View of Biennale de Lyon 2007, Musée d’Art Contemporain, Lyon. Left: Claire Fontaine, Untitled (identité, souveraineté et tradition), 2007. Photo: Blaise Adilon.

View of Biennale de Lyon 2007, Musée d’Art Contemporain, Lyon. Left: Claire Fontaine, Untitled (identité, souveraineté et tradition), 2007. Photo: Blaise Adilon.

the Biennale de Lyon 2007

Various Venues

View of Biennale de Lyon 2007, Musée d’Art Contemporain, Lyon. Left: Claire Fontaine, Untitled (identité, souveraineté et tradition), 2007. Photo: Blaise Adilon.

THE BIENNALE DE LYON 2007, as conceived by curators Stéphanie Moisdon and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, was an attempt to write the history of the current decade—“a decade that has not yet been named.” To give an account of a period still in progress is an endeavor either absurdly poetic or absurdly hubristic, and the biennial, as it spilled over three main venues—the Musée d’Art Contemporain, a large former warehouse called La Sucrière, and the Institut d’Art Contemporain—was a little of both.

At the core of this conflicted sense was the biennial’s very premise. Seven months before the exhibition’s opening in September, Moisdon and Obrist announced that the show would be structured like a “game”: Forty-nine “players” (otherwise known as curators) were each asked to choose one artist or work that “has a vital place in this decade.” This was, in other words, a simple game—so simple, in fact, that one wonders whether it even qualifies as such, since there wasn’t any structured interaction between the players. Myriad contemporary art anthologies in both galleries and print have been constructed according to a comparable principle: A group of rising young curators are asked to nominate artists they admire. It is a tried and trusted formula—a cheap way of quickly scanning world art production—put forth here as a radical concept. When the method works, it can lead to results that feel energetic and current while netting new artists from far-flung places (supplying, it must be said, fresh product for the art market’s increasingly global bazaar). What it doesn’t produce, however, is a coherent or argumentative exhibition, a cultural experience with longevity, or any significance beyond its own structuring principle: How the show is made is also what it means.

According to the organizers, “the accumulation of all these propositions . . . gradually gives rise to a single landscape, the portrait of an immediate present and its passengers.” But while they claimed to be “reconsidering” the all-important Artists’ List—which, the duo asserted, shapes biennials and “reflects the universal passion for thinking in categories,” in reality, they replaced one list with another, a list of curators—who in turn produced the list of artists. Moisdon and Obrist also invited a so-called second circle, some twenty practitioners and writers who either represented their own work or curated further groupings of art and artists (in Lyon-speak, they made a “sequence” defining the decade). Paris-based Saâdane Afif, for example, filled the first floor of the Musée d’Art Contemporain with forty-six artists who have shown (or will show by the end of the decade) at Zoo Galerie, an alternative space in Nantes run by Patrice Joly. Unfortunately, with modest contributions from so many artists related only through this shared experience, the installation was as indigestible as an art fair. Elsewhere, Pierre Joseph selected ten younger France-based artists, in whose work he perceives either his own influence or a spark of filiation, and asked them to “replay” aspects of his oeuvre—titling his show-within-a-show “Retrospective.” Finally, Rirkrit Tiravanija teamed with Gridthiya Gaweewong, and Paul Chan with Jay Sanders, to supply extensive curated film programs; and an installation of e-flux video rental abandoned all pretense of curatorial definition, simply making a library of more than six hundred works available for viewing, each having been chosen by a leading curator or critic in the art community.

This was an exhibition in which much was on offer, but little brought into focus. If there was indeed a “single landscape,” then it was formed from the sedimentation of many elements: artists, ideas, things, multiplied and multiplied. One list begat another and another; the end was endlessly deferred. Bewildered, I searched the catalogue for guidance and found further lists: lists of biographies, lists of pictures, lists of words (indexes, lexicons), lists of concepts. Alongside “The Game,” “The Players,” and “The Rules,” the curators offered more metaphors to amplify their project, adding “The Mechanism,” “The Plot,” and “The Archipelago” to the pool already in play. With no discrimination or analysis, everything descended into data, the art included, and visitors were confronted with information overload.

Perhaps this was precisely the point, for in this sense the Biennale de Lyon could be said to have held up a mirror to its times: In this age of ubiquitous computing, Google, and Wikipedia, the art biennial becomes yet another link in an endless chain of information supply. A related logic of compilation and accumulation underpinned the work of a number of featured artists, from Ranjani Shettar’s gossamer-light curtain of suspended marbles to Wade Guyton’s sequence of digitally mastered abstractions; from Thomas Bayrle’s all-over micro-macro patterning to Erick Beltrán’s forest of placards and street signs (some appropriated inflammatory racist language from the street—LYON WHITE TRASH; BLACKS OUT—but painted carefully, all in black, they produced an effect that was rather more Rive Gauche than radical provocation).

In fact, the pervasive sense of accumulation in Lyon only seemed to confirm that there is, as “readymade artist” Claire Fontaine has written, a “crisis of singularity that seems to define contemporary art today.” To underscore this condition, Claire Fontaine, an artistic duo taking its collective name from a brand of school notebooks, makes works that look emptily reminiscent of others—Naumanesque textual neon signs, Warholian serial screenprints, and Duchampian objets trouvés (on view here were some heavy-handed airport waste bins filled with discarded water bottles and sharp instruments). Italian artist Norma Jeane is also forging a reputation based on an appropriated identity—the artist’s biography divulges that “she” was born the night that Marilyn died.

This crisis of singularity, so closely linked to a crisis of authorship, is symbolized by these two uncertain subjectivities; but a similar observation might be made of the many artists in Lyon who replayed aspects of previous art, using strategies of appropriation that themselves borrow from classic postmodernism. If Claire Fontaine swipes her stylistic vocabulary from Nauman and Warhol, then Seth Price raids the image bank of the 1960s and ’70s, reincorporating works by Martha Rosler and Joan Jonas, which he has already sampled elsewhere for his video montages. For The Last Work, 2007, Ryan Gander riffs on structuralist filmmakers such as John Smith and (early) James Coleman: In a film of a journey through London streets, from the artist’s studio to his home, the camera is continuously pointed skyward; a female narrator describes what we are looking at, simultaneously verbalizing Gander’s thoughts as he was filming the piece. Mai-Thu Perret reworks the Constructivist vocabulary of Varvara Stepanova, using the latter’s set and costume design for the 1924 Russian agitprop play An Evening of the Book. In Perret’s homage, three videos of dancers performing strictly synchronized movements are projected onto a similarly systematically patterned wallpaper, thus turning the room into pure animated surface. In the case of Norma Jeane, her experiments with nature and everyday materials—her Lyon contribution, a proposition to green the city’s polluted sewers, was a trough of plants growing indoors on a manure of Torinese human effluence—rehearse arte povera for an ecologically aware age.

Dizzy with all these repetitions and reruns, I craved good old-fashioned singularity—or at least some evidence of young artists intent on finding individual voices strong enough to transcend their artistic sources. Of the relative newcomers, the mad, amateur dramatics of Nathaniel Mellors, the hammy theater of Adrià Julià, and, in particular, a self-conscious yet assured film piece by young Israeli artist Keren Cytter (with a cast of characters male and female, clothed and naked, caught in the throes of some intense but inexplicable drama), all showed potential in this respect. But ultimately the most memorable works were, in my view, by artists set on their own unique paths of inquiry, artists who have evolved projects built on ideas relevant in the real world, yet framed in distinctive poetic, absurdist, or visionary terms. Even without the main attraction of Tino Sehgal’s Selling Out, 2003 (there was no sign of a male or female stripper in action on my visit), his room—set with a huddle of glass and light sculptures by Dan Flavin, Larry Bell, and Dan Graham, borrowed from the collection of the Musée d’Art Contemporain—was one of the showstoppers, and an important addition to Sehgal’s oeuvre, with its unusual meld of aesthetics and politics, movement and Marxism. Tomas Saraceno’s extraordinary continuing project Air-Port-City, 2006–, is unfailingly inspiring. Underpinned by both practical science and passionate politics, this Argentinean artist’s mission—to avoid environmental catastrophe by relocating the world’s population to the sky—generates drawings, sculptural prototypes, and experiments that are in themselves aesthetically thrilling.

Like Saraceno, Dave Hullfish Bailey makes speculative proposals to solve problems in the physical world. He captures his thought processes in maquettelike structures as flimsily beautiful as a Sarah Sze sculpture. Schindler Shelter, 1997–2007, elements of which were on view in Lyon, is a project that aspires to convert a two-family house in Los Angeles, designed by R. M. Schindler in the ’20s, into an emergency shelter in the event of disaster, whether natural or man-made. The model Pull Me from the Wreckage (Third State), 2005, looks like a crazy three-dimensional mind map, a sprawling tabletop mass of words and pictures, connected together along rickety pathways constructed from wood lathes and rubber bands. Nevertheless, amid the visual chaos it is possible to trace routes along which diverse pieces of information—dates, places, historical events—become linked in an associative flow. The whole adds up to a meditation on life in past and present Los Angeles, as it charts a passage from Schindler’s ideal of utopian, communal living to a notion of pragmatic, instant community formed by necessity.

The Biennale de Lyon 2007, like Schindler Shelter, was a speculative proposition, an experiment in writing history based on the accumulation of information. But where Hullfish Bailey maps a narrative and a thought process driven by a strong sense of purpose and the desire to make a difference in the world, the biennial lacked the strong artistic direction and definition—connections traced, information filtered—necessary to be viewed as the cumulative expression of its art-historical moment.

Kate Bush is director of the Barbican Centre, London.