Arrivederci Venice: The Third World Biennials

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The Venice Biennale, founded in 1895, is the oldest and, along with Germany's Documenta series, the most influential of Europe's major recurring international exhibitions. Both those shows occur in formerly imperial nations and reflect a Eurocentric history, for they concentrate not just on Western art but on the art shown in the West's prominent commercial galleries. Now, however, as the colonial era fades, the biennial tradition has spread beyond the Western world. With the post-Modern shift of emphasis from the previous centers to the previous margins, the idea that one's own city, wherever it may be, can act as an international hub has become widely available.

Recently a number of recurring, usually biennial, international survey exhibitions have appeared in non-Western, often previously colonized capitals. The spectrum of difference exhibited at these shows suggests varying relationships with the West: some artists identify with or at least acknowledge the Western tradition, some contemn it. At one extreme are non-Western biennials that are directly involved in the Western moment. The Sydney Biennales (many of these shows use the Italian or other European forms of the word "biennial" in their names), for example, closely resemble the survey shows of Europe and the U.S.; though they do examine Australian artists, including aboriginal artists, they are primarily Euro-ethnic. (But then, Australia is basically a First World nation.) The Sao Paulo Biennial similarly explores the Western "cutting edge" while shifting emphasis somewhat toward Latin America. The work in these shows is often based in post-Modernism, but the curators' residual sense of center emanates a continuing Modernist aura.

Other shows are not merely non-Western geographically but take place within more distinctly non-Western cultures. Several have begun quite recently--1984 was a pivotal year. These exhibitions' inaccessibility to the vast majority of Western critics, and the truly daunting difficulty of getting information about them in the West (some of the biennials I discuss here I was unable to see, and I write on them from their catalogues, themselves hard to find), are part of their story, and part of their paradox. The institution of the international juried show may be a Western phenomenon, but the Third World biennials are sprouting with or without Western attention; clearly they have audiences and cultural functions of their own, quite independently of their resemblance to Western art practice. On the other hand, these exhibitions are often committed to the project of becoming "modern," or Modernist in a classical sense. The New Delhi Triennials, the Cairo Biennials, and the Bantu Biennales (usually held in Libreville, Gabon), for example, largely eschew historical regional styles; there is little that looks "Egyptian" or "Islamic" in the Cairo shows, little "Indian" in New Delhi. There is an implication, rather, of a community of taste adjusted to Western tendencies of a couple of generations ago, when the West's idea of internationalism was still founded on an assumption of Modernist universals. But if works in the indigenous traditions are not apt to be seen, neither are the Western Modernist works that lie in the background: many of the works seem to be Third World embodiments of classical Modernism, with admixtures of regional points of view. They resemble, for example, the so-called "Shona" African sculpture that traveled the U.S. last year, a smooth amalgam of Modernist motifs from the heyday of Brancusi with nods to the African styles that influenced him.

Again like classical Modernism, much of the work--especially the sculpture--emphasizes craft in a way that post-Modernist Westerners tend to regard, somewhat arrogantly, as archaic. The Western viewer may have trouble with this art, for much of it looks like what we might see as kitsch Modernism: "mushy abstract paintings with pyramids in them," as one American summarized the Cairo Biennial. …