The biennial for the sake of the biennial…? Fourth Prague Biennial 2009

Markéta Stará

Reviews / 13.08.2009
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Since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 the Czech art scene has undergone a number of changes and upheavals, but a collective endeavour to create an art scene for both local and foreign spectators has been lacking. The current setting tends to be individualist, deficient in communication between the private and state sectors, galleries and art organisations, as well as in private and/or public funding. At the same time a disproportionate amount of recourses and energy is dedicated to events such as biennials, triennials and similar large-scale shows, many of which fail in concept as well as content. A fitting example of this trend is Prague Biennial 4.

The first Prague Biennial was organised in 2003 through a collaborative effort of the National Gallery in Prague and Giancarlo Politi, the founding editor and publisher of Flash Art magazine. Later, due to major differences in vision of the biennial and consequent tensions between Politi and Milan Knížák (the director of the National Gallery in Prague), the subsequent Prague biennials, including Prague Biennial 4, were organised by Politi and have taken place beyond the grounds of the National Gallery, where it had been originally installed. In 2008, the National Gallery started its own triennial (of which there has yet been only iteration). This split resulted in an increased frequency of large contemporary art events in Prague, and it is reasonable to ask what purpose they serve. The majority of the local Czech art scene does not connect with these events’ ‘ground-breaking’ expectations. 

Similar to the two predecessors, which had also been organised by Politi independently from the National Gallery in Prague, the 2009 Prague Biennial is situated within the industrial space of an old factory in the gentrifying Karlín quarter of Prague. The biennial has been divided into two major sections: Prague Biennial 4, which occupies the majority of the space, and Prague Biennial Photo 1. Incorporating this division among others, the exhibition is highly compartmentalised. Prague Biennial 4 section is further sectioned into two larger sections titled ‘Expanded Painting’ and the smaller ‘Art in General’. Each of these sections has been further sectioned into different parts. ‘Expanded Painting’, for example, comprises thirteen sections, each curated by a different curator. 

The central concern of the biennial was the rebirth of painting in contemporary art, and the aim to demonstrate this as a real ‘progressive’ development. Nevertheless, the absence of dialogue between individual works in respective sections, the various divisions of the event itself and the sheer number of canvases on show resulted in a reductive engagement with the exhibited works, which were ultimately mostly organised by nationality. If the aim of the biennial was to present painting as a progressive development of contemporary art, it resorted to a decidedly conventional mode of presentation. 

Eva Koťátková, from the series Sedět rovně (Strait Sitting), 2008. Video documentation

‘White Paper Black Bride’, a key part of the ‘Art in General’, section stands out as the best section of the biennial. Curated by Jiří Kovanda and Edith Jeřábková, the Czech section takes as its point of departure geometrical minimalism, one of the dominant tendencies in contemporary Czech art. The curators included several artists of an older generation, such as Vladimír Skrepl or Jiří Valoch, a pivotal figure in the development of geometrical minimalism in the 1960s and 70s, and introduced names well-known internationally, such as Josef Bolf, Dominik Lang or Eva Koťátková, whose work was exhibited at the 2008 Manifesta in Trentino. They also showed works by artists known best to the Czech art scene, such as Jan Šerých, whose rationally coded canvases mediate the artist’s personal, sometimes intimate experiences, or Tomáš Svoboda, whose video installation Draemovie (2009) perverts the nature of his medium by substituting images with their textual description. Kovanda and Jeřábková also included works by young artists, for instance Pavel Sterec, whose work From the Window of My Office (2009) reflects the grey and many times limited view on life by those absorbed by the financial mechanisms of the contemporary world. A similar socio-political awareness is apparent in the fragments of a red wall pierced by bullet-like objects (Untitled, 2007) by the Ladví Collective. 

Compared to the rest of the biennial, the Slovak section is less crowded, giving the spectator space to breathe and to absorb the video installations that were surprisingly so few in the show. The concept of the Slovak section, titled ‘Art Works’, follows the (frequently traversed) connection between art and labour; the viewer is presented with works that resonate with the theory of service aesthetics, such as Katarína Patráškova’s Cleaning (2007), a recorded performance in which she washes windows of passing cars and buses. 

Standing out amongst the many biennials and art events is an enormous task. The world of biennials is a competitive ‘business’, where often simply the idea of something different and new seems the key to success. The novelty of Prague Biennial 4 was to present the alleged rebirth of painting in contemporary art, but the questionable quality of some works followed by the lacking curatorial engagement in the show has made this attempt a lost opportunity. This brings me back to the title: does every city or world capital have to have its own biennial; or are we just organising biennials for the sake of it? There is surely irony in the fact that the best works in the Prague Biennial were local.

— Markéta Stará