Pub date July 16, 2008
WriterGlen Helfand
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

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Biennials, triennials, and whatever other rotation of years, are place-based exhibitions. They obviously happen somewhere, and the place dictates the context. The "Whitney Biennial 2008," for example, focused on "American art," an increasingly ambiguous term — in recent years the show has included growing numbers of artists with hyphenated identities. "Today there are more artists working in more genres, using more varieties of material, and moving among more geographic locations than ever before," reads the blurb on the Web site for this year’s edition. "By exploring the networks that exist among contemporary artists and the work they create, the Biennial characterizes the state of American art today."

That sense of international movement seems to be informing the shape and scope of biennials everywhere, creating curatorial fashions that are almost predictably inventive — and often place structural concepts ahead of visual appeal. The West is riding a surge of art surveys, and you just have to skim the institutional rhetoric to sense how complicated, or perhaps rote, the idea of location has become.

The current Site Santa Fe biennial in a very identifiable New Mexico location is a salient example. It was created by the curator/organizer, Lance Fung, who contacted curators at alternative spaces around the world and asked each to recommend artists. The 22 selected artists and collectives were commissioned to produce ephemeral "site-inspired" projects. As the release notes, "All the works are created on site, and are informed by this specific locale and the surrounding Santa Fe environs…. Much of the show has actually occurred prior to the opening, on the ground in Santa Fe, and prior to that, in virtual space, as ideas, proposals, and thoughts that have been transmitted around the world." The show contains just one collaborative team that lives in Santa Fe.

According to its Web site, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ fifth triennial "Bay Area Now" exhibition, opening Saturday, July 19, "explores questions around how to re-imagine a regional survey in the midst of globalization." The Bay Area is an interesting case in this regard because it is a fairly self-enclosed, self-defined site — and unlike the Santa Fe show, few people will travel to San Francisco just to see "BAN 5." Curators Kate Eilertsen and Berin Golonu tackle this formidable scenario with a cross-generational, cross-disciplinary gallery exhibition and four guest-curated shows that "will diversify ‘Bay Area Now”s curatorial vision and extend the artwork beyond the walls of our galleries and beyond the confines of our region." It remains to be seen how successfully they meet the challenge.

It’s interesting to compare "BAN 5" rhetoric with that surrounding the "2008 California Biennial," which opens in October at the Orange County Museum of Art. (Full disclosure: I contributed a short interview to the catalog.) "How does one approach a regional biennial?" states the promotional literature on the show’s Web site. "In a climate of globalism and transnationalism, how does a regional biennial serve artists and audiences? What is distinctive and different about cultural production at this point in time, in this context? How does one approach contemporary artistic practices based on locational parameters?"

The "CAB," organized by Lauri Firstenberg, will also stage off-site projects at venues such as Estación Tijuana, an independent exhibition space in Tijuana, Mexico, and SF’s Queens Nails Annex, a space that hosts BAN 5 as well. Extending an exhibition’s geographical reach is admirable and interesting, though those efforts may fracture these shows and make them harder to see — one wonders, if you just make it to Queens Nails, will you really see "BAN 5" or "CAB"?

The parallels are distinct and reflective of the zeitgeist. But as much as we’d like to think these exhibitions are about now, they most directly reflect the years in which they were organized. America will be getting a new president, but it’s shrinking from rising fuel costs and economic woes. In such an environment, regional identity — think locavores — most likely will grow stronger. Here’s hoping "BAN 5" captures some of that energy.