“A Terrible Beauty is Born,” the 11th Biennale de Lyon, curated by Victoria Noorthoorn, derives its title from a recurring line in W.B. Yeats’ poem “Easter, 1916” in which the author reflects with torn emotions on the Irish insurrection against the British that year. The poem, which, in Noorthoorn’s words, shifts between “question, affirmation, and negation” invokes artists’ potential to articulate the challenges of institutional change. Spanning four venues—the newly renovated La Sucrière warehouse, the Musée d’art Contemporain (MAC Lyon), the Bullukian Foundation and the deserted T.A.S.E. factory—the biennial brings together 78 international artists to explore imagination as a force of emancipation and a means toward the production of knowledge.
Ulla von Brandenburg’s passageway of draped curtains greet visitors to La Sucrière’s vast, unfolding space. Noorthoorn characterized the biennial for A.i.A. as a sequence of “parcours, or narratives, each with its own carefully staged atmosphere and set of questions, and responding to one another in counterpoint, as in music.” The path, conceived as an open conversation, is plotted by moments of visual revelation. The outer shell of Robert KuÅ?mirowski’s towering metal and wood installation, Stronghold (2011), at first appears an impenetrable circular fortress. The view from upstairs reveals a vast interior library, with books torn, burned and strewn about. Nearby, a softly illuminated stage exposes a sea of refuse and the shrieking cry of Breath, Samuel Beckett’s actorless, 35-second theater play, written around 1969. A sardonic commentary on the brevity of life, director Daniela Thomas realizes the play faithfully according to Beckett’s terse written directives. For Noorthoorn, “the story of beauty is the story of one of the most devastating enterprises of imposition and eradication of cultures.” Its inherent contradictions provide an aperture to address the even broader question of the condition of art today.
At the MAC Lyon, imagination gives way to excess. Cildo Meireles’ La Bruja (The Witch) (1979–1981) floods two rooms with nearly 6,000 kilometers of black thread, entangling and tripping the visitor. This playful gesture takes on a more disquieting air alongside other artworks. Elly Strik’s series of eight drawings, The Bride Fertilized by Herself (2007–2009), executed in oil, enamel and lead pencil on paper is based on Marcel Duchamp’s seminal work The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923). It employs a flurry of densely drawn lines to depict heads, eyes, hair and orifices in a revelry of auto-erotic ecstasy and horror. Arturo Herrera’s mixed-media collages of photographs, felt, and paint on paper titled Rapt #1, Rapt #2, Rapt #3, and Rapt #4 (all 2011) featuring dwarves and shadows, haunt more quietly. In Noorthorn’s view, “Art requires a distance from the real in order to exist as such-as artificial construction—in order to address eloquently the complexity of the real.”
Such distancing mechanisms are employed by the Center for Historical Reenactments, a Johannesburg-based independent and collective platform. In the mixed-media installation Xenoglossia (2010–2011), artists and researchers explore the rare condition Xenoglossy, whereby a subject speaks or writes in a language that is unknown to him or her. According to Noorthoorn, the exercise highlights “misunderstandings that arise when we have been unable to judge, control, or measure the effects of performative actions.”
Many of the Biennale’s most compelling works are grounded in political and social realities. With The Time (2011), Cameroon-born Barthélémy Toguo amasses a pile of 55 empty wooden coffins, reflecting the number of African countries. Czech artist Eva Kotátkova’s The Re-education Machine (2011) explores education’s role in social control in former Czechoslovakia. Her collages and meticulously rendered drawings, which depict children who are part flesh, part machine, suggest that imagination is less about creative freedom than the impossibility of corporeal transcendence.