Lyon, France

the Lyon Biennale

Various Venues

“FOR US, TACKLING THE IDEA of time is a way of taking stock of the 1990s,” write Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans at the outset of their brief catalogue essay accompanying “Experiencing Duration,” the eighth installment of the Lyon Biennale, which closed on December 30. And perhaps this retrospective tack was to be expected, given that the timing of the show roughly coincided with the duo’s departure from the Palais de Tokyo in Paris this winter. Under their joint directorship, the institution became strongly associated internationally with many artistic practices that emerged during the final decade of the past century. And, certainly, a kind of crowning summa seemed hinted at in Lyon, where the likes of Martin Creed, Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, and Rirkrit Tiravanija counted among the fifty-eight participants.

Yet more interesting in this regard (or at least more interesting than any checklist) was the degree to which the exhibition’s conception seemed to recapitulate several of the theoretical impulses behind Bourriaud and Sans’s Palais de Tokyo—including the fundamental acknowledgment that developments in technology during the past decade (and the corporate strategies for disseminating them) have continually altered the fabric of our experience and, more specifically, have made the kinds of time we encounter (and that artists, like “film editors,” produce) more variable and diverse. Also implicated in Lyon was the broad-stroke idea that our relationship with time is even more complex given the absence of any “great narrative,” or belief in progress and the linear flow of history. (It is for this reason that Bourriaud talks of “scenarios” instead of “movements” in art, as the revolutions that had always attended shifts in political and aesthetic ideologies have given way to more contained ambitions.) Looking at time in terms both micro- and macrocosmic, corporeal and intellectual, the curators afford themselves a flexible, elegiac scaffolding for the art on view, moving relatively freely in their selections from phenomenological to social and ideological subjects.

One crucial curatorial consequence of this posited collapse of historical teleology is the apparent freedom to include art from previous times—and in a show at least implicitly about the ’90s (odd enough a premise for a biennial taking place in 2005), this earlier work’s presence created a certain tension throughout the exhibition. For the majority of compelling pieces here were the older ones, among them a few whose very appearance dramatized that vertiginous sense arising when objects from different eras come into incongruously close contact (“Time does not pass,” Bourriaud writes of the effect, “it ‘percolates’”). In this department first honors must be awarded to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House, 1993–. At its location in the Tribeca section of New York City, this roomful of infinitely repeating cycles of sound and light frequencies is a veritable wormhole in the urban fabric. (Outside it is 2006; inside it seems perpetually 1985, the year Young and Zazeela’s MELA Foundation opened its doors. It has since maintained an artist’s-loft sensibility once indigenous to the area.) Relocated to the cavernous industrial space of La Sucrière, however, the piece created other wrinkles in time, seeming at once placed at the cultural roots of European rave and trance culture—indeed, Lyon artistic director Thierry Raspail told me that Young obtained the very latest subwoofers for the occasion (the deep pulses raising the roof and making the floor feel ready to cave in)—and also utterly futuristic. Indifferent to Young’s deafening drones was the medieval architecture along the Saône river, visible through the installation’s tinted windows.

Other pieces created the somewhat ominous sense of one’s being trapped in time, including Terry Riley’s Time Lag Accumulator II, 2004, a structure containing numerous interlocking mirrored rooms, each recording the sound of the viewer’s movements, which are subsequently played back in the rooms adjacent after a slight delay: Here the past both follows and perpetually accumulates in the present. Also taking up a phenomenological address to generate an awareness of duration was James Turrell’s The Wait, 1989—a pitch-black theater in which one’s eyes are supposed to adjust over the course of some ten minutes, at which time a barely perceptible red field appears within the darkness. (I followed instructions but cannot be sure I saw these fields, wondering—à la Cage’s famous recollection of hearing his own nervous system and bloodflow—whether the red I saw was actually within my own body.) Yet a number of other installations in Lyon also distilled a kind of “experience” for the viewer (many less severe), inevitably bringing to mind our necessarily changed perception of such controlled environments, given the rise of branded architecture during the ’90s. (And here one wonders whether the inclusion of historical works alongside contemporary ones is problematic: Do the historical contexts within which these divergent pieces were made warrant any acknowledgment? Speaking more generally, to what extent are earlier examples of art asked in many exhibitions today to create a history for contemporary art even while history is being dissolved?) Such was the case here with more recent installations that capitalized, at least in part, on the psychotropic power of bright, uniform color: for example, Creed’s Work No. 329, Half the air in a given space, 2004, a room prompting claustrophobic temporal slowdown as the viewer attempts to navigate a space dominated by pink balloons.

The strongest juxtapositions at Lyon appeared in the opening passage of works at the Institut d’Art Contemporain: a soft interplay beginning with the cultural-revolution sensibility of Yoko Ono’s Film No. 5 (Smile), 1968, in which John Lennon does exactly that (his visage slowed down to fill out fifty-two minutes of footage), neatly followed by Josephine Meckseper’s store-window installations of ’60s counterculture iconography as fashion accessory. Later, R. Crumb’s comic-strips-associal-burlesque appeared near Paul Chan’s frequently exhibited but still powerful My birds . . . trash . . . the future, 2004, where the existential horrors of Beckett and Goya seem to meet the vernacular of a malfunctioning Atari game unit. The exhibition’s true gem at the IAC was an entire gallery devoted to a sampling of Douglas Huebler’s brilliant Duration, Variable, and Location Pieces.

But this exhibition’s emblematic work belonged to Parreno and Tiravanija. In their film Stories Are Propaganda, 2005, a sequence of images shot in China—of a smokestack belching black plumes, of ocean waves crashing to shore, of a rabbit appearing out of thin air in a magician’s box—is accompanied by a child’s long monologue. The heated, rambling, and quick cine-poem seems right out of the biennial’s catalogue essays, speaking to the “inverted cinema” of experience rerouted by communications technology and global capital, while nodding as well to the curators’ broader historical concerns. “The past always glows,” observes the speaker, saying good-bye to yesteryear’s ideologies—and to a ’90s decade whose stories, propaganda or not, remain to be told.

Tim Griffin is editor of Artforum.