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Artists Take Pens to Their Wall Labels at the Lyon Biennale

(screenshot by the author via @aservais1/Twitter)
(screenshot by the author via @aservais1/Twitter)

The 2015 Lyon Biennale officially opened today, but some participating artists have already expressed dissatisfaction with how their works are presented. While previewing the Biennale on Tuesday, Belgian collector Alain Servais tweeted a number of photos showing that the exhibition’s wall texts had been edited directly, in pen, for all to see, by the artists themselves. “Many cases of artists unhappy with the accompanying texts of their works @BiennaleLyon,” Servais wrote. “Many correcting themselves.”

Among those Servais noticed who edited the descriptions are Berlin-based artists Lucie Stahl and Johannes Kahrs, as well as the New York-based Darren Bader. Bader, who has two works in the show, simply scribbled at the bottom of their joint label, “Some of this is untrue” with a blue ballpoint pen. Stahl, who has a new series of prints on view, adopted a more direct, authoritative approach, striking through some phrases with which she found fault. Kahrs went into full-on editor mode, using his pen to cross out, underline, and comment on the original author’s analysis.

Darren Bader's sculpture as part of "La Vie Moderne," curated by Ralph Rugoff (photo by @blumandpoe/Instagram) (click to enlarge)
Darren Bader’s sculpture as part of ‘La Vie Moderne,’ curated by Ralph Rugoff (photo by @blumandpoe/Instagram) (click to enlarge)

Those works were all on display at the Musée d’Art Contemporain Lyon, but the same problem cropped up at the art nonprofit La Sucrière, which is hosting part of the Biennale. Servais told Hyperallergic he had witnessed Berlin-based artist Klaus Weber and French sculptor Camille Blatrix, both of whom have works in the former sugar factory, correcting their respective wall texts.

“The text was fun and silly in a non-native-speaking English sort of way,” Bader told Hyperallergic. “But it misrepresents both works it’s supposed to represent. That’s all I think I can say right now. I don’t know who first did it, but we were told to mark up the labels if we saw things that weren’t correct.”

Some of the modifications also address the texts’ tendency to editorialize what should be straightforward descriptions: one photograph posted to Instagram shows, for example, the label for multimedia artist Guan Xiao‘s work with the adverb “painstakingly” — in reference to her process of sourcing images — crossed out. Bader said he was not sure if he is at liberty to say who doled out the instructions to fix the texts, but the fact that artists received them at all suggests some kind of internal mismanagement or miscommunication.

“Yes, there has been a lot of dissatisfaction,” Bader said. “None of us were consulted on this. Not even the curator [Ralph Rugoff].”

According to Servais, the labels that he photographed still remain, although others have been “glued over with new versions.” One artist, however, told him that a replacement text does not reflect her desired edits. Hyperallergic has reached out to the Biennale’s organizers about this issue but has not received a response.

Inherently limiting, wall text cannot completely contextualize an artist and his or her work, but they should always at least be accurate. While we’re shaming the copywriters of this year’s Lyon Biennale, however, it’s worth recalling “FAX-BAK service” (1999), a project by the London-based art collective BANK in which they edited press releases from galleries and sent them back with detailed corrections as well as grades based on a 10-point scale. Their comments, less constructive than those left by the Biennale artists, perfectly capture the frustrations of every pedantic editor who has had to wade through paragraphs of mucky International Art English.

Edited wall text for Guan Xiao's work (photo by @gilinsky/Instagram)
Edited wall text for Guan Xiao’s work (photo by @gilinsky/Instagram)
johannes
(photo by Alain Servais, via @aservais1/Twitter)
bader
(photo by Alain Servais, via @aservais1/Twitter)
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