in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 07
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Issue 104

2nd Seville Biennial

Curated by Okwui Enwezor, ‘The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in a Global Society’ seemed to ask: what kind of a mess are we in; why; and how do we get out of it?’

in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 07

Walk into either of the two expansive venues that corralled pretty much the entirety of the 2nd Seville Biennial, ‘The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in Global Society’, and what curator Okwui Enwezor intended by that subtitle was swiftly made apparent. Near the entrance of the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, a former Carthusian monastery, hung Josephine Meckseper’s photographs of fiery protests against the Iraq war, the type of imagery mainstream media rarely troubles itself to convey. Meanwhile, the first piece one encountered at Reales Atarazanas – a cavernous 13th-century site built to house the royal shipyards and used at one point as an army barracks – was the faux-marble sculpture Memorial (Serie Democracia) (2005), by Madrid-based artists’ group El Perro: a baseball-capped skateboarder balanced atop a crouching trio of hooded, naked figures (obvious shades of Abu Ghraib). This biennial was frequently subtler and more geographically diverse than these examples would suggest, but what connected the 92 exhibitors was the notion, increasingly prevalent, that the image realm is the real battleground of contemporary geopolitics. This made for a powerful cumulative testimonial; it also gave rise to some serious internal contradictions.

In a lengthy curatorial statement, Enwezor enlisted post-colonialist theorist David Scott’s notion of the ‘problem-space’ as an implicit model for his show’s stimulating polyphony: a context of argumentation that, writes Scott, ‘requires an ensemble of questions and answers around which a horizon of identifiable stakes hangs’. The questions, crudely put, might be: what kind of mess are we in; why; and how do we get out of it? The display propelled viewers between nuanced versions of these inquiries, between specific geographical focuses and, crucially, between modes of approach.

And so we got an alternation of wide-angle and zoom functions, philosophical and allegorical accounts abutting specific and documentarian ones. Audiences pinballed from a mini-retrospective of Kim Jones’ bleak assessments of humanity’s crooked timber (compulsive drawings of armies of miniature glyphs locked in perpetual, futile war; menacingly cultish wooden constructions) to Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s front-line photojournalism (balaclava-wearing Fallujah insurgents, blindfolded prisoners in Latifyah). Gerhard Richter’s paintings of airborne Mustangs and battleship-grey abstracts gave way to Thomas Ruff’s icy jpeg blow-ups of bombed Grozny and burning Iraq. Retort’s urgently pragmatic installation, Afflicted Powers (2006), took a long view of the contemporary, featuring a ticker reading extracts from their eponymous 2005 book, stacks of giveaway broadsides on Iraq and a video that, recalling the UN’s notorious concealment of their copy of Guernica (1937), shows Picasso’s masterpiece disintegrating to reveal flaming oilfields, protesters against the Spanish Civil War and others marching against the current débâcle in the Gulf. Elsewhere direct formal dialogues were occasionally entrained. Creating a loose associative poetics, the same exaggerated perspective characterized Catherine Opie’s monochrome photographs of an eerily deserted Wall Street and the v-shaped entrance of Andreas Slominski’s Red Deer Trap (1999).

It’s a fearful world then: the abiding question is what role artists might perform in it, even considering the visual’s escalating primacy. And although the show’s girth and diversity frustrate summarization, Enwezor’s primary answer seemed to be: art should bring us together. In practice this means a return to identity politics, predicated on the necessity of seeing our global neighbours without ideological blinkers. His chosen artists broach this with varying degrees of élan. There are smart reconsiderations of power and the gaze, such as Runa Islam’s First Day of Spring (2005) – wherein her camera stares upon and is stared back at by rickshaw drivers in Bangladesh – and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s brilliantly ambiguous, semi-threatening paintings of women and transsexuals. These mingle, however, with works such as Salem Mekuria’s IMAGinING TOBIA (2006), a triple-screen video of fertile landscapes and women carrying back-breaking cords of coppiced wood, seemingly intended to counter unexamined perceptions of Ethiopia, and the involuntary exoticism of Hannah Collins’ video Beshencevo (A Current History) (2006), which tours a Russian village where it’s really cold and people have to corkscrew holes in the ice to catch fish.

Still, tolerance and consideration come relatively easy for liberal, educated audiences in the exhibition venue’s sealed chamber. For all that Enwezor’s biennial – toggling invigoratingly between registers, alive with intelligent (and often spanking new) art – impressed while you were in it, considering its relation (or lack thereof) to its physical location sparked anxiety. Aside from a Meckseper vitrine placed ‘subversively’ in a clothes shop, some Renée Green banners in the city centre and a bit of graffiti sprayed around by El Perro, nothing left the venues. A highlight of the Reales Atarazanas segment was Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation: themed around ‘preciousness’, it was typically dense with groaning bookshelves, plastic tape-covered seating and various documentations of a fragile outdoor gallery in Paris, built by locals under the artist’s direction and temporarily showing major works from the Pompidou’s collection. RE (2006) was dedicated to ‘the assertion … that an artwork, because it is an artwork, can have a meaning and a political impact’. Out in the world, it just might; a pity Hirschhorn couldn’t have done something on the avenidas of Seville.

Enwezor, on this evidence, has little time for those ad hoc, civic-minded communities of artists that have sprung up with increasing frequency in the last decade or so. None was here, leaving us with a dubious article of faith: that social change can be effected from the gallery outwards. If one assumed limited circulation for Retort’s gratis screeds, apart from the abovementioned artists only Rainer Ganahl reached out locally – as part of his ‘Reading Frantz Fanon’ project (2001–ongoing), which, as video and photographic evidence shows, typically makes a beeline for the bosky groves of academe. But the impression of estrangement went further than that. Seville positively invites a show concerned with the politics of proximity, being a stone’s throw from Morocco – where North Africans trying to cross into the Spanish territory on the continent’s lip have lately been getting shot by border guards. The show certainly engaged with migrant experience, perhaps most effectively in Yto Barrada’s contributions, ranging from desperate photographs of immigrants sleeping rough in parks to videos of footsore foreign magicians and an aged smuggler demonstrating her techniques. But no exhibitor appeared to pursue the specificities of Spain’s immigration policy (one thought of absent works such as Christopher Stewart’s Levanter from 2002, which documents the anti-immigration surveillance system at Gibraltar). In short, for good or ill, this was a biennial that could have been held anywhere.

Also conspicuously absent, given the political emphasis, was any consideration of the ethical dimension of the biennial system: from the airline fuel expended by the expo-hopping hordes, to such events’ rerouting of funds away from local art projects, to the fact that, to judge from its catalogue, a leading sponsor of this show – in a country gripped by an affordable-housing crisis – is a consortium that specializes in property. Under such cloistered circumstances this might be one of the most apposite subjects a biennial could pursue. Ex cathedra speeches may shake the city walls; ex monasterio ones, however, conceivably go unheard by all but the devoted.

Martin Herbert is a writer living in Tunbridge Wells.