13th Biennale of Lyon: Modern à la mode, démodé modern, or a new modernity?

I came across the interview of Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London as I was going through the Catalog of the 45th Art Basel, and found out that he was the curator of the 13th Biennale of Lyon taking place from September 10, 2015 till January 3, 2016. The interview, given before the December 2014 Art Basel stated that the biennale theme was la Vie Modern. I read the interview with curiosity trying to understand how one can tackle the issue of preparing a biennale on “modern” life through “contemporary” art, which I’d guess must be daunting precisely because of the terminology.

I think there are many issues to be addressed here: Modern Art as we know is over already. I am asked all the time: What exactly is the date that separates “Modern Art” from “Contemporary Art”? Which is which? Definitions of Modern Art, Post-Modernism and Contemporary Art can at times differ from one source to another. Modernism in Art and Architecture and then in Literature are also quite different from one another and brings more confusion to everything that has to do with “Modern”. (As I am sitting down writing this in Barcelona, I also have to admit that there is also the “Modernisme” of Catalan Art and Architecture that is quite different from the “Modernism” known elsewhere).

Perhaps the problem is exacerbated because of its use in English. It muddies the notion further. I mean, why would you want to create an exhibition about Modern life? Shouldn’t it be about Contemporary life perhaps, since you will be using contemporary art? But I guess the issue is less complicated when thought in French and for a biennale taking place in Lyon, France, prepared for the inhabitants of this city. To be à la mode (fashionable) is being modern. To be out of fashion, is démodé. To be in touch with civilization and be up to date in your mode of living is to be modern.

On the other hand, while the word “contemporary” means “belonging to or occurring in the present”, it also has a connotation of temporality; that it is not permanent in a way. It is specific to these times but not exactly in the most advanced or sophisticated ways. So I will take it that it all is about the Zeitgeist of the present and I apologize for having to use a German word to try to explain what I understand from the title, content and intent of a biennale in France :)

Musée d'Art Contemporain de Lyon (macLYON) as seen from Parc Tête d'Or

Thierry Raspail, the artistic director of the Biennale de Lyon who also is the Director of the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon (macLYON) asked Ralph Rugoff to be the guest curator of the 13th Biennale de Lyon and gave him the theme of “modern life” to explore: A made-to-order subject. The venues for the Biennale de Lyon were the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon (macLYON), a Renzo Piano designed museum building located at Lyon’s upscale 6th Arondissement overlooking one of the most beautiful parks I’ve seen in France called Tête d’Or, la Sucrière, a former- sugar factory which has been converted to a warehouse-type exhibition venue for displaying contemporary art, and one gallery in the Musée des Confluences.

Now the Museum of Confluence was the other reason I wanted to go to Lyon aside from the biennale. I once wrote a critique of this museum’s design in my “Architecture of Museums” class and I wanted to see it in person even though it is not a museum of art.

Exterior of Musée des Confluences

So I called Dani, who had just arrived to Barcelona from his 9-hour flight from Miami –where he told me he could not slept at all, and asked what he’d think of going to Lyon for the biennale. I was pretty sure he was going to say “No way!” to flying within a week again, but his response was “Hey, that’s the gastronomy capital of France. Yes, I’ll go!” And there also went my dreams of him ever sticking to his diet. I also suspect he likes to go to France with me because it is the only place where our roles are reversed and that He, gets to correct My language :)

Since we came on different flights, I was able to kill some time alone in Lyon and went to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon which was not part of the biennale but gave me some idea about the city and the history of Lyon. Now, the city of Lyon is located where the rivers Rhône and Saône converge and this Roman city, once the capitol of Gaul, is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since 1998. A temporary exhibition taking place in the museum was Lyon Renaissance: Arts et humanisme and I truly enjoyed this exhibition –having developed a renewed interest in Renaissance Art thanks to my friend Dr. Perri Lee Roberts’ great instruction during our stay in Berlin this past Summer. Through this exhibition I learned that Lyon by the year 1562 was a Protestant city, and that following the Saint-Barthélemy Massacre of 1572 in Paris –where a huge massacre took place between Catholics and Protestants/Huguenots (Remember Alexandre Dumas’ la Reine Margot which was also made into a film by the same name and the title character played by Isabel Adjani), Lyon followed suit between August 28 till September 2nd of the same year with a massacre of its own. There exist no descendants from the Huguenots of the 16th century in Lyon now, where Protestants are still a minority. Yet the general feel of Lyon is quite different from Paris or the Côte d’Azur, the only other places I can claim to know a bit, as it feels there is more tolerance and less marginalization.

An exhibition text from Arts et humanisme exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon; all in French.

The first venue we went to was the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon (macLYON) which was designed by Renzo Piano. It is in an upscale neighborhood, which at first made me think it could not be too accessible, or rather not that inviting to many as it looked a little too privileged around here. We had a great lunch at the restaurant. However I also noticed that the museum’s back opened to a multi-screen cinema complex as the museum is actually part of Cité Internationale, a project within 15 hectares that also includes residential buildings, a congress center, hotel and a casino. This made the museum appear more of a community center than a stand-alone museum, a fact that I loved!

Exit from macLYON to Cité International's Cinema Complex

The inside of macLYON also has complete changeable walls, which can be modified from each exhibition to another. For this Biennale, the layout was easy to follow and the exhibition’s story flowed logically. The visitors we saw were mostly French families with their children as it was their Winter break. I loved seeing children sitting in front works and trying to fill out answers from the Biennale’s Children’s booklet. In fact, I myself enjoyed working through the Carnet de Jeux myself.

Nina Beier's flattened wigs on the walls, and Female Nude (2015), with sea-coconuts, at macLYON

From macLYON, we went to the next site, la Sucrière, and I noticed that while the exhibition at macLYON had a more cohesive story and layout, works with not too much of connection between them were on display here at la Sucrière. Although I did like many of the works here individually –more than the ones at the macLYON, the story lay a little flat here.

Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental, Sculpture No.1 & No. 2, by Andra Ursuta, who will have her first museum exhibition in New York opening at the New Museum in April 2016.

About 45 minutes of a ride away from Lyon at the Couvent de la Tourette in Eveux –which is also called Chez le Corbusier, an exhibition by works of Anish Kapoor were held, also as part of the 13th Biennale de Lyon. Le Corbusier was one of the pioneers of Modern Architecture, and the building he designed here is in fact a convent. This location has been used for the last 6 biennales. It turned out to be the favorite part of the biennale for me and definitely was worth the ride. And because le Corbusier was all about straight lines and right angles, the placement of works by a contemporary artist renowned to use no real straight lines with incredible craftsmanship, were fantastic. This juxtaposition was a phenomenal way of showing what our modern lives are about: of contrasts and mixtures and the beauty of their blending we see in our mundane lives everywhere. I also loved it that a Benedictine Convent housed works by an artist with a Hindu father and a Jewish mother, and the modernity of it all.

Anish Kapoor's 220 Aluminium Mirror, 2015, at the refectory of Chez le Corbusier

The Musée des Confluences is located in the Confluences area of Lyon where the rivers Saône and Rhône meet. The design is by Coop Himmelb(l)au, an Austrian design firm, and it is so ugly you want to avoid direct eye contact! In fact when I first drove by it from the airport to our hotel, noticing it from a distance I averted my eyes. My feelings for what I thought of the design before seeing remained unchanged upon seeing it in person from the outside: It really is not beautiful.

But, and its a huge but, I highly recommend one to visit this museum. If I go to Lyon again I am most definitely taking Dani and Joe there, because inside of the Museum of Confluence is just fantastic! Mind you, it’s not an art museum; it’s about science and evolution with exhibitions in the most smart and technologically advanced way. I would want to go there, rather than to any amusement park, any day. In addition to its permanent exhibition with clever design flow and interactives, I also saw an exhibition called Art and the Machine. It was not part of the biennale. The exhibition was fabulous in showing the effect and influence of machinery in many artists’ work and how mechanics inspired them to create works. This, I thought, would make any child interested in arts to be interested in technology and a child more mechanically inclined could see that they are intertwined in a way. Ay, if only the outside of the museum wasn’t so bad..

Méta-Maxi, by Jean Tinguely. Art and the Machine exhibition at the Musée des Confluences

So what is the "Big Idea" of the 13th Biennale of Lyon? Modern life is not what modern used to be: The colonial view of life where one viewed oneself separate from the others. Modern life now is about inclusiveness, togetherness, that all of us are in the same boat in this day and age of internet, surveillance, environmental disasters, financial doom, end of capitalism. I also noticed more works by female artists as well as many more artists from developing countries. It was a nice break to see that; and to hope that there would be more Mohammads as artists rather than Uber drivers, as the majority of my Uber and taxi drivers were named Mohammad.. It must be nice for the Lyonnais to see that there are significant Arab artists and that they are part of the modern life; and that Arab kids could see that they do not have violence as the only way to vent their anger and frustrations as they could see examples of artists with similar backgrounds to them presenting their artworks alongside those of descendants of colonialists. And that it is good to be part of the modern life as we know it, because basically we all suffer from the same problems. And that we should strive for togetherness.

Facts about Lyon:

For those into food, and I realize there are so many, Lyon is deemed the gastronomy capital of the world. Restaurants serving typical Lyonnaise cuisine are called Bouchons.

Lyon, the third largest city in France, is where the Lumière brothers invented the cinematographe. The Lumière Film Festival organized by the Institut Lumière takes place each October. Past recipients of the Prix Lumière include Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodóvar and Quentin Tarantino.

The city also holds a Festival of Lights each year on December 8th, when each household places candles in front of their windows and spectacular light shows are performed over four days. The celebrations were cancelled for 2015 in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, was from Lyon. Lyon Airport and the TGV (high-speed train) Station right next to it designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in his signature style (seen below), are both named after the writer.

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