The first three editions of the Biennale de Lyon – 1991, 1993 et 1995 – involved a largely historical perspective which provided the problems, the challenges and the themes of the exhibitions. The first, entitled L’Amour de l’Art (‘The Love of Art’), was a survey of creativity in France. It was a Biennale deliberately against type, which took note of the fact that that since the exhibition known as ‘Pompidou’ (Paris 1969), no large-scale project of this type had ever been conceived in France. Since 1981, contemporary art had benefited throughout France from a new impetus, with the creation of the FRACs and of art centres and a restructuration of the museums. The institution imported a huge number of artworks, thereby contributing to a disenclavement of the French art scene, but at the same time creating a cultural trade deficit: the French exportation of art was non-existent. Several years before the Paris Triennial, which first opened in 2006 with the title La Force de l’Art, the Lyon Biennale in its opening exhibition had been keen to explore ‘the strength of art’ in France. Patrick Bouchain’s scenography accommodated 69 artists, each allotted a space equivalent of 120m² with a door, where they exhibited 69 completely new pieces. The artists included Arman, Cesar, Robert Filliou, Pierre Soulages, Erik Dietman, but also Fabrice Hybert, La vérité (Dominique Gonzalez-Forester, Pierre Joseph, Bernard Joisten and Philippe Parreno), Pierre & Gilles, Sophie Calle, and Alain Sechas. That first edition drew 73,000 visitors in four weeks, many from different parts of Europe. It demonstrated the potential of Lyon and its public and was an important stage in setting up the permanent structure of the Biennale. The second Lyon Biennale, 1993, also went against the grain, wrong-footing the international creation by not conforming to the normalised criteria of international biennials. An ambitious project: seven years before the end of the century, it undertook to re-examine the art of the 20th century through the lens of ‘Dada / Fluxus’. The object of that opus, bearing in mind the limits imposed by the avant-gardes of history (e.g. manufactured objects, readymades, monochromes, Art et Vie) was to explore the links between visual art, poetry, sound field, body language, and performance. That Biennale, entitled Et tous ils changent le monde [And They All Change the World] (Julian Beck), constructed a new and unusual itinerary going from Marcel Duchamps, Kurt Schwitters, and Kasimir Malévitch to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, John Cage, William S. Burroughs, Ilya Kabakov, Bill Viola, Bruce Nauman, Imi Knoebel, and David Hammons.
In 1995, in celebration of 100 years of cinema (the Lumière brothers), the Biennale retraced its short history, which goes in only thirty years from the first experiments on a television set (Wuppertal 1963) to interactivity and broadband. For the occasion, the Lyon Musée d’art contemporain coproduced with the Biennale a collection of forgotten historical pieces: Nam June Paik, Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Peter Campus, Dennis Oppenheim, as well as new works by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dumb Type, Carsten Höller, Douglas Gordon, Tony Oursler, and Pierre Huyghe.
In 1997, Harald Szeemann curated the Lyon Biennale, agreeing to apply the given theme L’Autre (‘The Other’). He interpreted the theme as the ‘das’ of the German neuter, and used it as his title. Harald Szeemann made the Lyon Biennale a major factor in the re-ordering of criteria at the end of the 20th century by juxtaposing large-scale pieces by artists such as Katarina Fritsch, Chris Burden and Richard Serra with works closer in approach to Art Brut. And he made Ferdinand Cheval, the French postman, turn-of-the-century naïve art architect, and local hero, the emblem of ‘the Other’, which extended to Chen Zhen as well as Emery Blagdon, Eugène Von Bruenchenhein and Elisar Von Kupffer, whose works had a heavily mystical bent. And, for the first time in Europe, he presented a large contingent of Chinese artists, an experiment he famously repeated with great success two years later in Venice. 1997 marked a new chapter in the history of the Lyon Biennale: Harald Szeemann demonstrated that, in the face of such well ensconced, solid institutions as the Documenta, the Venice Biennale, or Munster, Lyon could assert itself through its insistence on thinking globally (this was before the word had become something of a cliché) and across cultures.
2000: in honour of the millennium, the Lyon Biennale took place, for once, during an even-numbered year. The 5th edition interrogated the validity of art and the many applications of the word on a planetary scale, particularly when used to describe material productions from cultural periods that do not fit Western criteria. That Biennale was titled Partage d’exotismes (‘Sharing exoticisms’) and it dealt with the traditional and central question of the links between universality and relativism. A committee of anthropologists that included Marc Augé and Alban Bensa were involved with the artistic project. The curatorship was entrusted to Jean-Hubert Martin, who, ten years before, had initiated the controversial exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (‘Magicians of the Earth’). 140 artists were invited. The Biennale opened with a joint work by Sol LeWitt and Ester Mahlangu, and included work by artists such as Navin Rawanchaikul, Takashi Murakami, Cai Guo Qiang, Georges Adeagbo, Gedewon, Kallatte Parameswara Kurup, and John Goba.
2001: back to an odd-numbered year, and only a short year to prepare the Biennale. A team of seven curators assembled Connivence (‘Connivance’), which featured the convergence of different type of arts: video games, choreography, photography film, literature, and music, with artists of the calibre of Jérôme Bel, Marco Berrettini, Xavier Le Roy, William Eggleston, Adrian Piper, Steve McQueen, Kolkoz, and Robert Wyatt.
In 2003, with C’est arrivé demain (It Happened Tomorrow’) the Biennale was extended to a variety of different venues, including La Sucrière, a renovated riverside warehouse, and the Lyon Musée d’Art Contemporain. It was curated by the Consortium de Dijon (Xavier Douroux, Franck Gautherot, Eric Troncy + Robert Nickas and Anne Pontégnie), and was the first in a trilogy of Biennales devoted to the theme of temporality. This theme, which was partly linked to the proliferation and tremendous success of biennials all over the world (over 110 at the time), presented a contemporary image of the current international artistic activity, in a sort of permanent flow. Lyon, reasonably enough, began to wonder about this phenomenon which seemed to generate an incessant and infinite flow of topical events within a regime of historicity, produced artificially for and by the exhibition system. Among the invited artists were Mike Kelley & Paul McCarthy, Tim Head, Katarina Fritsch, Steven Parrino, Larry Clark, Yayoi Kusama, Catherine Sullivan, Bridget Riley, and Ugo Rondinone.
In 2005, chapter two of this new trilogy was curated by Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans. It was called L’Expérience de la durée (‘The Experience of Time’) and it combined works from the collection of the Musée d’art contemporain: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, James Turrell with some spectacular pieces by Martin Creed, Kader Attia, John Bock, Erwin Wurm, and Kendell Geers. It also rediscovered Tony Conrad, exhibited Robert Crumb, and saw the realisation of a colossal piece by Daniel Buren, which was acquired by the Musée d’art contemporain.
In 2007, with L’histoire d’une décennie qui n’est pas encore nommée (‘Story of a Decade as yet Unnamed’), Stéphanie Moisdon and Hans Ulrich Obrist invited 50 curators from all over the world to select a work that embodied the decade. It was a challenge to the question of contemporaneity and a bargain with history. The artists invited included: Josh Smith, Kelley Walker, Urs Fischer, Tomas Saraceno, Hilary Lloyd, Nathaniel Mellors, Sheela Gowda, Ryan Gander, Tino Sehgal, and Wade Guyton. The Prix Only Lyon was awarded to Seth Price, with an honourable mention to Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla.
In 2009, the 10th edition was called Le spectacle du quotidien (‘The Spectacle of Ordinary Life’) and the curator was Hou Hanru. The theme was global and a reflection on the purposes of art in our spectacular world, an attempt also to find the very close link between creation and everyone’s life. This Biennale was constructed in four sections: The Magic of Things, In Praise of Drifting, Let’s Live Together, and A Different Wold is Possible. The artists involved, who included Tsang Kinwah, Latifa Echakch, Lee Mingwei, Maria Thereza Alves, Shilpa Gupta, Jimmie Durham, and Agnès Varda, undertook a critical examination of reality and imagined different social codes.
The title of the 11th Lyon Biennale, Une terrible beauté est née (‘A Terrible Beauty is Born’), was taken from the famous line in Yeats’s poem Easter 1916, acknowledging the martyrdom of the leaders of the 1916 uprising and the probable inevitability of secession from Great Britain. Under the curatorship of Victoria Noorthoorn, the oxymoron ‘terrible beauty’ sought, within the ‘modernity’ of the current international scene, to determine the place of artists whose claims and creations represented both continuity and discontinuity in the globalised world, as well as what remains of beauty in it. Major works by 78 artists were exhibited, including Augusto da Campos, Robert Kusmirowski, Marina de Caro, Jorge Macchi, Tracey Rose, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Cildo Mereiles, Robert Filliou, Eva Kotatkova, Eduardo Basualdo, The Center For Historical Reenactments, and The Arctic Perpective Initiative.
In 2013, the international exhibition curated by Gunnar B. Kvaran presented the work of 77 artists from 21 countries. It was entitled Entre-temps… Brusquement, Et ensuite (‘Meanwhile…Suddenly, And then’). This Biennale was spread across 5 venues: La Sucrière, the macLYON, the Fondation Bullukian, the church of Saint-Just, and the Chaufferie de l’Antiquaille. Gunnar B. Kvaran’s artistic project was particularly directed towards the future: 80% of the works displayed were new creations, 73% of the artists were under 40 years old. The 2013 Lyon Biennale brought together artists from all over the world who work in a narrative field and use their art to experiment with the modalities and mechanisms of narration. The exhibition gave pride of place to the inventive skill of contemporary artists recounting new stories differently by dismantling mainstream narrative codes and ready-made plot devices.
Entitled La vie moderne, the 13th Lyon Biennale brought together artists from 28 countries, who explored the paradoxical nature of the contemporary culture in various different regions of the world. Their work reflected the ways in which the many legacies of the modern period still influence our ways of seeing and thinking as well as the scenarios and significant issues of our day-to-day lives. This Biennale attracted nearly 210,000 visitors through its doors.