Göteborg, Sweden

Goldin + Senneby, The Discreet Charm, 2011, MDF, plywood, 11 1/8 x 44 x 70". From the 6th Göteborg International Biennial.

Goldin + Senneby, The Discreet Charm, 2011, MDF, plywood, 11 1/8 x 44 x 70". From the 6th Göteborg International Biennial.

6th Göteborg International Biennial

Goldin + Senneby, The Discreet Charm, 2011, MDF, plywood, 11 1/8 x 44 x 70". From the 6th Göteborg International Biennial.

When Milton’s Lucifer was thrown out of heaven, he built Pandemonium, a castle where he and his fellow devils could plan their future actions against the old order. One couldn’t find a better image for organized disobedience. It’s also an excellent starting point for the production of a twenty-first-century biennial. The Sixth Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art, curated by Sarat Maharaj and his team—Dorothee Albrecht, Stina Edblom, and Gertrud Sandqvist—was lavishly called “Pandemonium: Art in a Time of Creativity Fever.” But despite the biennial’s devilish title, there were few works that came close to the demonic darkness and flamboyant rebellion of Paradise Lost. “Pandemonium” was, in fact, a low-key exhibition that nevertheless opened up like a lotus flower, with fragile and process-oriented works that required time and careful attention—no sociopornographic Wunderkammer or neocolonial quests for the uninformed other, but rather a Sisyphean, slightly melancholic gesture toward rebuilding the world.

The most vivid examples of this lyrical reconstructionism were Children’s Games, 2009—Francis Alÿs’s black-and-white video of children building a sand castle that gets washed away by the waves—and Isaac Julien’s Better Life, 2010, which approaches the 2004 tragedy of Morecambe Bay in the north of England (when twenty-three Chinese cockle pickers were washed away by the tide) by way of the enigmatic goddess Mazu’s ethereal journey through China’s mesmerizing landscapes and cities.

Among the works using social space, there was no institutionalized gift economy but negotiation-oriented practices. In order to get some food from Mahlet Ogbe Habte’s The Audience Cooking Performance, 2011, you had to participate in the cooking and wear a colorful turban for the rest of the evening. For Time Exchange, 2006–2009, Antonio Vega Macotela fulfilled the wishes of Mexican prisoners—for example, looking after their loved ones outside the prison walls. In exchange, the prisoners performed absurd tasks such as scratching holes in books, or collecting and organizing cigarette butts, hair, and fingernails into mystical formations. The results of this fetishized creativity were displayed in simple, elegant Plexiglas boxes in the white cube of Göteborgs Konsthall: a perfect punch in the stomach.

My favorite piece was by the Bataille-inspired intellectual dandies Goldin + Senneby. The Discreet Charm, 2011, is a miniature theater in which marionette players pull strings of figurines representing bankers such as Stephen Hester of the Royal Bank of Scotland, the guests at a bourgeois dinner party, Damien Hirst’s taxidermied animals, and a herd of cattle, among other things. Every move is synchronized to the words of a lecturer who narrates what is being acted out in the microcosmic puppet theater. Another standout was Liam Gillick’s sound piece Construction of One: A Manuscript, 2005–, which intertwines various narratives dealing with Volvo’s Uddevalla system in the late ’80s through the mid ’90s, when workers were asked to take part in the creative process. One is thus prompted to wonder to what extent the artists of this biennial participated in its curation. The hierarchical structure of artists showing politically engaged works and curators finding theoretical frames for that engagement doesn’t seem to have been questioned.

Not everything worked—for instance Ernesto Neto’s enormous soft hanging sculptures, which look like crosses between testicles and udders. His kindergarten aesthetics didn’t really fit in the rough industrial milieu of the Röda Sten art center, Tino Sehgal’s performance This Exhibition, 2011, consisting of museum guides who fall into a trance and start reciting statements from the catalogue text, is whimsical but nothing more. The biennial was nevertheless a graceful act of resistance against the nihilism of our times. And speak of the devil, the opening-night party was brought to a halt by a terrorist threat that meant everyone had to leave the building. Some think the target was the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who some years earlier had made a caricature of Muhammad. But who knows? We live in a time of pandemoniac conflicts in which the art world could become the next battleground.

Sinziana Ravini