Report: 6th Göteborg Biennial
Isaac Julien, Maiden of Silence (Ten Thousand Waves) (2010)
Standing outside Röda Sten Art Centre, a few minutes after midnight on 11 September, I watched as dozens of buzzed attendees were instructed to file out of the opening party for the 6th Göteborg Biennial, ‘Pandemonium: Art in a Time of Creativity Fever’. As they passed lines of police officers reassuring them that this was neither a performance nor a panic situation but a ‘serious threat’, most party-goers were barely fazed, cracking jokes about the ‘danger of art’ and speculating that it was all just a publicity stunt.
The following morning, a front-page story on the New York Times website announced that four suspects had been apprehended in connection to a terrorist threat, which coincided with the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Otherwise just a blip on the art-world radar, the previous night’s ‘pandemonium’ suddenly became relevant to discussions surrounding the recent shootings in Oslo, Islamic extremism and the war on terror. For a moment, everyone wanted to know what had happened in Göteborg: was the Röda Sten Art Centre the target, and if so, why? In the days that followed, Swedish police announced that the biennial had not been specifically targeted and that the charges had been downgraded to conspiracy to commit murder. Short-lived though it was, the episode seemed an ironic way to inaugurate an exhibition conceived in Sweden’s ‘event city’ – with its curious succession of spectacular Christmas pageants, film festivals and handball championships – doing as much (if not more) to survey our contemporaneity as the biennial itself.
William Pope L., Göteborg Crawl (2011)
‘Pandemonium’ takes its title from Lucifer’s castle in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1671). According to the curatorial statement, the exhibition was considered as both a process and a laboratory to interrogate the old order and experiment with ‘a new kind of world, albeit a devilish one’. Like its immediate predecessor, ‘What a Wonderful World’ in 2009, which sought to ‘illuminate utopias and dystopias as well as history in an ethical and political perspective’, this year’s manifestation claims to be ‘wary of paradises lost, of utopias […] gone-off the rails’, as it mines the rubble and ‘hurly burly’ of our times for new possibilities and perspectives for living.
Francis Alÿs, Children’s Games (Chateau du Sable) (2009)
However, the perspectives that chief curator Sarat Maharaj and his team of co-curators unearthed appear instead to be more symptomatic of the current state of international biennials than anything else. Indeed, they seem well rehearsed and a lot like the post-colonial discourses of the 1990s regarding the challenges of globalization. Even works such as Isaac Julien’s Better Life (2010), an at times ponderous, yet richly textured film surrounding the 2004 drowning of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay in England, take on the dullness of the exhibition’s discursive framing. But if Lucifer is the guardian angel, then the devil is in the details.
Åsa Sonjasdotter, The Order of Potatoes (2009–ongoing)
Spread across four venues – Röda Sten, Göteborgs Konsthall, Göteborgs Konstmuseum and the Konsthallen, Bohusläns Museum in Uddevalla – and including a site-specific performance series that took place in June, the biennial nevertheless suffers from a grievous mismanagement of space, with more subtle works either suffocated or pushed to the margins by large-scale installations. In Röda Sten, Åsa Sonjasdotter’s The Order of Potatoes (2009–ongoing), a modest installation on wooden palettes that treats the tubers sculpturally while tracing their political economy throughout history, is swallowed by Ernesto Neto’s pendulous sculpture, The Weight, the Time, the Body, the Moon and Love…wow! (2011) and a giant projection of Children’s Games (Chateau du Sable) (2009), a video by Francis Alÿs in which children vainly attempt to build a sandcastle. Elsewhere, several paintings by Viktor Rosdahl depicting trashed cityscapes and protest scenes are either unlit, or actually blocked from view, installed at odd angles up and down the interior walls of the old boiler house, which has been kept in a graffiti-strewn state of disrepair.
Goldin+Senneby, The Discreet Charm (2011)
The biennial is at its best an hour away in the Konsthall at Bohuslän’s museum, itself a kind of ‘hurly burly’ of museological ruination, housing several life-size dioramas that highlight the region’s natural history and cultural heritage. Just past a set of stairs feeding into the ‘Borderland’ portion of the museum is The Discreet Charm (2011), an installation by Swedish artist duo Goldin+Senneby. In it, a miniature theater maquette populated by arcane diagrams, modernist artworks, and figurines of a priest, bears and livestock, stands next to a video projection of a performance-lecture by Ismael Ertürk, a professor of economics at Manchester University. In the video, a disembodied hand rearranges the actors and sets in the ‘theater’ while the economist discusses parallels between the world of finance and Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. He describes how finance, like modernist art, no longer references real life or the real economy; the problem, he claims, is that we’ve trapped ourselves into thinking that it still does. In a bizarre twist, Ertürk’s words, spoken at the end of the video, seem to sum the whole thing up nicely: ‘I leave you with this entrapment. Please enjoy your art’.