Wollen, Roger, Art Monthly
Thessaloniki Biennale Various venues May 21 to September 30
Does the world need two new European biennales? The Greeks think so: the first Thessaloniki Biennale ran this summer and 'Destroy Athens', the first Athens Biennial, has just opened.
In Thessaloniki 160 artists from 37 countries exhibited in a host of venues. It was too big and spread across too many sites--concentrating it geographically and at fewer venues would have been preferable. Rather than simply selecting a group of international artists the Thessaloniki biennale adopted a theme, Heterotopias, after Michel Foucault's 'Of other spaces' (a talk given in 1967 and published after Foucault's death in the French magazine Architecture/Mouvement/ Continuit in 1984). The selection concentrated on Balkan, north African, middle eastern and central Asian countries. Despite the diversity this gave a coherence to the project and, as a major port city with a long multicultural history, Thessaloniki was an ideal host. Greece does not need two biennales but if there was to be one, choosing Thessaloniki rather than the capital would be a bold move.
Catherine David was the overall curator, working with Jan-Erik Lundstrom and Maria Tsantsanoglou. The result is a show that introduced a number of unfamiliar artists (only 17, not born or living in Britain, listed solo or group shows there) and the heterotopic provided a challenging theme addressed by all three curators (particularly by Lundstrom).
Whereas utopias are imaginary ideal places, dystopias are their opposite--places to be avoided. Foucault describes heterotopias as 'real places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society--which are something like counter-sites' in which 'all the other real sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.' He distinguishes between two types of heterotopia: sites of crisis and sites of deviation.
He also gives a range of examples. Crisis sites, often privileged, sacred and forbidden places, include barracks, boarding schools, ante- and post-natal sites and coming-of-age sites. Deviation sites include hospitals, prisons, retirement homes, cemeteries, gardens, theatres, cinemas, fairgrounds and--the heterotopia par excellence--ships. These are places where there is deviant behaviour, expectations or existence. A final group of heterotopias (heterochronias) are those concerning time, particularly past time, such as libraries, archives and museums, with their collections, naming and displaying--in fact the world of art as described by Catherine David in her essay.
And so to art: many, if not most, of the selected works addressed subjects which could be linked to heterotopias--war, conflict, health, death, urban pressures, ecological concerns--and the role of contemporary art as a 'midwife' to such heterotopias. But one could not help thinking that the range of heterotopias is so wide that almost anything could be attached to the idea, and to posit contemporary art as a midwife raises questions. For example, one may be able to attach the concept of heterotopias to many Dada works, but Dada is no longer 'contemporary' art, so why the qualifying adjective? Aren't renaissance, baroque or classical art as relevant? …