Through August 19
by Sally Frater
April marked the opening of Dallas’ first and last art biennial. The brainchild of Florence Ostende, the adjunct curator of Dallas Contemporary, the Dallas Biennale was intended to critique the staging of the ubiquitous international art fair, a format that has become so prevalent that even the smallest of cities around the world attempt to host such events. Though Ostende is quoted in numerous articles and has written a treatise explaining her reasoning in organizing and presenting the Dallas Biennale one is not entirely certain as to what it is exactly about biennials that she finds so problematic. From her curatorial statement one can surmise that Ostende believes that an engagement with actual artwork is overshadowed in the typical biennial, and that host of other extraneous elements, such as an emphasis on big-name curators, glamorous locales, edu-tainment and tourism—in short, the spectacle of the biennial itself, takes precedence instead.
Whether under the guise of irony, satire or true earnestness it is often difficult to mount an attempt at interrogation that is successful while employing the framework of mimicry. If one does not go far enough with gestures of subversion and/or displacement there runs the risk of a further inscription of the very thing that one is trying to displace. To an extent, this charge can be made towards Ostende as many of the criticisms that are made of biennials can be levied against the Dallas Biennale. Many of the participating artists, though hailing from elsewhere, are based in Houston and there is also a concentration of artists from France. In terms of cultural myopia, the Biennale has an extremely Western focus; if one of Ostende’s curatorial goals was to highlight neglected practices and regions it might have behooved her to include work from regions that have historically (and are currently) overlooked such as the Caribbean or Middle East. Furthermore, how can a roster of 19 artists purport to take on this endeavor? Very few of the artists’ installations engage with the conundrum of the biennial itself, two of the exceptions being Houston-based Gabriel Martinez and Dallas’ Michael Corris. Martinez’ response to his invitation to participate in the Biennale was to create a Pavilion of sorts and to invite five other artists to share his allotted space with him, their work collectively exploring issues of labor, class and migration. Michael Corris’ piece Twelve Rules (2005 -06) was created as a response to the 2005 Venice Biennial. Taking the form of a manifesto, the work consists of a series of twelve declarations, replicated in varying formats, that attack the solipsism and misguided attempts at social practice and engagement that plague many contemporary art practices. Anthea Behm’s installation Adorno/Bueller (2010/11) does this as well; addressing issues of accessibility the video work features actors reciting dialogue comprised of Theodor Adorno’s dense theoretical text, Aesthetic Theory, and dialogue taken from the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off while walking through the Art Institute of Chicago.
The curatorial remit of the exhibition begins to fall apart when one applies Ostende’s “deconstruction of the framework of the biennial” credo to the work of the artists included in the Dallas Biennale. A more accurate assessment of the Biennale is that the entire premise was hinged on a desire to bring together the work of a number of artists whose practices do not seem to have much in common but have struck the curator’s interest. This not necessarily a bad thing but the reality of it serves to undermine the curator’s claims of institutional critique. However, if the Biennale is instead housed within the desire to experience the included artists’ diverse works under the rubric of “art for art’s sake” Ostende’s endeavor becomes entirely more successful and produces several moments of pure viewing pleasure.
Sylvie Fleury’s installation in the windows of Neiman Marcus is a fun and appropriately placed site-specific installation that explores the intersection of the age-old beauty ritual with consumption, and it’s placement in downtown Dallas capitalizes on the traffic through the city’s core. Kim Beom’s video work is another highlight: the piece humorously appropriates the format of the instructional paint-by-numbers programs featured on PBS stations to instruct viewers in the genre of “scream” painting, an emotionally rooted form of action painting wherein artists are to scream while applying paint to the canvas and altering the hue of their palettes to match the emotion of their scream. For a number of works Ostende displays a gift in selecting sites that serve the artists’ works well: the hokey faux Spanish colonial exterior of the Cameron Gallery is offset by the screams emitting from Beom’s work that is placed inside. This is also the case with the abandoned factory that serves as the setting for Nicole Miller’s video installation, Daggering (2012). The two-channel video juxtaposes footage of young women and men daggering, a form of Caribbean dance, in a club in Brooklyn with footage of the artist attending her first ballet class in over ten years. The piece, which can loosely be described as an exploration of the performing (female) body as a site of spectacle, humiliation and reconciliation is projected onto two screens hung opposite from each other. Accompanied by a disembodied male narrator’s voice, the piece fills the industrial setting with its imagery that is disturbing and beautiful in equal measure.
Sally Frater is an independent writer and curator. She currently is a Critical Studies fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.