The Neverending Story

Linda Yablonsky at the 12th Biennale de Lyon

Left: Artist Roe Ethridge. Right: Dealer Stefan Ratibor with artist Nate Lowman. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

THE FRENCH PRIZE DISCRETION so much that they keep excitement to a minimum. The opening week of the Twelfth Biennale de Lyon, at least, was exceedingly decorous, despite the presence of some seventy artists whose work leans more toward the edgy. A telltale sign was a 2002 photograph by Roe Ethridge that gave the whole enterprise a big black eye.

This image of the artist, who is sporting a bloody shiner, is the most ubiquitous of two by Ethridge that curator Gunnar B. Kvaran chose to brand his international exhibition, “Meanwhile… Suddenly, and Then.” (The biennial also has two regional platforms.) That battered face appears on kiosks, bus shelters, banners, and posters all over Lyon, as well as on biennial shopping bags and the cover of its artist-penned catalogue.

“You’re everywhere, man,” Nate Lowman said at an impromptu gathering of New Yorkers on Monday, September 9, the eve before the show’s opening. “I know!” Ethridge howled, as Dan Colen and Tom Sachs came into the Villa Florentine bar with their main squeezes Noot Seear and Sarah Hoover, where dealers Stefan Ratibor, Sam Orlofsky, and Thalassa Balanis were also hanging out. “Every artist here must hate me,” Ethridge said. “I don’t know who half the artists in this biennial are,” Lowman confessed. “Me either,” Colen replied. “That’s cool,” Lowman said. “We’re going to learn a lot.”

Left: Biennale de Lyon director Thierry Raspail with curator Gunnar Kvaran and Biennale de Lyon president Bernard Faivre d'Arcier. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: A view of Dan Colen's Livin and Dyin, 2013, at the Biennale de Lyon.

The first lesson was in gate-crashing. With invitations only for three, the group piled into taxis and headed to the exclusive sponsor dinner at La Sucrière, the three-story, 75,000-square-foot former sugar warehouse on the Saône River that is the biennial’s primary location. Artistic director Thierry Raspail and president Bernard Faivre d’Arcier were there with Kvaran to welcome the many French people in evening clothes who were attending a reception outside the building. Flower-bedecked tables were set for dinner inside, where a VIP preview of Kvaran’s elliptically titled, loose-jointed, and bewildering exhibition was in progress. “It’s all about new visual narratives,” he said, leading the way into Colen’s installation, one of nearly fifty new works that Kvaran commissioned.

Splayed out on the floor were life-size sculptures of Roger Rabbit, Wile E. Coyote, and the Kool-Aid Man, all exhausted from chasing each other through walls with gaping holes outlined by their silhouettes. This represented a new chapter in the Colen career narrative, one that risked—or invited—ridicule. A hyperreal, silicone realization of the artist in his well-endowed birthday suit lay between the figures, looking just as dazed, though from a more Sadean exercise. “She cast the penis,” Colen said of Seear, who smiled as giggling guests tried to take it seriously.

Phallic forms kept popping up, as it were, making the show feel freighted with testosterone, though Tavares Strachan paid homage to astronaut Sally Ride and Yoko Ono sent buttons printed with images of a breast nipple. “There are only ten more men than women artists,” Kvaran protested. Whoever made them, there were so many disparate parts and materials to so many works that one could imagine Jason Rhoades turning over in his grave. This is a biennial of stories with no beginning or end, only a spreading middle—a fitting metaphor for Lyon’s principal activity, which is eating.

Left: Artists Tavares Strachan and Titus Kaphar. Right: Artist Zhang Ding.

Vegans beware! This is a city of pig products—pork chops, pork steak, pork belly and pork cheeks, pork sausage, bacon, tripe, and other organ meats. Spend a day here and you know why nouvelle cuisine had to happen.

Back at the Sucrière next morning, at the official preview for collectors and press, Even Pricks (that again!) by Ed Atkins drew the most attention of the many works involving digital animations or videos. A welcome exception to the garish or cartoony nature of the few paintings on view was Lowman’s suite of modest canvases depicting the unintentionally erotic positions of figures illustrating airline emergency instruction procedures. “I’ve been collecting safety cards forever,” he said. Karl Haendel also made an impressive showing with large-scale, grisaille drawings that spoke to the issue of gun violence, though here, too, was a portrait of a dildo, albeit one dressed as a Marfa cowgirl.

Sachs, who also fetishizes guns, was one of the three artists—Zhang Ding and Ethridge were the others—to have an exhibition space to himself, the medieval Eglise Saint-Just in the historic part of Lyon, which was established by the ancient Romans. Sachs had a press conference there to present his Barbie Slave Ship, a cardboard and resin three-rigger with pink sails, 324 unclothed Barbies, and one hundred fully functional small canons. “Since this is a church,” he said, “we won’t fire them.” Instead, he served drinks from the ship’s bar. On either side of the altar were two text paintings –manifests for slaves to fashion and consumer advertising, except that they listed women Sachs admires—Beyoncé, Cleopatra, Lisa Simpson, and the like.

Left: Thierry Raspail with artist Tom Sachs. Right: Collectors Alan Servais and Nathalie Fournier.

For that evening’s social distraction, collector Nathalie Fournier hosted an open house that served up young gray, black, or white artworks with champagne, oysters, and the fattest bacon burgers in the Western world. Chowing down were members of the Parisian art scene who often identify new talent, dealer Daniele Balice, collector Frederic de Goldschmidt, and Palais de Tokyo curator Katell Jaffrès among them. Meanwhile, outside the Sucrière, the biennial was holding what in Miami might be called an “intimate” dinner for 1,500, where artists like Jason Dodge, Jonathas de Andrade, and Margaret Lee were virtually swallowed by the enormous crowd. I arrived just as curator Simon Castets—rumored to be a favorite for next Swiss Institute director—alighted from a taxi. “The story is that Nathalie’s party always turns into an orgy,” he said. “So I’m going later.”

Next day, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Le Mac LYON), which is secreted within a hideous and massive commercial complex designed by Renzo Piano, only an intriguing digital animation by Takao Minami stood out as truly new narrative amid the otherwise opaque commissions and previously exhibited works by, among others, Bjarne Melgaard, Matthew Barney, Ryan Trecartin, and Robert Gober, who contributed the dollhouses that comprise his first-ever artworks. “Because France is so peripheral to the art world,” Raspail would tell me later, “it’s important for these artists to be seen in the city today.”

From there, with dealer Franco Noero behind the wheel, I rode off to Geneva, where we spotted a number of UAE sultans visiting their money in the many private banks on the lake. We were there for the September 11, VIP opening of “A is Building B is Architecture,” an elegant and most satisfying miniretrospective of drawing, painting, and architecture by Pablo Bronstein at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève. Organized by the center’s director, Andrea Bellini, it attracted local artists John Armleder and Mai-Thu Perret and several Swiss curators—the Chalet Society’s Marc-Olivier Wahler and the Syz Collection’s Nicolas Trembley—as well as the Tate’s Catherine Wood, writer Kirsty Bell, and Bronstein dealers Nicky Verber, Ash L’Ange, and Noero.

Left: Dealer Daniele Balice. Right: Artist Jason Dodge with dealer Franco Noero.

Dinner was at the Beau Rivage, contributed by the fabulously grand hotel’s owner, Ivan Rivier, who also provided the artist, his journalist boyfriend Leo Boix, and his psychoanalyst mother with rooms upstairs. To begin, art center chairman Jean Altounian made a congratulatory toast to Bellini on his “splendid exhibition,” oddly neglecting to mention the artist. Bellini quickly stepped into the breach, after which foie gras and roast duck were served by white-gloved waiters.

Next day, after touring the artworks on view at the Syz’s labyrinthine private bank with Trembley, we trooped back to the center for the public opening of Bronstein’s show. It coincided with the annual “Nuit des Bains,” an evening of openings at the dozen, mainly storefront galleries in the Quartier des Bains, home to the art center and neighboring MAMCO (the Musée d’art Moderne et Contemporain). Young people swarmed the narrow streets; loud dance music emanated from MAMCO. Who could have expected hush-hush Geneva to be livelier than Lyon? Maybe having all the money in the world does make a difference.

After hitting the shows at Art & Public, Ribordy Contemporary, Blondeau, Hard Hat, and Graff Mourgue d’Algue, where Armleder was showing brightly painted Christmas trees, our group (Bronstein, Boix, Bellini, Verber, Noero, Trembley) ascended to a delicious chicken-in-aspic buffet at the family estate of Paul Aymar Mourgue D’Algue, who operates Graff Mourgue d’Algue with dealer/curator Jeanne Graff (also rumored to be a candidate for Swiss Institute director). The view from here was heady: the lake and all of Geneva. Most attention-getting was the UN building, which was bathed in hot pink light, as if there were a party going on, instead of negotiations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over chemical weapons in Syria.

Left: Centre d'art Contemporain Geneve director Andrea Bellini with Uruguay art fair director Laura Bardier. Right: Artist Mai-Thu Perret, curators Marc-Olivier Wahler and Nicolas Trembley, and dealer Jeanne Graff.

Back in Lyon the following afternoon, Raspail explained a little of the biennial’s “Veduta” and “Résonance” platforms, which are aimed at locals. Veduta, he said, was for “amateurs,” people in the beginning stages of connoisseurship from six towns around Lyon. The most innovative aspect of this program—of the whole biennial, in my opinion—is “Chez Moi,” where older works by the biennial artists (including Jeff Koons, Ann Lislegaard, and Anicka Yi) are placed in private homes for the run of the show, which closes in early January. The idea, I gathered, was that if people live with contemporary art long enough, they might come back for more. “I like a complete experience of art,” Raspail said. “The public and the private.”

Two hundred more, laboratory-like exhibitions constitute “Résonance,” the third platform, organized for the biennial by artist collectives and other nonprofits. One of them, Interior and the Collectors, founded by Conceptualist designers Fabien Villon and Christel Montury, had a show of small audio-tape-on-canvas paintings by Berlin-based artist Gregor Hildebrandt, who unpacked them from a suitcase also on view in the old-quarter apartment, where he had been in residence. (Slavs and Tatars will be there next.) With Balice Hertling, the ambitious Villon and Montury are also organizing an eight-gallery art fair for Lyon in an unused 100,000-square-foot building. “It’s not a commercial idea,” Villon said. “We want to play with the form to see what can come of it.”

A few minutes later, still invigorated by that visit, I passed the newest addition to the conservative city’s public art program on the Saône, Elmgreen & Dragset’s The Weight of One Self. This permanently sited, white marble monument to gay self-determination is the nude figure of a man carrying his own drowned body toward Lyon’s Palace of Justice.

Nice touch.

Left: Writer Kirsty Bell, artist Pablo Bronstein, and Tate Modern curator Catherine Wood. Right: Dealer Cornelia Grassi.

Left: Dealers Aurel Scheibler and Marc Blondeau. Right: Artist Fabrice Hyber.

Left: Artist John Armleder and curator Denis Pernet. Right: Dealer Pierre Huber.

Left: Dealer François Ghebaly. Right: Artist David Diao.

Left: Dealer Liz Mulholland. Right: Dealer Susanne Vielmetter and Vielmetter Gallery exhibition director Sasha Drosdick.

Left: Collector Kate Ritson-Thomas with dealer Ash L'ange and collector Silke Ritson-Thomas. Right: Dealer Laurent Godin.