Thierry Raspail, director of the Biennale de Lyon [in Lyon, France, until January 3 2016] since its launch in 1991, has also been director of MAC Lyon since it began in 1984. After having secured the position of artistic direction for the first three editions, Thierry Raspail has entrusted the artistic direction of the Biennale to different commissioners, and together they have decided on a theme for each of the three editions, according to the principles of a trilogy. In 2015, the Biennale opens a trilogy on the modern, inaugurated by “Modern Life”, curated by Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London. Art Media Agency went to meet the leader of this international and Lyon adventure that is both artistic and political and has continued to reinvent itself for over two decades.
It’s been a few weeks since the 13th Biennale de Lyon started.
For now, we’re lucky to get very positive reviews from the press, with one exception. The response from the public is excellent and very unexpected. The artists also sent messages testifying to how happy they were with the Biennale. I don’t want to speak too soon, but we have to admit that this year has started very well.
The world now has between 150 and 200 biennials. How do you make yourself stand out among all the choice?
On a global scale, I would not say that there is overwhelming choice, that’s-to-say by density of km2. After all, the Biennale de Lyon is the only one in France. As such, it is following on from the Biennale de Paris, created by Malraux in 1959 to try to fight against the growing influence of New York on the Western market. The Biennale de Paris stopped in 1985 and luckily we took over in 1991.
At that time, as a contemporary art specialist in Lyon, I was invited to think about a museum project. We celebrated post-modernism, the idea of the end of history and globalism. We realize that the history of art that we had, possibly deliberately, ignored, was on the rise. It looked like only an international programme greater than a museum project, could contain this incredible evolution.
Moreover, it was at this time that the biennials in Shanghai, Gwangju (South Korea) and Johannesburg (which sadly did not last) were launched. It was a cultural project never before seen on a global scale, totally new for designers of European biennials. We saw new cultural areas represented on the map of the art world, at least in the Western. The issue of non-Western contemporary artists, fueled by Western modernity and integrated into a local market, had become particularly sensitive through exhibitions like “Magicians of the Earth”, by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Centre Pompidou in 1989.
So, how do you make the fair stand out?
That seems pretty clear to me: through marrying this movement of the history of art with the desire to preserve this simple and clear dialogue. It also comes down to the choice of themes ( for instance, the term “modern” thought up by Ralph Rugoff for this year’s edition), which are always very broad (that I am sometimes criticized for) and deeply engrained in the here and now.
Why did you choose to use the term “modern”?
In the West, and our art tradition, it is a word that has been buried for a long time. The “Modern” has been replaced by a period of postmodernism since the 1980s; a formalist trend for historians of American art; the invention of perspective for Europeans; or even, for historians, a period that starts in the Neolithic. Yet this word has not been buried in the same way by all cultural regions, the ones who are now dining at the banquet of contemporary art while the West refused to invite them.
Since the late 1980s, contemporary art has incorporated new cultural areas, which have restored the credentials to the term “Modern”. Not only do these new cultural areas accept the idea of the individual-creative artist, rooted as much in history as in the present, but they also recognize the new forms introduced by Western Modernity: the readymade, cubism, Matisse, video art, body art or performance, etc. Non-Western artists take back the forms self-invented by the West and revive them. For us, the Modern is obsolete; for these artists, it is alive. They enrich it with new challenges and new stories, be they local, traditional or contemporary.
On the other hand, Europeans do not really believe in modernity, nor in history in general. For the rest of the world, the issue of globalization marks a completed modernity that must write the present, that is to say the future.
At the Biennale de Lyon, it’s not so much about redefining the modern than showing how this notion is shared today. It clears up aesthetic and societal issues such as the environment or democracy.
In the West, the Modern disappeared with the disintegration of great narratives and is beginning to resurface as our ethnocentrism is called into question by the many narratives that enthrall and captivate us.
Ethnology and anthropology, wanting to get to know and get close to the Other, ended up widening the gap and making the Other permanently other. Anthropocentrism is inevitable; at the basis of all these narratives, the common ground is our humanity – but it must be shared. We can no longer take anthropocentrism, as well as universalism, on their own.
This notion of shared history is essential. It is evident in the visual arts, particularly through new communication technology which allows such artists to collaborate in real time on both sides of the planet. In addition, global issues such as global warming are interesting artists.
These issues are found in the 13th edition of the Biennale, which has been described as pessimistic. How do you react to this?
First, this edition is the first of a trilogy.
Next, it is clear that Ralph Rugoff wanted to use the term “modern” in its broadest sense. He was interested in the new forms produced by the artist in today’s world, by the post-media generation, notably marked by the frantic production of superimposed images, and well-tuned-into the current major societal issues.
With these woks, the result is not pessimistic, but it represents the contemporary world as it is. Moreover, this vision does not exclude humor. The installation of Julien Prévieux, for example, is a kind of museum of cheating in which he brings together those in sport who have tried to cheat, a work that is both funny and revealing of this world of competition.
This edition also has a strong local presence – with the silk workers in a work of Marina Pinsky or the tyres from the A7 motorway in the installation of Mike Nelson.
Yes. Ralph Rugoff wanted to start with France, following the idea that a biennial can’t be international if it doesn’t have an anchor! You need both ends of the chain. Traditionally, the commissioners are interested in the local last. Ralph Rugoff has done made the opposite true.
It seems to me symptomatic of the recent interest we have for the dialectic between the global and the local. Vis-à-vis the anchor, we also offer other exhibitions which I curated or co-curated. For instance, “Ce fabuleux monde modern” (“This fabulous modern world”) organised by Ralph Rugoff at the MAC Lyon; ” Rendez-vous 15″, dedicated to very young artists worldwide; or “Anish Kapoor chez Le Corbusier” for which the artist appropriated the monastery of La Tourette, a still active Dominican convent.
Have you started to think about the next commissioner, for the 2017 edition?
We are always trying to think about the next commissioner, but it’s a bit early to talk about!
The pace of biennial has changed. If it was slow before, it has sped up a lot for quite some time now; in fact the organizers are interested more and more in the three-year format. Biennials around the world offer new things constantly and you have to keep up.
How have you seen the status of biennials change over the past two decades?
They have become strategic tools. For example, when South Africa came out of apartheid in 1991, and wanted to let the whole world know, they specifically chose to organize a biennial. The problem though is that you cannot devise a biennial in Johannesburg after years of apartheid as if it was in New York or London.
For different, but also geopolitical and cultural, reasons, Singapore also created its Biennial. Singapore, which has a thriving economy, is close to China, Japan and South Korea where there are several biennials. Faced with this competition, the city-state has decided to lead the field in South-east Asia.
The cultural issues of prosperous countries are particularly apparent in contemporary art, especially because of its freedom, performance can do as well as oil painting. All the emerging countries do not even have museum infrastructures and, given that they want to first establish culture before expanding the market, they create biennials rather than art fairs.
What are your projects for the MAC Lyon?
We will exhibit Yoko Ono [March 9 to July 10 2016], who largely anticipated these contemporary issues whose importance has not yet been fully recognized.