As curious as it may seem to a jaded Western art world, the large-scale global art exhibition still strikes many emerging nations as a good idea. One such is South Africa, which after decades of cultural isolation launched the first Johannesburg Biennale in 1995, a landmark event that included over 250 artists from 80 countries. The 2nd Johannesburg Biennale opened last fall, under the artistic direction of Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian who recently was appointed curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. Entitled "Trade Routes: History and Geography," the biennial took as its general theme the notion of "global traffic in culture."
Rather than supervising a series of national pavilions, Enwezor collaborated on a series of diverse exhibitions with six international curators -- Kellie Jones, Gerardo Mosquera, Octavio Zaya, Hou Hanru, Colin Richards and Yu Yeon Kim. The result is a smaller biennale that nevertheless presents works by 145 artists from 35 countries.
Installation-based conceptual art overwhelmingly dominated the selections. Photography, film, video and sculpture were well represented. Only painting was hard to find, giving credence to the by-now-familiar notion of its passing.
The central show, dubbed "Alternating Currents," was housed in a huge and unusual, beautifully renovated former power generating station built in 1929 and now renamed the Electric Workshop. Its entrance gallery was dominated by an imposing installation by the Chinese artist Wenda Gu. Called United Nations Project 1993-2000, the work hung on the wall like a 30-foot-tall carpet, one made of hair collected from over 300 barber shops around the world.
Co-curated by Enwezor and his frequent collaborator, the curator and critic Octavio Zaya, "Alternating Currents" is a rambling exhibition with no discernible trajectory. The show was best approached as a free-for-all "zone of encounters" in which 80-odd artists were invited to respond to several all-encompassing concepts -- postmodernism, postcolonialism, post-nationalism, globalization, migration.
The twin concepts of "History and Geography" were often brought to bear in challenging the kind of fixed boundaries, whether physical borders or more theoretical ones, that characterize global dynamics at the end of the 20th century.
Among the notable installations in "Trade Routes" was a recreation of a Victorian parlor upholstered with African batik by the London-based Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. Called Victorian Philanthropist Parlour, the work was an amusing demonstration of culture as a literal and specific construction. Shonibare pointed out that though batik is widely thought to be natively African, the technique in fact originated in Indonesia and only traveled to West Africa via Holland and Britain.
Indian artist Vivan Sundaram's acerbic installation uses text and photographic images on steel to highlight the effects of global commerce and the influx of consumer goods in a country where the majority population can barely afford them. Martiniquan Marc Latamie's work Side Effect, a recreation of what seems to be an import and export office, conjures up the human consequences of the global trade in coffee, sugar and cotton.
Diaspora as a result of forced or voluntary, economic or political migration is a thread that runs through many artist's works. No wonder. As perusal through the copious biennale catalogue reveals, over half of the artists in the show are now settled in countries other than that of their origin. The African American artist Carrie Mae Weems documents a search for African ancestry, which took her on a pilgrimage along the Slave Coast to Senegal, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, in two series of photographs called "South Sea Island" and "Africa." The most poignant depiction of migration and memory was Mexican artist Teresa Serrano's video, in which footage of thousands of butterflies migrating northward is superimposed every few minutes with grim images of human migration, famine, war and other disasters.
"Alternating Currents" was successful in bringing to South Africa the work of internationally acclaimed artists such as Gabriel Orozco, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Beat Streuli, Sam Taylor-Wood, Shirin Neshat, Stan Douglas, Rhona Pondick, Ghada Amer and Eugenio Dittborn. More importantly, perhaps, it also introduced South African artists to an international audience, artists such as Penny Siopis, Sue Williamson, Andries Botha, Malcolm Payne and Wayne Barker.
One striking work by a local artist was a slide projection by Santu Mofokeng, which showed archival photos dating as far back as the 1890s of working- and middle-class black people dressed in complete Victorian attire. Mofokeng intercepts this unusual portrait of a black imaginary couple with textual references to colonization as an ideological activity. The Victorian images were even more striking compared to contemporary portraits of everyday people by Zwelethu Mthetwa.
Other Biennale exhibitions sought coherence through a focus on media. Photography dominated "Important Exportant," organized by Cuban curator Gerardo Mosquera (now working at the New Museum in New York). In spite of its beautiful installation in the spacious Johannesburg Gallery of Art, the show was overall a staid affair, saved only by some interesting juxtapositions. One such put the seascapes of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto next to a work by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles, whose installation consists of a kind of pier surrounded by a layer of books laid out on the floor, whose blue and emerald-colored covers create the impression of a simulated sea.
Increasingly, advanced technology has become an integral part of big exhibitions. "Hong Kong, etc.," assembled by the Paris-based Chinese curator Hou Hanru, includes a 110-page website of text, artist's projects and contributions by the likes of Rem Koolhaas and Saskia Sassen. Unfortunately, accessing the site proved to be a tedious and time-consuming undertaking. The show's real-world manifestation was at the Rembrandt Gallery, a generally uninspired installation of work by Andreas Gursky, Huang Yong Ping, Ellen Pau and Fiona Tan.
"Transversions," the work of curator Yu Yeon Kim, achieved a more successful combination of traditional media and new technologies. Located on the top floor of the Museum Africa, the installation used film, video, sculptural installations and computer terminals to provide a well-rounded but diverse exhibition. Among the participants were Alfredo Jaar, Gary Simmons, Dennis Oppenheim and Keith Piper.
As part of the biennial's effort to "mark the tangible geographical site around which globalization" is discussed, Enwezor expanded the perimeters of the show to include Cape Town, the former bastion of South Africa's white rulers. Cape Town's resemblance to the Cote d'Azure is surreal, to say the least, and it lacks the shadow of danger that almost cripples movement in crime-ridden Johannesburg. In spite of the scenic coastal distractions, the two Cape Town exhibitions proved to be the most focused.
"Graft," organized at the South African National Gallery by the South African art historian and curator Colin Richards, concentrated entirely on the work of South African artists, living in and out of the country. It included the work of younger artists such as Johannes Phokela, Moshekwa Langa and Maureen de Jager. "Life's Little Necessities," organized by Whitney Museum curator Kellie Jones, featured installation works by women artists. Lorna Simpson and Jocelyn Taylor both used film projection and video to explore issues of the erotic body. The Nigerian artist Fatimah Tuggar created huge computer-generated images that superimpose the traditional African kitchen with modern high-tech Western ones, highlighting the fusing of cultures, at least in domestic space. Work by the South African Veliswa Gwintsa questioned the tradition of paying a dowry by a bride.
The biennial also included an ambitious film program of works by over 30 filmmakers from more than 20 countries, and a public art program of posters, billboards and performance art. Unfortunately, in spite of good intentions, the biennial's efforts to involve the local community and reach the widest audience possible was hindered by the lack of advertising. Public programs proved difficult to find and escaped the attention of even avid art lovers.
As one might expect, the Biennale was haunted by questions regarding the relevance of contemporary art to the real issues of life in Johannesburg, Cape Town and the surrounding townships. Despite the progress of recent years, the majority of South Africans are still disenfranchised, and receive negligible benefit from cultural events like this. For future Biennales, Johannesburg needs to find a format that will connect to is African neighbors without the forfeit of its global aspirations. "Trades Routes: History and Geography" was a beginning.
BISI SILVA is an art writer living in London.