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Santiago Cirugeda / recetas urbanas - House of Words (2015). Photo: Michelle Boynton

Review: Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art 2015 0

Magnus Bons

- “A story within a story” -
Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art
Göteborg, Sweden 
September 12 - November 22, 2015 

The notion that history is constructed constantly, and in some way remade and repositioned time and time again, underlies this year´s Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA). But by whom and for what purpose, are the vital questions that the curator Elvira Dyangani Ose (Spain/Equatorial Guinea) makes visible in a rather dense and tightly choreographed exhibition titled A story within a story. Citing the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot and taking influences from the Italian writer and semiotician Umberto Eco´s term “open work”, Dyangani Ose looks upon history and historiography as “work in motion”; never complete and at all times reconfigured. There is always something behind, beneath or between what we expect or accept from the layers of histories. There are new interrelations to be discovered or new territories, inner or outer, to be explored.

Dyangani Ose is interested in collective memories, in personal narratives, and in stories from the margins of society. The art works she has chosen for her Biennial clearly shows this – in both plain and elaborate ways. Some pieces are straight-forward though intriguing, some are more conceptual and cerebral, leaving the spectator both amused and somewhat worn out. The art functions generally in a way that becomes rather illustrative to the exhibition´s theme. That could be viewed both as a sign of the curator´s skill to pick the right artists, or as a somewhat problematic indication of arts instrumentality. Maybe it is a combination of both.

benandsebastian. Museum of Nothing (2011-2014). Photo: Hendrik Zeitler

A story within a story takes place in three main venues; Röda Sten Konsthall, Göteborgs Konsthall and Hasselblad Center. These are, including the Gothenburg Museum of Art (though it´s not participating in this year´s Biennial), the big art intuitions in Gothenburg. In addition, there are a large number of smaller exhibitions spread out in the nearby region under the title GIBCA Extended. The Biennial is of great importance to the art infrastructure in the region, even though none of the artists in the main exhibition comes from the area. This is an international show, and the couple of Swedish artists that are included in it are a part of the global art field.

Much of the art that meets the spectator´s eye contains a large number of archival materials, photographs in black and white and documentary films exploring different odd angels of history. There are two almost identical pieces containing archival photographs; Maryam Jafri (Pakistan) shows different First Independence Day ceremonies from the 60´s in the Middle East, Asia and in Africa, while Theo Eshetu (Ethiopia/UK) exhibits a picture essay from Yugoslavia from the same period. You must have been there to fully grasp the importance of the moment, I guess, but it´s a clear example of the curator´s vision of an extended history.

Kader Attia. Los de arriba y los de abajo (2015) & Ângela Ferreira. Messy Colonialism, Wild Colonization (2015). Photo: Hendrik Zeitler

There is also a compelling likeness to the method and aesthetics in the pieces by Sara Jordenö (SE) and by Petra Bauer and Rebecca Thor (SE). Jordenö combines text documents with documentary filming in a work that deals with the closure of a fabric in the small Swedish community where she grew up, while Bauer and Thor has dig up archival photographs from a journey to Russia made by a group of Swedish socialist women in 1920. Their pieces have a simple structure, but are visually rather stunning.

It is worth noticing that Jafri also is part of the Belgian Pavilion in Venice this year which has a similar theme as GIBCA, and that Bauer is included in the main exhibition in Venice, All the World´s Futures by Okwui Enwezor. This shows that Dyangani Ose´s theme of “stories within stories” is very fashionable indeed in today´s art world – and that her thinking on history might also be translated into a tomorrow in the hands of Enwezor.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The Work (2015) & Meleko Mokgosi. Modern Art: The Root of African Savages, Addendum (2015). Photo: Hendrik Zeitler

Painting is obviously not a preferred medium for Dyangani Ose when it comes to historiography, since there is only one example of it in her exhibition. The British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who’s a rasing star on the contemporary art scene, is represented by a new group of paintings in her familiar style. Her realistic but fictive portraits of black figures are truly intriguing, but this series seem rushed and is in places anatomically incorrect. I saw her beautiful exhibition at Serpentine Gallery this summer, and I hope that fame hasn´t driven her to easy painterly solutions.

There are other examples of pieces that moves back and forth on the border between fact and fiction, like Tris Vonna-Michell´s (UK) video of his search for a pioneer in sound art, or Arvo Leo´s (New Zealand) touching documentary film about an Inuit hunter-turned-painter.

Nastivicous. The Overture (2015). Photo: Hendrik Zeitler

Most of the art works in Dyangani Ose´s wide-ranging and time consuming Biennial deserves scrutiny and gives important insights back to the viewer, but I can´t get rid of an annoying feeling of repetition when walking through the exhibition. There´s nothing wrong with overtly political art, but here the art is simply too opinionated in the same direction. Even though many of the works contain poignant configurations of personally experienced histories, the truly amazing art is lacking.

Read in Archive: “PLAY! Recapturing the Radical Imagination” - Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art 2013