The Biennial Questionnaire: Gunnar B. Kvaran

The curator of the Lyon Biennale on telling stories in a globalised, connected, world

By Oliver Basciano

The 12th Biennale de Lyon, which opens 12 September, concerns itself with stories, and artists who tell them in all their different forms. For the second of ArtReview’s Biennale Questionnaire series, Oliver Basciano asked Gunnar B. Kvaran, director of Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo and curator of this year’s biennale, to spin him a yarn or two.

Oliver Basciano: There are a lot of younger artists in the biennale. Was that a conscious decision?


I thought I would talk in the first person in the Biennale de Lyon

Yes it was, because I think biennales should be about the contemporary. They should try to take the pulse of what is happening now. At the museum we are always working in a historical context. Consciously or subconsciously we are always contextualising things more, attempting to deliver some kind of ‘truth’ to our audience. With the biennale I was able to take more of a risk. It could be more of a test. I also thought that I could express more of myself in the biennale context than I can as a museum curator. I thought I would talk in the first person in the Biennale de Lyon. Normally as a museum director or curator you have to talk through the institution. Here was the opportunity to look at things more personally and work with younger artists.

Storytelling and narrative is the overriding formal theme though. How did you arrive at that?

As he has done with previous curators, Thierry Raspail, the artistic director of the biennale, gave me a single word to work from: ‘Transmission’. Immediately I reacted and said ok, I want to make an exhibition that would deal with narrative art, but one which would focus on artists who are questioning, or maybe introducing, new types of narrative structures. Therefore the selection criterion was biased towards the formal side of a work rather than perhaps its actual content. Of course the works have a specific content, a narrative content, but in the selection I was preoccupied with artists, young artists, who used different narrative methodologies to tell different kinds of stories – be they fiction, philosophical reflections or politically engaged research.

But then I had to create a narrative for the exhibition itself, so I used this first person. I have gone into my own history and have looked to the artists who are relevant and who have been influential in my career. I chose three artists as historical and metaphorical figures: Yoko Ono, as the one who has been most influential in performance art and the use of instructions in art, and who definitely produced a new structure for these. Secondly, Erró, a painter from Iceland who lives in Paris, a Pop artist, but a Pop artist who has been inventing new types of narrative structures within his paintings all the time. Finally, the ‘Pope’ of structuralism in literature and film, Alain Robbe-Grillet. All these people I know very well, and have made exhibitions with previously. They were the ones that showed me the importance of narrative structures within the making of a great work of art. They are all part of art history, but they are also part of my history.


There are lots of artists telling interesting stories, but I’m interested in the artists who are finding interesting ways to tell the story

They provide the backstory for your curatorial narrative?

Yes, but also the curatorial tools to use when looking at work by younger artists. There are lots of artists telling interesting stories, but I’m interested in the artists who are finding interesting ways to tell the story. Then I thought about the artists of my own generation who have been interesting in the same way, but for different reasons. These artists are working in dialogue with each other and have transformed the structures of art: Matthew Barney, Robert Gober, Fabrice Hyber, Jeff Koons, Paul Chan and Ann Lislegaard. The way Barney combines video and sculpture for example, or the way Chan turns the screen into a window – its so simple but radical.

In your statement you say, ‘now [stories] are everywhere and an integral part of our daily life.’ Telling stories isn’t new though, it’s as old as civilization, so what do you identify as the recent development?

We are in a very peculiar and interesting moment historically. There is no one story being told, or just a few stories being told – like a few years ago when we had one type of media, one type of television. Now today, we have multiple stories through the Internet and social media. It also exists in the art world too. We have public museums, we have private museums, commercial galleries, all telling their stories. We have no centre anymore – we have Chinese museums telling their story, museums in the Middle East or Latin America telling theirs, and we have London or Oslo museums telling our own stories.

So for example Paulo Nazareth, who’s an artist I like a lot and is included here, he tells a story that has obviously been looked at before – baldly put, postcolonialism and identity of ‘otherness’ – but he’s telling it through walking and performance.

Most of these artists are part of a tradition. But what differs is the extremity of how Nazareth is interpreting it – he’s walking through Africa to Lyon, tracing the slave routes. And before he walked from Brazil to the USA. This will be the first time he’s stepped into Europe, when he arrives at the southern point of Spain. His work is a form of anthropological, ethnographic research. He is – how do you say in English? ‘A smart cookie.’

Ed Atkins, James Richards, Helen Marten, Ed Fornieles. They are all amazing artists

And then there are other younger artists in the show who are, formally, as far away from Paulo Nazareth’s work as you could imagine – people such as Ed Atkins or Ed Fornieles.

The lucky thing is the timing of the biennial. In the UK at the moment there is an incredible group of artists. I think there is a new top list of artists coming through – something that comes through only every twenty years or so. Ed Atkins, James Richards, Helen Marten, Ed Fornieles. They are all amazing artists. Also, they all work within the theme of the biennale. They are all telling stories, very differently and they are all inventing new forms of narration.

The biennale format is form of narrative itself though, perhaps a rather weary one. Are you making any attempt to rewrite it?

Yes. We have invited all the artists to lend a piece to a home in Lyon. I understood the difference between the Lyon Biennale and all the other biennales is that it is anchored into the structure of the city. It is the city that finances it. And the whole city is being taken into this event. So I thought, lets investigate this. I asked the artists if they would consider lending a work to a household from Lyon to look after for two months. And every single one of the artists – you know, people like Jeff Koons included – thought it a great idea. People from the city will apply and be selected from a hat. The lucky ones have to take care of the work, perhaps invite their friends round for a small gathering; show the artwork off.

That seems a gesture towards the criticism of biennale culture, where the art world flies in and operates almost parasitically on a city. Here there’s a whole element of the show that only those from the city will see.

Yes, certainly. The other thing I was thinking about was how longer video works suffer at a biennial. Everyone suffers: the visitor feels guilty; the artist doesn’t get his or her work seen. It’s a terrible thing. So I’ve made sure that no video will be longer than ten minutes or so. Instead we will have a weekend later in the run in which we will shows longer films by ten artists from the biennale, and then another weekend for performance.

The Biennale de Lyon 2013 will take place from 12 September – 5 January.