By Sunitha Janamohanan
(2900 words, eight-minute read)
This is the first of a two-part essay on origins and rise of biennales within the context of Malaysia’s aspirations for a world-class international visual art mega-exhibition. Read Part II here.
News that Kuala Lumpur will stage its first biennale in November this year have been circulating amongst Malaysian art insiders since 2015. The biennale: that mega-exhibition of contemporary art which some might say is the pinnacle of international art exhibitions, and which has become an increasingly popular strategy for cities striving to put themselves on some sort of global map. When the intention was first announced in late 2015, the appointed organiser, the National Visual Arts Gallery, held a small programme of advocacy and discourse with members of the arts community; and from December 2016 to January 2017, the Gallery staged an exhibition demonstrating the ‘biennale history’ of Malaysia, presumably for the purpose of making known Malaysian artists’ prior involvement in biennales around the world. Normally, for a show of the scale as most biennial exhibitions tend to be, formal announcements of dates and other details would have been made known by now, but by the 1st of February 2017, there was still nothing confirmed about the status of the planned KL Biennale. There had been little to go on apart from industry talk, insider gossip. At a recent symposium on the future of biennials in Singapore, an audience member who revealed himself to be a member of a discussion group in communication with the KL organizing committee, said that the KL Biennale would be a great event that everyone should come to, making the analogy of a biennale to a fashion week.*
However, a countdown has now appeared on the website of the National Visual Arts Gallery, indicating November 1 as the start of the KL Biennale. So we now officially have a date, and await further details to be announced such as curatorial theme or direction/director. Why does it matter, though, whether or not KL stages a biennale? Most Malaysians will not know a biennial from a perennial, and it is arguable that even within the art circles of Kuala Lumpur, the hows and whys of these spectacular exhibitions remain fuzzy. Does anyone even care about contemporary art apart from a small circle of elite collectors, the galleries that service them, and the artists who jostle for space in the construct that is the art market? I would make a case, however, that we should care. Cities from Sydney to Sharjah, Shanghai to Singapore are all organisers of biennials, and in the Asian region, one of the younger kids on the block is the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, taking place in Kochi, India, and launched in 2012. It seems that KL is determined to not be left behind. But I ask what relevance a Biennale is going to be for a city like Kuala Lumpur.
In Malaysia, developments in the local art world go mostly unnoticed by the general populace. One has to consider the state of the arts in Malaysia in order to assess the benefits a biennial may or may not bring us; and the question of benefit is necessary. Organised by the National Visual Arts Gallery, and promoted, one has no doubt, by the Ministry of Tourism, this is an event that will be funded by public money. It also plays a significant role in the positioning of Malaysia on a global stage, and the reputation of the country and how it seeks to be perceived should be of matter to its citizens. It also presents an opportunity to reflect on the developments – or lack thereof – of the arts in Malaysia, an unfortunately rather cheerless prospect.
This essay is in two parts: in the first, to help in our assessment, I will first look briefly at the history of biennials, paying attention to three in particular that are close to us in geography and offer some constructive points for comparison and reflection. In part 2, I return to the spectre of the KL Biennale and what this could mean given the context in Malaysia. Throughout, I consider the ways in which biennials are useful to governments, which justify their expense and the often considerable efforts of the organisers, as well as the benefits they may or may not bring to the arts community and wider society of a city or country.
Some background on biennales
Till this point it might seem that the words ‘biennale’ and ‘biennial’ have been used interchangeably. They do, in fact, carry the same meaning, but the term ‘biennial’ shall be used as an encompassing term to refer to the recurring large-scale exhibitions that take place every two years (or even three and five years); while ‘biennale’ is used to refer to the exhibitions which have chosen to call themselves by the Italian term, after the Venice Biennale, which is the archetype of these grand international art exhibitions.
The Venice Biennale was founded in 1895, in that famed historic city-state that had been a major commercial centre in the middle ages, teeming with artists, artisans, and craftsmen, and wealthy patrons who could commission works of astounding architecture and art. At the time of the Biennale’s founding, the city of Venice was part of a still young unified Italy, and also part of a larger European (and American) worldview. In the mid-19th century we also saw the rise of the phenomenon of World’s Fairs, the precursors to the giant exhibitions and festivals of art that have become the norm in our current age. Showcasing scientific innovations, ethnographic curiosities (both inanimate objects and living human beings), and works of art and cultural artefacts from around the world, the fairs were products of post-Enlightenment thinking and demonstrations of Euro-American desires of collecting, labelling and ordering, and of colonial ambition. They also set early ground rules for perceiving the world through the medium of culture and creative expressions.
By the mid-1950s the World’s Fairs were on the decline, but the Venice Biennale had by now established itself as a platform for the celebration of art that included music, cinema and theatre (architecture only acquired its own distinct forum in 1980). As Federica Martini and Vittoria Martini have described in their study of the history of the Biennale,
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Venice opened itself to the world while still retaining its tradition of an ancient cosmopolitan Republic… Venice, with its rich past, but lack of industrial development, strove for internationality, and once again became the centre not of politics and commerce, but of art and culture. (143)
This desire for internationality is central to most, if not all biennials: the desire to be a platform for modes of global exchange, to enable the coming together of artists and intellectuals, as well as a powerful elite of the commercial and political classes with the aim of building geopolitical relationships. A cultural diplomatic event at a grand scale.
Gardner and Green, in their work focusing on the biennials in the Global South, i.e. the developing countries of the world, identify the politically charged effects of biennials in countries that do not lay claim to hundred-year old legacies as cosmopolitan city states, or as newly minted cities of a booming bourgeoisie with cultural monuments built by 20th century industrialists as one sees in the history of the U.S.A. With examples that include the São Paulo Biennial (1951) and the Biennale de la Méditerranée, founded in 1955 in Alexandria, Egypt, and focused explicitly on artistic co-operation amongst the participants who came from countries along the Mediterranean, the authors describe a reordering of center-periphery relations, and the establishment of a critical platform for regional discourse.
Indeed, if the catalogue for the second Biennale de la Méditerranée is anything to go by, with its frequent references to liberation and new nationalisms along the shores of the Mediterranean, it was precisely the cultural development of decolonizing states – of the new evolving regional identities that could challenge old colonial and new Cold War decrees – that was a primary concern. And it was the medium of the large-scale international biennial that was considered one of the best ways to manifest that regional amicability and transcultural potential. (85)
We see, hence, the geopolitical role that international exhibitions can play. The biennial is a format that can realise this in a particular way, which will, it is hoped, be made clearer with the examples to follow.
From the 1990s there was a surge in the founding of biennials in Asia, though earlier examples do exist such as the Tokyo Biennale (est.1952), New Delhi’s Triennale-India (1968) and the Fukuoka Asian Art Show (1979). In Indonesia, the Pameran Seni Lukis Indonesia was founded in 1974 as a national level exhibition and held on a bi-annual basis; in 1982 it adopted the term Biennale and is now known as the Jakarta Biennale. Australia’s Asia-Pacific Triennale was founded in 1993, followed by Gwangju, Korea (1995), Shanghai, China (1996), Busan, Korea (1998), Taipei, Taiwan (1992/1998), Jogjakarta, Indonesia (1998), the Guangzhu Triennial, China (2002), Singapore (2006), Colombo, Sri Lanka (2009), Kochi-Muziris, India (2012). This is just a partial list; there are several more cities and biennial exhibitions that go by other names. By 2011, there were over 100 biennials across the world.
Parallel to the rise of biennials, we also see a proliferation of art fairs (sales oriented large-scale expositions with the art market as its primary objective over the exhibition of art) and of art festivals – music, film and the performing arts. Governments, in waking up to the realisation of the economic benefits of the arts and the spread of theories of the creative class and creative city, have embraced the idea of a large arts event for its tourism and economic potential and for the role it plays in global city branding.
This is particularly evident in Singapore, with its Renaissance City Plans (RCP) and policies for turning Singapore into a “global city for the arts”. The government’s goals were twofold: to position Singapore as a top city in the world in which to live, work and play; and for nation-building. The Singapore Biennale is specifically mentioned in the 2002 Creative Industries Development Strategy, produced by the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s Economic Review Committee’s Workgroup on Creative Industries:
It is recommended that the Singapore Art Series be transformed into Singapore Biennale to become the most important national visual arts event showcasing top local and international artists. It should aim to be on par with other Biennales such as Shanghai Biennale and Kwangju Biennale, within the larger network of international biennales and triennales. Aside from emphasising excellence, innovation and originality, this proposed biennale should be an international event framed in an Asian and Southeast Asian context. (p.18)
The regional emphasis in Singapore exemplifies the geopolitical disruptions described by Gardner and Green, enabling discourse on identity and culture that originates from a newly oriented centre, but also illustrates Singapore’s ambition to be a regional capital of culture. Other scholars such as John Clark have highlighted the role of Asian biennials in drawing contemporary art from other Asian countries into an inter-regional circuit of comparison and circulation of goods, of production and the art market (2006/7). The Singapore Biennale both offers opportunities for multi-nation relationship strengthening, as well as provides a platform by which to further establish its own art industry in relation to others in the region.
By contrast, the Jogja Biennale and Jakarta Biennale of Indonesia harbour rather different ambitions. The history of biennials in Indonesia is recognised as a tumultuous one, with vocal protestations and challenges to its organisation mounted throughout the years by the local arts community, with their disagreements centering mainly on exclusionary practices in selection of artworks and artists. By 2010 this led to the founding of the Jogjakarta Biennale Foundation and in 2013 the Jakarta Biennale Foundation, shifting organisation of the exhibition to an independent, non-governmental agency comprising artists, curators, cultural activists and arts practitioners. The emphasis of the biennales here is on the development of the arts in Indonesia via the community of artists and their practice, while developing arts audiences through extensive art education programmes. The biennales also stand out for a system of greater artist agency in shaping the form and purpose of the events and the biennale institution; particularly significant given the lack of government led initiatives for the development of the arts ecosystem. The Jogja Biennale further defines itself by a distinct kind of new regionalism, ignoring the north-south relationships entirely, and fostering a new set of bilateral engagements that purposefully seeks to create dialogue and exchange with a single specific country or region at a time. This is underscored by an intellectual premise of re-picturing the idea of the equator and their relationship with countries along this latitude. In 2011 the Biennale focused on Indonesia and India, in 2013 Indonesia-Arab Region, and 2015 Indonesia-Nigeria. The Biennale includes curatorial exchanges and artist residencies as well as forums to accompany the culminating exhibition.
Gardner and Green have observed that often in the case of the biennials of the South, the artworks can be secondary to the significance of the exhibition as a whole: “the importance of (these biennials) lay less in the assemblage of artworks than in the gatherings of artists, commissioners, writers and publics from within and outside a given region” (450). This is especially evident in a format such as that employed in Jogjakarta, that frames a South to South discourse and engages with countries which might otherwise be on the periphery of the global art world conversations, and less able to participate in a direct and sustained exchange with each other of ideas and cultural practices.
The last example mentioned here is the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The idea for an international art event in Kochi was first mooted by the state, which led to the founding of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale by two Kerala-born though Mumbai-based artists, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyaz Komu. We see an alignment in objectives here, to bring tourism and economic stimulus to a specific region of India, and to challenge the dominance of Mumbai as the art centre of India –a local repositioning of centre-periphery power dynamics. The latter is a significant point in most creative city or cultural city initiatives, to regenerate declining secondary, often post-industrial, cities. In the case of developing Asia and other parts of the world, this can also be a strategy to create an attractive global identity for an emerging city or one that lacks other forms of viable industries or distinguishing characteristics.
Like their Indonesian counterparts, the organisers of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale see their role as filling a void in the development of the arts ecosystem in their specific locale. While international in scope and profile, and attracting increasing numbers of global arts ‘tourists’, the Biennale positions itself as a festival of local relevance, deeply rooted in the city and its communities. Partly fueled by necessity due to the lack of dedicated arts venues, the exhibitions take place in multiple borrowed spaces throughout the city such as disused warehouses and former historic buildings, relying on teams of people to put together including local tradesmen and architecture students, with the refurbishment of these venues adding to the city’s burgeoning cultural infrastructure. Speaking at a symposium on biennials in Singapore earlier this January and citing the excitement and new life it brings to the city, artist and curator of the Biennale 2014, Jittish Kallat, attests to the benefit that the biennale brings to the city of Kochi.
That large festivals of art can and do make some impact on the city in which they take place is undeniable. However, the exact benefit – whether economic, social, cultural, reputational – is difficult to measure. Basic metrics exist and may be employed by governments or event organisers such as audience numbers, hotel room occupation figures, or even satisfaction surveys, but these are inadequate to ever fully capture the true effects of an arts event. In addition to the more easily quantifiable, there is the reputational benefit to be gained through the presentation of these events, both in the country or city, and outside of it. Immediate evidence of this can be gained from press coverage (both number of and reporting content); however, a more revealing measure would emerge only over time. This is a similar case in point for the building of cultural diplomatic relations. A biennale or even a one-off large cultural event provides a convenient platform at that moment for presidents to officiate, ministers of culture to make speeches while trade officials hover in the background – or in some cases take centrestage – and it offers a range of hosting opportunities of foreign delegations from countries with which one wants to do business or to impress. It is also a display of confidence and sovereignty, exemplified through art. It is all of this, however, which creates a tension with arts practitioners and many who are uneasy with the over-instrumentalisation of arts and culture for state gain.
It is apparent how the biennial as a format for an international art exhibition can be useful to both city-state and artist community for a range of reasons that may or may not have artistic advancement and enlightenment as a central agenda. What the motivating forces might be for the KL Biennale shall be explored in Part II of this essay.
 In 2000 Singapore released the first Renaissance City Plan, outlining its vision and six strategies for transforming Singapore into a world-class city for art and culture. This was updated in 2005 with Renaissance City 2.0 (RCP II) and RCP III in 2008. The Arts and Culture Strategic Review was commissioned in 2010 and released in 2013, and included an outline of the government’s vision for arts development till 2025.
 This is described on the website of the Jakarta Biennale and has also been spoken about by Indonesian curators in public fora such as the recent Southeast Asia Forum at Art Stage Singapore 2017, and the symposium, ‘Why Biennale at All?’ organized by the Singapore Art Museum and Singapore Management University.
 Anthony Gardner & Charles Green (2013) “Biennials of the South on the Edges of the Global”, Third Text, 27:4, 442-455
Guest Contributor Sunitha Janamohanan has been working in the arts in Malaysia since 1999 and has been an arts manager, producer, curator, and heritage manager. Since 2015, she has been teaching in the Programme in Arts Management at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. Her research interests include regional community or socially engaged arts practice, and how cultural policy is implemented – or not.
*Editor’s Note: This essay was amended on 9 March to note that the speaker was not a member of the organising committee as originally stated, and to reflect his use of the idea of fashion week as an analogy.