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I.Bertolotti, S.Bardaouil & T.Fellrath © Blandine Soulage - courtesy of The 16th Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art


The 16th Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art

By LARA PAN October, 2022

It happened that this past September I had a chance to explore the 16th Lyon Biennale curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellarth. It’s been very long since last I visited the Lyon Biennale—perhaps not since 2011 for The terrible beauty is born, when Thierry Raspail was the artistic director and Victoria Noorthoorn, the curator. And the very different times and expectations at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century are certainly reflected in what I found there.

Today we can clearly see and feel how the world and its global political landscape have changed so drastically, and how fragile humanity feels after the pandemic. So Sam and Till are not sourcing this biennale from the events that marked the past few years. Rather, they’re using the past to re-invent and question the future, carefully investigating the fragility of the latent dreams that mark our time.

“The quest starts with a story about a woman named Louise Brunet, who was sent to prison for her role in the 1834 revolt of Lyon’s silk weavers, only to find herself a few years later sent from Lyon to the silk factories of Mount Lebanon.” Blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, the Bardaouil/Fellarth curatorial team coordinate their elaborate artistic research with the serendipity factor in a sharp-witted manner. 

This well-curated biennale is certainly worth visiting, not only for the cathartic feeling that its collection delivers, but for the prodigious and eclectic 200+ artists selected from 40 different countries represented therein, who collectively conduct an investigation into “three interconnected layers, where fragility and resistance are explored through the lens of individual, the city and the world respectively.”

During my visit, a journalist said to me, “Don’t you think it’s too political? It throws these ideas right into your face.” But I must disagree completely with this sort of criticism. Sure, it’s political and maintains a strong didactic approach, but its measure and subtlety are its strengths. I advise all young curators to visit this biennale, as there is much to learn from it, particularly in terms of how to keep a subtle balance between ideology and artistic choices. 

One hopes to return from each biennale with a mindset reinvigorated by new art discoveries—from up-and-coming artists, known artists, and unknown artists; new works by known artists, old works by new artists, commissioned works by known and unknown artists alike, and even more.

The Manifesto of Fragility contains all of that. However, I’d like to call attention to a few standouts. This will not grant due justice to all the talented artists who’ve been invited to participate in this biennale, but perhaps at the very least I will be able to portray its atmosphere through a small selection of these works.

Take Sylvie Selig, for example, who was born in 1942 in Nice, France. This talented woman is a visionary artist that, thanks to this biennale, is getting some of the exposure and recognition that she deserves. Her singular hybrid worlds where human and animal are grafted together is a perfect place to begin with the timeless universe of this biennale, which seems to be constantly shifting back and forth between dream and reality.

Sylvie Selig © Stephane Briolant - courtesy of The 16th Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art

Not far from Sylvie’s room at the Fagor factory, the well-hidden video by British artist Lucy McRae caught my attention. McRae made a fictional documentary called “The Institute of Isolation”, in which she explores how mind and body might be conditioned by a new set of possible existences. This is one of my favorite works in the entire collection.

Continuing my tour throughout the space, I found that Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joereige perfectly capture today’s political landscape. Their multimedia installation, entitled “Where is my Mind”, is not inspired by The Pixies song. Rather, it’s a collection of personal experiences of atrocity and hopelessness.

Khalil Joreige & Joana Hadjithomas, Where Is My Mind, 2020 © courtesy Galerie In Situ Fabienne Leclerc - courtesy of The 16th Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art

Another artist that caught my attention is Clemens Behr. His comparative vision of the past and the future is balanced perfectly through his architectural forms, as well as a decomposition of those forms. His work is a compelling combination of art and architecture that recalls the paradigmatic brutalist utopias of classic science fiction. And in doing so, his installations lead the viewer to a precious place where past and future meet.

I can’t help but dwell on Mahsa Amini’s tragic death in that Iranian police station, killed by the morality police. As I mentioned above strange serendipities contextualize this biennale, so I have to attend to the evermore relevant work by Erin M. Riley, which explores the traumatic imagery and burden of female identity in one tapestry called Wife Beating and Crimes Against Women.

Erin M. Riley, Crimson Landslide 6, 2018. Courtesy de P.P.O.W Gallery, New York - courtesy of The 16th Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art of  The 16th Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art

Another great strength of this biennale is how two different sites have been used in its presentation, the first being the Lyon Gallo-Romain Museum in Fourvière Hill, and the second being the Lyon Museum of Religious Art. Thus, at the Gallo-Romain Museum, be sure not to miss the young Jean Claracq, Philipp Fleischmann, or Toyin Ojih Odutola.

And I’d like to conclude with the duo Kennedy & Swan, who combine virtual reality with filmmaking techniques to explore notions of evolution. Their work “Delphi Demons” dismantles the false supremacy of human intelligence using various animation techniques including animated drawing. 3-D scanned landscapes confront us with the different forms of intelligence and are so bold as to challenge the intelligence of the very audience itself.

Kennedy & Swan © Bert Spangemacher - courtesy of The 16th Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art

There is much thought-provoking work to see and consider in this biennale. The compelling art herein provides tools for reflection, insight, and spiritual development, and moreover, invites us to elevate our perspective to greater awareness in our examination of the fragility of the world in which we live, and our preconceived notions about it. WM


Lara Pan

Lara Pan is an independent curator,writer and researcher based in New York. Her research focuses on the intersection between art, science, technology and paranormal phenomena.

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