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Interview with Hou Hanru / 10th Lyon Biennial

The 10th Lyon Biennial opened on the 16th September, 2009. Hou Hanru was invited at short notice to take up the curatorial reigns, following the departure of Catherine David. Here, Valentina Sansone speaks to Hou Hanru and Lyon’s artistic director Thierry Raspail to find out more about their approach.

Valentina Sansone: You were appointed shortly after Catherine David left. What situation did you find the Lyon Biennial in?

Hou Hanru: I didn’t really look at what Catherine did. I don’t even know what her concept was! I went to Lyon immediately to see the site and start the conversation with Thierry and the team. A couple of days later, back in San Francisco, I sent him a piece of paper with the title and then the next day I sent him the concept.

VS: Can you tell us more about the project you worked on?

HH: In principle, I have been doing different Biennials. For me a Biennial is always something related to different contexts and momentums. This is going to be the 10th Biennial in Lyon and of course, compared to projects I have done in Istanbul, in China, in Korea and wherever, it is a very different context and also they all have different histories. And they (biennials) have different functions in terms of how contemporary art activity is related to the cultural scene, to the city, to the population…

VS: So what’s the situation like in Lyon in terms of the public and the projects presented?

HH: Thiery knows the situation much better than me, but I think that already there’s a very creative element to this biennial and also it already has a very clear institutional status, unlike biennials outside the West, which merge with the formation process of the local community. In Istanbul, Havana, even Shanghai and others, the creation of the biennial actually happened before the formation of the contemporary art scene and became something that really forms new possibilities for us to exist, so it has a particularly important function. So, for Lyon, this comes from the fact that contemporary art has been a very important kind of cultural activity in France and they curated the biennial as a way to introduce a particular discourse on how to define the scene and a specific moment for this country. From my point of view, the first Lyon Biennial was an effort to define a moment when contemporary art started to become a kind of ‘global’ thing and tried to define what French artists were in that specific moment. The first edition was called “L’Amour de l’art.”

Thierry Raspail: There’s a big connection between the art museum and the Biennial. The Biennial was born from the museum.

VS: How do you see the Lyon Biennial as an institution?

TR: In the beginning we had no team and no budget. During the ’80s, before opening a Biennial, I had to start a collection, to invite some artists and after a few years, in 1991, we had the first Biennial. It’s a combination, an international museum exhibition from the beginning.

HH: Why I mentioned this is simply because I wanted to see the historical evolution of the Biennial, the role of the Biennial and its momentum today. The first one, which was an interesting effort to define the internationalization of the context — what the French art scene was doing — was a kind of resume; I remember very well that the show was structured with a very rich kind of greed.

TR: There were 69 artists…

HH: Also, every room was close to each other. It was the statement of how European modernism arrived to a certain kind of trope, or how to make ‘states,’ so art is confirmed as an entity of personal, individual expressions. This is still having a very important influence on the French scene. And then you see the next step, and actually the Biennial itself, with Thierry and the team trying to redefine it through time. Number one: they start defining a Biennial as a Biennial for others, meaning curators. Centralize an idea of the role of the curator who actually provides his exhibition of how he understands contemporary art from national and international perspectives. So you have people like Harald Szeemann, J. M. Martin, Nicolas Bourriaud, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Catherine David — even if she didn’t really come up with her result, she put in a lot of effort. These people reflect how the Biennial has become a culture for the last 15 years and surrounds the role of the curatorial project. This Biennial is also a continuation. When you look back it’s very interesting that the Biennial has gone through a very French idea of global art though the likes of Martin, and then Szeemann as a kind of Godfather.

Two younger curators like Jerome Sans and Nicolas Bourriaud provided a very interesting kind of generational evolution and it has become more and more global, in terms of geography, especially in terms of a different approach to what contemporary art is. So in a way my response to the momentum has been situated on two things: not only how contemporary art is becoming global, it’s also what that means in a different context. And, what is the common challenge of different people from different places responding to that. And especially related to the political, culture and economic kind of reality.

The cultural institution is especially like the Biennial: I don’t mean an office but the Biennial itself as an organization; as a form of structuring discourses on images and, basically, how to make forms in the spectacle (in the sense of the society of the spectacle.) So, inevitably contemporary art continues to look for a kind of critical dimension. We have to deal with things in this spectacle kind of logic. And that is exactly the contradiction. If the spectacle represents a kind of mainstream, a kind of discursive and power structure, on the other hand you have another world outside it. This world is actually a part of what the opposite of what spectacle means. In the Guy Debord’s sense the spectacle means something frozen even if it looks beautiful, an object to be consumed. Actually we are living another reality, which is real life. The challenge is to resist and deconstruct the way of living defined by the spectacle, to put them in a contemporary condition, which means all the discussions about the Empire, the crisis… this is how I connect the activity of the Biennial and the everyday.

I hope people can understand the whole project: from the tension and a kind of interactive relationship to this contradiction, rather than looking at separate topics. In our world there are a lot of things happening, a kind of ‘in and out’ between the spectacle and non-spectacle everyday situation. So the structure of the exhibition includes four parts. The first part is called “The Magic of Things.” This section is about the way people look at the world differently and transform it into something else. In this particular context it’s about transforming an everyday object into something that is totally beyond the logic of the consumer and maybe it would become a kind of statement.The second section is called “Eloge de la derive” or “Celebrating the Drift.” It relates to a strategy of getting lost in the city. More globally it relates to what happens at the interface of the street as the most important battlefield against established ideological order of special productions. The next part is called “Another World is Possible.” On the one hand it’s important to talk about the utopian dimension and on the other it’s not simply one position resistant to the mainstream, something open to collective intervention, like La Societè Realiste.

The last part is called “Living Together,” which is an effort to extend the Biennial to a kind of platform to display how many artists have been dealing with questions of public and private negotiation and also a way to extend the Biennial to embrace the community in the city. It is logically related to the Veduta, a tradition in the Biennial, inviting artists in residence to work with the local community.

by Valentina Sansone