Since 2010, biennials have been created in Kiev; Montevideo, Uruguay; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Panama City; New Orleans; Cluj-Napoca, Romania; and Kochi, India, among other places. Functioning as both an antidote and a complement to the equally rampant proliferation of art fairs, biennials have become obligatory markers of status for cities signaling their readiness to be participants in an ever more global art world. The sheer number of biennials has become a common topic of conversation as well as a gripe of those who fly the annual circuit from Venice to Basel to Wherever. As new biennials continue to pop up in far-flung places around the globe, those who operate within the conventional Western art world are prone to wonder what purpose they serve. Who sees them? Will they fit into the already packed schedules of the globe trotting art elite?
After a visit to the very first edition of one such far-flung biennial, La Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de Cartagena de Indias (BIACI), it is this reporter’s conclusion that there are far more interesting questions to ask: How did it impact Colombia’s artist communities, students, and average people? When the international visitors leave, the VIP openings end, and the cocktails for collectors cease to flow, what impact did the bienal have on the cultural life of Cartagena?
BIACI artistic director Berta Sichel, who previously worked as director of the Department of Film and Video at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, hopes that the bienal will be a catalyst for generating greater interest in contemporary art in the region. “There are a lot of biennials,” Sichel told ARTINFO. “I wouldn’t have called it a biennial, but when I arrived the name was already selected. In a way, biennials are special when they are not already major events like Venice or Documenta. I like to compare what’s happening to Istanbul. In Istanbul, the biennial had a very large influence on the development of contemporary art in the region. I hope this biennial, in a couple of years, will have taught people to see what contemporary art is.”
Conceived in 2013, the bienal was assembled in just eight months with a two-month run, from February 7 to April 7. Just prior to the bienal’s opening, Cartagena hosted its first international art fair, ART/Cartagena, which ran January 9 through 12. The city also annually hosts three other festivals: The Hay Festival of Literature, the Cartagena Film Festival, and the Cartagena International Music Festival.
With a population of nearly 850,000, Cartagena exists as two cities: The one inside the Colonial Spanish wall that caters to tourists and the one outside, where most people live. The bienal attempts to bridge the divide with installations and exhibitions taking place in both parts of the city. Sichel has curated the four largest exhibitions of the bienal, which are spread across four sites: Casa 1537, the first church in Cartagena; the Palacio de la Inquisición, the inquisition museum; the Museo Naval Del Caribe, the naval museum; and La Casa Museo Arte y Cultura La Presentación, a local college.
There is also a section devoted to Colombian artists that was curated by Miguel Gonzalez, Gabriela Rangel, and Stephanie Rosenthal, and located in both the Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena and the Plazoleta Joe Arroyo. Additionally, there are more than a dozen locations with in situ artworks and installations throughout the city. These include a dilapidated house overtaken by Oscar Murillo, a Yoko Ono wish tree at the edge of town, and a Jesper Just video within the wall of the little-known Museo des Fortificaciones, among many others.
Like other biennials that are spread throughout an entire city — Prospect New Orleans and the Venice Biennale, for example — the Cartagena bienal is a lot to take in over the course of just a few days. Visitors are compelled to travel across the city, inside the wall and out, to see everything. While the large number of locations was a necessity due to the extreme difficulty the organizers faced in finding venues, that struggle led to what is ultimately a great strength of the bienal. Some of the most interesting moments in the show arise from odd juxtapositions and interesting installations. Emeka Ogboh’s sound installation “Trancemission” echoes out of a well that sits just a few yards from the torture instruments that are part of the Palace of the Inquisition’s permanent collection.
Sichel purposefully tried to create these types of juxtapositions and to install work in overlooked and unexpected places. She didn’t want to assign an overarching theme to the bienal, but instead curated from the idea that the presence of the past is very strong in the city. She also intentionally shied away from using the bienal to make any overt political statement.
“There’s no work that speaks directly about the internal conflict about Colombia,” Sichel said during a press conference (which, along with other public events cited here, was conducted in Spanish and translated to English for the press). “I’m not here to make Colombian political art. I feel like it would be an intermission on my part to talk about the political situation of the country. There are works that have a heavy historical weight, but always in the manner that is not a political pamphlet.”
While some may find fault with the decision to not directly address the political situation of the country, bienal director Natalia Bonilla pointed out that “political pamphlet” art perhaps would have fallen on deaf ears.
“Actually in Colombia everyone is used to that,” Bonilla told ARTINFO. “Everyone is used to seeing the newspaper. It’s all bad news, all huge images of people dead or something really violent. Sometimes you are so used to it that you ignore it, because you have to live with that. So we thought that that’s not the way to make people think about it or make reflections about it. Because you are so used to it that you don’t even care. So the thing is, how to make other languages, to have other languages different than that so people can just start thinking, ‘Oh, there can be another possibility.’”
This “other language” of contemporary art was something that most people in Cartagena weren’t very familiar with. “There was no presence and no continuity of contemporary art here in Cartagena,” Rafael Ortiz, a local artist and BIACI director and advisor of educational initiatives, said during a press conference. “A great part of the public has no ideas about contemporary art so they’re much more open to the experience.”
As part of the education initiative, 2,500 schoolchildren from Cartagena and 380 students from 12 universities in Colombia came for the event, 75 students from three universities in Cartagena and surrounding cities did internships, and more than 100 young people from Cartagena acted as gallery guides. When they started inviting students to visit the bienal, many didn’t even know what the word meant. The large presence of students was a major mark of success for Bonilla. “I think that it’s really successful when you see all people coming to the biennial,” she said. “Not only the critics, artists, or curators, but the real people that live in Cartagena. That’s one of the things that we really wanted to have. For me, I think this is one of the best things that we have done.”
The bienal was also an important milestone for the city’s artists. “It’s no secret that for a long time it had become a frivolous city,” Álvaro Restrepo, a Cartegena-based artist and founder of non-profit Colegio del Cuerpo, said, speaking on a panel of local artists. “A place for partying, vacation, and blind to the enormous social problems around it. This type of event obviously is taking the city in the right direction. The fact that all the events are free is extremely important. There are still sectors that don’t feel involved in these events, but it has enriched the city. I’ve been working here for 30 years. I know how hard it is to work in Cartagena. It’s been very positive.”
While Cartagena-based artists are generally positive about the presence of the bienal, they also remain skeptical about how much change a two-month exhibition can actually bring.
“Cartagena is a very strange city,” said artist Octavo Plástico, during the same panel discussion. “There’s all these festivals but then the rest of the year, it’s a desert. As an artist, how do you move your work in a desert? Local artists start figuring out temporary spaces to show our work. We can’t wait for institutions to support us, to validate us. The mayor’s office doesn’t totally support us. We’ve got two hands and a brain and we have to generate things on our own.”
Another local artist, José Olano, also pointed out that there are very few institutions or spaces in the city that are dedicated to showing art throughout the whole year, and there is little support from the government. “Ninety percent of the artists in Cartagena do curating and producing work on their own. We have had to be more than artists. We’ve become directors, curators, jacks-of-all-trades. In the season after the festivals, you see the lack of the city’s policies. We work all year through to support culture.”
A solution for the dead time may be a long way off, but Bonilla confirmed that there will be a second edition of the bienal in 2016. Although Cartagena’s first bienal is certainly not a quick fix for the lack of support for the region’s artists, it is a positive first step in bringing a greater awareness of art to the city.
“For a city like ours, where for a while we thought something like this could never come, the fact that it is happening now is of capital importance,” said artist Lobadys Pérez, another panel member. “We should reposition the place of artists and culture in a society like our own. We think culture doesn’t contribute to the growth of individuals. We have to think that culture and the work of artists is of immense value.”
Click on the slideshow to see images from La Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de Cartagena de Indias.