Isabelle Bertolotti
To me, a Biennale is not an exhibition; it is an event of much broader scope, which taps directly into how a world in flux is changing. It is not a festival or an exhibition. It’s “The Biennale”. This way of not naming it gives us greater freedom, because it can thus take very different forms; and lends it a certain fragility, in the sense that it can be hard to define.

The Biennale is, by its nature, a long exhibition period within which we can stage special attractions. During recent editions, we’ve been holding a growing strand of events, such as a performance weekend, debates, screenings, and showcases of arts and cultural actions across the region.

Do the Lyon area and the wider region have an impact on the making of art for the Biennale?

Site-specific creations have been a distinguishing feature of the Lyon Biennale practically since its inception. We are fortunate enough to be based in an area that is economically and technologically vibrant, with a wealth of expertise that makes any artistic project feasible. For the artists, visiting Lyon and the surrounding area is a key ingredient in conceiving their artistic project optimally. They need to soak up places, their proportions and even their atmosphere so that they can devise and make unique projects, which they wouldn’t have created anywhere else but at the Lyon Biennale.
The weeks in the run-up to the Biennale are just as important. During this period, the artists are able to meet and discuss their techniques, build ties with local businesses, and acquire new kinds of expertise as well as historical, geographical and social knowledge – and, of course, to foster human connections more generally.
The Lyon Biennale has always maintained a strong relationship with its region through a programme that was first called L’art sur la place, then Veduta, and, most recently, simply “Biennale sur le territoire*. And in recent editions, this programme has affirmed its local roots even further.
What interests me are these centrifugal and centripetal forces; this kind of constant, mutual respiration with the region. We both breathe out and breathe in, drawing inspiration from one another.

In your view, does the Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art have another role to play in its region?

For the 17th Lyon Biennale, we started with the simple idea of water, and then, more widely, the idea of rivers. Drops of water fall into the streams that feed the rivers that flow into the Rhône, a powerful waterway, but they also supply lands far from the Rhône, and they convey sediment. I like this idea of sedimentation, which, in its slow and invisible way, benefits and is necessary for all of us.

For more than 30 years, across the region, the Biennale has been helping to bring together a range of small and mid-sized organisations; and to spotlight the existence of networks of galleries, non-profit venues, artist collectives, art schools and museums. Résonance is a good example of this spotlight – this desire to champion the contemporary art sector, which is sometimes perceived as having marginal interest or being solely for a community of specialists, whereas in fact it has a presence nearly everywhere, and people want it to be present when that isn’t yet the case. Résonance reflects the richness and the sheer extent of this fabric of contemporary-art stakeholders, and stimulates dialogue between them – whether they’re small, large, private, non-profit or public. And irrespective of whether they’re on the outskirts of Lyon or in the more distant counties of Cantal and Savoie, the Biennale’s role is to spotlight them.

Is multi-siting part of the Lyon Biennale’s DNA?

It’s a strong feature of the Lyon Biennale. A visit to the Biennale is not just about exploring exhibitions. It’s also a way to (re)discover the city. I’m particularly attached to the idea of a trail for the visitor, who thus becomes a participant in the process. Indeed, this thinking stretches throughout our regional territory, with decentralised arts events. The environment and how it is perceived are among the elements that make up the Biennale.

Who comes to the Biennale of Contemporary Art?

The purpose of the Biennale of Contemporary Art is primarily to address a large audience who want to discover works of art. The Biennale is for people of all ages and backgrounds.

In the past 20 years, the way people relate to contemporary art has changed a great deal, and this means we can no longer just cater to a fringe of fans who have the knowledge and shorthand that makes artworks and how they are talked about more accessible. I really think that we now hear fewer people saying “I’m not going, it’s not for me”. We’re now seeing – especially among the younger generations – that contemporary art has become a “habit”, it’s a term that dates back to the last century…

The approach that we’ve adopted – as have most museums and art venues, incidentally – involved asking ourselves who we were addressing, and how we should address our visitors. We have questioned how our texts are written; developed texts, audioguides and other media in a foreign language; and produced more content tailored to social media. The general public can rarely identify contemporary artists – unlike those in the music and movie worlds – so we’re devoting more and more space to storytelling and behind-the-scenes exposure in order to make the artists’ creative processes more accessible, so that visitors can engage more deeply with the artworks they discover at the exhibitions.

Are you saying that the exhibitions must become more experiential?

The public is expressing a strong desire for participation and interaction. Works of art used to be put on a pedestal, but things have evolved a great deal – as has the way people relate to knowledge. With the internet, knowledge is apprehended very differently.

How can the public’s new aspirations be taken into account without debasing the artistic project?

We’re duty-bound to consider the public’s expectations, without taking easy options or merely producing entertainment. Deciding whether to visit the Biennale involves many factors: the accessibility of the exhibitions, reasons for travelling to a venue, how comfortable it is, the need for information in advance so visitors can do the best possible preparation and therefore engage more easily with the artworks.

In what respect does the Biennale differ from a museum in the same field?

With its multiple approaches in a relatively short timeframe – just a few months – the Biennale feels more like an event, with an emphasis, in each edition, on discovering venues and different ambiences. For instance, we’re aware that the people who visited the exhibition at the Musée Guimet came as much for the building as for the art – and (re)discovering heritage is also part of what the Biennale is all about.

It almost feels as if the experience outclasses the works on display…

For visitors, the Lyon Biennale is an experience. And this experience is primarily devoted to encountering artworks created by artists who are themselves experimenting (1). In fact, as I said at the beginning of the interview, they are the first ones to be inspired by the trail and the environment we’re inviting them to blend in with – or to react against, why not…

Is the Biennale a special moment in the career of its participating artists?

Inevitably. The setting and resources we give an artist to devise and produce their piece at the Biennale often mark an important point in their career. It may kindle a different way of thinking or have an influence on their creative process – and, of course, on how their work is received by audiences. In 2022, the space that housed the artwork by Hans Op de Beeck was huge, occupying an entire hall, and visitors could wander around it. And maybe they will never get another chance to see a piece by Hans Op de Beeck on such a large scale.

One distinctive aspect of the Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art is that for each edition, an invitation is extended to an external curator, working outside of their organisation. Why?

It’s a concept specific to biennials all over the world, and which is also found in many art exhibitions. It offers multiple advantages. Firstly, it provides an external perspective on the venues. The aim is not for the curator to produce a project for the Lyon Biennale that’s the same as it would have been at another biennial. They grow familiar with the venues, with the region’s history and geography, and heritage; they soak it all up, and then offer up their personal vision to artists whom they regard highly or have spotted. So, it’s up to the curator – who this year is Alexia Fabre – to compose their score, and my role is to turn their composition into music, with the help of all the team.

Propos recueillis en décembre 2023 par Guillaume Ducongé.

(1)The same French word (expérience) means both experience and experiment – Translator’s Note.

See also

  • Biennale d’Art contemporain

17th Lyon Biennale

September 21, 2024–January 5, 2025