Two good to miss

This year marks the second Fremantle Biennale (including contributions by Hames Sharley’s WA studio). But while this local festival is comparatively new, the idea of hosting an art festival every two years dates back more than a century. We take a look at the oldest biennales in the world (plus some of the newer ones) to see what they have planned for their latest editions.

The first ever biennale was held in Venice in 1895 to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of the Italian King Umberto I and Margherita of Savoy. Intended as an international celebration of art, it pulled in more than 200,000 visitors. It wasn’t until 1907 that the Biennale introduced the idea of pavilions, which offered permanent venues for the nations to which they were allocated, and which have become the focal point of the exhibition. The initial pavilion was Belgian, but by the start of World War One, Hungary, Germany, Britain, France and Russia all had their own spots.

For many the original is still the best, and the opportunity to exhibit there is widely regarded as an enormous privilege. Certainly, it is the most famous of the biennales, acting as the template on which all future efforts were based and attracting more than 600,000 visitors, as well as spawning a host of companion biennales that cover cinema, theatre, architecture, dance and music. The 2019 Biennale kicked off in May and concludes on November 24, with pieces falling under the umbrella theme that art should challenge conformism and oversimplification. Or, as the title of the festival puts it, May You Live In Interesting Times

Overlapping with the Venice extravaganza is the 15th Biennale de Lyon, which runs right through to January next year. Founded in 1984, the festival has gained high renown for the attention it pays to establishing its themes, and this year the organisers have upped the ante still further. Co-opting a disused 29,000sqm site called the Fagor Factory, the exhibition takes the shape of an immersive landscape intended as a physical and spiritual trail for visitors to move around. Featuring work by more than 50 artists and extending to a selection of satellite venues around the region, the festival (which goes under the title When Water Comes Together With Other Water) is certainly the most ambitious yet.

It was more than half a century after the first Venice Biennale that the world got a second biennale location, thanks to the efforts of an Italian-Brazilian industrialist called Ciccillo Matarazzo. The Bienal de São Paulo launched in 1951 and is held in the Parque do Ibirapuera, in a pavilion named after the festival’s founder and conceived by a team led by architects Oscar Niemeyer and Hélio Uchôa. A showcase for Brazilian, Latin American and international art, it will feature its 34th iteration in 2020, with an emphasis on newly commissioned pieces and an increased scope that takes it outside the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion and into a further 20 cultural venues. Focusing on the “poetics of ‘relation’”, the biennal will be heralded by teaser shows and solo exhibitions around the city starting as early as February (the main event takes place in September).

Next year will also signal the 22nd edition of the world’s third oldest biennale, in Sydney. Dating back to 1973 (it was conceived as part of the celebrations for the opening of the Opera House), it has featured art by about 1800 creators hailing from more than 100 nations The previous Sydney Biennale drew 850,000 visitors, almost a quarter of them international, and comprised seven venues around the city (including Cockatoo Island). The latest festival will be titled Nirin, will run from March until June, and will work around the theme of art as a means to resolve and heal the unresolved anxieties of contemporary life.

Also of note in 2020 is the 14th Dak’Art Biennial, which centres on contemporary African artworks. A relatively young biennale – it dates back to 1992 – it’s held in (you guessed it) Dakar, Senegal. Next year’s show will run from May to June, and will feature pieces created from right across the continent. The blanket theme is Out of the Fire, and the works will reflect the forging of a world in which the diversity of African creativity is celebrated.


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