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.
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About the Author
Kristina Lee Podesva is Editor of Fillip.