Fillip 4 — Fall 2006

Time & Space in a Biennial for Chechnya
Kristina Lee Podesva

To think of Chechnya is to think of war and of Grozny, its capital, no longer a city as much as it is an urban ruin, providing bricks-and-mortar proof of a society and people under threat of total annihilation. Images of the city feature desolate streets lined with collapsing, charred, and pockmarked buildings that have managed to resist—after a decade of bombing and shelling—the gravitational pull of the piling rubble below. Except for the appearance of its contorted and disfigured architecture and of the odd burnt and barren tree, there is little to distinguish Grozny from the surface of the moon: both appear colourless, distant, haunted, and unsuitable for human life. Still, despite the crushing experience of constant combat, people inhabit this infernal place, one of the most dangerous and forgotten on earth.

Compare Grozny to Venice, São Paulo, or Sydney and stark contrasts take shape between a city ravaged by war and those that enjoy world-class status. Unlike Venice, Grozny has no romantic canals, no Piazza San Marco, and no Giardini. It cannot, like São Paulo, take pride in its Oscar Niemeyer architecture, Edifício Martinelli, or Parque Ibirapuera. And, unlike Sydney, it has no Opera House, no Bondi Beach, and no impressive harbour to offer. The differences between these cities and the Chechen capital seem insurmountable and absolute. Until recently. Now, at least, they have one thing in common: a biennial.

Launched in 2005 by independent curator Evelyne Jouanno, the Emergency Biennale in Chechnya (EBC) opened its doors to the public in Paris and Grozny on February 23rd, marking the sixty-first anniversary of Stalin’s mass deportation of Chechens. Working without funds, Jouanno asked art world colleagues to donate two copies of artworks small enough to fit in a suitcase (one for Paris and one for Grozny). Within a month, she had collected over sixty-two pieces for an initial exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, which presented the works alongside a series of documentary films and conferences concerning the situation in Chechnya. Suitcases destined for Grozny travelled undercover before reaching a group of anonymous handlers undertaking the dangerous but rewarding task of exhibiting contemporary art in a war zone.

Since its launch, the EBC has continued to move along two tracks: one following an international route and the other travelling directly to Chechnya, appearing in various underground venues. For each stop on the world tour (Brussels, Milan, Bolzano, Riga, Tallinn, and Vancouver) Jouanno collaborates with local curators, inviting them to add artists whose works are exhibited both locally and in Chechnya, where ultimately the tour will conclude. This process makes it uniquely possible for two parallel sets of works and exhibitions to coincide in time and space.

While co-coordinating the EBC for its North American debut at Centre A, the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, I became increasingly intrigued by both the temporal and spatial aspects of the exhibition. More a process than a curatorial product, the EBC manifests certain key characteristics of a relatively new species of art presentation known as the evolutional exhibition, first articulated by Hans Ulrich Obrist in regard to Cities on the Move (1990), his project with Hou Hanru. According to Obrist, the evolutional exhibition consists of a complex and flexible format that resists closure and fixity in time and space, reflecting the instability and unpredictability of contemporary life much like the asynchronous insurgencies of the world today. The evolutional exhibition does not, therefore, operate as a vehicle for curatorial proposals, but rather presents an opportunity and space for facilitating experimentation, collaboration, and differentiation. This curatorial practice has since grown in currency, circulating as a platform for several recent projects such as Interarchive (2002), Utopia Station (2003), and e-flux video rental (2004 to the present), among others.

Perhaps even more significant is the EBC’s appropriation of the term “biennale,” which signals an engagement with this modular and increasingly more problematic form of exhibition. A biennial in name only, the EBC rejects traditional temporal and spatial framings, suggesting that it does not simply serve as an alternative to the biennial structure, but rather, performs a critique of it. Moreover, the EBC simplifies the relationship between cultural traditions and economic transactions found in the context of contemporary biennials by eschewing million dollar budgets, corporate support, and direct governmental backing from city, regional, and federal bodies.

In terms of temporal organization, the EBC favours an open and elastic approach, proposing an ongoing and dynamic exhibition that is not terminal, but transforms over time and place with each new location. The EBC unmoors the traditional temporality of biennials, in which the planning and presentation of a show unfolds over the course of two years. Instead, it operates on what Jouanno calls an “emergency footing,” limited by a scarcity of time and funds, which directs its organization. In doing so, it sidesteps the inherent bureaucratic pressures of administering and financing an international art show over a protracted period. It also avoids many of the pitfalls associated with biennials, namely, the failure to introduce emerging artists who become established by the time a biennial opens. For instance, in Estonia and Latvia, the EBC saw the addition of Baltic artists, such as Kristians Brekte and Marco Laimre. Not yet known in Western Europe and North America, the EBC introduced these artists’ works to new audiences within a matter of months rather than years.

Not only more supple and current than existing biennials, the EBC’s cumulative and simultaneous nature further challenges the temporal framings of a traditional exhibition. For example, the doubling of artworks in the EBC enables the show to exist in more than one location at the same time. Furthermore, each presentation of the EBC does not exist independently of its predecessors; with each new venue the show evolves while still remaining integrated into a larger, comprehensive project. This generative yet cumulative process privileges continuity over discontinuity, perhaps as an indictment of the revolving door of themes and curators that typifies successive and disjunctive installments of the biennial form.

The EBC radically diverges from the fixed spatiality of biennials, existing in multiple places rather than within the confines of a single city. The resistance to fixed spatiality in this case is critical, implying an awareness that the biennial and its host city have become symbiotic brands; a biennial is coded, flagging its host city as a destination by conferring cultural capital to it, which activates the biennial label as a promotional tool attracting global investment. Funds flow to local government and business initiatives (including the biennial itself) but not to the local population. The outcome can be dire: e.g. the city demolishes low-income housing to build high-tech exhibition halls and hotels for a biennial while real estate developers erect luxury towers nearby, luring buyers with a taste for “artsy” quarters. In this scenario, global art tourism and investment uproot local community networks, rupturing a neighbourhood’s history and identity. The biennial becomes, therefore, not only a facet of the art market, but of the market in general, replacing heterogeneous life with homogeneous development.

The EBC rejects the fixed spatiality of the biennial within the exhibition space as well as outside of it. Typically, biennials organize works according to the nationality of the artists involved or by subjects and ideas theorized by its curators. The EBC, on the contrary, does not highlight national identities, borders, or subjective themes. It has no centres, no spaces grander than any others, and no American pavilion dwarfing the Senegalese. Instead, works are loosely organized by medium; two-dimensional pieces occupy walls salon style, videos screen in compilations, and multiple objects cohabit under the glass of a shared vitrine. This relatively democratic strategy of display is significant for it unveils the politics of presentation inherent in the biennial form. With now over one hundred works the viewing experience of the EBC can be overwhelming, but the effect is polyphonic rather than cacophonous precisely because the exhibition does not situate its myriad works within a narrowly defined master plan where all pieces cohere around a single theme or idea. Viewers are free to observe and appreciate works according to their own preferences and interests, perhaps even identifying shows within the larger show itself.

Unofficial, stateless, and engaged in a battle for self-determination against hegemonic forces, the EBC seems in some ways to be an art world allegory of the conditions Chechens face. While the EBC attempts to resuscitate the lapsed criticality of the biennial, Chechens wage a war of independence against Russia. It is the appalling effect of this war that the EBC calls to our attention, compelling us to mobilize through opposition and protest against this human tragedy. At the same time, it tenders an urgent critique of the biennial brand even as it offers a productive imaginary, opening up time, space, and hope under the very same name.

Folio FOut Now