Based around the theme Bodies of Water, the 13th edition of the Shanghai Biennale opened as planned on 9 November. Chief curator Andrés Jaque talks to Canvas about why postponement was never an optionand how new opportunities have presented themselves.
What impact has the COVID-19 crisis had on the Shanghai Biennale and why did you decide to go ahead rather than postpone?
AJ: From the beginning, we understood that the pandemic was n ot a temporary health crisis, but a condition that is shaping contemporary times and translating into s tates of vulnerability and inequality. The prospects of either postponing the biennale or carrying on n o-matter-what were both fundamentally inadequate. Neither option would have been sensitive to the fact that the multiple crises that we face currently are not accidental. Rather, they speak precisely of structural cracks in the ecosystems that we live by, the very conflicts that the artists of the biennale are addressing through their practices.
How did you change the format?
The entire curatorial team
– You Mi, Marina Otero, Lucia Pietroiusti and myself
– decided to create what we have called an inverted and in-crescendo biennale. Inverted, because instead of opening the biennale with an exhibition of ‘results’ followed by a public program that would provide a critical context, the biennale will instead expand as an eight-month in-crescendo, open-ended process. We kept the initial launch date in November but opened with a ‘Wet-Run Rehearsal’ – an intense week of debates, performances, and workshops where the contributors to the biennale could interact with activists, scientists, scholars, and the city of Shanghai at large to initiate the development of the works that will be exhibited in the final phase of the biennale, an exhibition that will open on 10 April 2021.
What about the digital and physical dimensions of the biennale?
From the very beginning, we considered it important to avoid the illusion that what happens offline can just be ‘moved’ online. The questions for us were rather, what meaningful forms of bodily interaction can happen now, and what is art at a time of bodily and environmental vulnerability? What are the forms of ‘wet-togetherness’ that art can sense, account for, and render possible? This is actually the focus of the biennale, which ultimately speaks about the intrinsic interdependency of all forms of life. Equally, this is intended to be a biennale that instead of being something you travel to see, gets infiltrated into daily life and experienced as something inseparable from the mundane world of the everyday. A biennale faced with the current restrictions on large gatherings and travel is finding other means to interact, ways that actually challenge the binarism of creator/observer and author/public. This is for me very important.
Are there particular projects designed to extend this form of participation?
We initiated the eight-month in-crescendo process with the performance Oceanic Breathing by the Basque artist ItziarOkaritz, who conducted a planetary breathing session from Bilbao to the wider world. Connected through online channels, people distributed around the globe synchronized their breathing during a 20-minute collective performance. At a time when the pandemic has rendered our intrinsic porousness to each other a site for fear and control, breathing together the same air that flows around the world connected the intimacy of our lungs and blood and brought collective bodily empowerment.
Have any issues come up that you had not anticipated?
The pandemic has destabilised many of the automatic procedures that would normally determine a big part of a biennale’s course and outcome. This has given us the opportunity to redesign many of the ways in which we do things. For instance, this biennale will not produce any merchandise. Instead, it is developing an on-profit store offering dissident daily life goods that work to replace the culture of anthropocentrism and exploitation with one of mutual care. This would have been impossible in the usual hectic time frame of biennales, but in the long process of what we have called the inverted biennale, it is something that we can develop as a conversation where artists, designers, and fabricators can all cooperate.