Shortly after he’d been appointed Director of London’s Hayward Gallery in 2006, I interviewed Ralph Rugoff about his approach to curating. During the conversation, he stated that what he’d most like to see in the near future was an international biennial of humorous art. I was reminded of this fact while reading his introduction to the catalogue for the 13th Biennale de Lyon – ‘La vie moderne’ (Modern Life) – which he curated. The exhibition – which includes the work of 60 artists from 28 countries – embodies Rugoff’s long-standing interest in humour’s ability to confound and disorientate, alongside an exploration of the political and historical ramifications of compassion, myriad readings of ‘the modern’ (which the director of the biennale, Thierry Raspail, had invited him to reflect upon) and its potential for ambiguity.
Across both La Sucrière and the second principal venue, MAC Lyon, works by Marinella Senatore (who collaborated for six months with communities from diverse socio-economic backgrounds in two districs of the city to produce powerful participatory activities) and many others deal with local economic and political concerns. Ahmet Ögüt’s Workers Taking Over the Factory (2015), for example, reflects on the birth of spectacular culture via the 120th anniversary of the invention of cinema by the Lumière brothers in Lyon. His tribute to Louis Lumière’s Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (1895), arguably the first film ever made, also memorializes a technological advancement in Lyon’s textile industry that resulted in poverty and unemployment for many workers in the 19th century. In Ögüt’s installation, vintage sewing machines are used as stands for film projectors showing local people leaving the Institut Lumière, the site of the old factory, brandishing banners that display logos of local companies that have recently been declared bankrupt.
Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni’s film The Unmanned (1997: The Brute Force) (2013) at MAC uses the same history to commemorate ‘Bloody Week’, one of the textile workers’ subsequent rebellions in 1834. With the revolt, in part, a reaction to the effects of the automation of the workplace by the introduction of Jacquard looms, it’s interesting that these machines’ perforated cards provided the mechanics that eventually translated into the first basic computer. Giraud and Siboni neatly explore historical technologies to show how we have become ‘bound to’ present forms of communication and information technology.
Tony Oursler, himself an elder statesperson of digital projection, contributed a surrounding display of portraiture cut free from its frame that harks back to historical magic lanterns. Weak Classifiers (2015) fills the gallery’s domed ceiling with facial-recognition technology that references surveillance, classification and personal identity. In turn, surveillance through obsessive documentation and the flattened yet potentially infinite nature of virtual global imagery is reiterated in 9-Eyes (2009–ongoing), a work by Jon Rafman that shows images accidentally captured by Google Street View, ranging from murders to kids comically hiding from Google’s nine-pronged camera. Similarly, this layering of documentary and fiction is explored by T.J. Wilcox’s In the Air (2013), a wraparound film containing footage taken from the artist’s studio in New York, superimposed with six historical stories, featuring figures such as the Pope, Gloria Vanderbilt, Andy Warhol and, most beautifully, a narrative built around the twice yearly phenomenon of ‘Manhattanhenge’, a form of ‘Neolithic-Modern’ when the sun aligns precisely with the city’s streets from west to east, shining as if through natural canyons.
‘La vie moderne’ veers, in a tangential and dystopic manner, towards the politics of oil production in Mike Nelson’s A7 Route du Soleil (2015), an installation of blown tyres found on the main transport artery leading into Lyon. Placed on concrete and wire plinths, they represent the frightening rate at which we consume natural resources, while throwing a circuitous nod to the speed of current technological developments. Nelson’s visceral trophies, or ‘anti-monuments’, present a singular history of Lyon, as well as a form of ‘doubling’ that’s characteristic of the artist’s oeuvre, through his raw materials’ local and global political relevance. This continued trope of ‘waste’ is reiterated in Ed Ruscha’s series of paintings, ‘Gators’ (2014), at MAC, which, somewhat uncannily, include images of tyres that are identical to Nelson’s ready-made version on the other side of the city.
Lyon, oil, global war and religion are also the subjects of George Osodi’s theatrical and powerful photographs from Nigeria, which reflect the violent divisions created in the country through the presence of Boko Haram, as well as the potential for harmony. Nearby, Kader Attia’s bureaucratic office display contains an 18-channel video installation, Réparer l’irréparable (Repair the Irreparable, 2015), which was made in the immediate wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and includes interviews with ethno-psychologists, provocatively asking questions around immigration, psychological pathology in non-Western traditions and the difference in attitudes between Western and non-Western belief systems.
These subjects may sound bleak, yet both venues project an intense form of humility, which provides a startlingly fresh approach to display, alongside the amplification of the giddy barrage of information available. This is nowhere more evident than in Cyprien Gaillard’s 3D film Nightlife (2015), which scrambles historical connections with its presentations of night-time shots of Auguste Rodin’s damaged The Thinker (1902) in Cleveland and the last surviving of the four oak trees given as saplings to Jesse Owens for winning four gold medals at the 1936 Munich Olympics. Set to a sonic loop from a section of Alton Ellis’s reggae classic ‘Blackman’s Word’ (1969/71), Owens’s tree forms the basis of the film’s finale, a magical light display that celebrates a beautiful living being that prevails. Next door, Anthea Hamilton’s LET’S GO! (Black) (2015), a sculptural installation on an equally grand scale, provides a more problematic and knowingly kitsch mise-en-scène. With the room dominated by a gigantic, 2D Robert Crumb cartoon of a highly sexualized black female figure pasted onto the wall, Hamilton’s brand of performative pop places an accent on the line between acceptability and disdain in 1960s West Coast hippie culture and representations of race and gender, in a work that proved in equal parts powerful and uncomfortable.
It’s fair to say that what is most successful about ‘La vie moderne’ is that it navigates major global issues without recourse to traditional political artistic strategies, with its energy coming from the sheer spirit of generosity from the invited participants towards the people of Lyon. Apparently, Rugoff’s first action as curator was to request books on the history of the city. Through his close research and the works’ rewiring of local historical moments with contemporary international issues, ‘La vie moderne’ provides an exemplary model of how to approach the difficult task of addressing biennial audiences from both near and far.