Lyon reinvents its biennale
Yamina Benaï | Art Basel, 14 September 2022
For the 16th edition of the Biennale de Lyon, co-curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath use fragility as a tool of battle.
In a global context in which dysfunction, injustice, and inequality are swiftly on the rise, artists helpfully provide focal points ofobservation. In the context of the Biennale de Lyon, the curatorial selection includes more than 100 artists from 40 countries. The plurality of voices rallies around a standard-bearing title: ‘Manifesto of Fragility’. This edition feeds on research carried out in numerous archives – both public and private – as well as many collections from regional, national, and international museums. The artists have not been outdone, however. ‘For nearly three years, we’ve visited countless artists’ studios across all continents,’ says the biennale’s co-curator Sam Bardaouil. Starting on September 14, and lasting for more than three months, the world will come to Lyon – and Lyon will become the world. The biennale will insinuate itself within 11 venues throughout the city, including the old Fagor factories, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, the Musée Gadagne, the Musée de Fourvière, the Musée Guimet, the Parc de la Tête d’Or, and the Chalet du Parc, enabling even locals to discover places they didn’t know.
Here, inverting commonly accepted forms, vulnerability will no longer be the unpleasant fate of the dominated, of those vanquished in battles of unequal force. It can be reclaimed – isn’t this the era of the proud? – as a character trait that diminishes no one. ‘The pandemic has brought to light the fact that fragility concerns and involves us all,’ Bardaouil continues. ‘In a world characterized by a frantic race for superlatives – the greatest, the richest – we wanted to rethink this fragility not as a sign of weakness but as a means of developing a relationship with others with more compassion and empathy. Through this perspective, fragility can become a new form of power, of resistance.’
The city of Lyon itself is also a protagonist: ‘We immersed ourselves in the history of Lyon, which provides an exciting set of strata, to extract elements we wanted to see the artists explore, then focused on three concentric trajectories that highlight the theme,’ Bardaouil says. The first chapter is titled ‘The Many Lives and Deaths of Louise Brunet’, which centers on the fate of a worker who, having taken part in the revolt of the canuts (silk weavers) in 1834, was imprisoned and then emigrated to Lebanon four years later. She went there to use her labor skills in the silk factories that flourished in the country at the time. Although they were surrounded by mulberry trees, the working conditions there were hardly more merciful than in France. Factual reality lies in parallel to the reinvented figure of Louise Brunet: a heroine of her time, embodied via multiple fanciful characters. Here she explores, in a contemporary way, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic context as various territories where individual and collective suffering overlap, often transferred from generation to generation. Until one day, amid the great dates of history, this barbaric legacy ceases.
The gaze looks on much further, beyond this particular story, to conjoin with – in a second chapter – the contours of a city that could only be Beirut. The very city where Louise Brunet attempted to build the foundation of a new existence; the very city where Sam Bardaouil was born. The very city that echoes through Lyon through its gestures of ‘making,’ of elevated craftsmanship. From creating yarn to weaving, from Beirut to Lyon: a resilient story. This second act is called ‘Beirut and the Golden Sixties’ and takes up residence at MacLyon. A decade gilded with fine gold? There was an improbable interlude of short-lived bliss in the Lebanese capital before the start of the civil war in 1975. Fragile years that shifted – ‘A small fire quickly transformed into a gigantic fire, one that is still burning,’ stresses the artist Simone Fattal, who shares her immense dreams within the biennale.
The third chapter embraces the world since the dawn of time. Straddling geographies and timelines, it is intended to be ‘A World of Endless Promise’. The Musée Guimet – a natural history museum that has been closed for the past 15 years – will present the spirituality-imbued work of Tarik Kiswanson. He explains: ‘Levitation has become an important metaphor for addressing belonging and uprooting within my practice. Several of my works fit well in the entomology room of the museum. These floating pieces combine antique furniture and cocoon-shaped sculptures, evoking chrysalises. Between uprooting and uncertainty, the sculptures act as the confluence between past and present.'
Temporal, geographical, and psychological distances are at the heart of Aurélie Pétrel’s work. By developing a literal labyrinth composed of glass walls and photographs, she sets out a treasure hunt from her hometown of Lyon that leads to Beirut, a place she has explored over time. Giulia Andreani imbues evanescent watercolor with a new nobility and transforms the medium’s fragility into a strength. ‘Watercolor as a technique is still considered inherently fragile, because it is done on paper,’ the artist notes. ‘I like the idea of elevating this technique to the scale of monumental painting, even to “history painting.”’
Sensory experiences, contemplation, memory, transposition. ‘All my work is linked to the idea of memento mori,’ says Hans Op de Beeck, ‘not as a melancholy or dark philosophical position, but rather as an invitation to consider being mortal as a reason to exercise humility and empathy, and to see being supportive towards others as essential.’ The Lyon Biennale is food for thought.