THE BIENNALE DE LYON 2007, as conceived by curators Stephanie Moisdon and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, was an attempt to write the history of the current decade--"a decade that has not yet been named." To give an account of a period still in progress is an endeavor either absurdly poetic or absurdly hubristic, and the biennial, as it spilled over three main venues--the Musee d'Art Contemporain, a large former warehouse called La Sucriere, and the Institut d'Art Contemporain--was a little of both.
At the core of this conflicted sense was the biennial's very premise. Seven months before the exhibition's opening in September, Moisdon and Obrist announced that the show would be structured like a "game": Forty-nine "players" (otherwise known as curators) were each asked to choose one artist or work that "has a vital place in this decade." This was, in other words, a simple game--so simple, in fact, that one wonders whether it even qualifies as such, since there wasn't any structured interaction between the players. Myriad contemporary art anthologies in both galleries and print have been constructed according to a comparable principle: A group of rising young curators are asked to nominate artists they admire. It is a tried and trusted formula--a cheap way of quickly scanning world art production--put forth here as a radical concept. When the method works, it can lead to results that feel energetic and current while netting new artists from far-flung places (supplying, it must be said, fresh product for the art market's increasingly global bazaar). What it doesn't produce, however, is a coherent or argumentative exhibition, a cultural experience with longevity, or any significance beyond its own structuring principle: How the show is made is also what it means.
According to the organizers, "the accumulation of all these propositions ... gradually gives rise to a single landscape, the portrait of an immediate present and its passengers." But while they claimed to be "reconsidering" the all-important Artists' List--which, the duo asserted, shapes biennials and "reflects the universal passion for thinking in categories," in reality, they replaced one list with another, a list of curators--who in turn produced the list of artists. Moisdon and Obrist also invited a so-called second circle, some twenty practitioners and writers who either represented their own work or curated further groupings of art and artists (in Lyon-speak, they made a "sequence" defining the decade). Paris-based Saadane Afif, for example, filled the first floor of the Musee d'Art Contemporain with forty-six artists who have shown (or will show by the end of the decade) at Zoo Galerie, an alternative space in Nantes run by Patrice Joly. Unfortunately, with modest contributions from so many artists related only through this shared experience, the installation was as indigestible as an art fair. Elsewhere, Pierre Joseph selected ten younger France-based artists, in whose work he perceives either his own influence or a spark of filiation, and asked them to "replay" aspects of his oeuvre--titling his show-within-a-show "Retrospective." Finally, Rirkrit Tiravanija teamed with Gridthiya Gaweewong, and Paul Chan with Jay Sanders, to supply extensive curated film programs; and an installation of e-flux video rental abandoned all pretense of curatorial definition, simply making a library of more than six hundred works available for viewing, each having been chosen by a leading curator or critic in the art community.
This was an exhibition in which much was on offer, but little brought into focus. If there was indeed a "single landscape," then it was formed from the sedimentation of many elements: artists, ideas, things, multiplied and multiplied. One list begat another and another; the end was endlessly deferred. Bewildered, I searched the catalogue for guidance and found further lists: lists of biographies, lists of pictures, lists of words (indexes, lexicons), lists of concepts. …