Variations on a Theme

Michael Wilson at “The World Is Not Enough: The Future of Biennials”

New York

Left: Critic Jerry Saltz. Right: Whitney curator Elisabeth Sussman. (All photos: Miriam Katz)

THE BUZZ OF CONVERSATION forms a constant aural backdrop to every Armory Show, but little of it ever rises above the level of sales pitch or insider gossip. At this year’s fair, a series of events curated by Stamatina Gregory and dubbed “Open Forum” offered limited respite from the money talk and a chance to hear from some people with a little distance from the art of the deal. Most promising of the seven events staged on Pier 92 (the remainder were downtown at Volta) looked to be Friday afternoon’s opener, “The World Is Not Enough: The Future of Biennials.” Moderated by art historian Katy Siegel, the panel boasted a weighty lineup featuring Prospect New Orleans curator Dan Cameron, Whitney curators Gary Carrion-Murayari and Elisabeth Sussman, Quadrilateral Biennial curator Christiane Paul, and Singapore Biennale cocurator Trevor Smith. Taking my seat in the (regrettably unsoundproofed) “lounge,” I clocked critic Jerry Saltz (who’d announced his planned attendance on his Facebook page), 303 Gallery director Mari Spirito, and upcoming Harlem Biennale curator Muriel Quancard among the modest crowd.

Siegel kicked things off by suggesting that the generally positive reviews enjoyed by the Whitney’s “2010” might have been scored in the context of lowered expectations and wondered about the role of a diminished market in shaping the emphases and reception of biennials generally. Carrion-Murayari, responding first, dismissed reports (in the New York Times, specifically) that a lack of money had been a key factor behind the decision to include fewer artists in this year’s show, suggesting that the battered economy might rather have influenced the tenor of the work. Cameron felt Carrion-Murayami’s pain, insisting that the smaller number of participants in the forthcoming Prospect.2 was nothing to do with budgetary downsizing—but admitting that it had been a consideration in the show’s postponement to 2011 (at which a few inexpertly suppressed sniggers of schadenfreude issued from the crowd).

Had there been a shift in biennial curating toward paying greater attention to local audiences, Siegel asked. Paul opined that recent reductions in curatorial travel allowances might have been influential in this regard but pointed out that the danger of art-world self-indulgence persisted whatever the state of financial play. Siegel seemed unsatisfied and repeated the question, but the panel wasn’t having it. “I want to change the subject,” interjected Sussman, rerouting the debate toward the problems of the thematic biennial. Smith was suspicious of the form, aligning it with a generalized fear of openness, muttering darkly, “We’re living in paranoid times.” Cameron was similarly skeptical, preferring clever but open-ended titles (“Poetic Justice,” “Dirty Yoga”) to potentially restrictive topics. Paul was less dismissive of the thematic model (“I’m all for a healthy mix”), reserving her distaste for competitive, fashion-led biennials. (“I’d prefer less ‘best-in-show.’”)

Left: Quadrilateral Biennial curator Christiane Paul. Right: Singapore Biennale cocurator Trevor Smith (left).

Pitching her local/global line from another angle, Siegel asked the panelists how they approached foreign situations. “With my gut!” asserted a swaggering Smith. “I learned to trust my instincts.” Sussman, for her part, recalled frustration that the most interesting things she came across in Sydney in 1995 fell outside her remit as the city’s biennial curator that year. “The rules can be stultifying,” she complained. Citing Rosa Martinez’s inclusion of a Greenpeace boat in the 1990 SITE Santa Fe Biennial and his own inclusion of Mardi Gras Indian costumes in Prospect.1, Cameron wondered who it was that imposed such restrictions: “Is it us, as curators, stopping ourselves?” Siegel fished for a way forward. “The more engaged biennials are with local communities, the better,” responded the studiedly on-point Carrion-Murayami, “but even bad shows are part of the dialogue.” Paul was more positive still: “Biennials have a bright future,” she risked, “though I’d like to see the hype and sensationalism taken out.” Sussman, however, seemed to have had enough altogether: Borrowing an image from Smith, she sighed, “My gut says that there should be no more.” Cameron leaped to her aid, referring to her 1993 Whitney Biennial—rubbished by Michael Kimmelman at the time with the three little words “I hate it”—as “one of the most important exhibitions ever made in the US, even if it’s take us seventeen years to realize it.”

Curator and critic Carolee Thea opened the brief Q&A by comparing an apparently theme-driven Istanbul Biennial with the more open-ended “2010.” A second speaker, apparently dazzled by James Cameron’s recent big Oscar loser, asked whether biennials ought not to include more animation along the lines of the “beautiful” Avatar. And a third, virtually inaudible until eventually handed a mic, moved from a passionate if hard-to-follow speech “in the name of South America” to a plea for restraint in the name of the planet: “We need reduction!” she railed. “Less paper, less oil, less . . . installation!” An unusual take, perhaps, but nothing if not future facing.