In a year packed with international biennales, thanks to a series of postponements during the pandemic, the recently opened 16th edition of Lyon Biennale, which runs until December 31 in the ancient French city, garnered a great deal of attention ahead of its opening. Not because of political controversies or headline-grabbing artworks as is often the case in today’s art world, but mainly due to the biennale’s appointed curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath.
In the beginning of 2022, they took on the helm as co-directors of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, one of the largest contemporary art centers in Germany. They also curated the French Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, with Yasmina Reggad; featuring installations and a film by Zineb Sedira, the first artist of Algerian descent to represent France at the Biennale, it became an instant crowd favorite.
For this year’s Lyon Biennale, the curatorial duo have chosen a theme explicitly tackling our current state of global uncertainty, “Manifesto of Fragility.” The biennale’s ambitions are lofty, connecting past with present, through 230 artworks by 34 artists and more than 300 archival documents from nearly 40 collections worldwide. There will also be a section exploring the theme of fragility within the context of Beirut’s so-called Golden Age in the 1960s, highlighting the city’s historical ties with Lyon.
However, 2022 is not their first year working on such large-scale platforms. Previously an actor and an economics professor, respectively, Bardaouil and Fellrath, who both specialize in Middle Eastern art, collaborated on a variety of projects over the span of a decade, from the 2016 exhibition “Art et Liberté: Rupture, War, and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948)” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris to the Lebanese and United Arab Emirates pavilions at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and 2019, respectively.
To learn more about their vision for Lyon Biennale and their work on the exhibition through the pandemic, as well as their insights on art world institutions in general, ARTnews spoke with Bardaouil and Fellrath via Zoom over the summer.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
ARTnews: Could you share how you arrived at the theme “Manifesto of Fragility”? How do you think it resonates with the times we are living in currently?
Till Fellrath: The pandemic led us to think much more broadly about fragility of the body and other issues such as gender, race, economy, the general condition of the world. We realized that maybe what we all need to do is not think of this as a weakness, but rather assume our own mortalities in many ways and we still plow forward. Also, maybe what we need is to come together and respect that we are fragile while respecting that other people are fragile from different situations. So that’s a little bit how we see Lyon Biennale coming together in this very strange time and situation that we all seem to be in at the moment.
Sam Bardaouil: This is why the word “Manifesto” becomes very important because it’s kind of the opposite of what fragility signifies. A manifesto is something that’s very assertive, very political, where people come together and write something down, say something out loud. We want to hold our fragility high up and say, “This is a manifesto. This is the only way forward.”
Would you be able to describe at least one aspect of the Biennale which you think will affect visitors viscerally?
Fellrath: Maybe more than an individual’s artworks, which so many will connect with directly, I think the experience of just circulating in the Biennale will certainly be quite magical, give the venues and spaces.
We are working with an abandoned factory of 30,000 square meters, an abandoned natural history museum from the 19th century, an abandoned restaurant that had to close because of asbestos. We’re also working with Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon—because Lyon was a very powerful Roman city—that is in in a very conceptual building by ’60s brutalist architect Bernard Zehrfuss. It is basically built into this hill that is overlooking some Roman theaters and you walk down the ramp, a bit like the Guggenheim [Museum in New York], until you come out at the bottom into this theater. It’s a marvel. The way these spaces and the Biennale artworks presented there collapse time and highlight cyclical nature also raises questions: How do we carry forward? What do we preserve? I think people will resonate very strongly with the juxtapositions of contemporary with old.
Bardaouil: There will be a lot of strong visual moments, whether it’s in the artwork itself, its materiality, or the way it sits with the space or dialogues with other historical pieces, that will truly create this almost emotional guttural feeling that will touch on our own personal experiences of fragility somehow. One such work is by Pedro Gómez-Egaña, a Colombian artist living in Oslo. Basically, it’s a construction of a mobile home environment. It’s very familiar in a sense, but it’s also very robotic in the other sense, because it’s a very structural piece that is constantly moving, all the furniture is moving and the inhabitants move with it. The artwork straddles this thin line between being in a confined environment or being in a shelter. Is it a prison, or is it a home, which is something that I think we all relate to now after having lived in confinement for a long time.
Speaking of the pandemic, the Lyon Biennale was one of the first few international biennales that announced its postponement due to the pandemic. Could you share the behind-the-scenes machinations for making such a decision? How did having more time to prepare for the Biennale impact its process and outcome, if at all?
Bardaouil: It comes from our conviction that you can only make something meaningful, create a meaningful exhibition, especially when you’re talking about a large-scale show like the Biennale, if you’re truly able to spend time on-site, do the research in these locations, breathe the air, talk to the people. And as you will see, we have woven in a lot of partnerships with so many local institutions, spaces, cultural practitioners, artists from the region, and this doesn’t happen unless you are there. It was part of our concept from the beginning that we wanted to do something that was very strongly linked to the location, to the context of the Biennial, the city of Lyon. You can meet the artists on Zoom, you can read books on Zoom, but you cannot invest in the city, you cannot be in it on Zoom. But it was important for us to go and do research on-site and dig into the city’s archives and find the local stories and histories which are all now interwoven into the biennale.
Fellrath: I think it’s absolutely crucial, especially for a biennale to have more time. I think these rhythms are so short. You really need the time to crystallize your concept. Once you have the concept, you need to start implementing it. Of course, you have to do fundraising at the same time as well and you can’t really fundraise when you don’t really know where the journey is going and what it is that you want to do. Having an additional year, for sure, is crucial, and probably something to think about in the future. For us, it was, I think, certainly a massive, massive benefit.
The typical biennale rhythm is too quick. It certainly is not feasible to announce a curator and then, expect 15 months later, a gigantic show. Any museum show takes more time to prepare and with biennales somehow this rhythm is supposed to be accelerated but really that’s where you need more time.
When French Algerian artist-curator Kadar Attia was invited to organize this year’s Berlin Biennale, he asked himself, why put on yet another international roundup? So, I direct the same question to you: Why put on yet another international roundup, especially now, in the midst of rising inflation, climate crisis and geopolitical conflicts?
Bardaouil: Perhaps even more than before, these conversations that we can have with each other across geographies, across frontiers and boundaries, have become more important. I think one of the most special things about the arts community is that it has this international aspect to it, where thinkers and artists and curators and institutions who are probably facing very similar challenges, albeit in very different contexts, are thinking about very similar questions. And I think there’s a lot of merit of us coming together to learn from each other, to listen to each other and to see how we can also empower each other simply by being together. I think roundup is perhaps not the right word, and it’s not the way we approached Lyon Biennale.
Our intention was not to collect artists and tick geographies like boxes so we are representing every category in the world but it was more to create a community where there is a meaningful sense of exchange and a way of allowing one person’s experience and the ways they’re tackling something in one part of the world to filter into the thinking process and the perhaps mechanisms and strategies of resistance that somebody else is contemplating in another part of the world. This can only happen when you create this network, when you create this encounter. That is perhaps why it is important and be as relevant and necessary as ever.
Fellrath: You can rethink how you do it with shipping or what are the (environmental) implications, which is always an important question, but doing biennales per se, is absolutely crucial. The thing is that this is often judged from a position of privilege, you know, when you are able to jet set around the world and catch like 10 biennales a year. However, organizing a biennale is also for a local and regional population that benefits from it and has as much right to see such events.
There is a section in Lyon Biennale that looks at the 1960s era of Beirut’s Golden Age. Why did you decide to include this? How do the artworks and archival documents featured in this segment contextualize Lyon’s historical entanglements with Beirut?
Bardaouil: It’s part of three sections and we structured the finale to start off with an exploration of Rigidity and Resistance through the fictionalized historic character, Louise Brunet, a local Lyon silk weaver from the 19th century who was sent to prison because she fought against the rich merchants who were monopolizing the silk economy, along with other silk weavers. We built imagined characters of many other Louise Brunets, who could have existed in different times in different places, as different sexes, races, and beings who have experienced fragility and resistance in in different ways.
The real Louise Brunet ended up in Beirut where she was sent to work in the silk factories there owned by the rich Lyon merchants of silk, highlighting how the connections between Lyon and Beirut become a focal point because of the silk industry. The entanglements between the two cities led to the foundation of the French Mandate, which sets the background to that period of Beirut’s Golden Age in the ’60s, exploring the post-mandate period from independence to the civil war erupting in 1975. It’s a story of fragility and resistance through the experience of a city, becoming a focused exploration in Lyon Biennale through numerous artworks and archival documents.
This past year has been a busy one for both of you. In addition to Lyon Biennale, you curated the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, along with Yasmina Reggad, showcasing work by Zineb Sedira, the first artist of Algerian descent to represent the country. You were also appointed directors of the Hamburger Bahnhof, a major art museum in Berlin. As co-curators at the helm of international institutions and platforms in Europe, what kind of impact do you hope to have on art and the art world?
Bardaouil: The more we work on making exhibitions, the more we work with institutions, the less and less we are in doing things for other curators and arts people. I think if we don’t really connect with our communities and we don’t become truly, truly accessible places in terms of the language that we use, what goes up on the wall, the choice of artists, and the people that we hire, we’re going to continue to become more and more irrelevant. The only way that we can maintain our raison d’etre is if we truly take our public and our communities to heart and place them as the main focus of everything that we do.
Our artists are a part of that community, curators and other institutions are also a part of that community, but they are not the entire community. The community is much more diverse than that, and I think this is what we see ourselves building on and what we’ve always tried to do. We want to continue to create paces and exhibitions and opportunities for a truly engaging encounter with everyone in the community, not just with the people who speak the language. That’s something that’s very important.