Reflections on the Boston Biennial 4
by Alec X. Onsemska
Ozgur Ozlem “When Children Die They Do Not Grow”, photo by Jeff Smith
“Just as another New England spring begins to awaken us from our winter doldrums, the local art world phenomenon known as the Boston Biennial is setting up shop in town again.
A little history here first. The Boston Biennial was born a few years back as a shrewd experiment in biennial branding by the envelope-pushing local art collective The Biennial Project - a group of conceptual artists whose organizing principle involves "exploring the underlying dynamics of who gets validation from the art world apparatus and why." A meaty starting point for conceptual art work if there ever was one. As one critic has noted about The Biennial Project's work - "it succeeds in moving on two planes simultaneously - unmasking both the appeal and the hollowness of success in an arena often dominated by players with a financial stake in promoting their own artist and venues - and in the process delivers an exhilaratingly gonzo field trip into the internal landscape of artistic consciousness."
Being a child of The Biennial Project, the Boston Biennial has from the beginning embodied a dichotomous soul - walking a tight rope between self referential art world in-joke on the pretensions inherent in the biennial system and an embodiment of a different model for artist engagement that is profoundly more democratic and artist centered. It's a heady concoction, with notes from Berlin to the Paris Commune in the mix, and in the hands of lesser talents, this house of mirrors might just collapse under the weight of it's multi-layered concept.
But collapse it does not, and this is a testimony to the unusually broad skill sets of the member artists. In addition to expansive abilities to riff on the comic and the ridiculous aspects inherent in their Boston Biennial construct, they also have in their arsenal a very sophisticated gaze and a vigorous engagement with the issues of the day - both within and outside the art world. And the current incarnation of their Boston Biennial is the purest dilution yet of the artistic concerns of this of this group of inspired art-world disruptors.
The Boston Biennial 4 skews to punchy and well-executed examples of process driven and socially engaged installation and conceptual art, informed by the groups deep immersion in cutting edge international art (gleaned from their peripatetic existence traveling within the rarefied world of the top-level biennial circuit). But by demanding that work in this category be both really smart and well-executed, the group drives home the potent point that conceptual art only really works when you have a concept worth investigating, and when you do it well. Art world, are you listening?
And they make a further trenchant point about the limitations inherent in current accepted categories of circuit-worthy art by insisting on an exuberant embrace of unfettered visual pleasure wherever they may find it - gleefully welcoming into their tent a good deal of strong work in mediums and orientations currently out of vogue at the top. By recognizing a lively abundance of strong photography, painting, and drawing, none of it designed in the least to argue it's own obsolescence, The Biennial Project continues it's incisive ability to simultaneously absorb the best of current art-world trends while rising above it's follies.
They succeed in bringing together a bountiful array of successful art being made by Boston based artists - and in so present a gutsy refutation to the inferiority complex that infects our local institutions vis-a-vis art made by artists who call Boston home. Recently a curator of a major Miami museum was interviewed about the benefits of the annual Art Basel decampment in that city, and stated enthusiastically that it represented a great opportunity to provide a platform for all the great art being made by Miami-based artists. Can anyone imagine one of the curators of a major Boston art institution making a comparable statement in that circumstance? We didn't think so.
The Boston Biennial 4 also includes much gorgeous and successful work from a diverse group of artists based around the country and the world. The Biennial Project's commitment to building connections between artists here and elsewhere is utterly refreshing. To see them and their collaborators at work is to see artists at the top of their game - working without the net of institutional support, but obviously having a hell of a good time in the process - and nurturing personal and working relationships and networks that feel downright subversive in this day and age.
Here's hoping that this project continues to grow, and that eventually someone wakes up and gives these folks some actual money to work with, so that someday Boston can have a Biennial as big and bold and groundbreaking as it deserves!”