Flower Power

Nicolas Trembley on the Lyon Biennale


Left: Nicolas Bourriaud and Jèrôme Sans. Right: Assistants preparing the Martin Creed installation on Saturday, September 9. (Photo: John B. Baloumba)

The title of the current installment of the Lyon Biennale—“L’experience de la durée” (Experiencing Duration)— put me in mind of the famous Parisian tearoom Ladurée. But alas, no pastel-perfect macaroons were on offer at La Sucrière, the old sugar warehouse that serves as the event’s core venue. Even if there had been, I would likely have demurred, for fear of ingesting psychotropic substances—doctored pastries being more or less in keeping with the show’s theme. Artistic director Thierry Raspail had appointed “odd couple” Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans curators of the exhibition, which they based on a notion of temporality derived from hippie-era axioms. Their aim is to reactivate “a counter-culture” that grappled with issues that remain “the problematics of the early 21st century: Feminism, multiculturalism, the struggle of sexual minorities, new age sprirituality,” proposing “above all a model for rejecting the consumer society.” As I cruised through La Sucrière shortly after arriving in Lyon on Tuesday, I did find, in lieu of pastries, many large-scale, nicely installed installations. Unlike many biennial exhibitions, this one featured almost no videos (one notable exception near the entrance being Andy Warhol’s Sleep, 1963.) My companions and I had the place almost to ourselves, and this curious dearth of viewers heightened the eeriness of the silent, soundtrack-free atmosphere.

A luminous green fog wafted through much of the ground floor spaces. Ann Veronica Janssens, the artist responsible, told me that normally the fog should be contained within a room. As it happens, the escaped vapor creates a dreamy and calm atmosphere appropriate to the work of Terry Riley, La Monte Young & Marian Zazeela, Tony Conrad, and Robert Malaval (the installation and drawings by the last two, respectively, are great). New age immersion also came in the form of Martin Creed’s famous installation Half the air in a given space, 1998—a roomful of hundreds of balloons (pink, in this incarnation) we passed through despite the warning by guards to stay out if we were stressed, claustrophobic, or suffered from heart conditions. We survived.

On the second floor, Kader Attia shocked, or tried to, with his “flying rats” installation, in which a playground full of life-size sculptures of children (whose bodies are made of grain) are devoured by hundreds of live pigeons. It was sold immediately to collector Pierre Huber. On another note, there must be something in the air about Le Corbusier: He featured here in Pierre Huyghe’s recent film about the architect’s only U.S. building (Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts), as well as in Surasi Kusolwong’s notable Erratum musical, 2005, a classroom of sorts in the form of one of Corbu’s detached houses. Continuing my search for themes, I followed the musical thread to Power Chords, 2005, an installation by Saâdane Afif that featured guitars resting next to amplifiers whose seemingly random emissions were in fact based on ‘70s artist Andre Cadere’s (quite complicated) color permutation system.

Left: In Ann Veronica Janssen's installation. Right: The fashion show, with artist Wang Du at center. (Photo: Fabio Cypriano)

Next stop: Renzo Piano’s Musée d’art Contemporain. No sooner had we boarded the elevator than we were asked to exit. The French minister of culture and his noisy posse had just showed up and apparently could not wait—or use the stairs. All fifteen passengers protested in unison: “What? No way!” The chorus left the guards so flummoxed that we were able to quickly close the doors and ascend. We arrived on the third floor just in time to catch the beginning of Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s new piece, a still-in-progress filmed suite of urban moments shot in China. Ten minutes in, however, a technician restarted the film. The minister had caught up with us, and this time he would have his way. “Who do they think they are?” demanded an outraged foreigner, apparently unaware that France holds to the divine right of politicians.

Such contretemps precipitated much discussion—about power (read: money) and representation. On Monday night, a luxury brand that shall remain nameless (enough publicity!) shelled out more than €150,000 to secure a dozen top Lyon chefs to cook for the assembled VIPs. Dessert arrived in the form of fashion show devoted to the concern's menswear line. When the models hit the catwalk, the crowd was more than a little surprised to see Sans and Bourriaud, not to mention a few of the exhibition's featured artists, among them Wang Du (whose anti-media missile rested on top of an army truck nearby), sashaying down the runway. These days, few large-scale art events in France escape corporate sponsorship, but now it appears the cash can't flow without some compromises—albeit sexy ones!

After finishing up at the museum where pieces were few but large (Brian Eno, Daniel Buren, Dieter Roth) followed by quick bus trip to the most far-flung venue, Fort Saint Jean, we made it—just ahead of hunger and fatigue—to our last stop, the Villeurbanne Institute of Contemporary Art. Since founder Jean-Louis Mauban retired, it has been a kind of orphan institution; a public search for a new director has so far been fruitless, but someone from ministry of culture (again!) announced that the post is promised to Nathalie Ergino, current director of the Musèe d’art Contemporain Marseilles. I love how the French administration pokes its nose into every cultural affair. But let’s get back to the art at hand: This installation boasted a great selection of Douglas Huebler’s “Variable,” “Duration,” and “Location” pieces from the ‘70s. When I tried to snap a picture, the guard told me that the artist wouldn’t approve. “He’s dead,” I protested. He was not convinced.

A new piece from Henrik Hakansson took the biennial’s theme of flower-power temporality to heart: A real-time look at a day in the life of a bloom, the film, alas, was not to find its ideal viewers in my group—at least not at the end of this marathon opening. We were exhausted and out of time. And what’s more, the venerable Brasserie George awaited us. Lyon without choucroute is not Lyon. Before collapsing into bed, I tuned in to Euronews for a moment and was surprised to catch a report on the Biennale featuring a Spencer Tunick performance! I hadn’t heard about that one, and wondered if the curators had simply slipped out of their Spring/Summer ’06 designs and taken to the streets.