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The globalization of art

At the Lyon Biennale, international artists make us feel uncomfortable.

LYON, France — A biennale fulfills the same function on the contemporary art scene that the Cannes Film Festival does for cinema. If successful, it can put a city on the map, and add stature and a veneer of credibility that is hard to match.

Venice launched the first biennale with a summer-long festival of art exhibitions in the 1930s. Now a growing number of cities from Istanbul to Beijing are trying to cash in on the idea.

Lyon’s 10th Biennale for Contemporary Art, which opened last month, is being staged at four locations. The largest is La Sucriere, a former sugar factory on the Rhone River at the edge of the city. Together, the four locations offer nearly 12,000 square meters of exhibition space. The budget for the show, which lasts until Jan. 3 is $6.9 million.

Apart from sheer size, what makes this edition of the Lyon Biennale stand out is its curator, Hou Hanru, who was brought in on short notice last January after Catherine David, the original curator, resigned unexpectedly.

One of the dazzling stars on the international art scene, Hou Hanru, who is currently director of exhibitions and public programs for San Francisco’s Art Institute, had already curated more than 20 major international exhibitions before taking on the Lyon assignment. After completing his undergraduate and graduate studies at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts, Hou Hanru spent several years in Paris before moving to the U.S. He has, naturally enough, pulled together a show that explores themes of globalization.

The show that he has put together in Lyon is "Le Spectacle du Quotidien," which translates roughly as “the spectacle of everyday life.”

“We live in a society of the spectacle,” Hou Hanru explains in an essay. “It is a fundamental condition of our existence.” The way we see the world, he contends, is increasingly influenced by images handed down by the media in service of capitalism. Our perceptions, imagination and reflection are gradually being molded into a format determined by the language of consumerism.

With globalization, he continues, the geographic and cultural differences that previously gave us a sense of identity are disappearing and it is harder and harder to escape uniformity. On the other hand, as people feel that they have less control over their own lives, globalization itself is beginning to fray around the edges. As life takes on a repetitive dullness, people start to lose interest.

The purpose of the artist is to provide an exit and to show us how to use the images and spectacles that are gradually submerging us in order to reassert control over our lives, to free our imagination and to become re-engaged.

If art’s purpose is to force us to break through routine and to refresh the way we see life, the artists exhibiting at the Lyon Biennale not only succeed brilliantly, but also they seem to have fun doing it.