13th Lyon Biennale: La vie moderne

Oliver Basciano reviews Ralph Rugoff's attractively archaic and curiously ambiguous edition of the French biennale – from the December 2015 issue

By Oliver Basciano

LAI Chih Sheng, Border_Lyon, 2015. Courtesy the artist, ESLITE GALLERY, Taiwan and la Biennale de Lyon 2015. © Chih Sheng LAI

As titles go, it’s broad: La vie moderne – modern life. Attractively archaic, it’s also curiously ambiguous. Any use of the word ‘modern’ in an art context shifts our attention from the here and now to the historical, to Baudelaire and his 1863 essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. Yet there is no art from this period in curator Ralph Rugoff’s sprawling Lyon Biennale; just works by 59 contemporary artists installed in two main venues.

But if the show isn’t ‘modern’ – in its art-historical meaning – then it must be about, er, life. I mean, life. As crazy as it sounds, Rugoff takes this humdinger of a theme and actually goes some way towards nailing it. Like the curator’s 2007 exhibition The Painting of Modern Life, at the Hayward Gallery, the London institution he directs, and after Baudelaire, this is an exhibition that spans from the grand themes to the intimacies of the everyday (in 2007 these were represented by – two examples from many – Gerhard Richter’s portrait of the grieving Jacqueline Kennedy, Woman with Umbrella, 1964, and Malcolm Moreley’s monumental painting of chatting cruise-liner passengers, On Deck, 1966).

So too, La vie moderne. After a bombastic start (the worst offender being a one-liner installation by the incomprehensibly popular Céleste Boursier-Mougenot involving peanuts falling from a height onto a drum kit), the type with which visitors to Rugoff’s later series of family-friendly sculpture shows at the Hayward – the 2009 Walking in My Mind for example – will be familiar, the biennale settles into a welcome, dreamily detached meander through the tropes of the first 15 years of the twenty-first century. Some of these are the big themes of the day: celebrity (Johannes Kahrs’s brutal oil-on-canvas depictions of Justin Bieber and Amy Winehouse, for example); urbanism (Magdi Mostafa’s The Surface of Spectral Scattering, 2014, a large sculpture that, activated by sound, maps an imagined pilot’s-view of Cairo in LED lights, replicating the pathos of arriving in a city after a long night-flight); ecology (Lai Chih-Sheng’s expertly dispiriting Border, 2013–, a room space in which the artist has piled all the rubbish generated during the biennale’s installation); and race (the acutely strange and enjoyable music video created by Cecilia Bengolea and Jeremy Deller in which an older white man walks through his expansive suburban house rapping in French while a troupe of young black women dance and twerk). These are countered by several works that have a far more personal outlook: Cameron Jamie’s series of photographs, hung in a higgledy-piggledy domestic way and taken in the lead-up to Halloween, of the decorated front lawns in his Los Angeles neighbourhood, is a paean to the artist’s hometown; Alex da Corte’s claustrophobic installation of everyday objects, the whole room washed blue by overhead coloured lights, references illness and the closed intimacy of mental health.

There are a few stupid moments, such as Jon Rafman’s usual look-here-is-the-Internet banality and Simon Denny’s laddish installation The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom (2013), but generally Rugoff’s exhibition is an immensely enjoyable thing to walk around – not least because of the endless visual quotes the curator employs to hold all these diverse stories together. The car emerges as a motif. Gorillas are in absurd proliferation too, including within one of the best works of the exhibition, Sammu Baloji’s installation of archival colonial-era images depicting Congo. Strung together, what emerges is an exhibition that reminds one of an issue of Life or the Picture Post (with Rugoff as picture-desk editor) in which disparate portraits of the modern world – ‘the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent’ (to quote Baudelaire slightly out of context) – are filed from near and far.

13th Lyon Biennale: La vie moderne, 10 September 2015 – 3 January 2016.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue.