Looks Good on Paper

Kate Sutton at the 31st Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana

Left: Biennial artist Asad Raza. Right: Biennial director Nevenka Šivavec with artist Michał Woliński. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

“I’M PRETTY SURE I blew most of my production budget on figs,” artist Asad Raza announced last Thursday evening. We were sitting at a table-lined terrace outside Ljubljana’s International Centre of Graphic Arts (MGLC) nestled in Tivoli Park, a lush garden designed by the city’s premier architect, Jože Plečnik. Raza hoisted two heaping baskets of fruit toward my tablemates artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar, curator Tenzing Barshee, and dealer Emanuel Leyr, who each dutifully took a fig.

If Raza seemed at home, it might have been because he had spent the past few months living off and on in the institution’s attic while developing a makeshift school for the Thirty-First Biennial of Graphic Arts, set to open to the public the following night. “I wanted to mark the opening in a more relaxed way,” he explained as his students busied themselves grilling ćevapi (Balkan kebab) or spooning out thick slices of fresh tomatoes bought that morning at the market. In the distance, the lanterns down Jakopič Promenade flickered on and off for another of Raza’s interventions, There is no east or west. The lights sent shadows dancing across a neighboring biennial commission, the 120 posters constituting Will Benedict’s Bad Weather, which alternated portraits of environmental activists with collaged images like the one branded “mutacija,” picturing an angry shark about to let loose on a cronut, or another centering on a pregnant nude, her genitals stamped with the word “CLIFI.” “It started off being about landscapes and bad weather,” biennial curator Nicola Lees told me earlier. “But then it just morphed into this whole other body of work that was more about climate change and other kinds of environmental disturbances.” The teenage couple pawing at each other under the CLIFI poster seemed fine either way.

The history of the Ljubljana Biennial is one of happy accidents, quite literally. In 1963, just a year into his experiments with printmaking, Robert Rauschenberg famously cracked his lithographic stone and resolved to press on with the broken fragments anyway. The resulting print—Accident—is not only now considered one of the artist’s most iconic works, but it took home top honors at what was then known as the Ljubljana International Graphic Exhibition, where it heralded the changing of the guard from École de Paris to Modernism with an American accent.

Left: Biennial curator Nicola Lees, artist Nick Mauss, dealer Silvia Squaldini, and artist Ken Okiishi. Right: Biennial curator Stella Bottai with artist Declan Clarke.

This year, Accident was drafted as the unofficial mascot of the biennial as it attempts another sea change, expanding its understanding of a mode of image-making widely seen as on the decline, if not already largely confined to art-fair closets and collector bathrooms. Founded in 1955—the same year as Documenta—the biennial once commanded the world’s attention as a stage where West met not only East but also nonaligned countries like Indonesia, the former United Arab Republic, and Colombia, which had a rousing graphics biennial of its own. Originally conceived as a showcase for modernist trends, the biennial historically allowed only prints in the most traditional sense, with less restriction on the numbers. (The 1981 edition wielded a staggering 1,545 works by 574 artists.) While its earliest incarnations were rooted in the city’s Moderna Galerija, in 1986 the biennial’s charismatic founder and director at the time, Zoran Kržišnik, sweet-talked city officials into letting him set up shop in Tivoli Park’s municipally owned castle.

Now in its sixtieth year, the biennial has to contend with a twofold provincialism, stemming not only from its focus on graphics but also from its setting. No longer a foothold, Ljubljana has come into its own as a ledge unto itself, but in doing so it’s taken the edge off its relevance as a political backdrop. In art circles it still may be best known as the home of Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), whose career retrospective at the Moderna Galerija this spring got a fraction of the ink spilled over the North Korean concert delivered in August by some of its members, the band Laibach, which revives the city’s name under German occupation. These days it’s tough to reconcile the dirty-blade extremism of the former Yugoslav art scene with Ljubljana’s current mix of clean-scrubbed Vienna Secession and Baroque buildings, unless, of course, you start to think about how that architecture got there. For the most part, the sleepy little city is all postcard-ready quaintness, punctuated with Plečnik’s signature benches, copious bike parking, and posters for Straight Outta Compton.

This year’s biennial title—“Over You / You,” an inscription borrowed from a corner of a Martin Kippenberger print—plays up these contradictions. “It’s like an unsolved equation,” mused Lees, who recruited cocurators Stella Bottai and Laura McLean-Ferris to develop her tight roster of forty artists, ranging from Braco Dimitrijević and Karpo Godina to Gabriel Kuri, Akram Zaatari, and Oscar Murillo. As evident in Raza’s projects, the biennial expands its definition of graphic art by emphasizing print’s repetition and distribution, as well as the potential social or political applications of serial images. The exhibition mingles more traditional prints like Ellen Cantor’s 1997 love story gone awry Mickie and Minnie Suck, Andrea Büttner’s new woodcuts, and Peter Gidal’s artist’s books, with works like Nick Mauss and Ken Okiishi’s collaborative installation Depuis (back to Tokyo), which sent mannequins Roomba-ing around a hall covered with spoons and wooden eggs, a displaced echo of a delightfully confounding Tokyo storefront display.

Left: Galerija Kresija's Mateja Veble with artist Nina Koželj. Right: Biennial cocurator Laura McLean Ferris.

The biennial overflows into the Moderna Galerija, where earlier Thursday afternoon I had caught one of the first public performances of White on White, a collective of AVA art students handpicked by theater director David Gothard with additional input from NSK founder Miran Mohar. “They’ve created it. I’m just somehow a part of it,” Gothard insisted, before waxing poetic about the inspiration for the performance—a choreographed procession of futile actions—citing “Beckett and Camus, the Sisyphuses of our time.” “Or like in Star Wars,” artist Luka Savić piped up. “With the Death Star.” “Right,” Gothard replied, then continued to read aloud from Camus.

After the performance, the biennial hosted an informal luncheon at the Pen Club, an establishment straight out of Bulgakov, whose now deceased owner “Miki” had a mysterious talent for procuring fresh quality ingredients even in tough times, explaining the prominence of politicians in what was supposed to be a humble writers’ cafeteria. (“Don’t ask how many deals have been struck at these tables,” someone warned.) I grabbed a chair near Gothard, artist Stewart Home, Manchester International Festival’s Phoebe Greenwood, and MGLC director Nevenka Šivavec. “The main problem here is that people are very nostalgic for a biennial that didn’t ever actually exist the way they remember,” Šivavec started to explain, before the critical mass of Brits at our end of the table diverted the conversation toward something called “rugger buggers” and Van Morrison’s love life.

After lunch, our group visited the National Library, another of Plečnik’s key contributions to the city. We were guided by Plečnik devotee Žiga Cervenik, who is currently working on a documentary about a little-known incident in 1944 when a German plane crashed into the reading room, destroying sixty thousand books. “They tried to keep it out of the papers at first, because it wasn’t clear if it was on purpose,” he told us as we pored over the few surviving photographs of the damage. Cervenik led us into the library’s inner sanctum, off limits to tourists but widely publicized as one of the world’s most beautiful reading rooms. “We’re very proud of it, even though we didn’t do anything but inherit it,” Cervenik grinned. Plečnik had designed the building as a temple, fit to hold two hundred thousand books at most the library collection now totals more than ten times that number. “We’ve been trying to build a new branch for years now, but libraries aren’t a priority in recession,” Cervenik said. “At least that’s what they tell you,” Greenwood fired back.

Left: Biennial artist Roman Uranjek with Raluca Soaita and dealer Andrei Breahna. Right: Biennial artist Ištvan Išt Huzjan.

Duly inspired, it was back to the MGLC for Azad’s barbecue. As the night wore on, the wine drained and the figs disappeared and a rowdy contingent headed to “the hipster bar,” which no one could really identify by name but which we were told we would know by its viljamovka, a potent pear brandy whose powers over one’s moral compass put tequila to shame. On our way we passed Galerija Kresija, where Warsaw-based artist Michał Woliński’s Bureau of Loose Associations had reconstituted a series of paintings by Luxus, a Wrocław collective from the 1980 and ’90s who found a compellingly ugly plastic cat and resolved to paint it over and over as a commentary on capitalism. Woliński supplemented their Cat with a Stupid Facial Expression paintings with two shrine-like glass boxes: One contained the original cat, while the other featured a 3-D replica printed from the paintings. Unfortunately, the two trinkets were hard to compare from outside the gallery. (When I went back to get a better look the next day, Kresija’s Mateja Veble greeted me with a laugh: “We were trying to make sense of all the smudges on the windows.”) By the time we made it to the—a?—bar, we pushed our way through the door. Reynaud-Dewar looked doubtful: “Are we sure this is the hipster bar?” A fellow patron overheard her and scoffed in confirmation.

The next morning things were off to a sleepy start, which was just as well, as the only official item on the agenda was the biennial’s grand opening. Making the most of the still relatively cool breezes, I grabbed a coffee with Vladimir Vidmar, director of Škuc Gallery, whose solo show of Becky Beasley is part of the biennial program. Founded in the “heroic era” of the late 1970s, Škuc is the oldest alternative art space in the city, with a long-standing alliance to Conceptualism. I quizzed Vidmar about the nostalgia Šivavec had mentioned. “Conservatives are always closer than you think,” he smiled. “But we’re safe as we’ve always focused on contemporary art. No one expects us to preserve the modern canon.”

With that in mind, I finished off the afternoon with a trip to Galerija Jakopič, where Giles Round’s exhibition plucked the very best works from the biennial archives, pairing would-be Vasarelys with actual Vasarelys, alongside a suite of sumptuous ’70s abstractions that would set the Simco Club’s hearts (or lack thereof?) racing. Round contributed his own print—an image of an Ed Ruscha slogan, “You know the old story,” overlaid with Round’s “I can’t tell you again!!!”—but it is precisely in Round’s telling it again that one sees the richness and versatility in graphic art, even when crammed within the archival framework. Suddenly, all that nostalgia seemed perfectly contemporary.

Left: Škuc curator Vladimir Vidmar. Right: Biennial artists Miran Mohar, David Gothard, and Luka Savić.

Left: Artists Dušan Mandič and Borut Vogelnik. Right: Biennial artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar on a to-scale bronze model of Ljubljana.

Left: National Library's Žiga Cervenik. Right: Curator Tenzing Barshee, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, and dealer Emanuel Leyr.

Left: Biennial artist Andrew Hazewinkel. Right: Biennial artist Chris Beauregard.