This year, a record number of international guests descended on the Lyon Biennial, the ninth edition, titled “00s—The History of a Decade That Has Not Yet Been Named.” Fulfilling their reputation for playful conceits, curators Stéphanie Moisdon and Hans-Ulrich Obrist hatched a ludic concept, framing the event as one enormous game. To spice things up, they asked forty-nine “players,” mostly international curators (of which I was one), to answer the following question: “In your opinion, who is the essential artist of this decade?” They then undertook to present the work of the selected artists. A second circle of players—comprising fourteen artists—was invited to select additional artists for a supplementary section of the exhibition; Saâdane Afif, for example, used the opportunity to present roughly forty artists from Nantes’s Zoo Gallery.
The major daily French feuilletons (typically out of step with international trends) were not amused by the format and roundly trashed the concept, claiming that it lacked “poetry” (Le Monde’s coverage was titled “Une Biennale sans Foi ni Choix” [“A Biennial Without Faith or Choices”].) The focus on critics and curators was deemed utterly inappropriate. Harald Szeemann must be rolling in his grave.
I arrived Monday afternoon at La Sucrière (one of the four biennial sites). My first stop was my own selection, an installation by Christian Holstad that, among other things, makes reference to Lyon’s flourishing sex trade. The city is notorious for the prostitutes who work out of minivans parked around the biennial site and who were, of course, forced by police to relocate during the exhibition to avoid making the area appear too seedy. In a gesture of solidarity, Holstad installed a minivan of the style used by the prostitutes in the building’s forecourt. This worried the PR department to no end, and the artist had to keep things “low key” to avoid upsetting the mayor, who opened the biennial along with Christine Albanel, the new minister of culture, and a gaggle of sixty uncomfortable-looking individuals dressed like the court of Versailles. Their presence was a peculiar addition to the otherwise spirited mix.
They appeared baffled by the choreography of Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet (selected by Pierre Bal-Blanc), which consisted of male dancers sticking their heads between the legs of their female counterparts (and vice versa), and seemed similarly bewildered by the striptease of one muscular chap, “a combination Larry Bell, Dan Graham, and Dan Flavin,” according to its creator, Tino Sehgal (selected, natch, by Jens Hoffman). The look on their faces when they encountered the young woman peeing herself (Norma Jeane, selected by Giovanni Carmine) is indescribable. It was hardly a surprise that these works were open only to “mature” audiences, though it did seem strange that Eric Troncy, on selecting artist David Hamilton, deemed it necessary to place similar visitor restrictions on Hamilton’s photos of young, nude girls. But these were minor irritations compared with the larger political actions against Erick Beltrán. Selected by Houston-based curator Gilbert Vicario, Beltrán contributed a critique of advertising, rewriting slogans in the “hatespeak” of the street, e.g., LYON WHITE TRASH or BLACKS OUT. Local politicians were livid, and Michel Noir, the city's former mayor, requested the signs’ removal. Lyon’s artistic directors refused, but when threatened with legal action, they removed specific banners emblazoned with the slogans DIRTY JEWS and DEATH TO MUSLIMS, even while others remained on display and despite the fact that the work’s critical, hyperbolic nature would have been evident to a five-year-old.
That evening, we were invited to the opera to watch Jérôme Bel’s production of The Show Must Go On. (Bel had been invited by the second circle of players.) Having already seen it, I set off instead for the biennial’s epicenter, Brasserie Georges, an enormous Art Deco hall that hosted le tout Lyon and where the sauerkraut was as plentiful as water. Once sufficiently full, guests made their way to the new art school, where a large cocktail party was being hosted by Lyon’s greatest chefs. The symposium culminated with the presentation of the “Only Lyon” award: fourteen thousand dollars to be shared by the best curator-artist pairing.
The jury consisted of Suzanne Pagé of the Louis Vuitton Foundation; Gunnar Kvaran, director of Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum; Artforum publisher Knight Landesman; Art Basel director Samuel Keller; Museum Ludwig director Kasper König; Silvia Karman Cubina, director of The Moore Space in Miami; and the artist Elaine Sturtevant. Seth Price (selected by Andrea Viliani) received the award for his video, which recycled footage from some of his earlier works, while second place (an M/M-designed chocolate lion, the symbol of Lyon) went to Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Collector Rosa de la Cruz looked delighted and took photographs of everyone in attendance while the biennial theme song, a wobbly glockenspiel ditty written by Trisha Donnelly, played in the background.
Price also won magnums of champagne, and our tipsy posse went backstage to celebrate before repairing to the minuscule Look-Bar nearby. In fact, “miniscule” doesn’t even begin to describe it—to fit in, we literally had to pile on top of one another. (I was on top of curator Stefan Kalmar, who was on top of Tate curator Stuart Comer.)
The following evening there was yet another mixer at the Swiss Consulate in honor of Monsieur Obrist. This time, I avoided a second excursion to the Look-Bar and went to bed early, haunted by mingling feelings of relief and compunction.