The title of the 13th Lyon Biennale is curiously antiquated: “La Vie Moderne.” Like previous iterations of the recurring exhibition, this one was conceived by a guest curator in response to a prompt by the event’s cofounder and artistic director, Thierry Raspail. This time around, Ralph Rugoff, the American-born director of London’s Hayward Gallery, was selected to organize an exhibition in response to the word “modern.” The show grapples with the term throughout, both positing it as a synonym for the contemporary era and distinguishing it as a historical period, with its own set of concerns, that haunts life today.
In 2007, Rugoff curated an exhibition at the Hayward called “The Painting of Modern Life,” which considered the influence of photography on painting since 1960. For Lyon, he broadens his purview, teasing out numerous associations from Raspail’s assignment. According to Rugoff’s catalogue essay, “La Vie Moderne” is “aimed at undermining our superficial concepts of the ‘contemporary,’” a periodic categorization he describes as “a kind of deracinated perpetual present, an endless horizon of the now.” The actual texture of life today, he says, stands in marked contrast to the postmodern era’s declaration of a networked global culture, free of the old internecine conflicts. Rugoff asks viewers to “consider such ‘contemporary’ developments as the global rise of religious crusades, the alleged return of the Cold War, and the accelerating economic disparity between the world’s richest and poorest.”
Certainly in France, questions of identity, assimilation and exclusion feel urgent. In addition to dealing with the global Syrian refugee crisis, the country is still reeling from last January’s massacre targeting staffers of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamist extremists, while also experiencing a rash of anti-Semitism. The most recent high-profile attack occurred just two days before the Lyon Biennale’s professional preview, when Anish Kapoor’s sculpture Dirty Corner, installed in the Palace of Versailles garden, was covered with lewd anti-Semitic graffiti. (The Indian-born British artist has both Hindu and Jewish roots.)
Rugoff’s show attempts a balance between local specificity and internationality. The Biennale covers a lot of ground—economic inequality, consumer waste, struggles over immigration, and changes wrought by technology—in a relatively succinct exhibition. Works by some 60 artists from 28 countries occupy two large venues, La Sucrière and the Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon (MAC Lyon). Seventeen artists are French or based in France. Several others, such as Marina Pinsky, Marinella Senatore and Ahmet ÖÄ?üt, produced thoughtful pieces examining episodes in Lyon’s history. The show branches out with three “simultaneous exhibitions” and two “platforms” scattered around the region, including a Kapoor installation (unconnected to the vandalized Versailles project) at a Dominican monastery designed by Le Corbusier.
Rugoff’s curatorial approach is artist-centric, focusing on individual practices rather than making grand statements about aesthetic trends. The MAC Lyon exhibition architecture of small rooms, mostly devoted to solo presentations, led to a more fulfilling viewing experience than the cavernous former sugar factory La Sucrière. The show’s weakest visual component was La Sucrière’s wide central ground-floor corridor. There, major installations by Liu Wei, Haegue Yang, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot and Andreas Lolis were placed one after another, an anti-spectacular strategy that made them appear like just so much stuff in the world. While some works played on the concept of detritus, others would have benefited from more intimate viewing conditions, such as Greek artist Lolis’s impeccable rendering in marble of a precarious cardboard housing structure.
Certain works of post-Internet art evoked the same irksome, overwhelming sentiment. On La Sucrière’s ground floor, for instance, Simon Denny showed his archive, including media reports and real-life items, of property seized from former online mogul Kim Schmitz (The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, 2014). Jon Rafman’s commissioned Glass Troll Cave, an immersive booth on the second floor, featured three videos with a loosely dystopian narrative populated with images from seedy Internet subcultures, including that surrounding anime porn. With plenty of adventurous new media art to choose from these days, the inclusion of such works by familiar names missed the mark.
Technological adaptations of nature proved more promising terrain in both venues. On La Sucrière’s top-floor terrace, Paris-based Michel Blazy’s installations of plants growing out of old sneakers, computers and printers were a crowd favorite. The works’ placement outside encouraged viewers to gaze across the Saône river or glimpse the rapidly gentrifying Confluence district surrounding the museum, inviting speculation about Lyon’s history and future. On the same floor, Moroccan-born Hicham Berrada encased night-blooming jasmine in vitrines under artificial twilight. The lighting reversed the flower’s cycle so that the petals opened during the daytime, perfuming the space with a powerful scent.
The MAC Lyon exhibition began with foreboding works on a similar theme: Lucie Stahl’s resin-sealed flatbed scans of filthy, corpse-like hands holding pristine Coke cans and wilting plants. The compositions resemble still lifes from a postapocalyptic era. Next to Stahl’s work, Miguel Angel Ríos’s five-minute video Ghost of Modernity Lixiviado (2012) showed a glass cube floating over a Oaxacan landscape littered by garbage and rudimentary shacks. In formal terms alone, French native Cyprien Gaillard’s impressionistic 3-D video Nightlife (2015) was a MAC Lyon standout. Psychedelic shots of violently thrashing plants, presumably digitally manipulated, help convey the work’s themes of foreignness and political disquiet.
Rugoff’s exhibition is admirable for its focus on colonialism and racial inequality—an uneasy topic in France, where the values of secularism and national identity hold stronger appeal than dialogue about difference. Certain straightforward works, like photographs by George Osodi of Nigeria and Daniel Naudé of South Africa depicting changing landscapes and societies, resonate in this context. So, too, does Kader Attia’s 18-channel video Reason’s Oxymoron (2015), a series of interviews with Western and non-Western subjects about psychiatric illnesses. Striking what seems like a lighter note, Algerian-born Mohamed Bourouissa’s framed photographs of shoplifters at a Brooklyn deli (originally displayed in the bodega as a criminal deterrent) deftly illustrate the intersection of race and poverty in the United States.
Works that address the representation of “exotic” women’s bodies are more uneven. London-based Kenyan native Michael Armitage paints black women in a style indebted to Gauguin’s Tahiti work. Berlin-based Nina Beier shows an installation in which coco-fesses—coconuts in the shape of buttocks, native to the Seychelles, a former French and British colony—are plunged into mounds of dirt. Argentinian choreographer Cecilia Bengolea, who lives and works in Paris, collaborated with artist Jeremy Deller on a video called Rhythmasspoetry. The work features three women of color from the Lyon suburb Vaulx-en-Velin performing provocative dancehall moves among lush vegetation on the property of former Lyon cultural counselor Denis Trouxe. An elderly white man, Trouxe narrates the video in the form of an “ironic” rap that he cowrote with Bengolea. On the surface, Trouxe’s words pay homage to the art of the streets. Yet calling the women “les sorcières qui résistent” (witches who resist) and proclaiming “Vivent les fesses qui parlent!” (Long live talking asses!) seems dangerously close to recapitulating the “modern” era’s dangerous stereotypes of the “noble savage.” Bengolea and Deller’s video ends ambivalently: as Trouxe swims in his pool, the three women surround him, lowering a cover over the water. If the Lyon Biennale has one definitive statement about the “modern” period, it may be that its simmering tensions are not so easy to put a lid on, without the pot boiling over.
The 12th installment of the Lyon Biennale, titled “Meanwhile . . . Suddenly and Then,” is the third and last to address the theme of “transmission.” Since 1991, the biennale’s artistic director, Thierry Raspail, has guided the event under broad conceptual terms like “global” and “history,” each spanning three biennales and each with a different curator. For this year’s show, he enlisted Icelandic-born curator and museum director Gunnar B. Kvaran.
In formulating the exhibition, Kvaran connected the theme of transmission to the idea of narrative. While it may seem that everything can tell a tale, for the purposes of a sprawling international show that attempts to reflect the moment as well as propose a future, the idea serves quite well. Roe Ethridge’s Self-portrait with a black eye (2000-02) appears on the catalogue cover as well as on promotional posters and billboards, conveying one way an artwork can suggest a story. The show features the work of 77 artists displayed in five main venues. It also encompasses a number of satellite exhibition spaces in and around this historic city, including the medieval Saint-Just church in the city’s ancient quarter, where Tom Sachs installed Barbie Slave Ship, an elaborate 12-foot-high sculpture of a ship filled with dolls, guns and bottles of booze.
It must be noted that the biennale happens to coincide with one of the best Venice Biennale presentations in many years, and the younger endeavor pales beside the venerable extravaganza. That said, overall, the Lyon venture feels fresh and strong, and there are some stunning works on view—including a number of pieces commissioned for the occasion.
American artist Dan Colen kicks off the show with a sculptural installation in the first gallery at the Sucrière, the biennale’s principal venue, a three-story former warehouse and sugar-processing plant. Here, four large realist figures are scattered around the room, lying on the floor. Three of them depict the cartoon characters Roger Rabbit, Wile E. Coyote and the Kool-Aid Man, while the fourth is a life-size, painted-resin portrait of the artist, nude on his back with legs spread and sporting a semi hard-on. (The grouping relates to a performance Colen orchestrated and filmed in Grigny, outside Lyon, a week prior to the biennale’s opening.) One of the gallery’s plasterboard walls has a cutout in the shape of the figures’ silhouettes, as if they had just crashed through it.
Among other Sucrière standouts is Even Pricks, a video by London-based Ed Atkins, commissioned by the biennale. It’s a manic, mesmerizing film addressing the theme of depression. Quickly evolving animation sequences and flashes of invented advertising and promotional sound bites suggest the random channel surfing of someone with a serious case of ADD. Another highlight, by Icelandic artist Gabriela Fridriksdóttir, Crepusculum Sculpture (2011), features a large podlike dome with an opening on each side. Abstract video images are projected onto sand piles spilling out from one side of the structure, and a video on a large screen shows the pod in the middle of a wind-blown desert, the centerpiece of some sci-fi fantasy.
Chinese artist Xu Zhen and his MadeIn Company steal the Sucrière show with an intricate installation, also a biennale commission. The Physique of Consciousness Museum consists of a gallery filled with vitrines as one might find in a history museum, each containing a display of small photographs in Plexiglas frames. The work explores what Xu defines in a wall text as “culture fitness exercise,” symbolic human gestures such as saluting, bowing or making the sign of the cross. A great deal of research obviously went into gathering the images of historic figures—from Hitler to the pope—and reproductions of famous artworks; the photos are often surprising and hilarious.
At the Musée d’art contemporain, the selections seem a bit tighter conceptually. Robert Gober shows the dollhouse sculptures he made in the 1970s and ’80s, and Bjarne Melgaard presents a homoerotic and intentionally chaotic installation of mannequins, gaudy found objects and a semi-pornographic video using puppets. One of the most riveting works, Il était une fois . . . (Once Upon a Time, 2013), by French artist Antoine Catala, features five video sculptures in which images are projected onto various materials. For example, an island can be seen on dry-ice fog. The verbal equivalents of the images together compose the installation’s title (Île, etc.). U.S.-born, Berlin-based Jason Dodge takes a minimalist approach in his installation of pillows strewn on the floor. The wall captions reveal that the pillows were used by individuals, including the mayor of a small town and a knife-maker. Relying on the notion of absence, as well as the viewer’s imagination, Dodge successfully opens up the concept of narrative.