/ September 23, 2009

"Sugar and Spice"

“HOW DO I DO IT?” Asked how he could possibly have a major exhibition opening in San Francisco a mere fortnight after overseeing the Tenth Biennale de Lyon, Hou Hanru paused for the briefest of reflections before continuing, with a smile and a shrug, “I just do it, you know?” Lunching with the tireless Chinese curator, drafted to organize this year’s show after original choice Catherine David walked out over “time-management” issues, I got the impression that not only could he ill afford to spend long pondering such questions, he wasn’t especially interested in the answers. Not only prolific, Hou seems to have been on the road for years; perhaps, sharklike, he has to keep moving to stay alive?

Having just arrived from New York via Zurich, I could only nod in sleep-deprived admiration. Fortunately, the Monday meal came courtesy of Rue Le Bec, a swanky new restaurant neighboring one of two main Biennale sites, La Sucrière. Lyon is justly famous for its food, and this was a much-appreciated introduction. Critics Xerxes Cook and Fabio Cypriano, seated with me in the cavernous space, were similarly grateful, and we all felt for Hou, who didn’t get to finish his entrée but was instead whisked away to join the biennial’s artistic director, Thierry Raspail, and Abdelkader Damani, organizer of the attendant event series Veduta, for a press conference. Unfazed, the curator cracked wise about Lyon’s inferiority complex over its modest size compared with Paris—stressing that both were small beside certain Chinese cities.

Touring La Sucrière, a former sugar factory built in the 1930s that has served as a biennale venue since 2003 (according to Hou, sweet stuff still oozes from the walls in hot weather), it was immediately obvious that his show, “The Spectacle of the Everyday,” could hardly be accused of any shortfall in scale. Immersive installations and projected videos dominated, while painting was conspicuous by its absence. But this isn’t to say that the selection was all razzmatazz; for every stack of graffiti-covered trucks by Barry McGee or multipart assemblage by Sarah Sze, there was a field of subtly etched linoleum by Latifa Echakhch or a poetic “event” instruction by George Brecht.

“Do you need my address?” “Is it possible to get two?” “Is it possible to give you coins?” At the press preview, Yang Jiechang’s Underground Flowers, a set of three thousand painted ceramic bones, attracted a particular strain of questioning derived from an unusual sales strategy; during the biennial, 991 individual bones are available to visitors in return for a fifteen-euro donation to Entretemps, a charity that provides emergency accommodation after catastrophes. Guilt-free collecting that even journalists can afford! A biennale staff member was working Yang’s section on the second floor, but Agnès Varda, a veteran filmmaker newly inspired to produce hutlike installations, was on hand in person around hers and was immediately recognizable by her signature two-tone hairdo.

That afternoon, buses ferried us to two other biennale venues. The Bichat Warehouse, an industrial building from 1916, now houses a one-note neon installation by Pedro Cabrita Reis, while the Bullukian Foundation, on central square Place Bellecour, plays host to Laura Genz’s drawings of the travails of undocumented immigrants and a backyard “sculpture to live in” by Berlin-based duo Sophie Dejode and Bertrand Lacombe. After a considerable interval (the French do like to linger), we headed to the hotel and thereafter to dinner back at Rue Le Bec. Rolling up half an hour after the advertised 9 PM start time, I found the event in full swing, packed with Lyon’s well-to-do all battling for oysters and champagne. And steak. And foie gras.

Three or four circuits of the place left me slightly tipsy—and very full—but despairing of recognizing a soul, until I spotted artist Dan Perjovschi on line for ice cream and blagged a cone of Belgian chocolate. Accompanied by Lombard-Freid Projects director Cristian Alexa and critic-curator François Piron, Perjovschi, whose ongoing work occupies two vast walls in La Sucrière, recounted with glee the story of a German reporter who last time covered the nearby Docks Art Fair—a thirty-odd-gallery pop-up riding the coattails of the main event—thinking it was the biennale. Warming to his theme of journalistic incompetence, the ebullient Romanian went on to discuss his fascination with bloggers’ reactions to his work; amateurs, he seemed to feel, have it over the pros.

Taking the lighthearted hint, and clocking a grinning Francesco Bonami on my way out, I tracked down a bus to my last stop of a very long day, La Marquise boat club. Following a few other stragglers across the Rhône, I found the craft and descended below deck, where DJ Donuts—presumably one of the Donuts graphic-design team responsible for the biennale’s ubiquitous X logo—was spinning buoyant electro-pop to a small but animated crowd. At the bar, Alison Jacques Gallery’s new senior director, Roger Tatley (formerly of Hauser & Wirth), accompanied by artist Ian Kiaer, critic and curator Sacha Craddock, and curator Vanessa Desclaux, was struggling for service. All four were finding the French art scene to be rather insular, and Kiaer had been surprised to find himself the sole British contributor to Hou’s show. “It’s been nice,” he reflected, “but a bit lonely.”

The following morning was reserved for a visit to the remaining venue: the Museum of Contemporary Art. Introduced by Sylvie Blocher’s video A More Perfect Day—a tribute to Barack Obama in which lines of one of the president’s speeches are set to plaintive music performed by a young white man with a partially blackened body—the tighter selection of works in this more formal setting also felt drier than that at La Sucrière, admittedly in part because text- and speech-heavy works by Ecole du Magasin and Carlos Motta demand a fluency in French that I sadly don’t possess.

In the lobby, Tatley was angling for an Elshopo Collective print produced using chocolate and food coloring in place of ink. The group, one of whom was dressed as a rabbit, was also printing onto crêpes, which they then further decorated to viewers’ specifications. Our man indulged but found the results disappointing. “Those have been around for a day, at least,” he grimaced. Along with Kiaer, we hopped a tram in search of lunch, meeting up again with Craddock and Desclaux later that evening for dinner and debate (the French Revolution tends, we concluded, not to get its due). Finally, for those who decry a lack of useful information in these dispatches, a recommendation: Bistro Pizay, 4 rue Verdi, 69001 Lyon, phone 04 78 28 37 26. Get the duck.

Images: Left: Lyon Biennale curator Hou Hanru and artistic director Thierry Raspail with Veduta organizer Abdelkader Damani. Right: Member of the Elshopo Collective