The 3rd Gothenburg International Biennial, ‘More Than This! Negotiating Realities’, attempts to break with the logic of the blockbuster which most biennials seem to favour. The show is downsized to only 12 artists, meaning that (sympathetically enough) those participating can each exhibit several works. Curators Sara Arrhenius and Niklas Östholm wanted to avoid the constrictive theme-based show, in which art works merely illustrate the organizers' thoughts. As a way of opening up a dialogue they invited the artists several months before the opening to discuss the outline of the exhibition: the documentary paradigm that seems prevalent in our society at large, from reality TV to the proliferation of documentaries in exhibitions such as Documenta XI.
It can be difficult to avoid an overriding theme, however, when the parameters of the show are narrowed down to negotiating realities within the documentary tradition. Many of the chosen artists work with the moving image. Miriam Bäckström’s film Rebecca (2004), for example, is the result of a collaboration between the artist and the actress Rebecca Hemse. What at first seems to be an ordinary interview develops over time into a multi-layered and complex narrative as the roles of the actress and the artist are questioned. Was the interview scripted? Which answers derive from the ‘real’ Rebecca? Bäckström has since taken the idea behind this work a step further, together with Hemse, in another film, The Viewer (2005), which deals with the function and definition of memory. The film fits perfectly into the theme of the show since it flickers between the documentary as we know it and the staged; in fact, the subject could have been chosen specifically with Bäckström in mind, and both films are mind-twisting and extraordinary.
Two films by Gerard Byrne generate much the same uncertainty about fiction and reality as Bäckström’s. Homme à Femmes (Man to Women, 2004) is based on a transcript of an interview with Jean-Paul Sartre, acted by Michel Debrane. The actor’s performance is so convincing that the question about authenticity that proved crucial to Bäckström’s work is here subordinate to the narrative. Marcel Odenbach’s films The Male Story (2003) and The Male Story 2 (2005), which mix together new and old documentary and fictional material on topics such as Hot Rodders, among others, ought to be able smoothly to chime in with the theme of the show, but instead they look more like pastiches of the genre and thereby become reduced to unintentional irony.
The show’s theme is mostly addressed in literal fashion, with the exception of a few more abstract installations, such as Gabriel Lester’s Fish, Bird, Deer, Bear (a perfect food chain if only deer would eat fish and bears could catch more deer) – aka: Space in Pages (2005). Lester re-creates the concept of a children’s book, in which each page is turned into a wall with cut-outs of the animals in the title. This disproportionately large space proved to be very popular with the visitors. However, being less multi-layered, the installations are not strong counterparts to the film programme. Monica Bonvicini’s Stonewall (2002) rehashes her previous works using chains and glass, and Christian Andersson’s 9 was 6 if (2005), which consists of two chairs that change colour from white to black and back again, is nothing more than an illusionistic trick. This is the weakest link in a show that ultimately comes across as safe, well packaged and traditionally curated. The result is not unlike this year’s Italian Pavilion at Venice, where fewer artists are neatly installed but the result came across as a bit, well, dull. Whereas the Italian Pavilion seemed to bow its head too low to the market, this exhibition places the focus on the artists and tries to revitalize the purpose of the biennial: to produce new ideas. However, the sense of disappointment is even greater when, after all, no new ideas are presented. It is almost enough to make you yearn for the blockbuster show again.