IN AN ERA when curators and institutions have to anticipate that the public for an exhibition may exist partly—or even primarily—online, with many viewers encountering a show through images posted on social media, the fourteenth Biennale de Lyon, “Floating Worlds,” puts a premium on physical attendance. Curator Emma Lavigne, director of the Centre Pompidou-Metz, selected work by seventy-five international artists, emphasizing experimental music, immersive installation, and projects without fixed physical form. Challenging the ease with which visual art lends itself to photo documentation and digital distribution, “Floating Worlds” foregrounds in-person experience. Lavigne’s exhibition design features poetic arrangements of formally resonant works in two main venues, the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) and La Sucrière, a former sugar factory.
Installed in the entry of the MAC is Cildo Meireles’s cacophonous sculpture Babel (2001), a tower of old radios tuned to different local stations. As visitors circumambulate the work, they are exposed to a constantly changing sonic composition. Movement through space also determines the narrative of Ján Mančuška’s Oedipus (2006), an installation of aluminum letters strung across one room on three wires at eye level. Visitors follow three different descriptions of a man’s hapless attempt to call a girlfriend, and the wires intersect as the the storyline grows increasingly tangled. As viewers walk by Hao Jingfang and Wang Lingjie’s pond of glassy sand, Over the Rainbow (2016), they might perceive reflections of colorful light that appear to dance across its surface. These rainbow-colored apparitions disappear just as the scent of popcorn becomes noticeable, wafting from Lygia Pape’s Luar do Sertao (Moonlight in the Back Country, 2004), where the snack food covers the floor of a darkened gallery, the olfactory taking precedence over the visual.
On the ground floor of La Sucrière, Hans Haacke’s Wide White Flow (1967/2017) places powerful fans in front of an expanse of white fabric that undulates as air blows through the space. The breeze seems to calcify on adjacent walls as swirls of dark gray clouds, which Marco Godinho made with thousands of circular black stamps that read forever immigrant. On an outdoor balcony overlooking the Saône river, Camille Norment’s Prime (2016) features benches embedded with speakers that deliver low, atonal compositions as waves of sound and vibrations. Mixing throat singing and gospel hymns, these compositions serve as a subtle yet haunting reminder of the relationship between the sugar factory’s past processing a commodity linked to slavery and its present repurposing as a site of cultural production and reception.
Lavigne espouses a curatorial methodology that she credits in the exhibition’s catalogue to Harald Szeemann, who, as curator of the fifth Lyon Biennale (1999), stated: “An exhibition should be filled with associations, reminders, formal homophones. . . . It’s a poem in space where associations can float free.” Such homophones and reminders are evident throughout the current show. Shot inside a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller and built in Montreal in 1967, Julien Discrit’s film 67/76 (2017) considers the symbolism of a fire that partially destroyed the structure in 1976. Meanwhile, the wood scaffolding for a 1960 Fuller dome stands outside the entrance to the exhibition hall and a geodesic dome that Fuller designed in 1952 was erected in central Lyon. David Medalla’s Cloud Canyons (1963) is a set of shiny plastic tubes spilling continuous puffs of pillowy white foam; it stands before a room screening Bruce Conner’s film Crossroads (1976), which depicts the mushroom clouds from bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. The formal similarities between Medalla’s and Conner’s clouds create uncomfortable conceptual resonances, and the carefully orchestrated juxtaposition pinballs visitors between moods of playful optimism and thoughts of impending doom.
Despite the overladen claims made in the wall texts about winds of radical change blowing through the exhibition, what is innovative and new about the Lyon Biennale is not the works themselves necessarily, as a large portion are at least a decade old, but the perspective through which they are presented. If artists and critics of the 1960s and ’70s sought to negate the commercialization of art by “dematerializing” their work, the experiential pieces in “Floating Worlds” suggest a resistance to the circulation of art purely as images comprehended through a “feed” or summed up in sound bites. Still, questions remain: What does Lavigne’s scenographic biennial amount to? What are the stakes of highlighting poetic gestures and physical encounters over establishing political positions? The Lyon Biennale underscores the contingency of an individual’s experience of time and space, which could be a dangerous move at a moment when shared knowledge of the world is in doubt and facts are attacked as fake. Is it art’s role to combat that condition? Or should we guard the space of art from being enfolded into the ever-expanding political realm and insist on cultural institutions and biennials as places reserved for thinking and feeling?