Biennial Fail from The L Magazine

Biennial Fail | Art Fag City | The L Magazine – New York Citys Local Event and Arts & Culture Guide.

Below is a short and smart critique of the Denver Biennial of the Americas from Paddy Johnson writing for L Magazine.

Biennial Fail



What does a biennial look like when it’s run by a group of businessmen and politicians? If Denver’s Biennial of the Americas (July 16-September 2) is any indication, like some awful, biennial-length franken-conference in the service of multinational corporations. Art, when it was given a place at all, was used primarily as a branding tool for the event; it’s not surprising then that it has little to offer art lovers or businesspeople. Even the Biennial’s expressed aims—idea exchange, and looking to booming economies in the north and south—weren’t achieved.

In the inaugural discussion forum “Unleashing Human Potential,” the only time anyone looked to the north was when Google’s Eric Schmidt observed that some snow was melting up in Canada, and that might reveal new sources of revenue. He later proclaimed that poverty would be eliminated thanks to mobile devices, and he cited The Huffington Post as a publishing model that might one day help writers get paid. (The Huffington Post does not pay most of its writers!)

Needless to say, I left that panel praying that the exchange of ideas would stop, and the Biennial did its best to make sure that it would. Whereas most such exhibitions would host contemporary art that could spark exchange, this one blew its resources on high-profile panelists like the Daily Beast’s Tina Brown and the Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington. Art was so clearly an afterthought that half the audience had already left “Unleashing Human Potential” before we were told we should sit back down because the organizers had forgotten to announce the cultural programming.

That was a missed opportunity. Denver’s art community, while not yet mature, is growing and ready for the kinds of challenges a national event can bring. The Biennial commissioned only four architectural pieces, two small art shows, and a smattering of billboards across the city. For context, Prospect One, the widely lauded 2008 biennale in New Orleans, showcased the work of 81 artists in 24 venues across the city while offering an array of cultural and educational programs to the local community. Though underfunded, the art program has its moments. The citywide billboard project curated by Paul Andersen, Carsen Chan, Gaspar Libedinksy, and Cortney Stell is probably the most successful, as it requires people to tour Denver in packs. You get to know the city, which is enjoyable. I spent the better part of a day looking for all 31 of these commissions, each by artists well-known (Michael Snow, Julieta Aranda) and emerging (Amalia Ulman).

Daniel Jackson’s “Respect the Moustache” was among the strongest, a colorful digital collage of the city’s horse statues now with Photoshopped unicorn horns and hovering over a long strip of car shops, motels and fast-food restaurants. It’s a simple subversion of an overtly masculine symbol, and I liked that even visitors could easily recognize the altered statues. It will have meaning for everyone.

That’s likely not the case for Corina Copp’s, whose text looks like it’s half written in HTML and reads like sexualized broken poetry. “I want to be alone.>> <>Please no dogs. Please no dogs. <>” Text like this is hard to read, let alone read on a billboard, which is designed to be glanced at quickly.

Far more annoying though is the small text on the side of the poster that advertises the Biennial of the Americas. Normally, I wouldn’t take much issue with this—I’ve never bought the idea that art on billboards subverts advertising, because it’s such good advertising for itself—but in the context of the Biennial of the Americas, the ad rubbed me the wrong way. Organizations invested in the arts don’t slap advertising all over their art, because most artists don’t want their message co-opted for a brand. For all their so-called interest in “idea exchange,” somehow the Biennale of the Americas failed to talk to the artists and curators long enough to learn that.
Photo c/o Biennial of the Americas

First, we at the Poorly Kept Secret Society give props to Art Fag City.  Check them out:
Second, this opinion is not, as some might think, a cynical view.  It seems to jibe with a common sentiment around Denver.  A counterpoint, also smart, can be found in an article by Ray Rinaldi over at the Denver Post:
There are some lessons to learn.  But, this whole Biennial thing is still new for Denver.  Perhaps we will learn those lessons and grow into the sophistication and reach that this event aspires to.

Fourth Plinth Just Gives and Gives

Fourteen years after the fine folks at the Greater London Authority were bold enough to allow contemporary artists to create work for the empty pedestal in Trafalgar Square, the project is still hitting home runs.  We’ve seen artists install…

a giant rocking horse…

Powerless Structures Fig. 101

(Powerless Structures Fig. 101 by Elmgreen and Dragset)

a ship in a bottle…

Ship in a bottle

(Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare)

a big blue cock (oh, just grow up)…

Hahn / Cock by Katharina Fritsch

(Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch)

and, my favorite, a forum for people – anyone – to perform how ever they see fit…

(One and Another by Antony Gormley)

Fourteen years of show-stoppers.  Crazy, messed-up shit that makes people squirm, and laugh, and flock to Trafalgar.   What accounts for the continuing success of this project?  Here’s what we know:

Adventurous artists for a start.  Which is another way of saying adventurous sponsors. You can always find great artists, but try to find someone willing to take risks with their money!  I think it is the Royal Arts Society that is backing Fourth Plinth.  We at the Poorly Kept Secret Society commend them for letting the artists do what they do.  But that’s not all that risky, to be frank.  If your shelling out lots’ of pounds for an artist, you are going to want to get your money’s worth.  The way to get your money’s worth from an artist is to trust them, even just a little.

On a related note, the focus on temporary is key.  We at the Poorly Kept Secret Society believe that the best public art these days is temporary work.  It loosens the anuses the understandably nervous administrators and commissions who supervise the process.  Wonderful things can happen when you don’t have to worry about the word “forever” in the contract.

Okay, so we must admit that it is London.  There are already tons of people there, locals and tourists, who dig this stuff.  They are museum-goers and art-lovers.  They invented -going and -loving, for Pete’s sake!  Let us not pretend that Fourth Plinth will work the same on that empty fourth plinth in Kiowa or Alamosa.

But, perhaps most important to the success of Fourth Plinth is the fact that it so very simple of a concept.  They just put some art where there was nothing.  And, they trusted to that simplicity.  Below is a transcript of the meeting of the Greater London Authority on the day they deliberated on the Fourth Plinth project:

“I say, Reginald, do you see that plinth over there?”

“What plinth?  Are you referring to that fourth one, per chance?”


“The empty one?”

“Spot on.”

“Yes, Wilberforce, I see it.”

“What should we do with that empty fourth plinth, Reginald?”

“I’m afraid I’m at a loss, old bean.  What do you think?”

“Well I certainly do not know what to do with that empty fourth plinth.  We need to find someone creative to come up with a whopping great something to put on that empty fourth plinth.”

“I say!  Wilberforce!”

“You have an idea, Reginald?”

“I do indeed!  Do you know whom is creative?”

“Why no.  Whom is creative, Reginald?”

“Artists are creative, Wilberforce!  Artists!  Let us ask a few artists to put something on that empty fourth plinth.”

“That’s a corker of an idea, Reginald!  Let’s go down in the lift to share a pint before toddling off home to the trouble-and-strife.”


(Transcription may not be accurate.)

As I said, we can’t replicate London.  And, we can’t expect to learn about the success of Trafalgar Square as a public space simply by examining the success of Fourth Plinth.  However, that project is a fantastic measure to isolate.  Learning how they manage to build on their own remarkable success, year after year, is valuable.  Fourth Plinth is a model program for anyone thinking about a new public art project.