This 15th edition of the Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale is devised as an ecosystem at the intersection of biological, economic and cosmogonic landscapes. It bears witness to the shifting relationships between human beings, other living species, the mineral kingdom, technological artefacts and the stories that unite them.
Echoing Lyon’s geography, the title of the 15th Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale is Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, taken from a Raymond Carver poem. For the first time, in addition to the Museum of Contemporary Art (macLYON) and many associate venues, the Biennale is being held in the deserted halls of the former Fagor factory, in the heart of the Gerland district. This brownfield site – in which remains (forgotten machines, gaping cavities and absences created by the wear-and-tear of time and by human action) the old industrial world is coinciding with an uncertain future – will host a system of political, poetic, aesthetic and environmental interactions.
Short supply chains
This landscape, at once journeying through history and bearing its mark, also charts a shift from the acme of Europe’s industrial age to its speculative demise in the 21st century. But we are not there yet; and humans, who for a long time stood and beheld the landscape – a product of their desires, projections and sedimentations – are considered here as just another component of it.
The fruit of numerous collaborations between the artists and firms in Lyon and the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, this 15th edition gathers artworks made according to the principle of short supply chains. These partnerships between the artists and the local technical, industrial, intellectual and non-profit terroir offer an art production model of unprecedented scale, which is embedded throughout the region and conceived as a dynamic and perpetually evolving material.
Around fifty artists of all generations and many nationalities, with gender parity, have been invited to make site-specific works. This latest edition of the Biennale, fostering dialogue with the actors on the ground and on the actual site, with its history and architecture, thus highlights production by taking account of the socio-economic context in which the event is set. With a deliberately limited number of artists – producing grand gestures, substantial ensembles or lower-key actions – this edition will emphasise discovering and experiencing ambitious works without reducing them to a curatorial demonstration. The exhibition is thus seeking the unexpected, and cultivating areas of friction between works and practices that never allow themselves to be totally tamed. Reflecting the broad international outlook that epitomises the Lyon Biennale and sets it apart, featuring artists who for the most part are shown rarely in France or not at all, this edition also highlights the diversity of the French art scene, represented by roughly a third of the participants.
Occupying the site’s ground floor and basements (Sam Keogh, Minouk Lim, Ashley Hans Scheirl & Jakob Lena Knebl), its upper reaches (Stéphane Calais) and its walls (Dale Harding, Stephen Powers), the Biennale’s sedimented landscape is created by superposing, overprinting, porosity and entanglement. It is devised as a vast ecosystem at the intersection of landscapes be they biological (all interactions with living things, whether plants, animals or bacteria); economic (all interactions with resources and the appetites they entail: producing, distributing, consuming); or cosmogonic (all relations with the world’s spirit and therefore our awareness concerningour place in the universe).
Accordingly, it is in a quasi-alchemistic perspective that Pamela Rosenkranz, Bianca Bondi and Mire Lee give body and breath to chemical solutions and synthetic materials that will continue their metamorphosis throughout the Biennale. Inspired by the petrochemicals valley nearby, and by what artist Isabelle Andriessen calls “zombie materials”, these artists induce communication between living things and the inert matter produced from scratch by human hand or machine, in a temporality that often extends beyond the exhibition’s. This also applies to the gigantic alambic that Thomas Feuerstein is activating at the Biennale, thus transforming the site into a vast culture medium where machines and organicals; water and metal; and myth and science will meet and mix.
As visitors explore this fallen industrial site, a second strand naturally catches the eye. This former jewel in Lyon’s manufacturing crown embodies the violence of economic shifts, and proposes a transitioning landscape to which the artists, who are particularly sensitive to the social impacts of these transformations, are keen to respond. Skills, habitus, economy and social life have gradually deserted these spaces, and the transformations are at once political, philosophical and human challenges. Felipe Arturo interrogates the coffee industry’s production and consumption chain, while Chou Yu-Cheng explores the monetisation of time and humans’ place in the service chain. Labour as an engine of production thus faces off against macro shifts, which are examined for example by Marie Reinert, who has been to meet the region’s companies and industries.
While the artists address contemporary issues related to these social transformations, also outlined transversally along the exhibition trail is the political experience of a mix of temporalities and geographies. This is the case with Fernando Palma Rodriguez’ robotised machines, inspired by pre-Hispanic mythology, or the centaurs imagined by Nico Vascellari, battling for supremacy in the car-market jungle. Léonard Martin re-enacts The Battle of San Romano (1456, Paolo Uccello), while Stephen Powers takes inspiration from paintings of American commercial signs to write love letters on public walls. Be it humans’ relationship with the other kingdoms of living and non-living things but also with their own history and the myths they have, or the fears and fascinations stemming from use of the latest technology, one of the exhibition’s core themes is an interrogation of humans’ place and representation in, and even their absence from, environments where they are no longer central.
Indeed, several of this Biennale’s artists (Rebecca Ackroyd, Malin Bülow, Megan Rooney, Victor Yudaev) stage headless costumes, “ventriloquised” characters, floating bodies and made-up faces. At macLYON, humans are carefully dismembered to become a mere decorative element in the hallucinatory visions of duo Daniel Dewar and Gregory Gicquel. Lastly, from Pannaphan Yodmanee’s landscapes inspired by the Buddhist pictorial tradition, made using building-site scrap, to Jean-Marie Appriou’s large cast-aluminium brambles proliferating in space, we also see visions of a post-human world emerging. But as with Supportive (2011), a large immersive installation by Gustav Metzger – one of the few existing works on show here, borrowed for the occasion from macLYON –, whose colourful variations equally evoke a psychedelic techno-landscape and the ebb and flow of a tsunami’s waves, this Biennale’s works refuse confinement to any defined landscape. Rather, they are the landscape’s components, tangling and ramifying to plunge visitors into an experience that reflects the complexity of today’s world, its territories and its representations.
Where Water Comes Together with Other Water is thus an exhibition envisioned as a wrinkled landscape where each wave, ridge, peak, hollow and bifurcation – each variation, in fact – opens onto new perspectives and connections. Seen from the sky, it is a map that could come from any atlas. At eye level, however, it acquires relief and makes legible, literally and figuratively, the dual reality covered by the landscape, which is understood to be both a material transformation of the environment and its cultural representation. An image that we embrace, and a milieu in which the living and non-living, and the human and non-human, interact. A mental projection and a system of relationships in constant flux. An emotion where interior and exterior merge like water with other water.
In the system of permeable, streaming, communicating vessels that now serves as reality, these intersections will give rise in every Biennale venue to fantastical gardens, hybrid creatures, bouquets of epiphytic stories, synthetic perfumes and mythological machines. But also to colours, crystals, songs and infrasounds that could be intended equally for us humans and our contemporaries: plants, animals, minerals, breaths and chemistries, waves and landscapes.
Palais de Tokyo’s curatorial team