Explainer: what is a biennale?

‘Bang’ composed of 886-three legged wooden by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at the German during the 55th International Art Exhibition in Venice, Italy, 2013. EPA/ Andrea Merola

Chances are you’ve heard of an art biennale, even if you haven’t visited one. This year’s Biennale of Sydney hit the headlines with a controversy over sponsor Transfield’s links to off-shore refugee detention centres.

And if you haven’t visited a biennale, it’s probably by design rather than accident. With at least 98 biennales (and triennales) staged worldwide, it can be difficult to avoid them. According to the International Association of Art, biennales are staged in 46 different countries. So almost a quarter of the world’s sovereign states offer one.

There are currently four on offer in Australia: the Biennale of Sydney, founded 1973 and currently running until June 9; the Adelaide Biennale (1990) – which just finished and was highly praised; Brisbane’s Asia-Pacific Triennial (1993); the Tarrawarra Biennial (2008). The City of Melbourne staged one biennale in 1999.

The Italian word “biennale” acknowledges the original art biennale; the Biennale di Venezia, staged since 1895.

Biennales are large-scale exhibitions of contemporary art, named for their host city and typically managed by a combinations of public art museums, government agencies and philanthropic supporters. As for the two- or three-year cycle, that’s simply a reflection of the time required to organise a large exhibition.

‘Drive In’ by Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout, 55th International Art Exhibition in Venice, Italy, 2013. EPA/ Andrea Merola

Originally more of a specialised, art-world affair, biennales now figure in the cultural menu supported by state and local government tourism agencies. A successful biennale will draw tens, even hundreds of thousands of visitors.

A biennale is also a promotional platform for participating nations; this year’s Biennale of Sydney, for example, lists 27 different national cultural agencies among its partners.

A biennale operates on a grand scale, gathering artists from around the globe and presenting their work across multiple venues. The art works are often room-filling, theatrical environments, heavy with high definition video technology.

Add the forums, performances, opening night parties and semi-official parallel exhibitions hovering around the margins and a biennale becomes an immersive, weeks-long arts festival.

Because each biennale is a brief, one-off event (usually of about 12 week’s duration), visitation is driven by an intensive promotional “call to action”. Increasingly marketing strategies focus on emotive effects, emphasising the biennale as an “experience” rather than as a formal cultural affair.

The titles of the 2014 Adelaide Biennial — “Dark Heart” — and Biennale of Sydney – “You Imagine What You Desire” – evoke emotional states. The curator of the first promises “a moving experience” and the second, “splendor and rapture”.

Canny organisers amplify these emotional effects with unusual venues (abandoned factories are a favourite), hands-on and interactive art works, and the placement of striking sculptures or installations in familiar public spaces.

Artwork on display at the 19th Biennale of Sydney on March 22, 2014. Paul Thompson/Newzulu

A smartly orchestrated biennale is a combination of magical mystery tour and high-brow theme park. Today’s biennale visitor traverses the city, map (or app) in hand, adding the thrill of discovery to the experience of the art works themselves.

The promotional “call to action” is often supported by the open declaration of an artistic agenda or the linking of artists within a shared theme. Often, the organisers of a biennale will make a grand statement about pressing social and aesthetic issues, or even that old chestnut, the human condition.

An evocative subheading can gussy up the bald, numerical title of a biennale, as in the case of the 52nd Biennale di Venezia, 2007: Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind.

‘I am the River’ by Eva Koch in the Turbine Hall on Cockatoo Island in Sydney, March 18, 2014. AAP Image/Quentin Jones

An aesthetic agenda promises signposts to the visitor, the past few years of global art activity will be distilled into a manageable event. Themes represent the pulse of the contemporary art world, flagging issues that will shape museum exhibitions and art market movements in subsequent years. A cultural experience (the event itself) is coupled with cultural capital (information that a visitor can trade on).

The roots of the modern biennale lie in the annual academy exhibitions of the 18th and 19th centuries. In its heyday, the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition (established 1769) made reputations and established markets. The [Paris Salon](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salon_(Paris) (established 1725) did the same and its offshoots, such as the Salon d’Automne (established 1903), introduced modern art movements such as fauvism and cubism.

The grand-daddy of them all, Biennale di Venezia, was a variation of the 19th-century international expositions, where art was displayed in national categories alongside the products of primary and secondary industry, with merit recognised by the awarding of medals. This fusion of national, commercial and cultural promotion continues to haunt the contemporary biennale.

Like a 19th-century exposition or world’s fair, an art biennale puts a city on the global map. In 21st-century terms, a biennale declares a city part of the creative economy, with art acting as a metaphor for innovation and entrepreneurship. Today the logos in biennale catalogues belong to trade and innovation agencies, as well as the arts.

Like the international expositions, biennales are nationally competitive. They compete with each other for audiences, participating artists, premieres and exclusive presentations. The major biennales host national pavilions (Venice has 50), encouraging visitors to compare national endeavours.

Biennales can be a source of great joy.

Critics measure success by the length of the queue at the pavilion door. Offering a range of awards – lifetime achievement, best national pavilion, best artist, best young artist – the Biennale di Venezia makes national and generational competition overt (as well as hinting at its capacity to shape reputations and future trends).

All of these factors – national cultural agendas, marketing strategies, promotional spectacle, the experience economy – have lead some critics to complain of what they call “biennial art”. The risk is that biennales have become something of a circuit, an endless roadshow for a globalised art world in which, as American critic Barry Schwabsky suggested, artists speak a lingua franca of “atmosphere” and “themes” supported by the showmanship of high-definition video and sideshow-scaled installation.

Luminale festival in Frankfurt, Germany, 30 March 2014. EPA/Boris Roessler

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the biennale is art itself, as it should be. In his 1997 book, After the end of art, critic Arthur Danto argued that with the collapse of modernism’s single-minded pursuit of abstraction, there was:

no special way a work of art had to be … artists were liberated to do whatever they wanted to do.

As artists now enjoy that freedom, the biennale curator’s ability to comprehensively and convincingly map the territory of art has evaporated. And as for handing out medals, that looks all the more arbitrary.

If all that remains for the biennale is themes and moods, the takeover of art exhibitions by the experience economy will be complete.

‘Venetians’ by artist Polish Pawel Althamer at the 55th International Art Exhibition in Venice, Italy, 2013. EPA/ Andrea Merola