks are incredibly beautiful, they are also functional objects. Jenna Burchell has ingeniously uncovered the poetic voice of the rock by capturing the raw-electromagnetic readings beneath the objects’ original resting place. In essence, when you interact with the piece, the magical sound of the earth echoes around you. Captured entirely by mother nature’s call, the viewer has an undeniably personal and emotional relationship with nature (click here to listen). The enchantment we have with the work is amplified by the different sound each Songsmith produces, based on its weight.

Jenna Burchell, Songsmith (Crandle of Humankind), 2016. Courtesy of Sulger Buel Lovell

Each Songsmith is a time capsule. The voice of each rock is infused by the place it came from, meaning each song has been sung for 2.2 million years (in the case of those from the Cradle of Humankind). So not only are we connected to nature physically by touching the rock, but we are also teleported 2.2 million back in time. We are part of an unbelievable collective experience; we breathe the same air, walk upon the same soil and are reminded by nature’s melody.

It is important to remember that Burchell would not be able to conceive her artistic concept without technological help. She argues that technology is like “the books of our age,” and in a sense she’s right. In the 21st century, we learn and adapt through the use of technology, so there is no reason not to embrace it. The only way in which this can be reached is through the specific technological technique called Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). The golden band running through each rock also aides our understanding. It is not only compositional but also allows the stone to resonate and the foundation to sing. Without technology, Burchell would not have been able to build the bridge joining humanity and nature together.

Carry with you the beauty of the Songsmith’s and let them be a reminder to interact, connect and build relationships with those around you. Replay the Earth’s song in your head and know that beneath you something genuinely incredible is happening.

Jenna Burchell is exhibiting at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in Somerset House, London until the 8th October. Find her on the first floor of the South Wing in room G27. 

Ryan_Stanier

In 2011 Ryan Stanier launched the Other Art Fair. Eliminating the middleman (galleries), Ryan created a space for artists to come and show their talent. Tremendously popular from the very beginning, the fair attracts more than 40,000 visitors and exhibits over 100 artists. The last London edition opening featured 130 contemporary artists, art investment tours and the much-anticipated Virtual Reality project, Underworld, by the Guardian. I met with Ryan in the hip part of Coven Garden last week to discuss how it all started and what we can expect in the future.

How did you come up with the idea for the Other Art Fair?

I don’t really have an art background. I got interested in art by being constantly surrounded by friends who are artists. And then I saw my friends struggle to produce an exhibition: it could be an amazing show, but nowhere accessible. That was the problem; it is so expensive to rent a space that artists have a little way out. They have little exposure; dealers and publicists don’t usually visit this kind of shows.

I thought, what if I create a show of the kind, but in Central London? It came out naturally, out of love for my friends. And that’s the thing: unless it comes out of your interest and passion, it has low chance to succeed. The material part was completely irrelevant at that stage. I looked for a space for a while, browsing around London, calling agents, and after hundreds of calls, I found one. I set up an informal gallery in Coven Garden in 2009. It was good timing, as after the financial crisis a lot of spaces were empty. We stayed at that place for a while putting up shows, selling art…

I realized after a while that I don’t want to be a gallerist. It wasn’t something I was interested in. My background in events gave me an idea to create a fair for artists, without galleries being involved. And so, the fair for the artists who don’t have an exclusive contract with a gallery was launched.

Did you think about the competition, big shots like Frieze?

Yes, but it’s a completely different market. We created a space where new collectors can come and buy art. We all go to big art fairs, but we don’t buy anything. There’s an experience, for sure. With that in mind, we decided to create something more accessible, more fun, and equally aspirational. We always knew how we are different with a unique position in the market. It’s all about the artists. People like Gordon Ramsey visit, we’ve been working with UBS for a while to create artworks for their offices… We’re also looking to launch an art prize.  We promote our artists and a lot of them make contacts through the Other Art Fair. It’s the same cost to rent a stand for everyone, so it comes down to the artists to make the most out of the fair.

How does the selection process work?

The upcoming fair had 1100 applications and we only have 100 slots. There’s a panel that selects artists, simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We’re interested in different types of mediums, so there are no specific selection criteria.

Who is your target customer?

It varies. We try to create a unique experience like nowhere else. We have a guest artist each fair, usually a known figure in the arts. For example, last year we had Tracy Emin create exclusive work for us in editions of 500, 50 pounds each. So, someone who has never bought art before could afford to buy an Emin. More than 50% of our audience has never bought art before, so we’re focusing on this ‘new collector’ type. The Other Art Fair is also interesting, it’s not intimidating. It’s never the same. What breaks all the barriers, I think, is that anyone can talk to artists and not a gallery sales person.

Tell me about your recent partnership with SaatchiArt.

It started last July. SaatchiArt is the biggest platform for artists, so we created the partnership where all the Other Art Fair artists are now available on SaatchiArt all year round. It came from my initial idea of how to help artists sell their work and create opportunities throughout the year.

Your first international edition was in Sydney last year. Why go to Australia first, and not, say, New York?

The city like London has around 30 art fairs a year, New York – twice more. In Sydney, there are only two art fairs every other year and such an enthusiasm for the arts from the public. It was a natural decision.

This year you’re expanding to New York, but not during the Frieze Week. Why?

In London, we run fairs both during the Frieze Week in October and one in the spring. The thing is, we haven’t noticed a large difference in visitor numbers and sales between the two. So, in NY we decided to develop a clear message about who we are and see who is interested in joining. We’re also expanding to Europe next year with 11 art fairs throughout the year.

Do you personally prefer museums or art galleries?

Museums. There’s no pressure and, you know, there are more impressive shows.

Do you have an advice for someone trying it out in the art world?

Don’t get overwhelmed by tradition. Don’t buy into it. Everyone will have to adapt to innovation.

 

P.S. Keep an eye on the place, in a few years it could be in your town.

Touria-el-Glaoui

I met Touria El Glaoui during the opening of 1:54 art fair this October. Already familiar with Touria’s tremendous success in not only establishing the fair four years ago, but also expanding to New York only two years after the inauguration, I was intrigued to meet her.

Elegant in her long silky dress with a stylish, and warm for English weather, cardigan, Touria made you feel 1:54 was not simply an art fair, but a home. The amiable, pleasant atmosphere of the Somerset House, which you don’t typically find in a large-scale art fair, made me feel like a guest to a home party, rather than a stranger in a museum. There was no sense of pretensiosness.

While we were sipping hot morning coffee and treating ourselves with a warm butter croissant, Touria shared how she built the brand, or better say the platform for contemporary African artists, and what it took to get 1:54 to the level of today.


You earned your MBA in Strategic Management and have an impressive background working both in banking and IT industries. What made you decide to turn to the art one?

I grew up in Morocco in the house of an artist – my father, Hassan El Galoui – and he was the person who gave me my artistic education. For this reason, art – particularly African art – has always been a part of my life. Much later on – in fact, during my career in the IT industry – I was travelling extensively around Africa and the Middle East, and this is when I fully realised how absent African and African diaspora artists were from the international markets in Europe and the US. Having the seen the incredible work being made on the continent, I decided it was time to the bridge the gap and create a platform.

How did you personal background (your farther is a famous artist) influence you throughout your career?

Many of my earliest memories are of my father’s studio with its incredible smell of oil paint. I would spend hours watching him transform his canvases, and the life of an artist became my daily norm. Because of this, my approach to running 1:54 has always been centred on the artist and on maintaining the integrity of the work. I have also organised and co-curated a number of my father’s exhibitions, and have also been working on the catalogue raisonné of his life’s work, and these experiences have certainly shown me much about the realities of being an artist working on the continent verses in Europe and America.

How did the idea for 1:54 come about? What challenges did you face/still facing?

When I established 1:54 back in 2013, the biggest challenge was finding both the interest and the support. This underpinned much of my decision to launch in London. In 2011 I could already see evidence of a growing interest in African and African diaspora art – for example with the Tate launching its two-year African art programme. I will never forget the incredible backing that I received in that first year, yet every year we continue to face the financial challenge of making the fair happen. We are incredible grateful this year to our main sponsor, Floreat, as well as to Christie’s education and the Arts Council England who have both sponsored this year’s FORUM.

Are you planning on expanding the fair to other locations? What’s the importance of having the fair now in both London and NY?

As I said, London was the most obvious ‘home’ for 1:54 for a few reasons, its internationality being one. Once London was up and running, we began to toy with the idea of New York, and began to see that our galleries and collectors were keen to make the move. We first launched as a pop-up edition, in May 2014, but returned again this year to enjoy our second edition. The two fairs are actually quite different due both to the buildings they are housed in as well as the different audiences they attract, and so the importance of having both editions is to widen the diversity and outreach of the fair. It’s very exciting for us when collectors are able to visit both.

Who’s your favourite artist?

This is always such a difficult question! I can never choose and it would be unfair for me to do so. All the artists and galleries that we welcome to each new edition brings something unique to 1:54 and my greatest hope is always that our visitors will explore and appreciate this diversity, and appreciate each artist in their own right.
6. Tell us what is new in this year’s edition of 1:54 art fair.

I am particularly excited about our incredible line up of Special Projects joining us this year. We have 10 in total, and each one is incredibly unique and will add a whole new element to the fair. Zac Ové’s installation, for example, will extend the fair into the Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court for the first time ever; Ifeanyi Oganwu’s lounge design – created in collaboration with Phoebe Boswell – and Barthélémy Toguo’s Mobile Cafeteria will introduce vibrant, interactive spaces; and we will also be extending out over the airwaves with a live three-day broadcast by a new music-radio platform, Worldwide FM. Of course the Malick Sidibé exhibition – created in collaboration with Somerset House and MAGNIN-A – is also incredible exciting. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to showcase such an influential African photographer, and to be able to extend the exhibition past the four days of the fair, throughout Somerset House’s winter season.

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1:54 Contemproary Art Fair, Somerset House Courtyard View. Zak Ove installation. Courtesy of Artsy.

Who are the artists to watch at 1:54 this year in London?

I want to draw attention to the fact that this year we are delighted to be welcoming 16 Africa-based galleries, of which 6 are from North Africa. Many of these are joining us in London for the first time, including Village Unhu from Harare, Zimbabwe; Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art from Cairo, Egypt; and L’Atelier 21 from Casablanca, Morocco.

What are your future plans for the fair and beyond?

1:54 is constantly evolving, this year we welcome an incredible 40 exhibitors with over 130 artists exhibiting with us this year. Despite this, we want our ethos to stay the same: to create a platform for African and African diaspora artists in the international art market while putting the artist first. In terms of expanding further afield, we first want to ensure that our London and New York editions are as good as they can be.

James Cannon, Portrait of Niru Ratman. Courtesy of START.

START Art Fair opens its third edition on September 15th in London. Located in the unique Saatchi Gallery, this new (compared to others) art fair is a star on the rise. Apart from featuring and showcasing emerging artists and galleries from all over the world, the fair also stands out for its curatorial projects. This year’s START Projects present works by Iraq-born and Qatari-based artist Mahmoud Obaidi.

The director of START is Niru Ratnam (check out his twitter). A believer in cultural globalization, Ratnam, who previously worked as Head of Development at Art14, brings the multicultural drive and global focus to the fair. We talked about START, London’s art scene and what Brexit could potentially mean for the art world.


What was the initial idea behind START and what is new in its third edition opening next week?

The idea behind START is very simple – an art fair set in a museum-quality location that focuses on emerging artists and new art scenes. There are lots of great art fairs around Europe so we wanted to do something that was a bit different – where you could go to and come away with a series of new discoveries. Ideally we want each visitor to go away with interests in artists and gallerists who they haven’t come across before. In terms of the setting, I wanted to move away from the trade show type venues that most art fairs go for and do something in the type of place that you’d normally visit for an exhibition – hence the Saatchi Gallery is our base.

In terms of what’s different, this year around half of the galleries participating are showing single artist presentations in START Solo — so the mixture of group presentations and solo presentations resembles the programme of a typical commercial gallery. We also have four fantastic Projects ranging from in-depth presentations of one artist’s practice to a vibrant group show of Taiwanese art and an artist-curated project.

Apart from its boutique-like setting at Saatchi Gallery, how does START differ from other art fairs happening in London?

We try to have quite a tight focus—on emerging artists and new art scenes. So the emphasis is very much on discovering artists and galleries who are new to you. Lots of these galleries are new to London audiences, so hopefully that gives the fair a little bit of a unique flavour.

START is relatively small scale compared to other art fairs. Would you think of expansion?

I  think fair organizers are realizing that viewers, no matter how expert, can only meaningfully look at a certain amount of art and artists at a fair. At a certain point, no matter how good a fair is, it becomes a blur, which means that the good stuff you seen gets forgotten. Also in terms of collectors, it just gets too confusing if there is too much to see.

How do you select artists for START Projects?

Travel! Seeing a lot and listening to hints from other people. This year, for instance, I’m delighted to bring Sumakshi Singh’s project to London having initially seen it at Exhibit320 in India earlier this year.
Obaidi, Peace. Project Confusianism. Courtesy of START.

Obaidi, Peace. Project Confusianism. Courtesy of START.

Again the emphasis is very much on looking at new art scenes in a bit more depth, so the opportunity to showcase Mahmoud Obaidi’s work in advance of his major museum show in Qatar, introducing him to London audiences at START makes perfect sense. He is exactly the type of artist that START is all about –somebody with a strong reputation in the region where he works but one who deserves recognition on a wider stage — and his participation as both artist and a curator in START Projects emphasizes the important role that established artists play in nurturing emerging talent in new art scenes where there is a relative scarcity of public institutions.

What are your future ambitions for START?

We tend to take each edition one at a time – we’re not a big art fair or organisation that will suddenly roll out three similar fairs around the world. So the main plan is simply to deliver a really great edition again!

What are your views on cultural globalisation being even more pronounced now due to political changes both in the UK and the world?

I think globalisation is a super-important topic right now particularly after Brexit, and I want the projects to show both the amazing positive side of globalisation but also some of the serious issues that have come with it. I have strongly advocated a globalised approach to art. I think that the cultural side of globalisation is needed, and needs to be stressed as a way of counter-acting the purely economic side of globalisation. In the light of Brexit, I am more convinced than ever that is important to affirm a belief in what cultural globalisation can bring to all of us.
Mark Grubb, For a Short Moment I Felt Nothing. Courtesy of Syson Gallery.

Mark Grubb, For a Short Moment I Felt Nothing. Courtesy of Syson Gallery.

Do you think London will still remain the heart of the art industry or will it shift in view of Brexit?

What Brexit really means is still unclear, as it seems very unlikely that too much is going to happen too soon. However, I would certainly expect less speculation for a while, at least in the London auction houses. I think the most important thing is to make a statement on where I think the majority of the UK’s art world are on this matter, and so to affirm an international outlook. Post the Brexit decision it is even more important for the art world to lead the way embracing globalisation and showing what a force for good it can be – so I’m glad that we’re showing galleries from so many different parts of the world.
SEE, LEARN, DISCOVER at START Art Fair September 15-18th at Saatchi Gallery.

China’s recent history is one full of social and political chaos. Chairman Mao Zedong resided as the country’s communist leader for nearly thirty years, responsible for the founding the People’s Republic of China, sending China into a deep economic crisis, and infamously inciting the riotous Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao had set out to purge the country of what he called “impure elements.” The youth of China backed Mao as they flooded across the country murdering teachers, closing schools, denouncing family members, burning books, and destroying China’s history.  Artist were cast out of society and only those who attended nationalized art schools and produced works in a factory-like manner with politically expedient content, were permitted. Today, we see how Chinese artists critique the Cultural Revolution and the Communist Party, shedding light on China’s societal issues, through their creative individuality.

Hung Liu

Hung Liu was born shortly after the Chinese Civil War in 1948. She was a prolific student and studied at the best private schools China had to offer. As the Cultural Revolution began, Liu was sent to be “re-educated” in a rural village. Before leaving Beijing, she borrowed a camera from a friend. She used this camera to take photos of villagers, their families, and their day to day struggles. At this point in time, the Cultural Revolution was in full bloom and Chinese culture was being threatened to extinction. Hung Liu’s photographs of those villagers served as a preservation of those individuals and to their culture.

      

Hung Liu, Village Photograph IV, c. 1969–1975; Courtesy of The Artist.

Hung Liu, Village Photograph IV, c. 1969–1975; Courtesy of The Artist.

After the Revolution, Liu went on to study fine arts and earned a her graduate degree in Muralist Painting. For three years she painted political propaganda in the Soviet Realist style, all the while secretly painting landscapes with miniature tools and paints she herself had made. Hung Liu desperately wanted artistic freedom and was granted just that when she was given permission to attend the University of California San Diego in 1983.

Hung Liu, Pullman, 2004. Photographed at the Hunter Museum of American Art by Taylor Vance

Hung Liu, Pullman, 2004. Photographed at the Hunter Museum of American Art by Taylor Vance

Liu often paints from photographs of Chinese social outcasts: prostitutes, laborers, and prisoners. The realistic nature and size of her characters reflect her practice in Soviet Realism and Muralism. However, she manipulates the image by running paint down the canvas, which gives the effect of a photograph faded by time. The characters in each piece look as though they are disintegrating right before our eyes; a possible commentary on the lives lost and forgotten during the Cultural Revolution.

Hung Liu, Winter Blossom, 2011. Courtesy of Magnolia Editions

Hung Liu, Winter Blossom, 2011. Courtesy of Magnolia Editions

Hung Liu recently retired from her position as a professor at Mills College, but she continues to paint and has worldwide exhibitions.

Ma Desheng

Ma Desheng was a self taught artist, mainly because he was deemed unfit to be trained in fine arts at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Desheng worked as an industrial draftsman and woodblock print artist, using traditional Chinese ink.

Desheng produced a series of images of rock-like figures and portrayals of China’s working class. These images were stark contradictions to the suppressive propaganda that Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were feeding the people.

Ma Desheng, Untitled 19, 1980. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

Ma Desheng, Untitled 19, 1980. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

His early productions were un-romanticized images that displayed the realities of what was happening to China. The dark rigid lines evoke a sense of inner turmoil, similar to that of the artwork of the German artists, Käthe Kollwitz or Edvard Munch.

In 1970, Ma Desheng was influential in the founding of Star Group ( or Xing Xing). This group consisted of self taught, Western-influenced artists who fought for individualism and liberation against the Cultural Revolution. Ma Desheng and the Star Group bravely defied the government when they put on an exhibition of their own work across the street from the National Art Museum in Beijing. It was, of course, shut down by authorities and Ma was arrested for his involvement in organizing such an exhibit.The Star Group went on to lead a rally against the authorities and were successful in opening a second show; some say it was this rally that helped Chinese society become more culturally open.

Ma Desheng, ROCKS 1, 2012. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

Ma Desheng, ROCKS 1, 2012. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

Not long after Star Group’s second show, Ma Desheng moved to Europe, as did many of the other members. He continues to live and work in Paris, but there is no doubt that his passionate commitment to freedom of expression helped pave the way for future Chinese artists.   

Zhang Xiaogang

One of China’s most well known and successful artists, Zhang Xiaogang, was also a witness to China’s Cultural Revolution. His parents were government officials but were sent away to be “re-educated” at the height of the Revolution—an event that greatly affects his work.

He studied at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts after the Cultural Revolution ended, but his professors were persistent in teaching the style of Soviet Realism. Zhang resisted this style and any philosophy that had to do with collectiveness in society. He founded a group focused on the importance of individualism in philosophy and art called the Southwest Art Group. Though somewhat successful with nearly eighty artists in the group, the Tiananmen Square incident happened not long after and the era of liberal reform ceased completely.

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3; Image courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang / Pace Beijing

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3; Image courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang / Pace Beijing

It wasn’t until 1992 when Zhang returned from Germany after 3 months that he knew exactly what he wanted to paint. He stated that he “could see a way to paint the contradictions between the individual and the collective.” His portrayals of those contradictions are what make his paintings so eerily captivating. Most of his work is themed after family photographs but there is always some sort of strange mark or difference in color that makes them unique to one another. The child, who is typically centered, is the most defined. This can be taken as Zhang’s commentary on the youth of the Cultural Revolution and their willingness to disown their families and personal histories.

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No.1; Courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang and Studio/Daegu Art Museum

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No.1; Courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang and Studio/Daegu Art Museum

Zhang Xiaogang’s artwork has shown world wide and he is easily one of the most prominent Chinese contemporary artist of today.

Yue Minjun

Beijing-based artist, Yue Minjun, also captures that theme of contradiction that Zhang Xiaogang displays. Yue Minjun was born in 1962 and studied oil painting at the Hebei Normal University in 1985. His work is done in a style that has been coined as “Cynical Realism,” and they are iconically uncomfortable. Most of the paintings are self-portraits of the artist with pink skin, laughing maniacally in surreal backgrounds while bent over in an attempt to cover an exposed body, vulnerable in only underwear.

Yue Minjun, Blue Sky and White Clouds, 2013; Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris — Pace Beijing

Yue Minjun, Blue Sky and White Clouds, 2013; Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris — Pace Beijing

These cartoon like images are politically pointed at the Cultural Revolution and China today. Minjun states that “…laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has imposed on us.” This laughter evokes a strange feeling to the viewer. You feel as if you were looking at someone that had just gone through a mental breakdown and had experienced an intense amount of pain, dehumanized, but has an odd instinct to laugh. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that, this is how Minjun see’s the China today; as society that has been through so much within recent years but does not know how to deal appropriately with the pain.

Xu Bing

The now world renowned artist, Xu Bing, was in high school when the Cultural Revolution broke out. Determined to stay in Beijing and continue his studies, he agreed to use his talents in calligraphy to create political propaganda. After he graduated, he was sent to the countryside to work in the fields and was not able to return until the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. Xu was accepted into Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts the following year to study printmaking.

Xu Bing, Book from the Sky; Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art

Xu Bing, Book from the Sky; Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art

The relationship between words and interpretation seems to be the core theme in Xu Bing’s work. In his grandiose installation, “Book from the Sky,” large scrolls hang from the ceiling and traditionally bound books and newspapers line the floor and walls, all stamped with woodblocks carved with made-up, nonsensical Chinese characters. The fact that nothing is literally being said in this piece results in many different interpretations. Is the installation a focus on Chinese tradition versus modern art? Is it a questioning of how different cultures perceive one another? Is it a commentary on the manipulation of words to achieve power, like in Mao’s case? Or is it a meaningless study of form and repetition? There are grounds for each of these questions within the piece and its intriguing quality is one of the reasons “Book from Sky” is such an international hit within the art world.  

Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang is probably best known around the world for his firework show at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but Cai’s artistry goes far beyond his pyrotechnic displays. He studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy from 1981 through 1985, which is evident in the spatial rendering seen in his large installations, paintings and performance pieces.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard; 1999; Photo by Elio Montanari

Cai Guo-Qiang, Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard; 1999; Photo by Elio Montanari

One of his most famous pieces was an installation he was commissioned to do for the 48th Venice Biennale, entitled, “Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard.” The installation consisted of 114 clay sculptures of peasants and laborers interspersed within the gallery’s setting.The piece created quite the stir amongst the art world as it closely resembled the famous Social Realist sculpture “Rent Collection Courtyard”: a highly political series of sculptures created during the Cultural Revolution. The stir wasn’t only because of Cai’s replica of the Chinese classic, but because he choose a material that would cause the sculptures to disintegrate as the show went on; a possible statement on Mao’s promises to the Chinese people and the ephemerality of their political and social structures.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Carnival Rehearsal, 2013; Photo by Joana França

Cai Guo-Qiang, Carnival Rehearsal, 2013; Photo by Joana França

Many of Cai Guo-Qiang works seem to embody a theme of unforeseen fate. In many of his paintings, he will scatter gunpowder on an already painted canvas, and ignite it. The result displays a combination of the controlled color of the actual paint, and the sporadic, random markings of the burnt gunpowder. This theme is also evident in his installation “Head On” where sculptures of wolves take off running and soaring through the air. The momentum of the piece is brutally interrupted as the wolves run, “head on,” into a wall a plexi glass and fall gracelessly to the floor.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Head On, 2006; Photo by Hiro Ihara

Cai Guo-Qiang, Head On, 2006; Photo by Hiro Ihara

It is often said that an artist’s role in society is to be instrument of the time; to reflect society back to itself, to be a catalyst of change, and to articulate culture. It is fair to say that these artists, and many other Chinese artists, are doing just that.  

No matter what time of year it is, chances are there is a biennial happening somewhere around the world. During certain years, the art world flocks to major cities like Venice or São Paulo—or remote places like Kassel, Germany or Dakar—to view some of the world’s greatest contemporary art. Since the 1990s these large-scale international contemporary art exhibitions have become the main way of exhibiting and publicizing international contemporary art.

Today, major biennials exist on every continent, everywhere from Sydney to Shanghai, with more than 150 established biennials in total. They have become such a craze that a non-profit called the Biennial Foundation was formed just to monitor their behavior. Confusingly though, not all of these exhibitions happen every two years, some are triennials (Yokohama Triennale) or quadrennials (Copenhagen Arts Festival—formerly the U-turn Quadriennale), but because all of these exhibitions follow the same general structure, they are all grouped under the biennial umbrella. Essentially, what distinguishes biennials from art fairs, like Frieze in London or Art Basel in Miami, is the fact that biennials are much larger, taking place in multiple venues across the given city, and, most importantly, the works displayed are not for sale. Biennials function as temporary exhibitions for contemporary art, not as galleries.

Padiglione Centrale Giardini, Venezia, 2010 Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia

Padiglione Centrale, Giardini, Venezia, 2010
Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti. Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia

The concept of the biennial has roots in the 19th and early 20th century phenomena of the World’s Fair and Universal Exhibition. The word biennial comes from the Italian word biennale, meaning every other year, and refers to the original biennial—the Venice Biennale. The first Venice Biennale, in 1895, celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of Italy’s King Umberto and Queen Margherita. It was held at the Palazzo dell’ Esposizione, a public space called the Giardini on the Riva degli Schiavoni in Venice. The exhibition was hugely popular, and became a bi-annual (biennial) event. By the early 20th century many different countries had built pavilions in the Giardini to house their country’s art during the exhibition. During the first half of the 20th century, the pavilions featured an assortment of works by the country’s best artists. In the post-war years, the style of the exhibition began to shift towards more curated and thematic displays.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop and G124 (Senator Renzo Piano’s Working Group) L’architetto condotto 15th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, REPORTING FROM THE FRONT. Photo by: Francesco Galli Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

Renzo Piano Building Workshop and G124 (Senator Renzo Piano’s Working Group)
L’architetto condotto; 15th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, REPORTING FROM THE FRONT. Photo by: Francesco Galli. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

The current global biennial structure was developed in the 1990s. Most biennials follow the general structure of the Venice Biennale, which has both a series of national pavilions that exhibit work from their country’s artists, all with individually curated themes, and a larger overarching exhibition curated by the biennial directors that is often linked to a different theme. As the art world became increasingly globalized in the late 1990s, the biennial phenomenon has also taken on a diplomatic element. These exhibitions bring together works of art from all over the world under one general curatorial theme, which is often connected to international social or political issues. For example, the 2016 Venice Biennale theme is “Reporting from the Front.”

Although the biennial model of contemporary art exhibitions has been debated, the idea of exhibitions that survey global contemporary art have been perceived as largely positive. The growth of biennial culture has been connected with fostering diplomatic relations between nations as well as promoting the growth of cultural tourism. Large-scale biennials draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world, and have certainly helped to generate tourism in previously under-visited destinations. Through these visitors the art displayed at biennials circulates around the world—every visitor returns from biennials with a list of top new artists to watch.

Justine Gaga, Indignation : installation, dimensions variables, 2012, © Justine Gaga. Dak'Art 2014 : Exposition International Village de la Biennale. Photo : Willy Kemtane

Justine Gaga, Indignation : installation, dimensions variables, 2012, © Justine Gaga. Dak’Art 2014 : Exposition International Village de la Biennale. Photo: Willy Kemtane

With the increasing globalization of the art world, many biennials focused on non-Western art have emerged since the 1990s. One of the most important of these is DAK’ART, the Dakar Biennale, founded in 1992. This biennial focuses on contemporary African art or works of black artists around the world. It is the largest exposition of contemporary African art and draws in visitors and artists from all over the globe to Senegal. Also, with the growing power of the Asian art market, major biennials are now located in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Japan, which attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. A major exhibition of non-western art is also hosted every two years in Havana, Cuba. While originally dedicated only to Caribbean and Latin American art, the biennial has expanded to include work of artists from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as well.

While biennials have a long history, they have evolved dramatically in the past thirty years. They have essentially transformed from World’s Fairs into the major place for viewing, circulating, and discussing global contemporary art.