The second Dublin Biennial International Exhibition of Contemporary Art closed its 12 day showing on Sunday. Seemingly coming from ‘nowhere’ (i.e. not from the expected channels of arts production and dissemination) in 2012, it was met by many members of the Visual Arts community almost universally with condemnation. “It’s a scam” was the most common reaction. But why?
Actually, the answer is very simple.
It’s not a Biennial.
Yes, of course it is happening every 2 years, with plans for one in 2016. And in the literal meaning of the word biennial, like the variety of plants, it does just that. But Biennial or Biennale (WITH CAPITAL B’s) is a broader phenomenon in the art world, particularly in the last 20 (give or take a few) years.
The Venice Biennale was the first and continues to set the standard and, to some extent, the definition of a Biennial. Although it is more of an Olympics format, with individual artists or groups selected for national representation, ‘competing’ for awards and prestige. However, the likes of the Berlin Biennial, Istanbul Biennial, Glasgow International, Manifesta, etc., etc. and now EVA in Limerick are probably good examples of what the Visual Arts community thinks of when they hear Biennial: a single, non-commercial, large–scale, themed, and curated exhibition taking place over multiple venues with both selected artists and those chosen from an open submission. Other variations exist: those taking place less or more frequently, or those in a single venue, like the Whitney Biennial. The other key aspect of these events is regional and even national cultural cachet.
The Dublin Biennial was founded by its now Director/Curator Maggie Magee. Using the names ‘The Dublin Biennial 2014’ and the ‘Dublin Biennial Pop-Up’, this year it was housed in “a 15,000 ft space” in a few disused shops, ‘slack spaces’ in a shopping centre hit hard by the recession. Boasting its international credentials, the website states that “55 Artists were selected to exhibit representing 21 countries: Australia, Armenia, Brazil, Bolivia, China, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Iran, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, Turkey, UAE, UK, and the USA.” While the Dublin Biennial did manage a surprising number of ‘big names’ (Nigel Rolfe, Sonia Falcone, Gavin Turk, Rachel Joynt, Stephen Loughman, Guggi, Meadhbh O’Connor, etc.), it is doubtless the scale of the exhibition vis-a-vis its showy title remains problematic.
What really struck a chord with the Visual Arts community were the entry and exhibition costs required of participating artists. Keep in mind that both Dublin City Council and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht allocated public funds to around the tune of €10,000 total for this exhibition.
The application form reads: “Submission fee of €25/$33 is applicable per artwork entered. Entrance fee of €980/$1350 is applicable per artist selected to exhibit.” A submission fee is really quite common practice and is asked regularly of artists, but the “entrance fee” is quite out of the ordinary.
“It really was startling to hear the minister celebrate what had been achieved ‘on a shoestring budget’ when the bulk of the costs had been passed on to the participating artists.”i
– Declan Long, Lecturer at NCAD and Critic
There are of course rental fees to exhibit in stalls at commercial art fairs, many charging into the 10’s of thousands. But these are what they say on the tin: commercial fairs for galleries to sell their artists’ work. The fairs in exchange provide the display space, but importantly attract the buyers, and press; the footfall. Rental fees vary dependent on the status and location of the fair. It appears that in a way, Dublin Biennial is challenging the prevalent market model by offering its service directly to producers and bypassing the middle man. I can only conclude that the Dublin Biennial is a small art fair.
And that it’s not a Biennial.
“The [Entrance fee] money is obviously a stinker, but what leveraged those fees was the notion of an international biennial. It exploited the self-interests of certain artists and it hoodwinked a few politicians. The real shock for me was in seeing just how superficially the notion of a biennial was able to be appropriated, and just how quickly its symbolic capital was rolled-out, revealed as a turd, and then exhausted.
My fear is that the Dublin Biennial creates a scorched earth for other attempts to develop ambitious projects in Dublin with a similar vocabulary (but with a wish list of being critically-minded, well-budgeted, internationally-enabling, institutionally-mischievous). There needs to be another language for all of this. Perhaps that’s where it starts?”
– Matt Packer, Curator, CCA Derry
I had the chance to ask Maggie Magee a few questions about the Dublin Biennial last week.
What got you personally interested in this project? And in contemporary art?
I’ll just dive in with a bit of background: BFA – Painting and Multimedia at NCAD (a long time ago!); MFA – School of the Art Institute in Chicago; Film/Video/Performance. I worked in the Film/Video/Motion Graphic industry in Chicago for many years. Producing a number of short films and documentaries (including Brian’s Wilson’s Smile and Pet Sounds documentaries). Throughout the ‘film period’ I always painted and exhibited my works.
Can you tell us some background on the project? When did you start working on it? where did the idea come from?
Over the years I had met numerous international artists who were interested in exhibiting works in Ireland (as I was myself!) However there didn’t seem to be any venue for ‘unknown’ artists to exhibit here and gallery rosters were already at capacity. That’s where the idea of a pop-up came from.
I proceeded to look for funding, unsuccessfully, and then decided to go ahead on my own. Putting a ‘small group show together’ and divvying up the cost of participation, the ‘small group show’ soon became 55 artists and that’s when the inaugural happened in 2012.
Do you have relationships or partnerships with other arts organisations or galleries in Dublin?
Unfortunately at this point we don’t have relationships with other galleries or organizations in Ireland, it’s something that we would like to foster – and hopeful will after this exhibit.
Where do you see the Biennial going in the future? Is this something that you see getting much bigger?
I’d really like to see the ‘Biennial’ evolve and become a multi-venue art festival in Dublin and fostering relationships with other organizations is key to that growth. And, I believe it will grow because there is so much enthusiasm and support for the show – both by the artists and the public. It’s encouraging to see so many people engage with the art – Sonia Falcone’s Campo de Color is the most photographed work in Ireland!
The Biennial works I believe for a number of reasons… because of the wide range of works on exhibit, how accessible those works are, and because the show exists outside the confines of the ‘Gallery/Museum’ walls. Exhibiting outside the traditional ‘art-space’ is also something that appealed to a lot of the participating artists. For instance for Andrew Duggan, Meadhbh O’Connor, Belinda Loftus, and Sonia Falcone the opportunity to engage with an audience that wouldn’t normally visit a gallery or museum. Also, the Conversations Series attracts interest, this year’s the conversations are geared to environmental issues.
How do you see the Biennale in relation to other arts organisations, festivals, and fairs (Vue at the RHA, Kilkenny Arts Festival, Eva in Limerick, Tulca in Galway, etc.) in Ireland?
The Biennial is a ‘start-up’/’one-woman’ organization so it’s difficult to compare it to more seasoned and funded organizations like the RHA, EVA, Kilkenny, Tulca – all of which I greatly admire and would aspire to learn from and perhaps even partner with in the future.
How is the art collecting scene in Dublin? Do you think that it is changing? Is the Biennale consciously taking part in this conversation?
Yes, I think it is changing. The Biennial doesn’t charge a commission and there’s been a lot of interest in works. We’ve sold some work and hope to sell more at the Closing/Silent Art Auction this weekend.
What about the name itself? It seems to be a sore spot for some in the art world here. With EVA billing itself now as ‘Ireland’s Biennial’ and the general assumption that a biennial is something that is less commercial and more looking towards the international, curated by a ‘big name’ across a number of venues or in a massive space (like Dublin Contemporary), with artists fees and new commissions, etc… do you see the name Dublin Biennial as a problem? Is it misleading? Or is it an ambition?
In terms of the name ‘Dublin Biennial’, yes I agree it’s both problematic and an ambition with the hope that it will develop into a multi-venue exhibition or be in a huge space like the Contemporary. Consider though again what the costs would be related to that scale of show, and the addition of a ‘big name’ international curator. As I’ve said, the basic concept of the Dublin Biennial was to create a sustainable international show – one that could become a mainstay in the visual arts calendar, and a support for art and artists in Ireland.
I am really hopeful that with the issues raised by the Dublin Biennial we can move forward with an open dialogue on how to best develop and present DB16.
Also, Irish artists and artists resident in Ireland have never paid any [Entrance] fees.
So, it’s not a Biennial. At least not yet.
“It’s good for Ireland to have new voices coming in… There’s space in Ireland for new ways of doing things, and voices from outside the systems. Is the Dublin Biennial headline over ambitious? Not if it grows into it. But can the event keep that position as a new voice within the conversation if it continues, expands and becomes an institution itself? I don’t know.”
– Gemma Tipton, Critic
Fair play to Magee, this is a ‘one-(wo)man band’. It is enterprising and ambitious, and definitely bold and cheeky. But I think if the Dublin Biennial is to grow and live up to its aspirations, it should not remain static. Of course it could stay a small art fair with an eclectic combination of artists representing themselves. And it can legally retain its name while it does so. The very real risk here is that it becomes increasingly marginalised from the Irish and international contemporary art scenes. And that an unpleasant and unproductive stand-off takes place. I’d predict also further outcry and protest by the Visual Arts community and its institutions in this scenario.
Alternatively, and what I would love to see, is an earnest effort to grow this dream of a Dublin Biennial. Connecting into the existing arts infrastructure in Dublin; a little joined up thinking! I’ve always wondered why events like EVA and Tulca, events that connect our existing resources and show them off (also like Visit and Culture Night on a different scale) couldn’t be grown into a month, or more, long city-wide Biennial? An exhibition that could potentially be shown in, and in conjunction with everyone. Combining resources.
The IMMA’s, The Hugh Lane’s, The National Galleries; and the Temple Bar Galleries, Project Arts’s, The Douglas Hyde’s; to the Block T’s, Pallas’s, Basic Space’s, the IMOCA’s. A single, non-commercial, large–scale, themed, and curated exhibition taking place over multiple venues with both selected artists and those chosen from an open submission. In Dublin. Every 2 years. Adding up existing resources and skills. The pay-off is potentially huge for everyone, without the huge payout. A united Dublin artworld. “Can you count, suckers? I say, the future is ours… if you can count! Can you dig it?”**
An dtuigeann tú?
* Be sure to listen to the rest of Declan Long’s June 13th “Dublin Biennial review” on RTÉ’s The Arena: http://www.rte.ie/radio1/arena/podcasts/
** From Cyrus’s speech in The Warriors, (Walter Hill, 1979)
What the Devil is the Dublin Biennial?
by Jim Ricks