Heading up the Biennial Department: Q+A With Terence Riley


Shenzhen in Southern China, the fastest growing metropolis in the world, may just be the ideal location for an architecture biennial. Now in its fourth edition [through Feb. 18], the Shenzen Hong Kong Biennial (SZHKB) offers more than 60 innovative exhibitions in two venues, showcasing a host of ecologically conscious urbanization proposals.

Architect Terence Riley, formerly a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and most recently director of the Miami Art Museum, is Shenzen’s first non-Chinese appointee (Hong Kong’s curators are Gene K King and Anderson Lee). He heads a team of 15 Chinese and American project curators. Riley’s very broad theme, “architecture creates cities, cities create architecture,” taps into current issues of urban planning and architecture as organic, interdependent and integrative, best exemplified by “6 under 60” and “And Then it Became a City,” provocative critiques of the life and times of young cities.

Several SZHKB exhibitions focus on the local urban environment, pinpointing issues and proposing solutions: “Shenzhen Builds” features five major urbanization projects by top Chinese and international architects; “Counterpart Cities” highlights the two cities’ common developmental and environmental concerns, and “Boom! Shenzhen” further investigates metropolitan urbanization.

Architecture exhibitions can be a slog for the non-architect. This one tries to be as communicative and visually beguiling as possible. Ghana ThinkTank, founded in 2006, a network of thinkers from Third World nations, contributed a makeshift geodesic dome made from recycled tires on a wooden scaffold equipped with small video monitors. In a turnaround, the participating artist-critics from developing nations offer solutions to the urbanization problems of the G20.

spoke to Riley about putting together the sprawling biennial.

LILLY WEI  Did you find producing a biennial in China more complicated than it would have been in another country?

There were so many bureaucratic hurdles and logistical issues. The learning curve was steep and the timeline was shorter than that for many museum shows of comparable scope. We had to curtail the program at some points.

Every good biennial generates a percentage of absolutely new things. Staging a biennial means a high level of ambition but that sort of ambition can really be a nightmare. There isn’t ever enough time or money. Our budget was good but it had limits and that forced us to make choices and have a clear point of view.

We searched for content that was already available. The Bahrain exhibition, “Reclaim,” was shown in Venice and “Informal China” appeared at the MCA in Chicago, but those shows gave me a lot of comfort because they were excellent. If we are talking about sustainability and an environmental attitude, then I consider this to be intellectual recycling. I think every curator should consider the importance of keeping good shows in circulation.

WEI  You were supported by an international team of curators—Aaron Betsky (Cincinnati Art Museum), Du Juan (University of Hong Kong), Jeffrey Johnson (Columbia University), Li Xiangning (Tongji University), Liu Jiakun (Jiakun Architects Studio, Chengdu, China), Mary Ann O’Donnell (Shenzhen University), Jonathan D. Solomon (Hong Kong University), Rochelle Steiner (University of Southern California), Dorothy Tang (Hong Kong University), Keyang Tang (curator of the China Pavilion, 12th Venice Architectural Biennale) and David van der Leer (Guggenheim Museum). Was it unwieldy to have so many collaborators?

RILEY  I treated them as if I were the chairman of a university department. Chairmen never tell professors what to teach. Instead, I sketched out 15 or so concepts for shows that I thought were essential: some of them old, some new; some I intended to do, some I intended for others. “Shenzhen Builds,” which I curated in the OCT-LOFT building, features very complex buildings and principally speaks to architects in a language they are familiar with.

“Reclaim, the Kingdom of Bahrain,” in the invitational section, curated by Noura Al-Sayeh and Fuad Al-Ansari talked about historic preservation and urban memory in a way that anybody can access. “Rebirth Bricks,” curated by Liu Jiakun, originated in the recycling of demolished material from the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan; it talks about urban planning not just as a professional activity but as a human, even emotional event. “Counterpart Cities” was really about water. You can draw dotted lines on a map and say, “this is Hong Kong, this is Shenzhen,” but water pays absolutely no attention to that. By focusing on the water-based projects, we sidestep all those issues. It won’t appeal to the general public since it’s more about landscape technology than design but I think it’s one of the great contributions to the show.

WEI  This is the first time SZHKB has a section that corresponds to the national pavilions at Venice.

RILEY The invitational started when the Dutch consul in Guangzhou contacted organizers and said they wanted to do a show for the next biennial. I thought it over and asked, Why not make something more of it? So we invited the Netherlands, Austria, Bahrain, Chile and Finland. I think the next time around, with a little more time and a little more willingness, it could be more global.

WEI  How do you explain the theme?

RILEY  I think the architectural world takes the theme a little too seriously. Architects always want to come up with the one big theory. Architects like order and too many mistake the theme as an appel à l’ordre. But what a boring world if you put everybody in the same jacket. A theme is traditional but what’s interesting about Venice, the mother of all biennials, is that the theme applies only to the main exhibition, not the national pavilions. It’s a conversation about art on a global level.

WEI  How do you imagine your audience?

RILEY  If it’s about numbers, there’s much to learn from Venice. There are surprisingly few people who actually go to the Venice Biennale. Its enormous impact is attributable more to the media than to actual physical bodies attending. But those fewer bodies have a much higher percentage of important voices. It’s when those influential people leave, it’s what they talk and write about, what they do afterward that matters. The attendance at a blockbuster in New York is much higher than at a biennale. Often, politicians are obsessed with the number of bodies passing through the door, but that isn’t the only way to measure the influence of an exhibition.

WEI  Why does the Hong Kong component not open until February 15?

RILEY  Hong Kong relies on private funding and Shenzhen has state funds and is always able to move faster. It’s only the third bi-city biennale. It was based on a concept of cooperation but in the two previous editions, the Hong Kong curator was from Hong Kong and the Shenzhen curator from the mainland. So even though there was a premise of cooperation, the selection re-established the traditional competition between Mainland China and Hong Kong. This year, with the appointment of an American curator in Shenzhen and a Taiwanese in Hong Kong, Gene K. King (founder of King Shih Architects in Taiwan)—with Anderson Lee (founder of Index Architecture Limited in Hong Kong)—it’s less Mainland versus Hong Kong. I know that both sides would consider a single chief curator in the future.

WEI  How do these projects engage the community?

RILEY  The “Favela Painting Project” (founded by Dutch artists Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas in Rio de Janeiro in 2005) is contributing murals to the old Luohu Cigarette Factory. “Ultra-Light Village”—the six pieces on the plaza—will move to other places in the city to demonstrate how nomadic they are but also to extend the biennial into other neighborhoods. While the biennial needs real gallery spaces, this expansion into the city is something I’d put into a recommendation at the end. If the city is interested in using the biennial as a catalyst to develop certain areas, they could use it as a laboratory. Why shouldn’t it have a longer-lasting effect?