The globalization of art

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.

One of the most stunning pieces is an exquisite wood reproduction of a Tokyo palace joined to an inverted copy of itself. The effect resembles a reflection on a lake without the presence of the lake. The work is by Takahiro Iwasaki, who was born in Hiroshima, but completed his studies at the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland. Another piece by Iwasaki consists of an intricately detailed miniature pagoda nestled on the edge of a craggy mountain. Only gradually do you realize that the “mountain” is an ordinary bath towel sprinkled with charcoal. In a three-minute video titled, “Toy emissions; my friends all drive Porsches," a radio-controlled toy Porsche zooms in and out of traffic in New York, spewing clouds of purple exhaust and darting audaciously between the wheels of taxis and a giant garbage truck. It is the work of the Paris-based HeHe Collective created by British artist Helen Evans and the German Heiko Hansen.

The street-savvy San Francisco artist Barry McGee’s installation resembles an American inner-city Armageddon, with upended vans and graffiti images everywhere. Three teenagers standing on each other’s shoulders, trying to reach an inaccessible spot, repeatedly tag the wall with a can of black spray paint. When you get closer, you realize that they are actually mannequins, and that the motion is coming from hidden electric motors. Against another wall a robotized wooden Native American does the same thing.

In a series of photographs and performance videos, the bent form of Chinese artist Lin Yilin, his wrist handcuffed to his ankle, is shown hobbling past pedestrians on a crowded street. They are either amused or try to ignore his existence.

One of the most ingenious installations is a tray of paperback books, each with a stark white title: “Steal this Book.” Spanish artist Dora Garcia,who lives in Brussels and experiments with “bending behavior,” has included a text in the books that advises the casual spectator to ignore the guard standing nearby, really steal the book and walk out. The work questions the viewer's ability to defy convention.

A similar installation by Taiwan artist Lee Mingwei consists of a long granite table with flowers. The spectator is encouraged to take one of the flowers, but only on the condition that he will later offer it to a perfect stranger. The idea is to set in motion a simple routine that circumvents the barriers that keep us apart.

Sarah Sze’s “Portable Planetarium” consists of a glistening skeletal globe formed from bits of metal and discarded everyday objects. While a planetarium projects our position in the universe, her work projects the magic that underlies the routine in our daily lives.

In “Pine Garden: As fierce as a tiger,” an installation by the Guangzhou, China-based Yangjiang Group, a half dozen people sit around a table in a traditional Chinese garden, drinking beer, eating from a Chinese hot pot and gambling on the results of international football matches posted on a nearby display board. A video camera records their progress and projects it on a giant nearby screen. Eventually they stand up and leave. After they have departed, all that remains are the empty bottles, leftovers and their shadowy projected images on the screen.

Most of the work at the biennale is conceptual art and not something that you would want to hang on your wall at home. Hou Hanru is clearly not out to make us feel comfortable. The biennale deals with large concepts, and the intention is to have a direct impact on the way we understand our existence. That alone makes it an exhilarating experience.