Who's in and who's out? Central or peripheral? Market-driven tourism or anti-institutional experiment? The biggest mistake in analyzing the tangled network of biennials would be to simplify their motives and effects into such reductive binaries. Biennials are notoriously layered events, with many pop-up, OFF, collateral, or dissident exhibition projects taking place in tandem with the official event structured by the government, museum, foundation, or private patron. Biennials eschew facile categorization, and a single edition in a particular city can make great strides in connecting regional artists to larger currents of influence, even as it promotes a self-deprecating anachronism in the name of identity-building. As a structure, the biennial is an unnerving, unwieldy hydra … and who would want it any other way?
Long before the so-called globalization of the art world in the late 1980s, biennials offered a space for artists from colonial and capitalist regions to come into dialogue with creators from the Non-Aligned and Global South spheres. For instance, although the Bienal de São Paulo was founded in 1951 with the aim of joining the ranks of avant-garde art-makers—Venice, Paris, New York—some of its earliest editions feature an impressive confluence of nations. The 1961 edition saw Antilles, Cuba, India, Nigeria, Senegal, Turkey, United Arab Republic, and Vietnam exhibit alongside the more established art world players. Or, if we approach it from the perspective of a single country, artists from Senegal participated in four editions of the Bienal de São Paulo, two editions of the Biennale des Jeunes Artistes (Paris), and one edition of the Ljubljana Graphic Art Biennial (Yugoslavia) between 1963 and 1981, before the “global turn.”
The fact that biennials don't even necessarily follow their own self-proscribed biannual nature—i.e., Havana and Marrakech just canceled their 2018 edition but will ostensibly rise again—demonstrates how reflexive, or capricious, such “institutions” are. Although some decry the “superficiality” and “structural amnesia” of biennials for their high turnover in organizing staff, this whimsy and unpredictability is generative and compelling. Are we to pretend that a wave of banality doesn't also plague the exhibition makers at museums? At least with biennials the local art scene doesn't languish for decades while waiting for the retirement of a certain curator or director. The Liverpool Biennial could flop one year, then return as a tour de force two years later. And with the compendium of global biennials, with almost as many models for organization and geographic integration, a savvy curator can draw from the model of Gwangju or Sharjah or Mercosul without feeling so limited as to reiterate precisely what was done before in her locale.
The challenge is no longer being inclusive or global in scope—by now, these ephemeral exhibitions gleefully include a handful of African artists, Latinx artists, etc. As Okwui Enwezor observed over a decade ago, what fails in their global aims is how they display “art that has been formerly peripheralized” without a conscientiousness of what is lost when de/re-contextualized for the itinerant museo-collector-gallerina glitterati. Even if the organizers are conscientious, how can we hold the public accountable to bring this sensitivity—namely, “the will to understand these local practices for what they mean in their own cultural spaces”—to the exhibition? And yet how much can we really ask from an audience? Will they really be able to visit Shanghai and encounter works created in Lahore, Mogadishu, and Montevideo, and approach each installation with even basic cultural familiarity? With few exceptions, a biennial with aspirations of garnering a global audience defaults to modes of display and communication that favor a Euro-American expectation, or what Fillitz termed “umbrella.”
Any useful analyses on biennialism—like any good art historical studies—require us to delve into particularisms. Depending on the city and the specific edition, a biennial can sustain art world status quo, provide new meeting grounds, or eschew hegemonic systems … and then do the opposite two years later.