PRINT May 2001

World Report

Biennial Angst

Does the world really need another every-other-year contemporary art exhibition? The Palm Pilots of peripatetic curators, critics, collectors, and artists are already overloaded with dates of departure to Venice, Havana, and Kwangju. Now, add Valencia—the Spanish city best known for its oranges and its annual pyromaniacal tradition of burning giant papier-mache sculptures in the streets. The first Bienal de Valencia will open June 13 and remain on view through October 20.

Luigi Settembrini, director of the new biennial, plans to create a citywide “spectacle” loosely inspired by the Passions and showcasing not only contemporary art but film, fashion, and design to emphasize today’s cross-disciplinary culture. Refreshingly, Settembrini looked beyond the usual suspects and enlisted a cadre of curators from different fields, including film director Peter Greenaway and theater designer Robert Wilson. Artists on the roster are equally diverse, including the Japanese media-arts collective Dumb Type, British sound artist Scanner, and Sarajevo born filmmaker Emir Kusturica.

But this biennial isn’t just about raising awareness of contemporary art and kindred disciplines, it’s also about raising tourist revenues for the host city. Slickly packaged and promoted with a glossy pre-catalogue (released six months before the show’s opening) that includes an entire section on the strategy behind the event’s corporate identity and logo, this biennial-as-business is an unabashed sign of the times. Paolo Baratta, president of the Venice Biennale, in his foreword to the catalogue for the 1999 biennial of biennials, said it best: “We have become entrepreneurs.” Appropriately, Settembrini is considered a master of city marketing; in 1996 he applied the business skills he had cultivated while heading up major international advertising agencies to the creation of the Florence Biennale: It drew one million visitors.

Brushing aside the idea that some might criticize his approach as overly commercial, Settembrini welcomes the notion that this biennial is an experimental one. “The world has no need for another biennial dedicated to self-referential art. But it might need a lab whose aim is to observe communication between the different languages of contemporary culture,” he explains. “We think that the Bienal de Valencia might become a kind of work-in-progress observatory.”

Wilson, who is curating a group show of emerging Russian video and performance artists for the biennial, has his own take. “I think Luigi’s viewpoint is a strong one. He’s Italian, and in Italy, art and more commercial forms like design and fashion have long been considered part of the same world. It’s not as controversial to mix the two. And it’s a very timely attitude. Today art influences fashion, design, and cinema, and vice versa—and today, business influences every thing. You can take that to the lab.

Reena Jana