Introducing 'Biennials: The Exhibitions We Love to Hate' by Rafal Niemojewski

Rafal Niemojewski's book, Biennials: The Exhibitions We Love to Hate, the inaugural volume in our exciting new series: New Directions in Contemporary Art, is OUT TODAY!


'Seen as both symptoms of globalization and incubators of its critique, biennials have become the most significant form of contemporary exhibition-making. Niemojewski’s accessible survey takes us on a highly readable grand tour, taking in all the key issues and developments since 1989 – from Havana to Yokohama, Sharjah to Sydney, Moscow to Mercosul.'
-- Claire Bishop, Professor, PhD Program in Art History, CUNY Graduate Center, New York


After an unprecedented year of postponements and cancellations, biennials are emerging at the forefront of the new directions in contemporary art in 2021 - with the first, Liverpool Biennial, beginning this weekend with purely exterior displays. As we move into this new chapter, Rafal Niemojewski’s observations on the role of the biennial could not be more pertinent.

Read on for an extract from the book, in which Rafal Niemojewski assesses the changing landscape around the 'exhibitions we love to hate'…




The fermata



Just as this book was about to take its final shape, in the Spring of 2020, the art world stopped turning. The Venice Biennale, its longest-running event, had been postponed for the first time since 1974, along with nearly every other show scheduled through the remainder of the year. The 22nd Biennale of Sydney was forced to close just two weeks after opening – artworks installed, bereft of an audience. The rhythmical calendar of world biennials thus came upon a distinctly peculiar fermata. In music, the fermata is a hold or pause the duration of which is at the discretion of the performer or conductor. Here, the pause was indefinite, driven by the forces of nature and perpetuated by the global interconnectedness that biennials have – until now – thrived on. With thousands of regular flight connections suspended, borders closed and various quarantine measures in place, it became clear that restoring international mobility after the pandemic might take years. In all likelihood, the landscape of international art biennials will see radical change and some biennials may not see another edition. Perhaps the essentializing discourse of biennialization now becomes a less conspicuous concern, in comparison with what may follow.


With biennials on hold world-wide, we have an opportunity (perhaps an obligation) to reassess their place and purpose. Too large, too rushed, too populist and perhaps too diplomatic, biennials have so often served to amplify and naturalize existing structural inequalities, rather than correcting them.  Yet the varied case studies examined in this book have by and large revealed that, while biennials cannot shun the dilemmas of globalization, they can operate vigilantly and innovatively within its terms, as they oscillate between the oppositional and the aspirational. They cannot simply ‘succeed’ as political and socially engaged projects in and of themselves, but they can adamantly try and often meaningfully fail. In allowing the contradictions of the biennial complex to come to light through the practice of self-questioning, they can strive to reconcile the relative gap between the bureaucratic, goal-oriented and opaque workings of the organizing institutions and the processual, critical, candid – and at times uncompromising – character of social-practice projects. The recently established, and still ongoing, osloBIENNALEN, Biennale Warszawa or Matter of Art Biennale in Prague all subscribe to this critical ethos, eschewing the traditional format of large event-exhibitions in favor of an array of smaller-scale and less mediated artists’ interventions, which are no longer confined to creating the momentum required by the bi-annual cycle.


The sustainability of such models remains to be seen; we can also speculate about the new directions they might take in the near future. Most biennials are likely to rediscover the importance of focusing primarily on their local – if not hyperlocal – audiences and art scenes, on their immediate surroundings, and fixate less on the opinions of international art critics and professionals, or on pandering to the well-heeled. With this more localized zone of attention, the argument that there are too many biennials ought simply to lose any standing. In this new world, as fewer people are able to travel so frequently and freely, the allegation that biennials are themselves a causative factor in the formation of a homogeneous global art world will be even less defensible. With their attention more focused in their immediate context, biennials will likely see new opportunities to fulfil their oft-stated promise for social betterment – but on a smaller, more manageable and measurable scale. While hazarding to say that such expectations are questionable in the first place, and indeed always have been, we might come to reflect upon new understandings of what ‘social betterment’ means, vis-à-vis biennials. There is also something to be said about the imminent turn to digital technologies, which could to some extent counter the new localism and offer access to audiences worldwide, as a mode of display. The digital can certainly supplement the direct experience of the artwork and the exhibition, but in most cases (excluding works made for Virtual Reality and related technologies), the jury is out as to how it could supplant it without compromising the integrity of the viewer’s experience.


Regardless of the outcomes of the current pandemic, we must reassess not only biennials themselves but also our assumptions about them – the methods and language we use to appraise them, which for too long have been dominated by guesstimates, impressions and fallacies. At the then height of the pandemic, in June 2020, an online conference entitled ‘Contemporary Art Biennials – Our Hegemonic Machines in States of Emergency’ was organized by the PhD program in Curating Practice of the University of Reading / Zurich University of the Arts. During the plenary discussion closing the conference, which felt at times like a jocular dinner party on the Titanic, curator Jose Cáceres surprised his interlocutors with an invitation to discuss the financial hurdles in light of two recent biennials going vastly over budget. ‘Let’s talk about the money,’ he pronounced, opening the discussion up to the floor … an awkwardly distended silence filled the live feed as none of the speakers, including a dozen biennial curators, wished to comment. Money was not the only taboo topic. Another discussion thread related to racial injustice also quickly ran to a dead end after several participants declined to speak on the subject.


Openly acknowledging the vast inequalities in the field – economic, racial, representational, to name but a few – is a necessary starting point for any future discussions. A greater degree of transparency and accountability from the organizers, who too often hide behind the complacent language of press releases, is central to this. Bringing artists to the discussion table and activating their role as public intellectuals and not anonymous personae behind their artworks is equally important. Last, but not least, the smirking metaphors comparing the proliferation of biennials to an infectious outbreak, and the scapegoating of biennials as a whole as the systemic diseases of today’s art world, need to stop. These systemic disorders were already there, long before the pandemic. The debates surrounding biennials have long been driven by the emotional at the expense of the erudite, the controversial at the expense of the considered, and the evasive at the expense of the forthright. Unless we change the course and style of this discourse, biennials will remain susceptible to click-bait headlines, sensational statements, emotionally driven reactions and sarcastic exaggerations. They will remain the undeserved anathema of the contemporary art world – the exhibitions we love to hate.



Get your copy of Biennials: The Exhibitions We Love to Hate HERE.

And the E-Book is also available HERE.



For more information on the biennials taking place across the globe, take a look at the Biennial Foundation website, where there is a list of biennials due to take place in 2021. 

Rafal Niemojewski, is Executive Director of the Biennial Foundation, and a scholar of contemporary art and its institutions. He has lectured extensively on the topic of biennials and his writings appeared in numerous journals and books. He worked as an Assistant and Associate Professor at Central Saint Martins, Sotheby’s Institute, Royal Institute of Art (Stockholm), and Course Director at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London.



New Directions in Contemporary Art is a series of newly commissioned, engaging, critical texts identifying key topics and trends in contemporary art practice and discussing their impact on the wider art world and beyond. The art world is changing rapidly as artists avail themselves of new technologies, travel ever more widely, reach out to new audiences and tackle urgent issues, from climate change to mass migration. The purpose of the series is to discuss these and other changes, in texts that are accessible, stimulating and polemical.