Sally Tallant, Director of Liverpool Biennial and the 2019 Platform curator, speaks with The Armory Show about the enduring importance of biennials and her vision for Platform, the fair's celebrated projects section. — Interview by Audrey Rose Smith
“[Biennials] step in where there is little or no infrastructure and are a way for artists and people to connect and experience
contemporary art in situ.”
There has been much discussion around biennials recently—their proliferation (some 300 today, compared to fewer than 50 in the 1980s) has sparked questions about scale and relevancy. Is there any merit to the criticism biennials have faced recently?
Biennials are platforms for the presentation of work by artists. They tend to take place in secondary and tertiary cities rather than primary cities that have strong markets and art fairs (these have also proliferated). Like all exhibitions, biennials have the potential to be amazing and sometimes they are! They often step in where there is little or no infrastructure and are a way for artists and people to connect and experience contemporary art in situ. It is increasingly challenging for artists to be able to make new work and biennials often commission and take risks that would be hard for some other institutions. They are very public platforms and they attract and provoke debate which is critically engaged, challenging and exciting and I think this is also part of their value and how meaning is produced. I hope we see many more in places where there is a need to ask questions about and define culture and what kind of work we wish to attempt to construct.
The Art Newspaper recently reported that the best-attended museum shows around the world were proportionally solo-artist exhibitions. The biennial’s reliance on numerous artistic voices perhaps makes it a more compelling vessel for pushing forward new ideas and artists. Are biennials more adept at mounting sprawling group exhibitions than museums? Do they fill a needed gap in the types of exhibitions museums are able to produce?
Biennials are part of the cultural ecology so they are part of how we experience artwork in conversation with work presented in museums and galleries. They are often large scale and include many sites and artists but they can also present strong bodies of work and so work closely with museums.
Given the turbulent political times here in the United States and the rising tide of populism worldwide, do you feel there is greater institutional responsibility, from our galleries, museums and universities, to combat these challenges?
It is the role of our institutions to present the art and culture of our time. This can be challenging and we need our institutions to continue to be brave. The institutions and organizations that we construct are points of connection in the world. As such, they should provide a place where art and ideas can be produced and where people can connect to, engage in, and lead debate—making visible and palpable the urgent ideas of our time. Our institutions should provide a space for art to collapse the gap that has been created between art and society and place art back as a part and not apart from society.
"We cannot let these uncertainties paralyze us, we must find a way of gaining perspective and develop ways of seeing that allow us to build new hope."
Given The Armory Show’s location in New York City, and its long history as a vanguard of art here, will your approach to the Platform section be tailored at all to New York City’s cultural identity in any way?
I am inspired by the anniversary of the World’s Fair which happened in 1939 on the brink of WW2, The New York World’s Fair looked to a hopeful future in the face of rising global political uncertainty. Today, we are living in dark times: borders are closing; there is a growing refugee crisis; identity, internationalism and citizenship are in turmoil. Environmental challenges and the oppression of minorities in a society of pervasive gender inequality define this moment. We cannot let these uncertainties paralyze us. We must find a way of gaining perspective and develop ways of seeing that allow us to build new hope.
You’ve spoken about “hope” recently, citing it as an essential element to action – how will your Platform section explore this concept of hope?
It is through art that we express our hopes and fears, and articulate alternatives and new possible worlds. Artists often speak out for the rights of people on the margins of society and now that we are facing a shift in how those people and margins are defined, we need artists to continue to be brave. The artists that are included in this year's Platform section offer hope, respite and show resilience in the face of our new realities.