DENVER — “Biennale” is synonymous with “Venice,” practically shorthand for the vaunted Italian art show. But if that city’s annual sinkage and Denver’s sprawling ambitions keep hold, the Mile High City might be a hospitable venue for biennials (biennales) to come.
Opening last week with a slew of exhibits, talks, and performances — from a block party featuring a hipster marching band that serenaded attendees with renditions of “The Saints” and Stevie Wonder tunes on a short walk from the Biennial Pavilion to the nearby Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, to symposiums on business, youth, and drug legalization — Denver’s third Biennial of the Americas again finds the city stretching the reach and aspirations of its prior efforts.
It’s tempting to draw a connection between the growth of the biennial and the widespread changes of the surrounding city. Look at the Google Earth view of the biennial’s area and you’ll find a triangular green space shaped by the intersection of Wewatta and 16th streets — that same space is for the moment home to the Biennial Pavilion, hosted on the first floor of the yet-to-be-finished Triangle Building; by contrast, fly into the 20-year-old Denver International Airport and you’ll land not over buildings but over fields of wheat. From touchdown to downtown, signs of Denver’s sprawling, rapid development and growth pains are everywhere.
It’s a subject the biennial repeatedly tips its hat to, either explicitly as in works by Kim Allen, Diego Berruecos, and Erick Meyenberg or more subtly as in the many works and projects that refer to the passage of time and the forging of connections, like Marcela Armas’s “Implant,” which will ultimately swap 120-foot-deep core samples from Mexico City and Denver, depositing each city’s dirt in the other’s ground. Recognizing a deep and intimate, yet often fraught connection between Mexico and the US, collaborations between the two (their cities, artists, and histories) recur throughout the biennial that seeks connections in the Americas. Documenting each step along the way, Armas filmed the core excavation and subsequent analysis by geologist Paul E. Belanger, a connoisseur of both rocks and corny science shirts who in a way functioned as Armas’s science-minded surrogate. All this documentation aims to add another layer of perspective, vision, and language to Armas’s project exploring those links and layered histories.
Artistic Director and Curator Lauren Wright has brought together an international roster of artists and collaborations. The biennial’s main exhibit Now? Now! is a probing, smartly organized show featuring artists from Canada (Skawennati, David Hartt, Sarah Anne Johnson), Brazil (André Komatsu, Marcius Galan, Anna Bella Geiger, and Marcelo Cidade), Colombia (Bernardo Ortiz), and of course the United States, with 14 of the 31 participating artists, including Ryan Trecartin, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and Coco Fusco. It’s a broad show that raises questions about environmental and digital transformation, as well as political histories (the Sandinista National Liberation Front) and political realities (Black Lives Matter). In this age of go-go expansion and thirst for prestige — press events and talks waxed on the importance of trade, development, and Denver as a destination — the suspicion that the city sought a newsworthy biennial and recruited noteworthy names (Trecartin, Frazier, Matthew Barney) might be tempting and perhaps inescapable. But, on the ground, the vibe was hopeful, local, and accessible (i.e. often free and open late), pitched to reaching and highlighting a growing Denver arts scene.
Rounding out the biennial’s art exhibitions are two smaller shows, both partially focused on Mexico. The result of an exchange between Mexico City-based artists, activists, and writers and the Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico, a small-town, volunteer-run community museum about an hour outside of Mexico City, Oíd el Sueño de una Palabra speaks to tradition, community (new and old), and the history of a quickly developed, under-esteemed town. Traveling even further, the show Vis-à-Vis: Biennial Ambassadors Residency Exhibition moved two Mexican (Cristóbal Gracia, Daniel Monroy Cuevas) and two American (Melissa Furness, Matt Scobey) artists between Denver and Mexico City, where artists took up 10-week residencies. In these two shows, the theme of dialogue, which runs throughout the biennial, feels innate and experienced. Modest in scale, they are a thoughtful side trip from the more institutional, familiar structure of Now? Now!
It’s clear that Denver is building something, and it’s not just a biennial. A week in, the show has done well; however, the biggest successes will be those to come — if and when its concerns and connections — to borders and their crossing, the earth and its deep time, the changes and dislocations of urbanization — affect the issues it so far mostly comments on and aims to raise.
Biennial of the Americas continues at various Denver locations through August 30 .