Art

A Biennial Asks: Where Is Brooklyn?

Installation view, 'BRIC Biennial' (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view, ‘BRIC Biennial’ (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“This exhibition series intends to demonstrate the rich wealth of talent to be found throughout Brooklyn.” This is the mission statement of the BRIC Biennial, which recently launched the first edition of the series in its new home in Fort Greene. This guiding statement, both sincere and vague, raises more questions than anything else: Is it in doubt that Brooklyn is home to thousands of talented artists? What do we learn by grouping them together? And, since we’re on the subject, why a biennial, and where is Brooklyn?

Brooklyn in the last twenty years has become a culture capital, a nexus for the arts. This is good and bad news. Walking around the BRIC Biennial: Volume I, Downtown Edition, you could easily be walking through a biennial in any arts space in the world.

Installation view, 'BRIC Biennial' (click to enlarge)
Installation view, ‘BRIC Biennial’ (click to enlarge)

To be clear: there is nothing dull or undeserving in this biennial. The exhibition is laid out cleanly, giving each piece space to breathe. There are some aesthetic resonances. There are multiple visual languages and concerns: works that touch on family history, geology, the body, mapping, labor. There are installations, videos, photographs, sculptures, performances, and paintings. The 27 artists are diverse in every sense except that their current homes rest within a roughly two-square-mile area, from Fort Greene to Brooklyn Heights.

But you would have to look very hard to see concrete evidence of the borough itself in the work on view here. Of the 27 artists, only two were born in New York and only one was born in Brooklyn. The borough itself — its history, its buildings, its people — finds its way into one or two works, and even then very obliquely. From this selection, it’s clear that the artists with the most social and cultural capital, the fiercest ambitions, are moving here from around the world. It also means that Brooklyn, in this exhibition, is less of a “location” in the traditional sense of the word than a clearinghouse for talent, a base from which to enter the major museums and money of greater New York.

That this area has a high density of talented artists doesn’t teach us anything new about the artwork itself. There is no real argument to be made about proximity unless the artists — as in Manhattan’s Soho in the 1970s, Beijing East Village in the 1990s — are all hanging out and sharing work and techniques and ideas. BRIC Assistant Curator Jenny Gerow mentioned that at one point the organizers had looked at more “outsider” artists; perhaps that would provide a clearer idea of what Brooklyn, before it became a global brand, was and could be. She also mentioned that one of the great outcomes of the exhibition has been introducing some of the artists to each other; hopefully the biennial and BRIC itself will help nourish a new community among them.

Installation view of 'BRIC Biennial' with adjacent cafe
Installation view of ‘BRIC Biennial’ with adjacent cafe

At this point, I could go through the traditional biennial motions and pick out a few artists/works to dwell upon or mention as “highlights.” This practice, however, tends to uphold the logic of biennials — that these are places to choose favorites, to award ribbons. Instead, I encourage you to visit the exhibition website, which has links to all of the artists’ work, or, even better, to browse BRIC’s online directory of artists.

Go to the BRIC Biennial to meet your neighbors, to discover the talent pent up in every square block; don’t go to discuss any of the multitude of questions you have about the country’s most contested and marvelous and rapidly changing borough.

BRIC Biennial: Volume I, Downtown Edition continues at BRIC House (647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through December 14.

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