the Biennale d’Art Contemporain de Lyon

Various Venues

The seventh installment of the Biennale de Lyon is subtitled “It Happened Tomorrow”—a reference to René Clair’s eponymous 1944 screwball comedy and perhaps a valentine to the host city, where the Lumière brothers invented cinema. But the title’s suggestion of cockeyed temporality also reflects biennale director Thierry Raspail’s antagonism toward what he decries, in a statement on the event’s website, as other biennials’ “perpetual present”: a topicality that instantly dates and is always erased by the next topical biennial. Indeed, Raspail and his team of curators—Le Consortium founders Xavier Douroux, Franck Gautherot, and Eric Troncy; Bob Nickas; and Anne Pontégnie—appear to have studied snapshot colossi like the Venice Biennale as models of what not to do. Unlike Venice’s most recent iteration—which, though also attempting to improve on the “expo” paradigm, essentially swapped one large autocracy for a multiplicity of smaller ones—this biennial is relatively compact (sixty-two artists, five sites), roams far and wide in time (artworks date from 1921 to 2003), and has no theme but only, the exhibition guide claims, “a continuous feeling where each moment prolongs the previous one and announces the one to follow.”

How do you curate a show like that? Looking down the list of artists, at times one could almost hear Rolodexes revolving: Le Consortium, for example, has worked before with Bertrand Lavier, Maurizio Cattelan, Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, and Yayoi Kusama, while Pontégnie has organized shows by Christopher Wool, Mike Kelley, and Franz West. But outside of these relationships (and the predictable choices that are sometimes the result), the organizers repeatedly behaved like kids in the candy store of recent art history, throwing diverse goodies together into single bags—particularly at La Sucrière, the converted sugar factory whose concatenation of works by thirty-eight artists is the biennale’s hub. Betty Tompkins’s sexually explicit, early-’70s photorealist works (censored on their previous visit to France in 1973) share a room with Steven Parrino’s neo-Minimalist endgame paintings (Death in America #4, 5, and 6, 2003), striped canvases stapled so loosely around their stretchers that they buckle and fold. Matching silver palettes aside, the pairing heightens and adjusts each work’s effect: In light of Tompkins’s content, Parrino’s pieces more than usual suggest disheveled postcoital duvets, while Parrino’s minimalism brings out Tompkins’s own monochrome tones and the way flesh is rendered as if it were crumpled aluminium. Nearby, Len Lye’s abstract films (one from ’35, another from ’52) are projected onto Acconci Studio’s curvy, custom-made viewing station—its screen long and undulating like a white windblown scarf, its seating softly banked like a topographical map—suggesting dreamily that Lye’s visions of endless, dancing lines are having a delayed effect in the world of solid forms.

Making its European premiere at the biennale’s Museum of Contemporary Art is Ed Ruscha’s 16 mm film Miracle, 1975—another tasty treat—which follows one mechanic’s quest to repair an engine in an extended homage to the artistry, arcane knowledge, and pseudoreligious zeal of auto-shop greasers. Miracle spools out its serene relativism one floor above Sod & Sodie Sock, 1998/2003—Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s Gesamtkunstwerk assault on American heroism and the viewer’s masochistic capacity. In this mock-up army camp, physical and videoprojected evidence of regressive activity (from scatological sculptures in hardened oat-mix to a video of McCarthy simulating sex with a chocolate-smeared hole cut into a table) mingles with video documentation of live performances that torpedoes any illusionist momentum generated by aspects of the mise-en-scène. The exhibition guide handcuffs Kelley and McCarthy’s massive refusal to behave to Ruscha’s Miracle on the basis that both are “horizontal scenarios modelled on mental landscapes”—a perspective that felt, at best, like devil’s advocacy. But then, after spending even a little time at this freewheeling exhibition, any broad prescriptive linkage rankled.

Other connections are pleasingly occult—as in the unofficial game of iconography pinball playing out at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Villeurbanne among Kusama’s sculpture Souls Burst in the Air (A, B, C), 2002, a snaking chain of silver globes strung on a white shaft that loops like spaghetti; Albert Oehlen’s computer-generated painting Krisiun, 2002, with its fuzzy circles and jagged, mousedrawn lines; and Geodesic Kaleidoscope, 2003, essentially an animated homage to Kusama’s own dotty kaleidoscopic installations, by ex-Forcefield members Jim Drain and Ara Peterson in collaboration with Eamon Brown. In the same venue, Rodney Graham’s film Rheinmetall—Victoria 8, 2003, in which an antique Rheinmetall typewriter drowns slowly in fake snow, sends friendly feelers out to John Armleder’s luscious snowdrift of silver Christmas trees, which are piled up around the corner. When stripped of the cloak of an overall thematic, it turns out that artworks don’t die but huddle together in natural or lightly directed communities; it also turns out that the human mind will seek unified field theories (or God-substitutes) even where none exist.

Such confluences rarely stop the artworks from resonating individually, to their benefit and not. Trenton Doyle Hancock’s extraordinarily fecund and dislocated Flower Bed (Wallpaper), 2003—an alternative creation myth centered on a masturbating primeval progenitor, rendered in drawings, paintings, wallpaper, and wall text—gets the elbow room it deserves, while Larry Clark’s bloated four-room monograph looks as unwarranted as it truly is. Zoom in or dolly back: At the 7th Biennale de Lyon it’s mostly your movie, and as such this is an exhibition that deserves the subtitle “The Dictatorship of the Viewer” far more than did Venice. Lessons to be learned here, for sure.

Martin Herbert is a writer based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.