Public Art’s Role in International Biennials

Volume 7, Issue 2

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Public Art’s Role in International Biennials

by Marisa Lerer

In the past decade, public art in all of its forms, from traditional single object sculpture to ephemeral community engaged projects and digital practices, has become a prominent fixture at international art biennials and festivals. Mark Quinn’s inflatable sculpture Alison Lapper Preganant in the midst of the imaginary Venetian architecture and canals at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and Duke Riley’s whimsical and politically charged ice rink installation on Havana’s iconic Malecón waterfront at the 2015 Havana Bienal are examples of the ephemeral transformation that public art creates in the host city’s urban sphere.

This impact prompts the question: what is the role of public art practices in contemporary art biennials? As you can see from the responses below, the question was directed at curators, artists, and academics.

From Roberto Cobas, Curator, Museum of Fine Arts, Havana, Cuba
The emergence of public art in art biennials has saved these events from being overwhelmingly attended by an audience consisting only of “connoisseurs and art critics,” with the general public left on the margins of participating in such events. A good example is the evolution that has occurred with the Havana Biennial. It began as an elitist event in the 1980s, was organized fundamentally for a small minority of art specialists, and imitated the important biennials of the West. However, this model was gradually abandoned for a model with a populist atmosphere in which public art played a decisive role, creating a correlation between the biennial and the community. Today, it is impossible to conceive of the Havana Biennial without the feverish bustle of the whole city pursuing exhibitions and performances carried out in the public sphere. I believe that this truly democratic characteristic is the best method to win over spectators, including children, who will be the main appreciators of art today and tomorrow.

Original Spanish Text:
La irrupción del arte público en las Bienales de Arte han salvado a estos eventos de agotarse a sí mismos en un público de "conocedores y críticos de arte" dejando al resto de la población al margen de participar en tales eventos. Un buen ejemplo es la evolución que ha ocurrido con la Bienal de La Habana. Comenzó siendo un evento elitista en los años ochenta, convocando fundamentalmente a un público minoritario de entendidos de arte e imitando las grandes Bienales de Occidente pero paulatinamente se fue volcando hacia una convocatoria de carácter popular en la que jugo un papel decisivo la incidencia del arte público y la interrelación de éste con la comunidad. Ya en estos momentos no es posible concebir la Bienal de La Habana sin el ajetreo febril de toda la ciudad persiguiendo las exposiciones y performances realizados al aire libre. Creo que este carácter verdaderamente democrático es la mejor fórmula de conquistar nuevos espectadores, incluidos los niños, que serán los principales apreciadores del arte del hoy y el mañana.

Then from Stamatina Gregory, curator, art historian, and the Associate Dean of the School of Art at The Cooper Union, New York.
Biennials, in which casts of internationally recognized artists propose and realize artworks within demarcated urban spaces, continually take up the task of claiming and reinscribing those spaces. Curatorial efforts have resurrected sites previously obscured or restricted from public access: lighthouses on the Bosporus, or fifteenth-century Venetian homes.

Projects that are truly public, in the sense that they might be encountered unintentionally, are less ubiquitous—but such projects have perhaps the most potential to break down limits of participation. Works of art that are experimental, collaborative, propositional, risk-taking, and that democratically engage common points of interest, curiosity, hope, or longing are rare—and underfunded. Making such works possible may not fill a currently explicit role within biennials—but can and should be a goal.

Next from Conor McGarrigle, Lecturer in Fine Art, School of Creative Arts, Dublin Institute of Technology
In considering public art practices typically issues of the interrelationship between the artwork, audience, and site are primary. In the context of the international art biennial, however, I suggest that this hard-won consensus starts to unravel. The biennial by its very nature is global, transitory, and nomadic. Each biennial can be thought of as a node in an ad-hoc network that forms and reforms throughout the globe, with each iteration bearing an uncanny likeness to the previous one. Sharing artists, curators, and mobile publics, the biennial is always passing through on its way to somewhere else; it is less of an engagement with its physical location than a temporary art world zone that spontaneously forms when you round up the usual suspects.

What then is the role of public art practices in the biennial and whom do they serve? Certainly public art is present in contemporary art biennials and no doubt local publics engage with it in some fashion; but that's not the point. The public of consequence is the nomadic contemporary art public and the site an instantiation of international contemporary art discourse with no more than a passing nod to the city it's located in. I propose that, rather than considering public art practices within the context of the biennial, it may be more useful to approach each contemporary art biennial as a form of public art in itself, one that dynamically produces its own site and audience, a public art located in the space of flows of transnational art markets rather than the specificity of geographical location. A public art that, Groundhog Day like, gets to reset every two years and try again.

Finally from Cameron Cartiere, Associate Professor, Emily Carr University of Art + Design Vancouver, BC, Canada
Public art is front and center in the Vancouver Biennial in British Columbia. Artworks are not presented in a museum or behind gated grounds where admission is required. All the works are presented in the public realm. The city becomes the stage for a broad range of works popping up unexpectedly in residential neighborhoods, in parks, and public plazas. Museums and galleries respond with complimentary programming and the city plays host to an international array of works that would normally be well outside their operating budget to add to the collection. Sometimes this temporary arrangement can become quite long-term. Vancouver has had the opportunity to host works long after the biennial is over. Some works were so well received by the public that they have been acquired by private donation for the city’s collection. With budget cuts and maintenance costs a constant drain on the public art budget, the Vancouver Biennial has served a vital role in bringing new and provocative work to the region. The temporary nature of the biennial means that the public is often more open to a challenging work coming to a neighborhood because they know it won’t be there forever. Sometimes they grow attached to the work over time, sometimes they are happy to see it leave. But what is most exciting is how the coming and going of these works alter and enhance our own views of the city.

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