BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 14 NOV 05
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Issue 95

Lyon Biennial

BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 14 NOV 05

In Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s film Stories Are Propaganda (2005) an English schoolboy provides a voice-over in which he speaks of a past that he did not experience. This is a period ‘before adventure became a sport, before nature became a spot’ – before, that is, the 1990s. Listening to the child’s clipped, almost patrician tones, its hard not to feel a flicker of sadness. Not for a time long lost, but for a future in which the narrator’s Proustian moment of remembrance is triggered by the foam from a Starbucks mochaccino.

Screened at the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Lyon, as part of the 8th Lyon Biennial, Stories Are Propaganda was emblematic of the exhibition’s wider concerns. Entitled ‘Expérience de la Durée’ (Experiencing Duration) by its curators Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans, the biennial took time as its theme, and more specifically the way in which temporality has been a central concern of artists who have influenced, set the agenda for, or been informed by a certain strain in pre-millennial art (for brevity’s sake, let’s characterize this as the loose set of practices described in Bourriaud’s publications Relational Aesthetics (1998), and Postproduction, (2001)). What ‘Expérience de la Durée’ presents, then, in essence, is an art-historical argument for a ‘long 1990s’, and, looking at many of the works on show in Lyon, this is all to the good. Unlike Cinderella, methods of making and thinking about art don’t become unwelcome at the ball just because the clock strikes midnight.

If time, for David Bowie, ‘flexes like a whore’, for Bourriaud and Sans its movements are closer to soporific languor. The first artist on show at the biennial’s biggest venue, La Sucrière (also the most temporally far-flung of its 60 contributors), was Andy Warhol, whose Sleep (1961), an unedited six-hour-long film of a dozing John Giorno, served to underline just how uncomfortable – and frankly, how boring – we find unmediated images of time’s passing. Beyond this piece, like dreams dreamt up by the slumbering Giorno, lay Ann Veronica Janssens’ LEE121! (2005), an empty room whose dusty, form-dissolving green lighting gave the impression that one was passing through a fog of pure pigment, and Martin Creed’s Work No. 200 (Half the Air in a Given Space) (1998 –2005), a room half-filled with pink balloons. Rubbing up against one’s body, bristling with static electricity, they came on like a gaggle of bosomy, overbearing nannies – who would have thought Creed’s pared-down Conceptualism could be so nightmarishly kinky? Far less effectively corporeal was Carsten Höller’s Experience Corridor (Student Version) (2005), a series of shoddy wooden chambers in which one could perform various perceptual experiments (put on these spectacles and the world turns upside down, play with this widget and your nose seems to grow longer …), all of which appear pretty lame to the noon-day gallery visitor but would be a blast with various pills and powders running through one’s system. Perhaps this is Höller’s point, and this is art for people who inhabit an altered state, an altered temporality – a time pocket of daft, delicious freedoms.

Elsewhere in La Sucrière the fuzzy time codes of dreams and drugs gave way to Pop immediacy. Saadane Afif’s impressive Power Chords (2005) – a collection of 11 guitars that seem to play a single monster rock riff of their own accord – was beautifully pared with Tony Conrad’s Yellow Movies (1970), a series of paintings resembling blank cinema screens designed to yellow over the years, as if projected desire were as accumulative, and as carcinogenic, as nicotine-tinged smoke. More joyful was Surasi Kusolwong’s Erratum Musical (Sounds to be Seen) (2005), a rumpus room in which visitors were invited to jam on a number of absurd home-made instruments. Perhaps more than any other work in the biennial, Kusolwong’s spoke of ‘freed time’ – a reclaimed temporality unbound by the usual rhythms of organized work and play, and (given the artist’s generous attitude to visitors’ levels of musical skill) often unbound by any rhythm at all.

In the biennial’s other venues time destabilized the senses, or else social and cultural history. At the Institut d’Art Contemporain, James Turrell’s fantastic The Wait (1989), a pitch-black room that produces the artist’s trademark light effects on the retina over the course of 15 minutes, was installed near a mini-retrospective of Robert Crumb’s gibbering, boob- and buttock-heavy counterculture cartoons, which were displayed on walls papered with a reworking of Robert Indiana’s Love (1969) painting by General Idea, in which Indiana’s hopeful, hippie-ish text is replaced by the words AIDS (1987). At first glance glibly dualistic, the more one thought about this pairing (and the various waves of historical revisionism that made it possible), the more complex and heartbreaking it became.

If ‘Expérience de la Durée’ succeeds (and it does), it is because it offers alternative temporalities to the speedy capitalist trajectory that shapes so much of our lives, one that is ably illustrated by Wim Delvoye’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (2005), on show at Le Rectangle. Disarmingly simple, the work is a collection of thousands of framed Laughing Cow processed cheese labels, from 1921 to the present. Flashing my eyes over the labels – with their occasional tweaks of colour or form – it was hard not to wonder at the evolutionary robustness of brand-based commerce. This cow, after all, has seen nations rise and fall, and ideologies reduced to dust, and has responded to it all with a booming, bovine laugh. This is why we need other time-streams, other histories, and that is what Bourriaud and Sans’ biennial, at its best, provides.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.