Meanwhile, in Lyon

The 12th Biennial de Lyon opens on Thursday 12th of September. This year’s edition is curated by Gunnar Kvaran, director of Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, and he reveals some of the ideas behind his curatorial approach.

Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled, 2012. Courtesy Bjarne Melgaard and Lyon Biennial.

Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled, 2012. Courtesy Bjarne Melgaard and Lyon Biennial.

The biennial will take place at three locations, Kvaran explains:

– At the Musée d’art comtemporain in Lyon, the Musée de la Sucrière (a disused sugar factory), and the ´Fondation Bullukian´, a small exhibition hall in the centre of Lyon. Besides which, we’re also using a church and a small power station.

The exhibition is entitled ‘Meanwhile… Suddenly, and Then’ and as starting point Kvaran was given a word to work from.

– The director of the Lyon Biennial, Thierry Raspail, commences all the biennials with a single word, and that word lasts over three biennials. The last two biennials were curated by Victoria Noorthoorn and Hou Hanru, in 2011 and 2009, respectively, and we’ve all had the same word to work from: TRANSMISSION, Kvaran says, and continues:

– My response to this word is to curate an exhibition where I’m researching story-telling art (Le recit visual). My research programme has helped me discover artists who deal with figurative and narrative art, artists who are focussed on questioning the narrative structures and how stories are formalised. This makes the exhibition, which initially could have ended up quite broad and sweeping, quite focussed.

Gunnar Kvaran

Gunnar Kvaran

How did you go about planning the biennial, shaping the framework, and chose the artists?

– First, I had to decide what I felt a biennial was. Biennials are – and have been, since their inception – about taking the pulse of contemporary art. Every other year you present something new, new issues are at fore. The last few years, biennials have had an unclear relationship to the original premise and to museum exhibitions, as well. For example: Gwangju, which was a great biennial, but more about museum exhibition than a biennial, with all its historical references.

– Contemporary art is expansive, so I had to decide on a “rule of the game”. I thought that a subjective point of view was important, that I, as curator, should speak in the first person, so to speak. All previous Lyon Biennials have had very clear curator signatures: Harald Scheemann, Moisdon and Obrist, Bourriaud and Sans, they’ve all had a distinct signature.

Kvaran explains how his solution was to create three generations, or categories, and then find artists who have made new narrative structures:

– There are some older artists, whom I’ve known for the past 30 years, who’ve taught me things, and who’ve made me more aware of the importance of formalisation. Then, there’re the artists I’ve worked with the past 10-15 years, and who have revealed to me, in a Curator’s Dialogue, a great deal about their innovative narrative mechanics. And then there’re the young artists from around the world, whom I’ve met and come to know over the past few years, who’ve introduced entirely new ways of thinking about communicating art.

Accompanying the biennial is also an extensive catalogue project; according to Kvaran there will be three catalogues:

– It will be a pre-catalogue, a virtual catalogue, and a more academic catalogue. The first is about the process behind the pieces and how we’ve produced the exhibitions. The second will be presented on the biennials website, where you’ll also be able to see the pieces themselves, including video. For the last, I’ve invited 10-15 academics to write about the story phenomenon and new narrative structures in contemporary art. The last 10-20 years, discourse has moved from issues revolving around art history to more philosophical issues. Art history is more about the question of how form and content are related, and for the past 10-15 years, there hasn’t been much written on narrative structures in the visual arts.

The biennial will also encompass performance and video works. In an attempt to make it easier for the public to see everything, a performance programme weekend and a video programme weekend will be organized.

– That means we can have less video in the main exhibition, Kvaran points out and continues:

– I mean, that is a problem with large exhibitions: you can see 10,000 sq. m before you get to the videos. And then you just don’t have the energy to see anything else. That’s why we’ve brought the videos together on one weekend instead, with artist talks, critic conversations, etc. about video art today and what it does to narrative art.

Ann Lislegaard, Oracles, Owls – Some Animals Never Sleep, 2012-2013. Videostill. Courtesy of the artist and Lyon Biennial.

Ann Lislegaard, Oracles, Owls – Some Animals Never Sleep, 2012-2013. Videostill. Courtesy of the artist and Lyon Biennial.

Being a director for the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, there might be some differences when curating a contemporary biennial. And Kvaran do see some main differences.

– First and foremost, a museum is always located in a historic context. You have the tendency to make exhibitions and explain what you’re doing in a museum in a historical perspective. And that, in a sense, means the institution takes over. In a biennial, you can define that it’s you, speaking in the first person.

Two Nordic artists

– There are around 70 artists contributing, spread across 20,000 sq. m, and it’s 80% new pieces, Kvaran explains.

Tuesday, a press release from OCA stressed that the Norwegian artists Bjarne Melgaard and Ann Lislegaard, are among the artists in the biennial.

The press release states that Ann Lislegaard will present her new video animation, based on Philip Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheeps?. This is a video work that presents two owls, inspired by the replicant owl from the movie Blade Runner, engaged in a monologue consisting of aphorisms. Science fiction has since long been a part of Lislegaards practice, and according to the press release, Lislegaard sees science fiction ‘as an experimental take-off point for the invention of new narrative structures’.

Melgaard on the other hand will present new installations, created in collaboration with designers and craftspeople, and based on the story of his recent novel A New Novel, the press release informs. The work is meant to illustrate his ‘defying of established narrative norms, his overlapping ideas and digressions, confronting reality in all its chaotic splendour’.

Kvaran points out that all the artists have a clear story, about themselves, politics, or the social aspect. And according to Kvaran there will be a lot of young artists in the biennial:

– This is a new generation of artists used to the internet, which gives them a completely different connection to narrative. And then there’re some older artists, like Matthew Barney, who in his day, already at the beginning of the 90s had revolutionised stories within the visual arts. He’ll be doing a special version of Drawing Restraint 9.

– Altogether, these are artists from all continents, which in a sense, gives us a picture of “the state of the art”. These days, it is through stories that we understand the world: Aftenposten [Norwegian newspaper] tells stories, KunstForum tells stories, I tell a story, the biennial does, exhibitions do, and so on. All of that together makes up “the big story”. That’s what I’m trying to put into the biennial.

Do you have a favourite artist at the biennial?

– They’re all so different, it’s impossible to choose any one favourite. They all have their own way of telling a story, Kvaran ends.


This is a re-written interview first published in the paper issue KUNSTforum 2 – 2013, re-published online in connection with the opening of the Lyon Biennial.

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