“L'autre” 4th Biennale d'art Contemporain de Lyon

4th Biennale d'art Contemporain de Lyon

Putting together a big international survey is not only a matter of knowing which works to include; it also means selecting and presenting pieces in a given space so that they work together and the show functions as something more than the sum of its parts. Harald Szeemann has had a Midas touch now for almost three decades, ever since “When Attitudes Become Form,” in 1968–69. And, unlike so many of his colleagues, he hasn’t lost it. This fourth installment of the “Biennale de Lyon,” featuring eighty-eight artists in a space the size of almost four football fields, demonstrates his aplomb with such majesty that, of all the mammoth European shows this summer, it alone seems worthy of praise.

Szeemann’s achievement becomes all the more impressive when his point of departure is taken into consideration: a relatively slim budget, a columnless, 183,000-square-foot space housed in a turn-of-the-century-style steel building, and the burden of a fashionable philosophical theme established, as is the custom in the Lyon biennial, by its backers. Of course, their choice of Szeemann as the curator serves the theme of “L’autre” well; it’s a familiar topic for him, one he’s long concerned himself with (as evidenced by his show “Monte Verità,” he has less to ponder when it comes to this theme than do others). In his hands, the “other” becomes almost signature: he staged an elaborate game of hide-and-seek, offering obvious clues here, subtle hints there, sometimes teasing viewers with glimpses of what was at stake, sometimes ambushing them so that missing the point becomes inconceivable.

Thirty-odd “white cubes” are dispersed throughout the hall, some tiny, others enormous, most of them a space unto themselves. Connections between the pieces were open-ended, allowing visitors to circulate with some freedom, and the passages between galleries varied in width. Along the perimeter of the hall the outer walls are draped in cloth so that the whole show appears to be wrapped up in a red carpet. But even though each space is different, they often initially have the same effect on the viewer. The continuous sense of memory and displacement is striking as one walks through the show: Haven’t I already been here? Or was it someplace else? Is this (or that) work around the next corner, or is a different one over there?

The déjà-vu principle carries over into the selection of works. Most of them you’ve seen elsewhere—either in the flesh or in reproductions. Katharina Fritsch’s Rattenkönig (Rat king), 1993, resided for a long time in New York, Chris Burden’s steamrollers flew in Vienna, Franz West’s sofas were in Kassel in 1992, and the ant paintings of Yukinori Yanagi were hung in Venice. Jason Rhoades’ work was just up in Basel and at the Whitney Biennial, Douglas Gordon initially installed his space in Zurich, one could zap the remote control to Pipilotti Rist’s video monitors in art fairs in Berlin and Basel while sitting in her huge armchairs, and Gabriel Orozco’s slender Citröen DS not long ago graced the cover of another art magazine.

If the works themselves aren’t exactly revelations, what’s noteworthy here is that they have never been exhibited in such range and combination before. For the first time, Fritsch’s work, for example, has to stand up to that of Gary Hill, Stan Douglas, or Mariko Mori. And in this respect, her work succeeds. Slightly removed from the other installations, a narrow passage leads to her Rattenkönig in the center of the exhibition. Szeemann has set a trap for the visitor: the piece can hardly be avoided. As soon as one gets there, the majestic impression of the image immediately surrounds the viewer. The circle of rats appears to rule over the entire space, its dominion extending to the farthest corner of the hall. In all of this, the rats remain peaceful, properly composed, aware both of their own place and that of the surrounding work. They could even nonchalantly take a bite out of Serge Spitzer’s giant system of pneumatic pipes, an interpretation of systems of communication and circulation that is as banal and trite as the artist’s permanent presence during the show’s preview appeared to be provocative. But if Spitzer’s work represents the only real weak point in the exhibition, it’s one that’s pretty harmless.

How contemporary art dealing with complex, interconnected systems can really look is better demonstrated by Jason Rhoades’ delicate installation. In Uno momento / the theater in my dick / a look to the physical / ephemeral, 1996, the music and brash color of the 1976 disco film Car Wash, which plays on a small screen in the installation, seems to hover over this flashing, sometimes clanging, smoky chaos. Phallic associations throughout weave the piece together, and the conveyor belt running through the center connects what would appear to be the wistful memories of penile pleasure. In contrast to his recent installation at Kunsthalle Basel, Rhoades seems to have presented a more ordered scene here. Things tend to lie at right angles, like plaques or tablets. This kind of (dis)order again picks up on nothing so much as the architecture in the hall and at the same time is a little homage to Szeemann’s style of production.

L’autre” integrates video projection as if it were a self-evident fact, a medium requiring neither justification nor apology (Szeemann has recently expressed his enthusiasm for the medium, saying that video “is more exciting than painting” as a form of art). After passing emblematic works by Richard Serra (Olson, 1985–86), Bruce Nauman (Model for Trench and Four Buried Passages, 1977), and Joseph Beuys (Olivestone, 1984), one runs straight into the Gary Hill installation. Seventeen just-larger-than-life-size men of various races, fidgeting ever so slightly, stand directly in front of the viewer. Though they seem alert, even ready to break into a march at any moment, it never comes to that. Yet for all their relative immobility, they remain uncanny and foreign. The matter-of-fact quality of the image is absolutely provocative. Around the corner from Hill’s piece is Pierrick Sorin’s sillier yet no less striking take on video and its relation to painting. In a black cube, two video projections are placed across from one another: from one a painter angrily hurls eggs filled with paint onto a clean photo-portrait in the other. Accompanied by the smacking sound of breaking eggs, the colors run down the face over and over again.

One has to shift gears momentarily and recall Richard Jackson’s no-less ironic “painting machine” on the same side of the hall further back. In his 1996–97 Painting with Two Balls, two giant, rotating globes and a canvas powered by the motor of a wrecked car spew paint over the entire space. Clearly something more than painting is at stake here (the tongue-in-cheek reference to Jasper Johns’ punning title Painting with Two Balls is all-too-obvious a tipoff). In the catalogue, Szeemann briefly remarks on this point: “But this one [Johns’ work], being a painting, didn’t know how to ejaculate.”

As is the case with his enthusiasm for video, in “L’autre” Szeemann’s old obsessions are still evident; on hand are drawings by Günter Brus, Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s photographs, and Otto Muehl’s “actions,” as well as the torture machine based on Kafka’s “The Penal Colony” built for the curator’s “Bachelor Machines” exhibition, which toured Europe in 1975. Discoveries of a curious kind pop up too, like the panorama of Elisàr von Kupffer (1873–1942), a specialist in representing naked individuals in an unclear state between male and female. In the same space, one encounters the romantic nude portraits Milwaukee artist Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910–83) made of his wife in the ’40s and ’50s. (A certain sensuality, actually reminiscent of the the curator’s touch from two decades ago, seems to float over the show.)

It’s no accident, then, that the room containing Szeemann’s old obsessions is flanked, on the one side, by a small rondel structure housing Mariko Mori’s utopian-futuristic videos, and on the other, by Pipilotti Rist’s gigantic furniture for viewing her investigations of sexual liberation. And while Rist’s furniture evokes the family TV-viewing room, Mori is already envisioning the future possibilities of the flat screen. While the five, small, flat monitors (broadcasting the image of a beautiful woman playing with a glass ball against a futuristic backdrop) are still set in the round wall, with a little imagination one can picture that in a few years the entire interior of the rondel will turn into a single-screen surface.

Douglas Gordon grapples in a different way with the presentation of video projections. In a single installation, he mixes six larger and smaller recent works that thematically revolve around hand and finger movements, slowed to a near standstill. The multitude of hands clap, the finger eternally crooks itself around the trigger of a pistol, the rock musician on stage falls to the ground, a hand drums its fingers. It is quiet, and the observer strolls in between these images. The beholder finds himself also moving very slowly, and seems to be on stage.

Richard Hoeck’s video projection “Still”/Untitled, 1996, is cunning in a different way, with a monitor pointed directly at the cafeteria. The imagery—the video features a naked, chained nightclub dancer—seems to come equally from porn and department-store paintings of gypsies. Nothing much happens: the figure moves back and forth a little; that’s it. Nevertheless, between sips of coffee and bites of a croissant, one keeps looking in the direction of the projection—something could still happen. “L’autre” as a whole functions on this principle, with the difference that something does in fact happen. One keeps looking, goes through the show again and again, always discovering something “other.”

Christoph Blase is a writer and critic based in Cologne.

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.