The Lyon Biennale Has Many Big, Beautiful Works—But Too Many Competing Curatorial Ideas
The curators suggest the show's theme, "Manifesto of Fragility," positions vulnerability as "a foundation for empowerment."
Rows of tents sheltering migrants and other unhoused people stretch out in the electric blue light beneath Lyon’s bridges and underpasses. Outside the city, the cornfields are bleached by a summer of extreme heat. Conflict, climate catastrophe and the human movement they precipitate touch us all, even in this wealthy French city. Under the curatorial direction of Till Fellrath and Sam Bardaouil, our interconnected vulnerability has become the presiding theme of the 16th edition of the Biennale de Lyon. The show’s theme, “Manifesto of Fragility,” the curators suggest, positions fragility as “a generative form of resistance” and vulnerability as “a foundation for empowerment.”
The biennial is vast, as is now de rigueur for such shows. It is like an art-world Man v. Food: Do you attempt to consume everything and make yourself ill, or can you pick and choose? (Alas, no one has yet invented a doggy bag for biennial art.) From the central venue—the cavernous Usines Fagor, a former household appliance factory—it spreads across the city’s museums, from the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) de Lyon to the wonderful, brutalist Lugdunum museum of Roman antiquities.
Artefacts—many broken, or unfashionable—dating back three millennia are scattered between contemporary works throughout the biennial. The participating artists, living and dead, reflect Fellrath and Bardaouil’s years of immersion in art of the Arab world.
It’s been a busy year for the curators. In January, they took up a double-headed role as directors of the Hamburger Bahnhof. In March, their passion project, “Beirut and the Golden Sixties”, opened at Berlin’s Gropius Bau. (The show has now moved to Lyon, where it forms part of the Biennale.) April saw the opening of the Venice Biennale, for which they worked with Yasmina Reggad on artist Zineb Sedira’s Silver Lion-award winning French Pavilion installation. And throughout it all, they have been working on the Biennale de Lyon, which should have opened in 2021 but was delayed because of the pandemic.
Fragility may be the theme, but art-wise this Biennale feels robust—extensive, expansive, expensive, even a little excessive. At Usines Fagor, artists and their work luxuriate in an abundance of space. Eva Fabregas’s biomorphic teats and bulges dangle in fleshy magnificence from the rafters. The Marta Górnicka’s film of a diverse choir “stress testing” the German constitution is broadcast at top volume. Dana Awartani has installed a 20-meter reproduction of the patterned courtyard floor of Aleppo’s Grand Mosque, its bricks made from colored clays.
One whole warehouse is occupied by Hans Op de Beeck’s We Were the Last to Stay, a trailer park complete with river and statue of the Virgin Mary, all sprayed ashen grey, like a contemporary Pompeii. A neighboring warehouse hosts Julian Charrière’s videos of ice scapes and meltwater, flanking a perforated boulder of marble positioned on its own core samples. Both presentations are spectacular, though this stately beauty almost feels obscene.
There’s a lot of slow-paced video, in which lush panning shots are matched to portentous voice-overs. Ambient music in a minor key washes throughout. It can feel like your emotions are being curated too, or you’re stuck in a sentimental video game.
Many grand audio-visual works are so caught up in their own beauty that they forget to go anywhere, but a few work brilliantly. Phoebe Boswell’s dwelling (2022) immerses you in a swimming pool with a succession of Black families, lovers, and siblings as they float and play in the brilliant blue. There is a long legacy of trauma in the Black body’s relationship to water. Even today, many Black British adults don’t swim. Boswell’s moving work invites us to share space with people as they explore water as a medium of physical freedom and transformation.
Installed in an old chapel, Mali Arun’s three-screen Wunderwelten (2022) weirds up the familiar world of a theme park, using an (infrared?) filter to turn everything colored green to magenta. We follow a young girl through a joyous visit, charting her facial expressions as she reaches a peak of awe and ecstasy on a rollercoaster—in the mode of Bernini’s St Teresa, complete with churchy music. Arun’s celebration of child-like wonder links entertainment to religious experience, suggesting the former now occupies the cultural space once held by the latter.
Planning for the Biennale had already started when, on 4 August 2020, an explosion tore through the Port of Beirut. For “Beirut and the Golden Sixties,” showing here at MAC Lyon, Fellrath and Bardaouil commissioned a devastating intervention from Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige.
After many galleries of captivating historic work—psychedelic surrealism from Georges Doche and Juliana Seraphim, sexy sculptures by Dorothy Salhab Kazemi, coded embroidery by Nicolas Moufarrege included—we step into a ring of screens. Each replays two minutes of CCTV footage taken from a different vantage point in Beirut’s Sursock Museum as the blast rips through the galleries, shatters the stained glass on the facade and knocks a bride off her feet in the sculpture garden.
The piece is positioned for maximum impact, after you’ve emotionally invested in the work of so many mid-century Lebanese artists. It’s like being given a puppy then learning the rest of the litter is dead.
“Beirut and the Golden Sixties” is a great exhibition, but an odd change of pace; it is pedagogic, archival, historically immersed. It’s a proper institutional show in the midst of Biennale flurry.
On the floor above, a conceptual display uses the life of Louise Brunet, a 19th-century silk weaver and workers’ rights activist from Lyon who ended up in Lebanon, as a structure through which to explore health, poverty, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. There is some good work here—canvases by the late Semiha Berksoy, a creepy giant asparagus sculpture by Hannah Levy, paintings by Salman Toor, palpable photographs of dead octopuses by Richard Learoyd—but too many competing ideas at a curatorial level.
The Beirut explosion also bisects an inventive video installation by Rémie Akl, who greets us while she dresses for a party, and invites us to follow her across a series of screens. Following the blast, the work turns into a quest to hack into a locked iPhone. The inaccessible device illustrates the disruption caused by the loss of contemporary infrastructure, but also performs as a metaphor for a corrupt system.
Insecurity is given symbolic form in Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s Virgo (2022), an apartment-like structure with furnishings set on mobile tracks, which are slowly propelled through a succession of rooms by performers. And in Lucy McRae’s elegant laboratory-set film Institute of Isolation (2016) the artist goes through lonely training and testing as though preparing for a solo space mission, her experiments in isolation a poignant precursor to the pandemic.
Among the breakout stars of this edition are Giulia Andreani, whose uncanny tableaux of forgotten and fantastical women’s histories are painted in Payne’s grey, and Zhang Yungao, who also paints in a reduced palette but on felt, which gives a nostalgic fuzziness to his exploration of BDSM iconography. The Biennale is likely to be transformative for Sylvie Selig, now in her 80s, who brings a fully-formed universe of weird humanoid figures assembled from seedpods, bones and other detritus, as well as suites of narrative embroideries and paintings.
Fellrath and Bardaouil are storytellers. For Lyon, they have, with a few notable exceptions, favored art that delivers narrative and drama—big emotion, grand gestures. This is Biennale as balm rather than irritant, a woozily soundtracked counterbalance to the prevailing feel-bad tendency, all pearl and very little grit.
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