Gothenburg Biennial

Various Venues, Gothenburg

This year’s Gothenburg Biennial, the third installment, was not as expansive an exhibition as the biennial format might suggest. The curator, Sara Arrhenius, chose to develop close collaborations with a select group of artists and to focus on new productions or co-productions rather than present a mass of works. The exhibition didn’t involve much explicit interaction with the city, nor did it have a strongly pronounced theme, and the title, “More Than This!: Negotiating Realities,” could be read in more than one way. In her introductory essay, Arrhenius explains that her idea was to “bring together a group of people who with different artistic methods address the documentary paradigm that penetrates our culture.” An active awareness of contemporary life was indeed what the artists shared—no fantasy worlds in this show—and that seemed to provide enough interconnectedness.

The predominantly European focus was counterpointed with excursions to non-Western places that are part of the international circuit. Those “other” places were made to speak in visual idioms readable in a mainstream cultural framework. Runa Islam, for instance, who grew up and studied in the UK, returns to her family roots to offer luscious views of the everyday in Bangladesh, but her beautifully installed films lure us into new worlds without yielding much inside information. Fikret Atay, now living in Paris after maturing as an artist in his home town of Batman, in Turkish Kurdistan, presents everyday situations from there that open up another world for us. Interestingly, it is not clear to what extent his videos reflect a manipulation of experience; in today’s visual culture, the staged and the authentic travel together. Gerard Byrne’s wickedly funny Homme à Femmes, 2004, is a mock-authentic interview with Jean-Paul Sartre, deliciously badly performed and clearly showing the “director’s hand.” It is not the first piece by Byrne to use this strategy, but it is very convincing even though it almost totally lacks conventional verisimilitude. Byrne’s film mercilessly displays the little acts of performance that are always part of the interview situation. Similarly, Miriam Bäckström’s Rebecka, 2004, is a complex and laborious installation centered on a video interview performed by the actress Rebecka Hemse—a distillation of conditioned subjectivity that is both intriguing and unsettling. Bäckström’s The Viewer, 2005, a feature-length film, complicates matters even more by pairing Rebecka with her actor colleague Tomas Pontén in a multilayered take on the therapy situation.

Different modes and meanings of seeing were the theme of Gabriel Lester’s attractive Fish, Bird, Deer, Bear (a perfect food chain if only deer would eat fish and bears could catch more deer)—aka: Space in Pages, 2005. The installation transformed a series of rooms in the Kunsthalle into the arena for a game that involved peeping through cutout animal contours onto the “next level.” Twisting the spatial reality of a room into new dimensions of virtual/actual life was also part of Ann Lislegaard’s sound-and-light piece Slamming the Front Door (after Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House), 2005, in which the text, read in English in a layered multitude of female voices, is heard as pulsating flashes of colored light transform a simple museum cubicle into something like a dance floor or a hall of hallucinations. Despite some “illusionist” pieces, the focus of this biennial was not on effects or information overload. For all its modesty, it succeeded as a vehicle for thinking about aesthetic experience today and how reality can be reflected in art.

Liutauras Psibilskis