LONDON BIENNALE: THE BEGINNING
This year, 2010, the FIFA Football World Cup will be held in South Africa. Newspapers and magazines are teeming with articles and photographs of South Africa. There are extensive media coverage of the sports facilities which the South African government has erected to host this global event. I saw colour photographs of the massive new football stadium in Cape Town. Seen from the air the concrete stadium looks like a solid mandala that has fallen from the sky: a beautiful structure with the famous Table Mountain in the background.
The photo of the stadium that I saw was probably taken from the upper storey of a tall buildiing: a modernist skyscraper in the Greenpoint district of Cape Town where Adam Nankervis and I stayed during the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial. The year was 1997. I was a DAAD artist in Berlin. The year before Adam Nankervis started MUSEUM MAN in Prenzlauerberg in East Berlin. MUSEUM MAN has since become a nomadic museum of contemporary art from all parts of the world.
Cuban curator and art historian Gerardo Mosquera (a previous director of the Habana Biennial in Cuba) invited Adam Nankervis and me to participate in the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial which was directed by Okwui Enwezor in 1997.
Gerardo Mosquera installed the works of the artists he personally invited in the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Brazilian scuptor Cildo Meireles greeted us when we arrived at the gallery. Cildo had finished his installation and there was just enough time for him to say ‘Hello’ to us and for him to catch a plane to America.
Adam and I created installations inside the Johannesburg Art Gallery, participatory installations in relation to the theme “Trade Winds”, the theme of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial. In the centre of our twin installations was a large circular table on which we invited the spectators to the show to put anything on it in exchange for anything they find on the table. One person put a book of Nelson Mandela’s speeches which another person exchanged for his expensive wrist watch. I told the director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery that perhaps someone from Soweto might come and bring a goat and exchange it for a chair by Gerrit Rietveld which is in the gallery’s collection. Alas, that did not happen.
During the first week of the Johannesburg Biennial, Adam and I went to Cape Town.We stayed in a bed and breakfast inn beneath the Table Mountain. One bright sunny morning Adam and I sailed from Cape Town on a sail boat accompanied by a small crew of sailors and cameramen and women. We sailed past the Cape of Good Hope towards Cape Point: to the place where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. It was the place where dolphins, sharks and whales mate.
From our boat Adam and I unfolded a colourful piece of cotton cloth above the waters. The winds helped Adam and me in shaping the billowing cloth into the letter “C” – the initial letter of Cape Town. A video was made of our event, which was part of our on-going project entitled “The Secret History of the Mondrian Fan Club”. We took the video back to Johannesburg and showed it in our twin installations inside the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
We returned to Cape Town and stayed, the second time round, in the tall skyscraper-like modernist building at Greenpoint. During our second stay in Cape Town Adam and I created impromptu events in different parts of the city. In one event we joined a chorus of wandering singers in the city centre. In another part of the town I did an impromptu in front of a shop with the sign “A Stitch in Time”. Adam did an impromptu in front of a school surrounded by a cement wall topped with a fence of barbed wire and a sign saying the barbed wire was electrified.
One day we joined artists, art critics, art historians, and art curators, who came down from Johannesburg to Cape Town, in a boat trip to Robben Island. Robben Island was where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated during the apartheid regime in South Africa. At Robben Island, the international art community conducted an impromptu conference in homage to Nelson Mandela inside one of the halls of the former island prison. Afterwards Adam and I explored the jail cells where political opponents of the apartheid regime were locked up. It was an eerie experience. I was reminded of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Penal Colony’. Paradoxically it was also an exhilarating experience, for apartheid had ended and the empty jail cells were mute witnesses to past state crimes while at the same time they were very real testaments to the fact that injustice could end, did end for Nelson Mandela and his fellow freedom fighters, and thus freedom can be accomplished.
It was on the boat trip to Robben Island that I conceived of the idea of the London Biennale. I discussed the idea with Adam Nankervis on our way back to Cape Town. We continued discussing the idea when we got back to Berlin.
Over the years as as an artist I have participated in many international cultural events such as Documenta in Kassel, Germany, ‘Air Art’ at the University of California in Berkeley Art Museum, ‘Fluxattitudes’ at the New Museum in New York, ‘Live/Life’ at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, ‘l’Inform’ at the Cntre Pompidou in Paris, and in many art festivals and exhibitions all over the world. I felt that the nature of a famous cultural event such as the Venice Biennale, because of its rigid structure of selecting artists through national institutions, did not make it possible for artists who are citizens of countries without national pavillions in Venice, or artists who live the lives of exiles, migrants or refugees, artists with little or no ‘profiles’ in the art market, have very little chance to show their works and participate in the most prestigious of art biennales: the Venice Biennale. For many years, in the art circles of America and Europe, I was described as a ‘marginal artist’ (albeit with the cynosure ‘par excellence’) by French art critic Pierre Restany (ideologue of ‘nouveau realisme’) and Harald Szeemann, the curator of DOCUMENTA 5. At Cape Town in 1997I thought it was time to create a viable and memorable platform for the world’s ‘marginal artists’, and that, initially, was the inspiration for the LONDON BIENNALE, a biennale that would be open to every artist regardless of age, sex, ethnic origin, and artistic language or style.
The first London Biennale was held in the year 2000, at the start of the new millenium, an auspicious time for an auspicious occasion. Shortly afterwards, Adam Nankervis, who is the international coordinator of the London Biennale, suggested that we do ‘Pollinations’ in different parts of the world during the years in-between London Biennale years. The first LB Pollination was ‘Rio Trajetorias’ coordinated by Cristiana de Melo in Rio Janeiro, Brazil. Other LB Pollinations have taken place in Berlin, New York, Rome, Ponte Nossa in Cremona, and other places around the globe.
Adam Nankervis also suggested several inter-active participatory projects such as the ‘Flag-genations’ (LBAs making and unfolding their personally designed flags over Tower Bridge in London, and other bridges all over the world), SIGNALS and the current SATELLITE EVENTS.
For many years Arvinder Bawa was in charge of our website in the internet.
Now, at Adam Nankervi’s initiative, we have a page in FACEBOOK in which I invite all LBAs to download news and photographs of their exhibitions and events.
Artist Raffaella Losapio, director of the Gallery STUDIO.RA in Rome, arranges for articles I write to be published in the internet magazine www.1fmediaproject.net
This year being the year of the sixth LONDON BIENNALE and also, coincidentally, the year of the FIFA Football World Cup, I have been reflecting on the different effects of cultural and sporting events on people all over the world. I read a recent article in The Guardian how ambulant food vendors who traditionally have been selling inexpensive food and refreshments in the areas in South Africa where new stadia have been erected to house the football games will be asked to move away from the usual places where they have traditionlly sold cheap food and drinks to make way for officially approved caterers.
In another article, also in The Guardian newspaper of England, I read that in building a stadium in New Delhi for the coming Commonweath Games scheduled for later this year 2010, the Indian government has moved over 100,000 people from their homes to be ‘relocated’ elsewhere.
These two examples of uncaring behaviour by governments disgust me.
Since ancient times, since the times of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans, sporting games were organised by governments to proclaim and celebrate their powers. There have been. and doubtless there are, positive gains for the citizens of the countries where the games are held. In the realm of art, for example, the ancient Olympian games and the ancient Roman sporting competitions as well, gave us beautiful sculptures of athletes.
However, I look forward to the time, hopefully in the near future, when sporting events such as the FIFA Football World Cup in South Africa, will be of benefit not only to well-heeled sports fans also to the poorer and deprived citizens of the countries who sponsor such events.
One of the actions I admired the writer Andre Malraux for, when he was the Minister of Culture of the government of French president Charles de Gaulle, was the time he, Malraux, advised the imperious General de Gaulle, that instead of the French government building more stadia, the French government should build more cultural centres in France. Malraux pointed out to de Gaulle that dictators such as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin revelled in building grandiose stadia. De Gaulle heeded Malraux’s advice. The result was the building of Maisons de la Jeune Culture (Houses of Young Culture, i.e., centres for young artists) all over France. Many of those Maisons de la Jeune Culture has since been transformed into Centres of Contemporary Art in different regions of France. A few years ago Adam Nankervis and I gave performances at the vernissage of a memorable solo exhibition by Cyril Lepetit at WHARF, the cultural centre of lower Normandy, in Caen.
On the third Saturday of August this year, the 21st of August 2010, I will initiate a symposium in a boat (while sailing on the waters of the river Thames) which will be on this topic of culture and sporting events. This will be one of three different events on the river Thames in the month of August, plus Katie Sollohub’s ‘Long Shore Drift’ at Shoreham on Sea in Sussex on the second Saturday of August (the 14th of August 2010) which, cumulatively, will form the finale of LONDON BIENNALE 2010.
The other two riverine events are a ‘despedida’ (farewell party) on Saturday, the 7th of August 2010, in the afternoon, at Deptford, for Alma Tischler Wood and Professor John Wood who will leave for an 8-month long sabbatical in South Korea.
On Saturday, the 28th of August 2010, at 4 p.m., I am inviting Bryan Mulvilhill of Vancouver, Canada, to give a world tea party by the Chinese Pagoda at Kew Gardens.
All artists and art lovers are joyously welcome to join in these free events of LONDON BIENNALE 2010.
David Medalla – Director of the LONDON BIENNALE