Nouvelle Biennale de Paris

Grande Halle de La Villette

The “New Paris Biennale” was an other attempt to create a monumental international-art event and thereby to reinstate France as a patron in the field of visual arts. It differed from the Biennale des Jeunes, which presented an extensive inventory of new artists and expressions from the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s, in its focus on the consecrated values and familiar products of the mainstream. In this way, the Nouvelle Biennale conformed to the trend that would make an exhibitions more like the Helsinki Conference, full of pomp and circumstance.

The positive side of such a show is the government’s decision to spend the money necessary to help cultural institutions with publicity, exhibition space, and organization. It must be said that the Biennale got quite a lot of help, certainly enough to produce an important event under comfortable conditions. Why, then, did it not fulfill its expectations? How can it be that a major French institution (the Biennale), a French curator (Gérald Gassiot-Talabot), three international curators (Alanna Heiss, Kaspar Koenig, and Achille Bonito Oliva), a spectacular exhibition space designed by a well-known architect (the ancient slaughterhouse in La Villette, converted by Jean Nouvel), and 120 of the presumably best artists come together to produce such a mediocre final result?

What this fine orchestra lacked, in the end, was a score and the leadership of a conductor. The effect, then, was that of an art-fair display more than of an exhibition of an works: the bureaucratic compromises became more obvious than the curatorial choices, and nonartistic decisions, more than anything, determined the look of the show. Instead of happy surprises the same old boredom set in, with the help of a tremendous advertising campaign of leaflets, interviews, and posters.

Whose fault was this? Definitely not the artists’ certainly not the government’s. The Simple fact is that when two incompatible groups meet—here, the curators and the government organizers—the only possible outcome is compromise. I don’t apologize for either side. To succeed, curators must answer to no one; organizers, to everyone. At the end of this administrative labyrinth, the artists’ works miraculously hung on the walls.

The works that best survived this dilemma were those distanced, both physically and artistically, from the center of the show. Many of these lined corridors or lateral galleries, often without the necessary viewing distance for their size: the marvelous paintings of Gerhard Richter and Per Kirkeby; the intimate strength of the collaborative drawings by Günter Brus and Arnulf Rainer: the unexpected freshness of James Rosenquist and Mario Schifano; and the poetic abstraction of 81-year-old Evert Lundquist, from Sweden, and the Austrian Herbert Brandl, both artists new to me.

In the main hall, however, many of the works were alienated by the Napoleonic pomp of the arrangement. Looking particularly awkward were Daniel Buren’s gigantic inverted pyramid, Jörg Immendorff’s Brandenburger Tor, 1982–83, and the 18 George Baselitz “street images” that covered a wall approximately 65 feet high. Next to Keith Haring’s prolific graffiti, a serene Niele Toroni canvas reminded us that repetition need not be boring if it attains a certain level of abstraction. The subtle irony of John Baldessari, and Sigmar Polke’s iconic concision, were a little too meek amid the iconographic delirium covering most of the walls. Mario Merz and Ulrich Rückriem stayed clear of traffic, with works respectively on the building’s pediment (a number of downward-pointing cones seeming to float in the air) and in the outdoor plaza (three solid, proud, silent blocks of granite). The sculpture of Michelangelo Pistoletto and Richard Deacon was shown in a most classical way.

Some young artists shared with many older ones the sad privilege of being predictable tokens of local cultural maneuvers. Others were absent altogether, victims of international maneuvering. A few performances were included in the show to suggest the incoherence of the global conception: among them were traditional theater and opera (Carlo Quartucci, Luciano Berio), visual and sound installations (Takis, a collaboration between Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys), and rock music (Dan Graham). Jean Tinguely was one of the very few artists able to survive in the middle of all this: his indescribable revolving carousel of bits of formula cars, film projections, strange constructions, and found objects hung from the ceiling of a dark room, offering the viewer a peculiar, far-from-naive pleasure.

The Biennale was made up of many good artists and good intentions, lots of hard work and lots of problems, and some already-familiar ideas. For what purpose? Mostly for pomp, although the circumstance of the exhibition seemed better suited to the art. The most eloquent example of this was the work of Reinhard Mucha. Here, the artist put two parallel wall structures made by the architect on dollies. On the front side of one he attached a small photograph of kids watching a train pass, and framed it under a round piece of glass like a porthole. The piece was a marvelous statement on the distance between art and institutions—a lapidary account of time and space rarely seen in exhibitions. Its imagery came from far away—from many personal memories—yet its effect went far beyond the specifics of the arrangement. It fit the circumstance perfectly.

Denys Zacharopoulos