Hans Op de Beeck, We Were the Last to Stay, 2022, mixed media, dimensions variable. From the 16th Biennale de Lyon. Photo: Blaise Adilon

Hans Op de Beeck, We Were the Last to Stay, 2022, mixed media, dimensions variable. From the 16th Biennale de Lyon. Photo: Blaise Adilon

Biennale de Lyon

Various Venues

“Blamelessly fragile” is how Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, the curators of the Sixteenth Biennale de Lyon, describe our world in their introduction to “Manifesto of Fragility,” a vast exhibition encompassing twelve venues and including more than two hundred artists. Bardaouil and Fellrath, who were recently appointed codirectors of Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, have focused several curatorial projects on the Middle East and continued to do so in Lyon by smartly drawing out the city’s connections to Beirut, formed by the nineteenth-century silk trade and the 1920 French mandate.

The show’s structure was tripartite. The most straightforwardly executed segment was “Beirut and the Golden Sixties,” which spread across two floors of the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon. This self-contained touring exhibition, which had already appeared at Berlin’s Gropius Bau this past spring, included many dazzling works by Etel Adnan, Huguette Caland, and Simone Fattal, among others. Contextualized by documentary footage, photography, and exhibition ephemera fleshing out the history of specific galleries and scenes, several of the displays highlighted the intersections of bodies with the city, queer relationships, and tenderness and pain. Nicolas Moufarrege’s extraordinary embroidery painting Le sang du phénix (The Blood of the Phoenix), 1975, with its Doric columns rendered in silken threads, around which slippery fragments—blood, eyes, birds—seem to spill, was emblematic of one of the main themes of the biennial as a whole: how contemporary destructions of earthly life will appear when seen against the ruins of antiquity.

On the museum’s upper floor was a heavier-handed exhibition, “The Many Lives and Deaths of Louise Brunet.” Brunet was a Lyonnaise silk worker (canut), who was involved in a workers’ uprising in 1834 and was later recruited by a French silk producer to work in Beirut. The myriad items that opened the exhibition—opulent silk designs, factory architecture plans, and thematically related artworks—connected this past life to contemporary issues concerning migration, labor struggles, and international trade. To contextualize the objects on view, the curators’ textual interventions in the exhibition on walls and handouts pitched Brunet as a polymorphous avatar occupying different bodies and struggles through time. In these fictions, Brunet was described as a gay man dying of AIDS in 1990s New York, a woman from Dakar fleeing her forced participation in a display at Lyon’s 1894 Exposition universelle, internationale et coloniale, or a second-generation Japanese American killed in an internment camp in 1942. In one case, Brunet was cast as a tantrummy little girl like the one refusing to pose in Buck Ellison’s Christmas Card #8, 2017, a large photographic group portrait of a tony American “family” portrayed by actors. Ultimately, this narrative was stretched to its breaking point, and a rich historical specificity was lost in favor of a generalized figure who suffers and revolts.

By far the largest part of the biennial was “A world of endless promise,” an exhibition of works by contemporary artists, the majority of which were installed in a more-than-300,000-square-foot factory complex in which the curators also had arranged groups of damaged paintings and sculptures from local collections in the city. In Hans Op de Beeck’s We Were the Last to Stay, 2022, one entire factory unit was taken up with a life-size trailer park in which every last element—trees, cars, a playground—is entirely gray, as though covered in apocalyptic dust. Lucia Tallová’s Mountain, 2022, was composed of wooden display units holding fragments of collaged print images, piles of coal dust, and broken porcelain—objects and memories disintegrating before our eyes. Philipp Timischl’s The Embedded Mentality of Self-Sufficiency, 2021, was a huge LED panel screen framing two paintings on canvas. Via subtitles, we read the paintings cattily arguing about their meaning and fretting that they are already passing out of style. “A world of endless promise” was preoccupied with permanence and legacy; it was not in fact full of endless promise, but rather stalked by future disasters for which, the artists seemed to fear, we will be held accountable. This was what might be called an avant-retrospective, revealing a desire to arrange our ruins in advance, in hope that later generations might look kindly on our blameless fragility. It won’t wash.