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Dallas Biennale: What's in a Name?

by Stephen Becker 13 Apr 2012 8:07 AM

The Dallas Art Fair will be held for the fourth time this weekend. And this year, the Dallas Contemporary will get in on the action – and rethink the idea of art exhibitions in the process.


The Dallas Art Fair will be held for the fourth time this weekend. And as the fair grows, so does the number of satellite art events. This year, the Dallas Contemporary will get in on the action – and rethink the idea of art exhibitions in the process.

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Whether you call it a Biennial or the Italian Biennale, the idea is the same. They are art exhibitions that happen every other year, typically looking at contemporary art. There’s usually some over-arching theme or idea that a curator is exploring, which guides the selection of artists. And, unlike the Dallas Art Fair and other art fairs, the art’s not for sale.

The Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial in New York are probably the two most well-known. There’s even a Texas Biennial in Austin.

And, beginning Friday, Dallas will have one, thanks to the Dallas Contemporary.

“Every city now seems to be wanting one for different reasons or to solve different problems,” says Contemporary director Peter Doroshenko. “Fifteen years ago there were no more than seven – maybe eight, nine. Now there’s literally a hundred of them.”

Now everyone from Iowa to Moscow has one. And that got Doroshenko and the Contemporary thinking that it was time to rethink the idea of the Biennale – what purpose do they serve and why is everyone so crazy for them.

“A lot of the biennales are about the biennale. Or a particular theme. Or about a curator. And the art becomes second or third. And the artist sometimes is even stratted on the fourth or fifth place,” he said. “So for us, it’s about getting the artist and the art back to No. 1 position.”

Florence Ostende, a curator living in Paris, was hired to put together the show. And in the spirit of reimagination, she decided to forgo any kind of formal theme, which she found liberating.

“Most of the time when you try to anticipate the theme before the works are done and exhibited, there’s kind of a gap that happens between what you anticipate as a curator being a theme … and an artist in his studio making an artwork for a show,” she said.

Instead, she says she looked for artists who were interested in trying something big and bold. The Biennale will be spread over 11 sites, including the downtown Neiman Marcus, the Le Meridien Hotel and a industrial spaces. These venues were chosen in part because they can accommodate large works. Ostende also says she considered these spots because North Texas has a history of staging exhibitions and displaying art in non traditional spaces, listing the 1936 Texas Centennial in Fair Park and Cowboys Stadium as examples.

Many of the Dallas Biennale installations will be site-specific. For example, Claude Lévêque, a French artist, has suspended some 1,200 black umbrellas from a gallery ceiling in the Contemporary, creating what looks like a swarm of bats. Swiss artist Delphine Reist will transform an industrial building into an office space. And Mexican conceptual artist Mario Garcia Torres and Dallas musician J.D. Whittenburg have written a song about American artist Robert Smithson. It will play as part of an installation.

Ninety percent of the art in the Dallas Biennale is being created specifically for it. And once the event wraps, most of it won’t be seen again.

Neither will the Dallas Biennale.

Doroshenko is well-aware that, by definition, biennales are recurring art exhibitions. It’s in the name that they happen every two years. But as part of exploring them intellectually, he says unequivocally that one will be enough.

“Because this is focused in on a bigger discussion of what biennales are, yes, you need one to have that discussion, but you don’t need a follow up one, because the discussion is continuing, but not at the intensity of when you started it.”

And what if the Dallas Biennale is wildly successful?

“Then it’ll become an urban myth and people will talk about it for many years afterward.”