SANTA FE, New Mexico — SITE Santa Fe claims to have established the first international art biennial in the United States. The year was 1995, the theme was “Longing and Belonging,” the raison d’être was to create a global exhibition in lil’ ole Santa Fe, and the response was so strong, according to the organization’s current director and curator, Irene Hofmann, that “SITE Santa FE” shifted from the name of a biennial to a cultural institution with full-time programming the very next year.
Then, this past May, SITE sent out a press release announcing that after suspending the 2013 biennial cycle, the organization would relaunch its marquee event in 2014. In 2011, the release says, curatorial staff decided that the “landscape of the contemporary art world had expanded, bring with it a proliferation of biennials worldwide” (for a taste, see here), necessitating a reconstitution of their own event. From the sound of the art-speaky release, I assumed the move was a marketing strategy to differentiate SITE’s biennial from others. But then I realized this need to stand out suggests that the definitions of contemporary art have become too narrow, too easily replicable. The retooling of SITE’s signature affair isn’t just an act of self-preservation; it’s a move to test and expose the limitations of the contemporary art world itself.
Consider the many varied reviews of this year’s Venice Biennale. Critics have focused on the hodgepodge, wunderkammer-like quality of the exhibitions, but it was Holland Cotter in the New York Times who articulated the effect of attempts to elevate outsider art through contemporary practice. The main show, The Encyclopedic Palace, Cotter wrote, “doesn’t seem to have much interest in the mainstream market.” Then I remembered an e-flux journal article that applies a Marxist lens to biennials, calling them “cultural refineries for post-democratic oligarchies … tasked with upgrading and reeducating the surplus population.”
The idea that the masses aren’t smart enough to understand art has, I think, better served institutions and individuals with something to sell than those interested in giving viewers tools for their own evaluations. The recycling of artists at museums and biennials around the world — Cindy Sherman, Ai Weiwei, the list goes on — might very well be a product of marketability. It also forces a limited view of art and the issues illuminated therein, while ignoring the histories and immediate circumstances of real people who live in the exhibition locations. But have “real people” become the latest obsession? Writing for Australia’s Supported Studio Network, critic Robert Jackson said:
The trend could be looked at as a self-realised view of the art world turning in on itself. It has finally realised how insular it has become, and needs to do something more cultural than a retrospective of a modern master here, or a lucrative solo show of some flavour of the month there. It has decided to become more ‘open.’
We look to cultural institutions to help us separate the relevant from the incidental, the private preoccupation from the universal appeal, so a move by SITE to reset its foundation suggests these institutions have failed at large. In a telephone interview, SITE’s Hofmann argued specifically that, as meeting points for the international art community, biennials have become pandering media affairs, ignorant of the significant work taking place outside the European-American sphere, with few exceptions. Though definitively on message, Hofmann outlined her charges against the contemporary art world and discussed how SITElines, the reimagined biennial series that will feature art and ideas from the entire Western Hemisphere, hopes to broaden its view. Incidentally, the Getty’s 2017 biennial, titled LA/LA (Los Angeles/Latin America), suggests that other institutions might be following the same path.
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Matthew Irwin: Let’s start at the beginning: what is a biennial?
Irene Hofmann: In a more traditional sense, the word “biennial” suggests an international art event that presents the most current trends in contemporary art. That term often suggests promise of a large-scale effort generated by an institution, city, or some other agency that is interested in creating a critical mass of visitors, an art-going public, in a particular place with a particular kind of urgency. So the whole apparatus around the biennial has traditionally been of a lot of importance, and that is in large part what has made such a popular model for everyone to co-opt, and why we have hundreds of them. And when that happens, the very energy and spirit, the original intent of biennials begins to get watered down.
MI: What is the spirit you’re talking about?
IH: I think at different times the idea of a biennial has been used in such a way that moves away from a true love of art toward more interest in driving tourism or raising the profile of a city, so that we start to see these conflicting agendas or goals.
MI: So what was the environment when SITE had its first biennial?
IH: Well, there weren’t many others taking place. There was Venice, there was São Paulo, the Whitney Biennial was not an international biennial necessarily. There were only a handful of biennials anywhere in the world, so it was fresh, and making that substantial commitment to bringing contemporary art from all over the world to Santa Fe was a major gesture. It ignited the contemporary art scene in Santa Fe when there was not much of one.
MI: You see the shortcomings of a biennial as including that conflict between tourism and contemporary art. Doesn’t that describe Santa Fe?
IH: That might be on the table for Santa Fe, but I’m not the tourism office. Our project is about art; that’s where it stays. The art world has changed — the kinds of exhibitions we (the field collectively) once went for served us very well. In our own reflection of our institution, we acknowledged that the same model that worked once here wasn’t producing the same kind of exhibition.
MI: What did you pinpoint as things you wanted to change?
IH: What really came forward as issues we wanted to address include this sense that so many of the early shows had star curators dropping into our community, setting up their exhibitions — an exhibition that was so closely tied with that curator’s perspective — and leaving very little behind. Then you would see that same curator and that same show, and it could’ve been anywhere else in the world.
MI: Right, like making the tour.
IH: Exactly. Many biennials that we discussed were starting to feel like they were part of a circuit, where the same group of really talented curators were going around the around the world, curating all the international biennials [Following SITE biennials, at least three curators went on to organize shows in Venice]. So even though some of these shows we loved — that did indeed bring greater attention to important contemporary art institutions and made contemporary art exciting for a larger public — we recognized that today, as institutions that are continuing to be interested in this territory, it feels less sustainable. The connection to the community is something that we have talked about. My institution is called SITE Santa Fe, and from the beginning, the promise of the very name of our museum was perhaps never realized.
This idea that there’s nothing left behind after most exhibitions … the lack of continuity, we wanted to tackle. The word “biennial” is going to start to drop away from our language; it will describe how often the show is, but our show is called SITElines, and it’s a six-year series of linked exhibitions.
MI: I read an essay on eflux that describes biennials as “cultural refineries for post-democratic oligarchies.” Among other things, the piece blames biennials for working against the citizenry of a place, and you seem to be addressing this.
IH: Absolutely. We are developing a series of exhibitions that are focusing on contemporary art from the Americas. It struck me that we do have a really special history [in Santa Fe], and that we do have these multiple voices that aren’t often given a platform within contemporary art within the United States. If we’re able to do that within our show, we’re contributing something really meaningful to our community and to the field.
I became enamored with this idea that we live nearly on the Pan-American highway, that we live in this place where there’s this road that, whether it still really exists in a way that one can travel, connects Alaska to Argentina. And it becomes a pretty powerful metaphor for this connectivity for our continents, but also really flips the typical East-West access that is so frequently privileged in the contemporary art world. So now it’s this North-South access that becomes our focus. We come to this as the theme for our biennial series. It’s not just next year: we’re committing to this for the next three exhibitions, six years. We wanted to make a very strong statement about connectivity between the shows.
MI: How is contemporary art, in the scope of what you’re doing, regional but also international?
IH: That term “regional” is pejorative a bit.
MI: I don’t see it that way, but I understand what you’re saying.
IH: In Santa Fe, we are creating an exhibition that could not happen anywhere else because of the very local condition of where we are in the world and who our community is. Our exhibition gives voice to contemporary art centers that have remained very much at the margin of what we understand as contemporary art in the United States. There are many robust “regional” art scenes that have remained unknown because of geography. Have you ever been to Buenos Aires?
IH: It’s fascinating. There’s this entire contemporary art scene with museums and collectors and a huge art fair that people line up for forever to get in. An artist can have a successful and meaningful career, but we don’t know who they are. Yes, a few artists might come to mind that come from Chile or Argentina that made it onto the international superstar stage, but there’s so many artists that we have not seen and that have not been exhibited in the United States.
MI: Have you gone to Venice this year?
MI: I read a critique in the New York Times that said parts were “high in polish, low in impact” when they tried to imitate outsider art with too much refinement. There’s a risk when high art attempts to imitate folk art, but is there also a risk when people collect actual outsider art?
IH: I don’t know. There was definitely something fresh and engaging about seeing so much work that is contemporary to artists we know, and that for whatever reason they were outside the art world, because they were from a small town in Switzerland that was totally cut off or whatever the condition was that made them more obscure. And what I appreciate about an exhibition like that is seeing something fresh. For me it doesn’t mean artists we haven’t seen before, but if it’s going to be the big-buck art, show me something new about it. It might be a pairing of that work that makes me see it in a new way. I think a lot of people were responding to the notion of seeing something new and not the usual suspects. It’s Venice — it’s the birthplace of the biennial, and when it can deliver on the promise to share something new, I’m pleased.
The first edition of SITElines, Unsettled Landscapes, will open in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in July 2014.