The Shapeshifting Trajectory of the Biennale

by Ranjit Hoskote – Guest Editor

1. The Biennale, in Space and Time

Stefano Arienti’s installation The Asian Shore and Baikryun Uijae Huh’s classical paintings (7th Gwangju Biennale, 2008). Image courtesy: Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

The biennale is the most widespread form of large-scale exhibition in the world today. It has already left the museum behind as the primary venue where an expanding global public can access the current manifestations and debates in contemporary art. Depending on which body of research you consult, there are between 200 and 250 biennales in existence, in varying states of animation and realised at different levels of scale and intensity. But certainly the number is growing, and while the traditional centres of biennale activity are situated in West Europe, most of the new biennales are located in the global South, in Asia, Africa and Latin America; and in the former Cold-War frontline states of East Europe and the Soviet Union’s successor states. This year alone, we will witness Documenta 13 and Manifesta 9, the 9th Gwangju Biennale, the 10th Dakar Biennale, the 7th Berlin Biennale, the 30th Sao Paulo Biennale, the 9th Shanghai Biennale, as well as La Triennale 2012 in Paris, the 18th Biennale of Sydney and the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial, Brisbane, to name only a few of the most prominent examples.

It has been fashionable to decry the biennale as a spectacle. Equally, it has been argued contrariwise that the biennale represents a vital platform for an inquiry into contemporary art and its cultural and political conditions, and a new form of sociality that brings artists, curators and viewers together into revitalised interrelationship. As an exhibition, it brings together the diverse artistic positions that map our mercurial present; as a source of discourse-making, it recalibrates our understanding of how we make sense of art as an experience, and of the knowledge that emerges through contemporary artistic practices. Biennale culture, or the biennale condition, is no longer merely one among many of the features of global contemporary art; it has become, in a profound and constitutive way, its primary matrix.

But first, and especially in the context of an Indian readership, to define the animal for the record (I say this because I am continually dismayed at how even sophisticated and widely travelled art-world participants in India can sometimes speak of the biennale and the art fair in the same breath). As the art historian and critic Rafal Niemojewski phrases it, the biennale is a “large-scale international survey show of contemporary art that recurs at regular intervals but not necessarily biannually”. [1] Indeed, following from Niemojewski’s caveat on the biennale’s periodicity, it might be wiser to adopt the usage ‘perennials’, as many observers are already doing. And like the perennials in horticulture, many biennales are indeed hardy varieties, having survived political and economic vicissitudes, the vagaries of cultural policy and the rhythm of debates on the relevance of the form. We will use the terms ‘biennial’ and ‘biennale’ interchangeably in this issue, since they do not only reflect the Anglophone and Francophone language universes respectively, but also signify affiliations that emergent institutions have chosen, by which to anchor themselves in ongoing histories of the form.

2. The Biennale’s Multiple Ancestries

As an exhibitionary as well as discursive event, the biennale draws on multiple genealogies in the salons, the expositions and the Secessions of late 19th-century Europe. More recently, during the era of decolonisation, the 1950s and 1960s, and the epoch of globalisation, the 1990s-2000s, it has gathered momentum from the political aspirations of cities and countries located in the global South. The biennale, therefore, is not a single format; rather, it is best defined as a set of evolving typologies.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Faraday Cage, 2010. Site-specific installation Power House, Cockatoo Island,
including Rajin, God of Thunder, Lightning Fields Illuminated (003-011), 2008 and Lightning Fields 128, 2009. Shown at the 17th Biennale of Sydney, 2010. Image courtesy: 17th Biennale of Sydney 2012

Typically—although not invariably—it is not a country’s most important city, but its second- or third-order city, often one that has enjoyed previous glory but has later been relegated to irrelevance, that has conceived of a biennale as a means of putting itself back on the atlas. The first, oldest and foundational biennale, that of Venice (established 1895), has its origins in such a need to recover lost ground. By the 1890s, Venice, once a powerful maritime republic, had suffered various reverses and been reduced to a political and economic backwater; its mayor, a poet and a practical man, devised the biennale as a cultural strategy of self-renewal. The Venetian model was based, however, on an imperialist Eurocentric world-view; this remains latent within the institution, although the dramatic history of the last 117 years has obliged La Biennale di Venezia to make numerous tactical adjustments to transformed geopolitical realities.

Another foundational perennial, the Documenta (established 1955 in Kassel), marked the pivotal desire of post-World War II Germany to regain its place in the domain of international art after the catastrophe of Nazism and, in cultural terms, the official suppression of avant-garde artistic tendencies by the Nazi state. Documenta has, especially through its last three editions, opened itself up as a critical platform for the interrogation of the global contemporary and its disquietudes. The Sao Paulo Biennale (founded 1951) marked a new typology: located in the Southern hemisphere, it articulated the host city’s aspiration to participate competitively in the supposedly cosmopolitan, though essentially Euro-American ambit of international art.

It is with Triennale India (founded New Delhi, 1968) and the Havana Biennale (founded 1984) that this typology, to which I have elsewhere given the name of the ‘biennale of resistance’ [2], becomes fully manifest. With Triennale India, in tentative and somewhat Fabian register, and Havana, in more militant and astute register, the biennale became a platform on which the global contemporary could be imagined and mapped—not along lines dictated by the Western metropolitan centres, but along lines drawn in the global South, in societies that had emerged through struggles against colonialism and imperial rule. The Havana Biennale opened the door for the Gwangju Biennale, which was founded in 1995 as the commemoration of a popular struggle that had begun the process of overthrowing a long-running dictatorship in South Korea. In these turbulent political contexts, the biennale is not simply a temple for aesthetic contemplation, but, far more compellingly, a convocation where the driving urgencies of the collective moment can be discussed and mediated.

3. The Biennale and the Curator

The figure of the curator, who emerged from the shadow of the museum and other formal institutions and was re-invented in the open field of contemporary art between the late 1960s and the late 1990s, has played a crucial role in the transition that the biennale has made, from being the stylised expression of a city or national elite’s aspirationalism, to being the lively site for the production of new forms of synergy among artists, viewers, works and ideas, formal experiments and historical narratives. As the curator Paul O’Neill observes in his essay, ‘The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse’ (2007): “The ascendancy of the curatorial gesture in the 1990s… began to establish curating as a potential nexus for discussion, critique, and debate, where the evacuated role of the critic in parallel cultural discourse was usurped by the neocritical space of curating. During this period, curators and artists have reacted to and engaged with this ‘neocriticality’ by extending the parameters of the exhibition form to incorporate more discursive, conversational, and geopolitical discussion, centred within the ambit of the exhibition.” [3]

For the biennale, this has meant a contestation between what Nancy Adajania and I have elsewhere described as its “institutional logic of repetition… [and its] editionality” on the one hand, and the “participatory logic of recursion” that successive curators bring to it, on the other hand. If the former guarantees the biennale an “iterative continuity and a centripetal accumulation of authority”, the latter “can produce self-critical disruption and a centrifugal diffusion of dissidence”, and so bring about “the successive curatorial ruptures and renewals of a biennial or other large-scale periodic exhibition”. [4]

Indeed, we see this contestation of logics play out to significant effect in the most bold and energetic biennales. We may note, for instance, the gradual devolution of the form towards the modes of itinerancy and self-reinvention (Manifesta and Meetings Points), of a performative investigation of the relationships between artists, curators, viewers and systems of support and reference (the 2009 edition of the Istanbul Biennial, curated by the Zagreb-based group WHW, ‘What, How and for Whom?’), and of research and dialogue as engagement (Riwaq, developed in the Palestinian Territories).

In these and similar experiments around the biennale form, we may discern the retrieval and redeployment of a dream that inspired the historic avant-gardes of the 1910s and 1920s: that of blurring the distinction between radical art and everyday life, allowing the high-spirited excess of the one to infiltrate and reanimate the conventionalised sociality of the latter. As artists, curators, theorists and viewers come together within its elaborations, the biennale enacts a model of the polis: a place where the possibilities of citizenship, of participation in spaces secured for an activated public, can be explored and enacted.

4. The Biennale as Space of Encounter

Aleks Danko, Some Cultural Meditations 1949-2010 (2010). Shown at the 17th Biennale of Sydney (2010). Image courtesy: 17th Biennale of Sydney (2010).

And therefore the biennale cannot be reduced simply to an exhibition format (though it is also that), or merely to a production system for art (though it is also that). It may well mark the complicity between the aspirations of regionally anchored managerial and bureaucratic elites and the desires of transcultural artistic and curatorial imaginations. But, in that same moment and gesture, it makes a variety of unpredictable and even transgressive results possible: results that exceed whatever brief its official sponsors or supporters may have scripted for it. It can be a stage for the acquisition of permanent symbolic capital, yet also an improvised and heterotopic site of dissidence. As Simon Sheikh observes, a biennale has “[t]he potential not only to address presumed existing audiences, both locally and in terms of art-world credibility and circulation, but also to create new public formations that are not bound to the nation-state or the art world. By being recurrent events, both locally placed and part of a circuit, they have the potential to create a more transnational public sphere…. Any locality, regardless of its self-image, is connected to other places in subtle and often unexpected ways”. [5]

The biennale is above all a medium of expression and experience, a ‘space of encounter’ (in Okwui Enwezor’s phrase [6]), a field of coproduction among its various participants. It shapes the flow, form and understanding of contemporary artistic practice and its corresponding viewerly practice. It provokes and organises key debates in a variety of interrelated disciplines and areas, including art history, aesthetics, criticism, curatorial practice, exhibition history, and cultural anthropology. With the author, the novel and the printed page, it shares the fate of having had its death announced periodically. Like the author, the novel and the printed page, too, it emerges phoenix-like each time, a shapeshifter, questioning its own authority and achievement in critical and productive ways. It occupies a transitional zone between being an intervention and being an institution: its active principle being ‘instability’, to paraphrase Carlos Basualdo [7], it keeps open the lines of trans-disciplinary transmission.

At its best, the biennale is a school and a laboratory for the investigation and interrogation of the contemporary in its complex fullness. Indeed, within the space of a biennale, we can disaggregate a contemporary that is all too often seen under the sign of anxiety, and experience it for what it is: a predicament woven from the entanglements between regional temporalities, the knotting of societies brought together by war, colonialism, mutual anthropology, strategic alignment or elective affinity.

Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, in its various roles as a “studio of studios”, a “nomad archive, temporary museum and spectral repository”, the biennale helps us to “re-draft our inherited atlas of belonging.” [8] By constantly bringing the impulses of elsewhere to its venue, a biennale provides an invaluable stimulus to local or regional art awareness: generations of children growing up in Kassel are living testimony to the world-awareness that Documenta brings into the life of an otherwise provincial town. And for the host city, a biennale can serve as an occasion to exercise the ethic of hospitality and to perform the courtesies of transcultural encounter: in Gwangju and Brisbane, ordinary citizens take ownership of ‘their’ biennale or triennial, embrace the strangers who arrive in their midst. If the Venetian model of the biennale was an atlas of contemporary art, the biennial of resistance acted as an almanac, a guide to direction and orientation; increasingly, I believe, the biennales of the future will act as assemblies for plural subjectivities to generate fresh and unexpected cultural departures.

5. A Road-map to This Issue

It has been a special pleasure to put this special issue on the biennale together, working together with a group of stellar contributors, who write as stakeholders, practitioners, participants in the global biennale scene. We have not commented on this scene from the outside; rather, we have reflected on it with empathy as well as criticality, in the artisanal spirit of those who are all too keenly aware of the occupational hazards of the form, and yet remain optimistic about its potential to effect actual cultural and political transformation.

I wish to express my deep gratitude to the friends and colleagues who joined me readily in this adventure, displaying their characteristic generosity with ideas, insights and time. Given my improbably short notice, and given that every one of them has been working under immense pressure to realise one or more large-scale projects—among them, a triennale, several biennales, an international conference, a foundation to run, a critical reader to edit, a keynote lecture to give, a new book, and a new baby—the effort that they have put into their contributions to TAKE/ Biennale has been heroic and inspiring. I would like to think that it is this sense of urgency and the in medias res quality of writing from practice that imparts to their contributions a depth, precision and integrity.

We have structured this issue as a symposium in several genres, so as to address various aspects of the biennial form, its contexts, achievements and possibilities. Gerardo Mosquera, co-founder of the historic Havana Biennale has contributed the text of a recent lecture, a meditation on the relationship between the State as sponsor and the biennale as an expression of curatorial and artistic independence, on the convergence and divergence between national and artistic agendas. Next up, a conversation between the curators Rasha Salti and Nancy Adajania dramatises the impact zone where the unfolding inner logic of a biennale meets an unpredictable public response; Salti and Adajania also discuss the legibility of large exhibitions, and the role of the transcultural curator, who must operate between and across diverse philosophical, linguistic and political contexts.

Maria Hlavajova, Marieke van Hal, Jitish Kallat, Abdellah Karroum and Nikos Papastergiadis have joined me in a round table discussion on the future(s) of the biennale form, working across time zones and against timetables, bringing into play their invaluable experience as curators, theorists, historians, critics, cultural organisers and artists, addressing the biennale from a kaleidoscopic range of perspectives. The artist Praneet Soi has written a memoiristic text for this issue, detailing his journeys of discovery and encounter as an artist participating in biennales of varying kinds, each distinctive in its methodology, focus and scale, its site, and the national situation and public culture to which it stood in relationship.

Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani, Spelling Dystopia, 2 channel video installation (7th Gwangju Biennale, 2008). Image courtesy: Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

As a reference point from the recent past for the imminent future, I have chosen to revisit and annotate the 11th edition of the Istanbul Biennial (2009), curated by WHW, as a courageous example of biennale-making undertaken in a critical spirit. It knit together exhibitionary strategy and discursive adventure; it brought into productive and visible collision, rather than keeping disingenuously separate, the twin aspects of the biennale as an economy of production and an array of artistic explorations. All these texts have been framed loosely by a compact archive of extracts from the published writings of influential thinkers and curators on the biennale and other mega-exhibitions: these are intended to act as signposts, parables and cautionary tales.

I would take this opportunity to thank all the friends and colleagues, in addition to the contributors to this issue, who stepped in generously and shared their photographs or their access to images: Alan Cruickshank, Dolores Zinny and Juan Maidagan, Gregory Sholette, Hans Haacke, and WHW.

I wish to thank Nancy Adajania, as always, for thinking this issue through with me, playing guardian angel and devil’s advocate. I wish to thank Bhavna Kakar for inviting me to act as guest editor for the ‘Biennale’ issue of TAKE on Art, for her belief, cheerful support, robust collegiality and patience; my thanks, also, to the TAKE editorial and design team for their sensitive response to the thematic. And finally, since this special issue takes its place in a vigorous, ongoing conversation about the biennale, I close with thanks to friends and colleagues who may not be physically present in these pages but who inform the deliberations of this special issue nonetheless: Okwui Enwezor, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Nikolaus Hirsch, Solveig Øvstebø, Markus Mueller, Luz Gyalui, James Thomas, Christine Peters, Cosmin Costinas, Ina Blom, Kathrin Rhomberg, Elena Filipovic, and Bruce Ferguson.


1. Rafal Niemojewski, ‘Venice or Havana: A Polemic on the Genesis of the Contemporary Biennial’, in Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø eds., The Biennial Reader (Bergen & Ostfildern: Bergen Kunsthall & Hatje Cantz), p. 92.

2. Ranjit Hoskote, ‘Biennials of Resistance: Reflections on the Seventh Gwangju Biennial’, in The Biennial Reader, pp. 306-321.

3. Paul O’Neill, ‘The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse’, in Judith Rugg and Michele Sedgwick eds., Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007), p. 13.

4. Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote, ‘Notes towards a Lexicon of Urgencies’ (in DISPATCH/ Independent Curators International, October 2010:

5. Simon Sheikh, ‘Marks of Distinction, Vectors of Possibility: Questions for the Biennial’, in Jorinde Seijdel and Liesbeth Melis eds., ‘The Art Biennial as a Global Phenomenon: Strategies in Neo-Political Times’ (Open 16, special issue, 2009), pp. 68-79.

6. See Victoria Lynn, ‘Okwui Enwezor: A Space of Encounter’, Art and Australia Vol. 46 No. 2 (Summer 2008).

7. See Carlos Basualdo, ‘The Unstable Institution’, in Marieke van Hal, Viktor Misiano and Igor Zabel eds., ‘Biennials’/ special issue of MJ-Manifesta Journal 2 (Winter 2003-Fall 2004), pp. 50-61.

8. Ranjit Hoskote, ‘Scales of Elaboration’, curatorial essay in Annual Report, catalogue of the 7th Gwangju Biennale (Gwangju: Gwangju Biennale Foundation, 2008), pp. 40-53.



Ranjit Hoskote (born 1969) is a cultural theorist, curator, and poet. Since 1993, he has curated or co-curated more than 20 exhibitions of contemporary art including India’s first-ever national pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, Venice, 2011. In 2008, he co-curated (with artistic director Okwui Enwezor and co-curator Hyunjin Kim) the 7th Gwangju Biennale. He was co-curator of the trans-Asian project, Under Construction (Japan Foundation, Tokyo, 2000–2002). His essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and include ‘The Nth Field: The Horizon Reloaded’ (co-authored with Nancy Adajania) in On Horizons: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art (BAK/ post editions, 2011) and ‘Biennials of Resistance’ in The Biennial Reader (Bergen Kunsthall/ Hatje Cantz, 2010). Hoskote is the author of more than 20 books, including I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (2011); Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems 1985–2005 (2006), Die Ankunft der Vögel (2006). He has authored nine artist monographs, most recently: Zinny & Maidagan: Compartment/ Das Abteil (Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt/ Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010). In addition, he has co-authored The Dialogues Series (with Nancy Adajania, Foundation B&G, 2011), an unfolding programme of conversations with artists (2011), and Confluences (with Ilija Trojanow, Yoda Press, 2012). In 2010, Hoskote was researcher-in-residence at BAK/ basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht. Hoskote serves on the international advisory board of the 1st Bergen Triennial and the academic advisory board of the Asia Art Archive (Hong Kong). He lives and works in Mumbai.


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