August 3, 2016
“I am full of a sense of promise, like I often have, the feeling of always being at the beginning.” — Diane Arbus, July 1957
With more than 100 never-before-seen photographs, the Met Breuer’s Diane Arbus: In the Beginning explores the early work of a photographer considered by many to be one of the most influential and provocative artists of the 20th century. The exhibit focuses on the first seven years of the artist’s prolific career, from 1956 to 1962, the period in which she developed the idiosyncratic style for which she is now known. The majority of the photographs included in the exhibition are part of the museum’s vast Diane Arbus Archive, acquired in 2007 by gift and promised gift from the artist’s daughters, Doon Arbus and Amy Arbus. The works are intentionally presented neither in sequential nor thematic order, allowing the viewer to wander through the maze-like exhibit any way they choose. That is to say, with no beginning and no end.
Born to an affluent New York family in 1923, Diane Arbus was fascinated by photography even before she received her first professional camera in 1941 at the age of 18, a present from her husband, actor and photographer Allan Arbus. She photographed intermittently for the next 15 years while working with him as a stylist in their fashion photography company, which gained such notable clients as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour. In 1956, however, she quit the commercial photography business, and began taking classes at the New School under photographer Lisette Model, the artist’s mentor and lifelong friend. That same year, Arbus numbered a roll of 35mm film #1, as if to claim to herself that this moment would be her definitive beginning.
In addition to Arbus’s photographs, also on view are works by her two biggest influencers, Lisette Model and portraitist August Sander, as well as some of Arbus’s contemporaries. The exhibit also presents photographs from the artist’s only portfolio, A box of ten photographs. Among these images are some of Arbus’s most iconic works, such as Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967; Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, New York, 1970; and A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966. Like so many artists, Arbus only achieved real fame after her death in 1971 at the age of 48 when she took her own life. She did exhibit in major venues during her lifetime, but even then, her work was often polarizing. Young Man in Curlers was notably spat on during a group exhibition at MoMA in 1967. A print of this work sold at auction in 2004 for $198,400.
In her work Arbus explores the fine line between fact and fiction, the candid and the posed, revealing something fundamental to human nature. We behave differently when we are being observed—we tend to perform for one another. In fact, many of Arbus’s subjects were performers, from “female impersonators” to circus acts and cartoon characters who straddle that oh-so familiar line between real and imaginary.
While reading the gallery copy of the exhibition catalogue, I happened to sit down next to Patricia Bosworth, journalist and author of a 1984 biography on Arbus. Mrs. Bosworth was having a lively conversation with her husband about the show. They lamented over a lack of “honesty” in the show, as well as the absence of her biography and Arthur Lubow’s recent biography in the museum’s pop-up bookstore, which only sells books published by Phaidon. As for the lack of “honesty,” I believe Mrs. Bosworth was referring to the fact that the museum glossed over some of the most interesting and controversial aspects of the artist’s life, from her open marriage and active libido to her lifelong struggle with clinical depression, details which both Lubow and Bosworth include in their biographies. It is no coincidence that Arbus quit commercial photography during the rise of counterculture in the 1950s and 60s–she documented this culture as much as she was a part of it.
Arbus once said “Something is ironic in the world and it has to do with the fact that what you intend never comes out like you intend it.” A photograph only represents a split second in time, but in these small moments Arbus was able to capture the humanity in her subjects in a way that many others cannot. You stand in front of them and they return your gaze, asking you to consider the reality of their lives. Whatever conclusions you may draw about these subjects or the intentions of the photographer, it does not take away from one simple truth. At least you know they exist.
Diane Arbus: In the Beginning is on view at the Met Breuer through November 27, 2016.
A week ago, I found it nearly impossibly to look away from C-SPAN’s coverage of the Republican National Convention. The rowdy fanfare of the RNC appears more like a circus than a political conference. No matter how one aligns themselves politically, most people can agree that the upcoming election has been prime material for art and entertainment. Throughout history, politics have seeped their way into the art world. Often artists sneak subtle political statements into their work, or will directly address contentious political issues in very explicit ways. In the world of contemporary art, Swedish artist Johan Wahlstrom is continuing this tradition of politically themed artwork with his harrowing and provocative acrylic and ink paintings. Although Wahlstrom started out as a musician, he always painted as a hobby and after touring with a rock band for many years, he moved from Stockholm to a small village in France to pursue painting full time.
Today, Wahlstrom is based in Spain and continues to paint pieces that explore the dark underbelly of modern society and politics. Wahlstrom paints in a neo-expressionist style and cites a diverse range of artists that include Paul Klee, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Jackson Pollack as his influences. His dark inky colors and thick brushwork create portraits of modern life that are simultaneously hazy and abstract and frighteningly realistic. As a former rock musician, Wahlstrom is not afraid to provoke and rile up his audience. His paintings are dark, confrontational, and frighteningly resonant. Upon viewing his painting “Heil Trump,” I was reminded of a similar politically themed work by the German Dadaist John Heartfield, entitled “Adolf the Super Man: Swallows Gold and Spits Tin,” which is an explicit critique of Adolf Hitler. Wahlstrom’s “Vote for Me,” another portrait of Donald Trump, features the presidential candidate’s head surrounded by terrifying abstract figures, representing his loyal followers. “Punch them Hard,” an acrylic work by Wahlstrom is equally disturbing and shows Trump giving a thumbs up while chaos ensues in the background. This is a visual representation of Trump’s verbal encouragement of his followers to attack protesters. This series of Trump portraits evokes the mob mentality and frenzy of Trump’s rallies. Wahlstrom attacks other issues such as immigration in his “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” series, which poignantly captures the plight of immigrants and refugees.
As a former rock musician, Johan Wahlstrom is not afraid to provoke and rile up his audience. His paintings are dark, confrontational, and frighteningly resonant. His piece “Too Much Trump” in particular is an apt depiction of Trump’s pervasive presence in the media, his angry scowl taunting the viewer. Wahlstrom’s favorite piece from his body of work is “You Can’t Trust” from 2011, which he refuses to sell and hangs in his living room. Wahlstrom was so satisfied with the piece, that he took a 2 month hiatus from painting. This particular painting is his favorite because he associates it with the catharsis and satisfaction he experienced while working on it. The experience was “magical” for Wahlstrom, he felt like he was inside of his own work and not slaving away in a studio.
Despite Wahlstrom’s sinister aesthetic and disturbing subject matter, he paints with a profound passion and love for his craft. His favorite part of the creative process is conceiving the title or theme behind his work, which eventually determines what will end up on the canvas. For Wahlstrom technique is not the most crucial aspect of great art, but rather “the feeling and messages” behind the work in question.
Wahlstrom’s artist’s’ statement reads:
“I paint to keep myself insane.
I paint anxiety to be calm.
I paint war to have peace.
I paint sadness to be happy.
I paint the dark to be in the light.
I paint death to be alive.
I paint a story so that I don’t have to tell a story.”
In the future, Wahlstrom hopes “to be able to do stronger paintings with political statements, social criticism, to be part of making the world a better place for future generations.”
July 21, 2016
Making my way up 22nd Street in Long Island City towards UOVO Fine Art Storage, the midday sun soaked the pavement in shimmering heat which wrapped around my ankles in heavy tendrils. The vast, 280,000 square foot minimalist building loomed closer, its front dosed in cobalt blue with Queensboro Bridge stretching beyond, disappearing into the city—I imagined the stifling streets of Manhattan, choked by humidity. Half of a song later, I was standing before UOVO’s glass entrance. After two attempts at tugging open the door, I realized the small doorbell to my right. Pausing for a moment, and hearing nothing, I gave another wholehearted tug, and almost tripped backwards as the door happily obliged, swinging open effortlessly and breathing a sigh of cool air.
The reception area is reminiscent of the lobby of a chic, boutique hotel one may find in Chelsea or SoHo, sleek and minimalist while remaining warm and hospitable. However, the space also retained a certain sense of a gallery setting: absolutely pristine, from the perfectly buffed concrete floors to the polite, hushed greeting from the two, well-dressed receptionists. The walls play host to artworks from UOVO’s founder, art collector Steve Guttman’s personal collection. A few guests relax on the mid-century modern furniture, sipping cold brew out of blue, UOVO marked glasses and chatting quietly. I suddenly found myself wondering if I had somehow stumbled into the wrong place.
It’s safe to say that already my experience of UOVO is not what one expects, nor what one normally finds, when they visit a storage facility. From my observations alone, storage facilities, even ones used by gallerists or collectors to safeguard artworks, are usually dark and dingy. They consist of a gruff guard behind thick glass who shoves a clipboard under your nose, and grumpily takes you up a grated industrial elevator to a cold and damp floor where they leave you to wander until you find your unit. This, of course, doesn’t take into consideration the fact that you must then attempt to remember the exact location of the piece you need, which usually ends in having to pull out half of the unit’s contents to access the art, and then—Tetris style—putting everything back. One can extrapolate that Guttman had an experience similar to the one I have described above, for UOVO’s facility boasts something of quite the opposite nature.
My musings were interrupted by the introduction of my tour-guide, UOVO’s Marketing and Communications Associate, Hannah Schmidt. After a short exchange and the light touch of a keycard, I was brought into a wide, curving hallway that bent out of site. Upon inquiring about the card access system, Hannah informed me that the keycard is the kernel of UOVO’s custom-designed, UL rated security system. It is programmed with specific electronic pathways for individual holders, and tracks a person’s movements throughout the facility. During my time at UOVO, she would use her card to access all of the public spaces in the building, including the elevators.
As we walked down the hall deeper into the building, the gradient of the wall slowly deepened into a royal blue, beckoning the viewer forward. After commenting, Hannah informs me that it is a site-specific installation by Belgian artist Pieter Vermeersch. Drawing my attention away from the artwork, she points to a large, closed overhead door on the opposite wall. With enthusiasm, she tells me that recently, the space, one of six large viewing rooms on site, was used by a client to host a month-long public exhibition of their collection. Continuing on, we encountered two extremely fashionable women hurriedly pushing a rack of beautiful garments, their hands encased in short, wrist-length silk gloves, skirts flitting around their ankles. Before I could further investigate their outfits, they disappeared into another of the viewing rooms, the large, bright space enveloped in billowing fabrics and haute couture. The scene dissipated, swallowed by the curving wall.
Before exploring the upper floors of the facility, Hannah led me to the loading docks, nine in total. Passing through an airlock door, we entered the loading docks. The hangar-like space reminded me of something out of a sci-fi movie, and despite the sterility of the docks, fully enclosed for climate control, it was bright and airy. When entering the facility, artworks pass through two covered loading docks and an airlock chamber to provide the proper protection against environmental factors. While surveying the space, she described UOVO’s electronic barcoding system. Artwork is scanned into the facility using an iPhone integrated digital barcode system. As the art is moved, it is scanned into its new location, providing for convenient retrieval of a work.
Exiting the loading docks, I was informed that I was stepping into a separate building, passing over the 8-inch seismic gap that ensures the structure can move relatively free from the ground should an earthquake occur, preventing damage. She also noted that the building is a post-Hurricane Sandy structure, comprised of concrete and steel, and resting 16 feet above sea level, whereas FEMA only recommends structures to be 7 feet above sea level to be out of the flood zone. It seems that the $200 million worth of artwork destroyed by Sandy has not been forgotten by art dealers and collectors alike.
In the elevator on our way upstairs, Hannah informed me that the airflow throughout the building was designed by William Lull, who has worked with both MoMA and The Met in the past. Stepping out of the elevator, white storage units, or rather, private rooms, sprawl out across the expansive space. Like the loading docks, the area doesn’t feel stifling but rather very spacious. Some clients have their doors open, exposing rooms that blend together the luxury of a private office with the functionality of storage—a man, deep in concentration, bends over a desk placed in the center of the space surrounded by racks of paintings. Noticing my curiosity, Hannah comments that clients frequently use their storage rooms as workspaces. A few units down, a UOVO employee gives a tour to a potential client. As I pass the pair, I overhear the employee describe UOVO’s ability to customize a private room to each client’s specific needs with the help of the in-house spatial planners.
However, as Hannah tells me, not all clients need frequent, active access to their art, nor do they require substantial storage space—this is where UOVO’s concierge storage comes into play. Artwork is stored in a large, co-mingled space only accessible to UOVO’s art technicians while still affording the client all of UOVO’s core services, such as collection management, packing and crating, and transportation. Also, a shared work space and a private room for collection-related services is available to those with works in concierge storage.
Making our way up to the 8th floor, Hannah quickly checks to see if any meeting rooms are available: “you have to see the view,” she tells me. Luckily, the conference room was open. Like other common areas throughout UOVO, artworks and furniture from Guttman’s collection decorated the room. A large wooden screen with mirrors by Phillip Powell complements the dark wood table and Vilhelm Lauritzen chairs. However, the room’s best feature is the large window that provides a spectacular view of Manhattan, with Midtown East seeming to be only a stone’s throw away. The prospect was a reminder of how close Long Island City is to the city, easily accessible by car, as well as the multitude of trains that converge in the area.
Pulling myself away from the view and surveying the conference room, I concluded that the convenience provided by UOVO’s facility would be difficult to ignore. A client can host viewings and showcase work, hold meetings, and store their artwork all in the same location, without needing to schlep works back and forth between a storage unit and a viewing space. Also, no more inexperienced interns lugging poorly packaged pieces down 10th Avenue, everything is handled by the UOVO technicians.
On our way back to the reception area, Hannah took a circuitous route, pausing to show me what could be described as the epicenter of UOVO’s cultural community, the client café. As UOVO’s clientele is comprised of individuals from all different sectors of the art world, the café is a place for clients to converge over coffee or lunch. Moreover, the communal area contributes to UOVO’s all-in-one, community and culturally-oriented space.
UOVO’s Long Island City facility is akin to a members-only collective—they are extremely protective of their clients’ privacy—paired with the hospitality of a 5-star hotel. With elements of today’s shared workspaces, UOVO is defined by its versatility and its promotion of innovation; beyond simply storage, the facility provides collectors, dealers, and advisors with the opportunity to interact with their art in new and creative ways, hassle-free. As my tour ended, I realized that at the heart of UOVO is a desire, a need, to care for and preserve our shared cultural legacy.
On my way out, I stop to enjoy a cold brew in the reception area—they even know how to do coffee right.
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 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.
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.
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 recently retired from her position as a professor at Mills College, but she continues to paint and has worldwide exhibitions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’s artwork has shown world wide and he is easily one of the most prominent Chinese contemporary artist of today.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier this year Ai Weiwei released his new project in Berlin which involved wrapping the columns of the Konzerthaus in 14,000 salvaged refugee life jackets to raise awareness of the plight of displaced people all over the world. With life jackets taken from those who arrived on the Greek Island of Lesbos after facing the dangers of the treacherous Mediterranean sea, Weiwei has created a piece that both the world and Berlin cannot ignore. The sheer scale of the installation highlights the sheer amount of suffering that these people face and as the blaring orange of the lifejackets has captured the attention of the world, we can only hope that these people will try to do something to change the situation of those in need.
This is not the first time that Weiwei has been seen in the headlines for his art this year. In January, Weiwei revealed he would be withdrawing his work from a show he was currently involved in within Copenhagen after new legislation was implemented by Denmark’s parliament which would delay families from being reunited and gave the authorities the right to confiscate the possessions of migrants in order to dissuade them from seeking asylum. The law provoked international outrage from many people including an array of human rights groups and Weiwei himself released a statement saying ‘The way I can protest is that I can withdraw my works from that country. It is very simple, very symbolic – I cannot co-exist, I cannot stand in front of these people, and see these policies. It is a personal act, very simple; an artist trying not just to watch events but to act, and I made this decision spontaneously.’
Through his actions, it is clear to see that Weiwei is a hugely important figure in showcasing that art is political and that it is not merely an aesthetic form. Art is not shallow or meaningless and when it is put into the hands of someone like Ai Weiwei it can bring political issues to a range of people. Weiwei himself is no stranger to political turmoil and disruption with it featuring throughout his life from being beaten by police officials to being held in jail for extended amounts of time with no official charges. Both Weiwei’s life and career has been shaped by political authority who have not only impinged on his right to freedom but on his creativity as well with the demolition of his studio in 2011 by officials showing how this is an artist who knows how it feels to persecuted. Weiwei has suffered at the hands of tyrannical regimes just like the ones that refugees are fleeing from everyday and therefore there is an affinity between the artist and the people who provide inspiration for his work, there is a shared suffering between the creator and the subject.
Interestingly, the artist has not only chosen to explore these important issues through large scale projects, he is also utilising platforms within the social media world and particularly through Instagram. The artist posts videos and photographs documenting his time spent with refugees which includes anything from images of the people he encounters to the conditions they have to live with. These digital expressions act as a juxtaposition from the work people usually associated with Weiwei but they relay instant and important messages. Through this platform, the artist can posts daily and continual images that highlight the struggle these people are facing, meaning that the issue can never fade out of sight. It would be impossible for Weiwei to erect one of his large scale sculptures everyday or have an exhibition in every city in the world, but through the Internet he can spread his political and artistic message and people are able to interact with it almost instantly with Weiwei’s Instagram page having over two hundred thousand followers. You don’t need to be an art buff to recognise and acknowledge the suffering that the people in these images are facing and therefore by utilising social media, the artist can speak to a brand new audience and spread the message of their plight even further.
The refugee crisis is important and it should not be ignored, and with figures like Weiwei the world is waking up and the permeation of this political crisis into the world of art shows that this issue cannot and should not be ignored. Throughout history, art has been there to express some of the most important moments that define the world that we live in and I think Weiwei’s work is no exception. Art and culture can hold so much power and through these sculptures, photographs and videos, this power is being harnessed and I believe it can go a lot further. Ai Weiwei is an artist who has taken on both his own suffering and the suffering of others and has managed to take a stand through his work, and if you enjoy Weiwei’s piece perhaps you should consider stepping up and trying to make a difference too.
June 17, 2016
In a seemingly unstoppable and swift movement—galleries, art dealers, art aficionados, trend-spotters, and urban socialites—are flocking to the Lower East Side to enjoy the charms of the experimental food scene, hip and often quirky bars at every corner, the thriving nightlife, and of course, the ubiquitous art presence. From street art, to endless graffiti tags and random public installations, the art scene is evidently booming especially as many galleries, established and new, make their way downtown to partake in the infinite energy.
Located solidly in the Lower East Side, right next to Two Bridges and a just a few blocks from the East River, Sargent’s Daughters first opened its doors in November 2013 as the joint venture of dealer Allegra LaViola and Meredith Rosen, former director of BravinLee programs in Chelsea.
The East Broadway physical location was converted from LaViola’s eponymous gallery into the current gallery space. In an area mostly dedicated to minimalist, conceptual, and experimental contemporary art, Sargent’s Daughters stands out as a gallery focusing on more traditional mediums such as painting, drawing, and sculpture with the intent to bridge the gap between the historic and classical and more modern contemporary aesthetics. LaViola and Rosen search for innovation within already established mediums, genres, and aesthetic conceptions to prove that the contemporary can have strong ties to the past in interesting and meaningful ways. Quality with a sense of tradition and lineage trump overt flash and quirky trends in this gallery space.
Owner and Director, Meredith Rosen, shares what this joint venture is all about with Art Versed as well as her views on working within the art world.
What is Sargent’s Daughters mission?
Our interest is in artists whose work combines the qualities of tradition and cutting edge.
In addition to exhibitions by represented gallery artists, Sargent’s Daughters creates collaborations as a platform for exploring new conversations within a wider context of galleries, artists and objects.
What were the motivations behind making the switch in 2013 from working at BravinLee programs in Chelsea to opening Sargent’s Daughters in the Lower East Side with Allegra LaViola?
I wanted to be able to work with artists and create ambitious exhibitions without the constraints of an existing platform. My partnership with Allegra had a lot to do with timing and instinct.
As a relatively recent space, was it difficult getting the gallery up on its feet?
Of course! To do anything well is very hard, but I love the challenge. I think the gallery model is constantly changing so as a dealer you can never get too comfortable.
Everyone seems to be saying that the Lower East Side is turning into the new gallery quarter—what were your reasons for moving into the neighborhood and has the location proved favorable to you?
We love our location. It’s a great space, across from a park and right next to the subway.
I’ve read in previous interviews that you chose the name “Sargent’s Daughters” in reference to John Singer Sargent, regarding him as a risqué innovator within his time. Can you explain this concept in relation to contemporary art and how it fits into your vision for the gallery?
We loved that John Singer Sargent was an innovator working in a traditional medium and wanted this statement to represent the context of our growing program. We exhibit work that has a strong historical lineage by artists who push the limits of contemporary art today – formally through various mediums and intellectually through their choice of content.
What kind of artists, if there even is a specific, are you looking to represent?
We aren’t interested in a specific kind of work. We are always interested in work of the highest quality whether it’s something brand new or shedding new light on an artist with an established presence.
Do you have a favorite from the shows you’ve put on?
Our last exhibition by Cy Gavin is one of our best exhibitions to date. I really feel each show gets better and better as we have more experience, reflect on past exhibitions and create a stronger dialogue with gallery artists.
What makes Sargent’s Daughters different from other galleries?
When we opened most galleries on the LES were interested in building programs with young and emerging artists. We didn’t open with a roster of artists. We started putting together the best shows we possibly could with the artists we discovered and established artists that we admire.
Do you have any future plans for the gallery that drastically differ from what you are doing now?
To hopefully grow our program and with the artists we bring to the table.
What are your thoughts on the art market today and the increasing interest and importance of art fairs and biennials?
I think art fairs are very important to build an international audience for wide range of artists. I find it very interesting to go to an event where I can see so many dealers in action. You can learn so much by example.
Who is your favorite non-contemporary artist?
What is your favorite museum (world-wide range)?
Fondation Beyeler – I look forward to seeing their exhibitions every June when in Basel.
179 E Broadway, New York, NY
June 13, 2016
Before this massive retrospective, I had only seen a few of Cindy Sherman’s portraits here and there. That’s what made The Broad’s first special exhibition, Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life, so overwhelming to me. I was taken aback by the vast expansion of her creativity.
The Broad’s exhibit holds over 120 works by Sherman and is curated by Philipp Kaiser. Kaiser flawlessly presents Edye and Eli Broad’s collection, the largest Sherman collection in the world, as well with works on loan from Metro Pictures, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Menil Collection, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, all with Sherman herself as the subject.
The retrospective covers over forty years of Sherman’s work, and is curated in a loosely chronological order including works from the centerfolds, the fairy tales, the history portraits, the sex pictures, the clown pictures, society portraits, and a full length feature film entitled Office Killer. The exhibition begins with her Untitled Film Stills in 1975 and concludes with works completed this year. Kaiser’s curation perfectly captures Sherman’s artistic evolution. The exhibition itself feels like its own museum due to the drastic variations in her style. If a viewer walks in only having heard the name “Cindy Sherman,” they leave enthralled by Sherman’s chameleon-like talent to move through the barriers of genre that define so many other artists.
Upon arrival, the viewer is immediately greeted by two floor-to-ceiling murals of Sherman, imagined by the artist herself for the exhibition. One instantly gets the impression that this exhibit will be intense, humbling and exciting. Reminiscent of film stills, these murals perfectly tie in both Los Angeles and the influence of film, pop culture, and the stereotypes involved in both pop culture and film that have had a profound effect on Sherman’s work and, in turn, her identity as an artist.
The first gallery holds Sherman’s black and white film stills and is an impeccable introduction to those unfamiliar with her work. In one, she is seen standing in the corner of a room with her hand on her hip in an apron and long dress. In Untitled Film Still #47, we see Sherman in another classic 50’s inspired look: she is pantless and wearing a white collared shirt with a straw hat and big sunglasses. She seems to be caught in the midst of gardening and surprised by the intrusion of a viewer, as the viewer has been placed in the perspective of the photographer. Quickly, one can recognize the sacrifice of Sherman’s own identity as an individual and, in this case, her submersion into an identity characterized by the clichés and stereotypes of women in the 50’s and 60’s.
The exhibition then moves into her fashion pictures. When arranged together, the transition of Sherman in terms of persona from one portrait to the next is drastic and awe-inspiring. I was astonished by her incredible attention to detail, the expansive emotional coverage, and her clearly inherent ability to see a style for what it is, bring herself into it, and create something so unique out of a form already so familiar. All completed in the 80’s, the constant changes in the lighting, mood, and character being portrayed show how quickly Sherman can commit herself to an identity we imagine to be entirely different from her own. In Untitled #119 she is a powerful force of a woman, her arms stretched wide as she seems to be caught mid belt of an opera song. The image radiates light and the power of femininity. In Untitled #122 she stands hunched over, drowned in black fabric, fist clenched, and one eye looking directly at the camera. In every image of her fashion series, she is unrecognizable. Her fashion pictures are potentially the greatest in showcasing her incredible diversity as a subject and an artist, especially for the untrained or unfamiliar viewer.
The gallery that holds the Centerfolds and the Pink Robe photos is a perfect combination of Sherman’s most iconic photos, as well as what many consider a glimpse at “the real Cindy Sherman.” The four centerfolds are arranged in a single line directly opposite the room of her four pink robe photographs. The Centerfolds show Sherman as the star of each photograph in a style that reminded me of Hitchcock’s films. The women are the primary focus of each photograph, all of them with very little background, all on the floor, fully-clothed, unaware of the camera, and fixated on something just outside of the image. Though each of the Centerfolds is structurally similar, each one differs in the emotional state of the subject: detachment, fear, daze, and apprehension. When thinking of the name “Centerfolds,” one imagines the sexual objectification of women in magazines such as Playboy, but the women in Sherman’s Centerfolds makes one consider the vulnerability that inevitably accompanies the sexual portrayal of women. The Centerfolds, a comment on the powerless women of an age of sexual objectification in pop culture, are the perfect juxtaposition to the Pink Robe Photos, which immediately shatter the notion that all sexualized women are weak. The Pink Robe Photos show a powerful and in-control woman in a highly-sexualized state, more so than the Centerfolds. Also arranged in a single line, Sherman again as the subject makes direct eye contact in each photograph, exuding dominance. This woman is a far cry from those pictured in the Centerfolds. She has power in her eyes, and though she is seen covering her naked body with a pink robe, her varied body language gives way to a sense of commandment.
The exhibition closes with new photographs produced this year. A room is filled with what appear to be the aging starlets of an age long gone. One is instantly drawn to Untitled #512, which is different from the rest in terms of her body language and color-scheme. Sherman is shown in a short brown wig and long feathery coat, photoshopped onto a background of rough terrain. This woman is lonely and displaced, but her facial expression would say otherwise; she appears soft and intense, the contrasting aspects of the photograph blending in harmony. She stands angled in a way where she seems thin and more petite, her left knee brought to her right, similar to the pose of a pin-up model. These works reminded me of the Untitled Film Stills, although they are structurally dissimilar, they seem to be a comment on the power dynamic women held in the 20’s as the Untitled Film Stills were on the 50’s and 60’s. The exhibition ends as it begins; Sherman acts as the subject of the work as she both embraces the characteristics of the times and disputes them by infusing her works with power and femininity.
Cindy Sherman created her own style by having the ability to idealize reality. Her flawless execution and comprehensive understanding of the characteristics that define so many periods of art make her one of the most successful artists of modern time. The retrospective is brave, overwhelming, at times terrifying, and incomprehensible. In the beginning, I found myself enamored by how she is able to become so many different subjects, but by the end I was left shellshocked by the unbelievable fact that all of these works came from one, clearly uninhibited mind.
Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life is on view at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles from June 11, 2016- October 2, 2016.
June 10, 2016
In 1985 Mona Hatoum walked through Brixton in bare feet for almost an hour, dragging behind her as she did the pair of Dr Martens boots that were tied to her ankles (Roadworks). This was Mona Hatoum in the beginning of her work: the body is the locus of all connections between a human and the surrounding space, objects, other humans, society, politics.
Her work creates a challenging vision of our world, exposing its contradictions and complexities, often making the familiar uncanny. Through the juxtaposition of opposites such as beauty and horror, she engages us in conflicting emotions of desire and revulsion, fear and fascination.
Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut to a Palestinian family and during a visit to London in 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon and Hatoum was forced into exile. She stayed in London, training at both the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art (University College, London) between the years 1975 and 1981. She now lives and works in Berlin and London and has participated in numerous important group exhibitions including The Turner Prize (1995), Venice Biennale (1995 and 2005), Documenta XI, Kassel (2002), Biennale of Sydney (2006), The Istanbul Biennal (1995 and 2011) and the Fifth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (2013).
I believe it is important to start any description of Hatoum’s work with the above information as this was the platform that allowed the world to be witness to her continuous inspiration. Exile must have been her curse and blessing.
‘It was nice to be in a place where everyone spoke with a Palestinian accent, which was my parents’ accent – though in Beirut, people used to hide it so they would fit in. But it was very overwhelming, very sad. You feel angry all the time – though I had to keep myself together so I could make the work, and it was inevitable, then, that the work would be about the situation.” She says about the time when she was invited to Jerusalem, in 1996.
Solo exhibitions include Centre Pompidou, Paris (1994), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1997), The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (1998), Castello di Rivoli, Turin (1999), Tate Britain, London (2000), Hamburger Kunsthalle, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Magasin 3, Stockholm (2004) and Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2005). Recent exhibitions include Measures of Entanglement, UCCA, Beijing (2009), Interior Landscape, Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice (2009), Witness, Beirut Art Center, Beirut (2010), Le Grand Monde, Fundaciòn Marcelino Botìn, Santander (2010) and as the winner of the 2011 Joan Miró Prize, she held a solo exhibition at Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona in 2012. In 2013-2014 she was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Kunstmuseum St Gallen and the largest survey of her work to be shown in the Arab world is currently held at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha.
Coming back to the Tate Modern exhibition, it is absolutely overwhelming to be in the presence of this artist’s lifetime work… The energy seems to have attached to the walls of each room and stories are leaking from every corner, entering the open pores of the spectator’s skin. The body reacts to Hatoum’s body works as they should.
My first thought as I entered the first room of the exhibition was that art is an endless row of assumptions about life as we perceive it and as we are taught to perceive it. Mona Hatoum is unbuttoning the jeans of the old and young generations of art seekers. Her works undress you of the daily routine and her black and white interference between routine and search for absolute is a terrifying blessing.
‘Stills of sequence of live images seens on large monitor facing the audience” 12th of June, 1980 is an artistic scan of the spectator and as he is acknowledging the introspection, the scan penetrates deeper, beneath the skin, into the psychic.
“Light Sentence” 1992 was one of my favorite installations showcased in the exhibition. This prison of shapes that might open the door to freedom of understanding in silence. Mona Hatoum never felt confident enough to speak in her art and the silence translated by some of her works is absolutely overwhelming. In “Light Sentence” there is a perfect harmony between light and darkness and movement does not kill this harmony… Only voices could. Metal, light bulbs, white walls, shadows and movement suddenly become an escape or imprisonment.
Mona Hatoum’s work can be interpreted as a description of the body and its impact on other people and the surrounding objects, as a commentary on politics, and on gender difference as she explores the dangers and confines of the domestic world. Her work can also be interpreted through the concept of space as her sculpture and installation work depend on the viewer to inhabit the surrounding space to complete the effect. There are always multiple readings to her work. The physical responses that Hatoum desired in order to provoke psychological and emotional responses ensures unique and individual reactions from different viewers. (WIKIPEDIA)
In “Jardin Public”(1993), the artist depicts a classic French garden chair that sports pubic hair which seems to grow from the holes in the seat. The title hints at the link between ‘public’ and ‘pubic’, both connected to the Latin work for ‘adult’. The human bodies leave prints on the places that they touch, creating an uninterrupted connection between people and places and their objects.
In her singular sculptures, Hatoum has transformed familiar, every-day, domestic objects such as chairs, cots and kitchen utensils into things foreign, threatening and dangerous. In Homebound (2000) Hatoum uses an assemblage of household furniture wired up with an audibly active electric current – combine a sense of threat with a surrealist sense of humour to create a work that draws the viewer in, on both an emotive and intellectual level.
I spent roughly 10 minutes on the room that hosts the installation “Impenetrable” 2009 and thought about the infinity of hope. Looking through the corridors rods of barbed wire, space that you hope you can penetrate and eventually escape the three metre cube maze. Hatoum makes reference to the Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto’s series of Penetrables, hanging cubes made from colourful rubber tubes.
“Cellules” 2012 suggests confinement, isolation and biology. It suggests the struggle to escpae the imprisonment of our own biology.
Then “Quarters”1996 suggests official, institutional lodgings, while the implicit idea of layered bodies links this work to urban architecture in which people live above one another. Its layout echoes the Panopticon, a prison design in which inmates are always subject to surveillance from a central viewing position by an unseen guard, which philosopher Michael Foucault used as a metaphor for a disciplinary society.
Imprisoned by society, imprisoned by biology, imprisoned by politics. Everything is under the formula of chaos: always close and black – “Turbulence” 2014.
“Hot Spot” 2006, a steel globe with the continents outlined in neon, casting an orange glow and sending buzzes of electricity throughout the room is the piece that completely separates your from the reality that envelopes outside the doors of Tate.
“Interior/Exterior Landscape” 2010 is a room size installation that contains altered household furniture including a bed frame threaded with hair, a hair embroidered pillow that depicts flight routes between the artist;s most visited cities, a conjoined table and chair and a bird cage housing a single ball of hair. Hanging from a metal coat rack are two circular wire hangers that frame wall drawings of the Eastern and Western hemispheres and a market bag constructed frn a cut-out print of a world map.
“Twelve Windows” made by Mona Hatoum with Inaash, 2012-2013 are twelve pieces of embroidery, the work of Inaash, The Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps. Each ‘window’ represents a different region of through its motifs, stitches, colours and patterns, meticulously embroidered by Inaash’s experienced craftswomen. The aim of the project was to preserve a traditional skill, at risk of extinction because of the dispersal of Palestinians across the region. Hatoum created an installation in which the ‘windows’ are displayed in a space criss-crossed by steel cables, making a visual metaphor for this divided territory.
The last room of the exhibition showcases “Undercurrent (red)” 2008 which explores again the interest of the artist in craft and textiles. This piece is realised dramatically in a combination of traditional technique with materials such as a square mat, woven from red electrical cable, a long fringe snake and 15 watts light bulbs that brighten and dim at what Hatoum describes as a “breathing pace”.
The entire exhibition is a public survey of the artist’s perception of this world that held her tight into a tense creative process, after spitting her away from her biological crib. An exploration of an immigrant soul who saw through the reality of a migrant crowd of souls all travelling from one understanding to another, one reality to another to the point of escape from the imprisonment.
Mona Hatoum exhibition (4th of May – 21st of August) is curated by Clarrie Wallis, Curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art, Tate and Christine Van Assche, Honorary Curator, Centre Pompidou, Paris, with Katy Wan, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern and Capucine Perrot, former Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.
It is important to start off the conversation about what circus art is by actually going back to the birth of the circus. Different from other artistic practices like ballet, theater and opera, circus never had a definitive history. It was always told as a tale from one artist to the other, with press agents spreading facts and stories between people rather than physically documented. There’s a controversial notion that circus came from the Ancient Roman times, though it can also be claimed that the only similarity to Ancient Rome is the word circus, which in both Latin and English means “circle.” Though I leave that debate untouched, perhaps it is necessary to note a fine line between public-driven acts of circus artists and Roman gladiators.
Modern circus, as we all know it, was born in England. One of a few accurate facts in the history of the circus is that in 1769 Philip Astley, a former cavalry Sergeant-Major turned showman, bought a property near the Westminster Bridge in London and constructed the very first circus building – The New British School or Amphitheater Riding Ring. The first performance took place in 1770 and was a tremendous success. Interestingly enough, in the beginning Astley was the performer himself, adding later on his wife and children to the act. However, 1770 is the date that marks the first full circus performance with acrobats, clowns, and other artists all in one performance as a theatrical act. It was never called circus though, the name came around only in 1782. Before the beginning of the 19th century, circus was introduced both to King Louis XV in Fontainebleau and Catherine the Great in Saint Petersburg. Circus arts have existed over time but it wasn’t until Astley when the modern circus was born—the circus we all are so used to today.
Being essentially an act of performance, circus is not struggled by language barriers or cultural misunderstandings. It’s easily understandable and transportable to other countries with large successes in multiple locations. Once circus companies started embarking on tours showcasing new programs and performances, its popularity quickly rose.
Flipping through a few centuries and coming to today’s time, it is imperative to note a few trends, or should I say, positive changes happening in the circus world. After decades of slowing down its growth, circus arts have regained their initial strength. As for today, a number of world companies are performing innovative acts that challenge the very definition of the circus. What is a performance? In fact, one starts to look at circus with absolutely different eyes. It’s becoming no longer just a place to bring your kids, but also a theatrical event, climbing to the level of a play with a certain acrobatic involvement.
The Nouveau Cirque, also called Contemporary Circus, was first formed in France in the 1970s. This new type of a circus performance, or dramatic show, has a theme or concept behind it. The involvement of animals is no longer necessary. What we see is a play, with a story, music, and dance. Of course there are also clown performances, but again they are essentially different to those we saw before. No longer is it low-base humor, but rather ironic and more sophisticated. The Nouveau Circus is as much for kids as it is for adults. More so, each age group sees and understands performances in their own way, reflecting on them after watching one, not just blindly forgetting about an act after it’s done. The circus since then became essentially a high quality performance, rather than a “bread and spectacle” show.
Here is the list of our top ten international circuses:
- Cirque du Soleil (Canada)
The biggest circus performance company in the world and the one to establish the Nouveau Cirque on the international level, Cirque du Soleil was founded in Canada by Guy Laliberté and Daniel Gauthier in 1984. The key feature of The Circus of the Sun is that animals were never used in any performance. In fact, that was what made the company so different from others back in time. A show is often based on a tradition of a musical or opera, never stopping the action for even a second. Music is one of the most important tools during Cirque du Soleil performances in obtaining the groundbreaking effect on the audience.
- New Shanghai Circus
The Acrobats of China as they are often called, the New Shanghai Circus features one of the best groups of acrobats in the world. Established back in 1949, the circus tries to make a link between traditional Chinese acrobatic techniques and modern technology.
- Circus Oz of Australia
Circus Oz was established in Melbourne, Australia, in 1978, when two already successful Australian circus companies, Soapbox Circus and the New Circus, decided to merge together. Similar to Cirque du Soleil, Circus Oz produces animal-free shows with an effort to communicate a traditional spirit of native Australia: “collective ownership and creation, gender equity, a uniquely Australian signature and team-work.”
- ROSGOSCIRK (Russian State Circus Company)
The Russian State Company is the largest circus company in the world, encompassing 42 circuses across Russia. Established in 1919, the company redesigned over time due to political and social changes facing Russia in the 20th century. Nowadays, Rosgoscirk focuses on developing circus dynasties that are the stars of any arena. Though not being animal-free in its productions, the Company goes hand-in-hand with contemporary development in the circus-performance field. One of the new features is the annual international circus award—Master—established in 2015. Master is the only circus art award in the world that is presented by means of online voting and international expert council in 14 categories.
- Big Apple Circus
Big Apple Circus, voted the most famous one in America, was founded in 1977 by two jugglers Paul Binder and Michael Christensen. It was primarily crated as a non-for-profit arts institution. Even though showcasing more traditional performances compared to other circus companies on the list, the Big Apple Circus is one of the leading performance companies in the world, presenting their own twist on classic, employing custom music and costumes.
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.
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.
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.
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.