Bold, beautiful and breath-taking, biennales have become big business. In the art-world, these are the equivalent of major sporting events, attracting art-lovers in their thousands. However, for the host-cities, they are much more than a chance to showcase contemporary art; biennales have become an important cultural event, commanding international acclaim and providing a boost to the economy.
There are over 100 biennales held across the world, each vying to be better than the other. Venues compete with one another for premier-league artists and iconic curators, to cement their biennales as the most memorable and spectacular. It’s not unusual to find venues commissioning artists to create elaborate and spectacular installations and works, in a bid to give their biennale the edge. With so many to choose from, deciding which ones you’re going to visit can be daunting – so we’ve put together our list of the best biennales in Europe.
The Venice Biennale
Founded in 1895, by King Umberto I and Queen Margherita de Savoia, the Venice Biennale is widely recognised as one of the most prestigious and important art festivals on the planet. In its infancy, this biennale was held in the Padiglione Italia, set in the Giardini gardens, in the east of the shimmering city of Venice. With a central pavilion and over 30 national pavilions, each built by their associated country, this is where the art world shines its spotlight.
The 2015 Venice Biennale saw over 500,000 visitors pass through its doors, with 89 national participants and Granada, Mauritius, Mongolia, the Republic of Seychelles and the Republic of Mozambique taking part for the first time. Highlights included an immersive installation of film and sculpture by Joan Jonas, a beautifully considered and expansive show, All the World’s Futures, by Okuwi Enswezor – which featured interactive performances from Adian Piper and films from Steve McQueen and Carsten Höller – and an exhibition of copies of classical sculptures, curated by Professor Salvatore Settis and Davide Gasparotto.This biennale is the art-world’s main event: it’s where important artists and big-name curators are discovered, assessed and venerated.
Although not technically a biennale, as it takes place every five years, Documenta is second only to the Venice Biennale, in terms of prestige and attention. Set in the small German village of Kassel, Documenta is also a celebration with politics at its heart: it was founded in 1955 as an artistic response to the Nazi’s embargo on what it saw as deviant art; Documenta sought to unify a divided country through the common-grounds of art and culture.
Compared to the settings for other biennale, Kassel is small and pleasant – but relatively unremarkable. In addition, its approach to the installations, exhibitions and works is uniquely intellectual. However, it’s this melting-pot of thoughtful interpretation and appreciation that sets Documenta apart from its cousins; Documenta is a trend-setting festival, where artistic themes and intellectual schemata are decided upon and quickly followed, by the rest of the art-loving world.
Perhaps because it only occurs once every five years, Documenta is fiercely well-attended; Documenta 2012 played host to around 907,000 visitors. Given its political origins, you’ll tend to find powerful contemporary art that reflects on the big issues taking place on the world-stage. 2012 saw a number of haunting and moving installations and works, such as Susan Philipsz’ extraordinary and bleak soundscape, installed on Platform 13 of the Hauptbanhof train station, Lara Favaretto’s junkyard sculptures and an exhibition of masks and busts, depicting war and self-inflicted facial wounds, by Kader Attia.Documenta is for those who want to come to a full understanding of how works such as these came to be and to explore the themes that gave them life.
Describing itself as “the roving European Biennale of Contemporary Art”, Manifesta is a nomadic celebration, setting up shop in a new location very two years. Founded after the fall of the Soviet Union and launched in Rotterdam in 1996, Manifesta eschews conventional art centres, in favour of engaging with what it’s latest host city has to offer. Previous venues have included a defunct coal mine and Russia’s Winter Palace.
Manifesta’s manifesto is to “present local, national and international audiences with new aspects and forms of artistic expression.” To keep everything fresh, a new team of curators are chosen for each edition and up-and-coming artists are encouraged to think beyond the confines of a traditional exhibition, to create ambitious and experimental works that they might not otherwise be given room to explore. Given its unconventional approach to the concept of biennales, Manifesta is the place to go to see contemporary art that pushes boundaries and challenges established thinking.
Despite its wandering nature, Manifesta is a consistently-popular biennale; 2014 saw in excess of 100,000 visitors flock to see seminars, installations, discussions, exhibitions and works presented by 54 artists. In the current political climate, Manifesta has proposed that its focus will be set on minority groups and cultures that have made their homes in Europe, in its ongoing mission to create “an interlocking map of contemporary art.” Always surprising and never run-of-the-mill, Manifesta is for art-lovers who want art to be an experience, rather than a concept.
La Biennale de Lyo
La Biennale de Lyon has firmly staked its claim as the France’s principal art festival, with its list of artists and curators reading like a directory of luminaries. Established in 1991 by the director of the Musee d’art Contemporain de Lyon, Thierry Raspail, this biennale is a festival with a mission.
Each year, Raspail invites each guest curator to consider a word. This word informs the theme of the next three editions, creating an artistic trilogy that takes places over six years. 2015’s biennale began with the curator, Ralph Rugoff, being asked to consider the word, ‘modern’. As a result, that year saw the opening of a new triptych, beginning with ‘La Vie Moderne’; an exploration on the way our everyday lives have been – and continue to be changed and challenging the very notion of the word, itself.
Part of La Biennale de Lyon’s ongoing success must be attributed to its desire to span all classes and cultures. This is an event for everyone, regardless of their degree of exposure to contemporary art. In 2014, almost 205,000 visitors came to experience the works, thoughts and installations of 52 artists. The 2016 edition is set to include artists, such as Michael Armitage, Yto Barrada and Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. La Biennale de Lyon is one of Europe’s younger biennales and holds dear those ideals that most artists aspire to, when embarking on their careers: that art can effect change and isn’t the monopoly of the intellectual elite.
Inspired by the Venice Biennale, the Berlin Biennale was founded to throw focus on less-established artists. Describing itself as “an open space that experiments, identifies and critically examines the trends of the art world,” this is a festival that brings together established artists, alongside new talent, to incubate and grow artistic expression and viewpoints evolving in the art scene.
Berlin is a city with an extensive cultural history that has infused music, art, film and literature with its own particular flavour. The biennale tends to be at its best when focussing on artists, rather than themes, and it’s served as a launch-pad for a number of luminaries, such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, Massimiliano Gioni and Elena Filipovic. The Ninth Berlin Biennale will be taking place from June 2016, to September 2016. Attendance is expected to be high, with attendance in 2014 exceeding 120,000. Its focus on experimentation has, on occasion, been the festival’s downfall: for the most part, the Berlin Biennale is an eclectic and important artistic hatchery. However, there are occasions where organisation and cohesion have been forsaken, in favour of artistic endeavour. While this hasn’t taken away from the impact of the exhibitions and installations, it has made the festival confusing for visitors.Established in 1996, this another of the younger biennales and is ideal for those who want to catch up-and-coming artists before they become stratospheric.
The Liverpool Biennale is the largest international, contemporary art festival in the United Kingdom. A free festival, it continues to push the envelope, in terms of presentation and content; the 2016 Liverpool Biennale will reveal itself as a story, narrated in artistic ‘chapters’, in various locations across the city. Liverpool is still very much a city re-establishing itself, after declining as an international trading port. As a result, there are numerous empty buildings within its walls, offering excellent ad out-of-the-ordinary exhibition spaces. Visit the Liverpool Biennale and you can expect to find artistic worlds sited in museums, pubs, hotels, car-parks, supermarkets and train stations.
Ever mindful of the need to expose children to art at an early age, the 2016 Liverpool Biennale will, for the first time, be launching exhibitions and installations aimed at younger visitors. These will have been designed and executed by children collaborating with artists, to create works that are for young people, by young people.Perhaps because it is free and aims to communicate the importance of art across all classes and ages, the Liverpool Biennale is incredibly popular, having attracted over 400,000 visitors to the 2012 edition. This is superb festival for those who feel they want to dip their toes the artistic waters, without fear of being completely submerged by intellectual interpretation and academic appraisal.
Dublin Contemporary Biennale
While this might be the baby of the bunch, the Dublin Contemporary Biennales is quickly establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with. The 2016 Dublin Contemporary Biennale will be the third edition of the Dublin Biennale Pop-Up, which was launched in 2012, under the eye of Maggie Magee. This has now expanded to take in venues and sites across Dublin and, despite being smaller than many of its contemporaries, has attracted some of the biggest names in international art, including Yoko Ono, Ellen Rothenberg and Fergal McCarthy. The biennale’s original pop-up status was, most likely, a result of Ireland’s poor economy in the early Noughties; with little money to fund a festival of the size of its European counterparts, a small-scale solution was found. However, as time passed, each festival has been bigger than the last, gaining more attention and attracting bigger names. The Dublin Contemporary Biennale is a very interactive exhibition, be it presenting artworks for contemplative purposes or to fully immerse spectators in a multi-sensory installation. Continually growing in popularity, this biennale attracted over 62,000 visitors to its last edition and numbers are anticipated to have doubled for the next.
Biennale de Cerveica
While the Biennale de Cerveica might be Portugal’s oldest arts festival, it is always looking forwards; the theme to be explored in the 18th Biennale de Cerveica is: “look to the past to build the future.” This biennale was established in 1978 and has always made a point of maintaining the balance between cultural tradition and contemporary creation, through bringing together Portuguese and international artists to undertake a project that has its roots in both creativity and culture.
The 18th Biennale de Cerveica will focus on understanding regional traditions and cultural practices and responding to them, through the use of multidisciplinary exhibitions and installations. Through mining the past, the aim is to inspire modern artists to create works that are fresh and new, but have their roots in older customs.With a program of around 500 artworks, presented by over 300 artists from 33 different countries, the Biennale de Cerveica continues to be exciting and refreshing, despite its longevity.Athens Biennale With its rich history of art, it would be something of an oddity of Greece didn’t hold its own biennale. However, it took until 2005 for the first Athens Biennale to be launched. Founded by Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, Poka-Yio and Augustine Zenakos, the Athens Biennale has quickly established itself as Greece’s largest and most prestigious contemporary art festival.
Using contemporary art to address contemporary issues, the Athens Biennale has politics and culture at its core. The sixth biennale will examine matters such as the development of alternative economies, the way in which political parties perform and the redefinition of structure-systems, in a bid to challenge the way people see the laws that govern us. A variety of immersive and interactive events will be curated by political thinkers, social philosophers, art theorists and an abundance of contemporary artists.The sixth biennale’s home will be in Omonoia Square, Athens’ oldest, right in the centre of the city, with exhibitions, events and seminars taking place in various buildings in the vicinity. This festival is for those who want to see art in action; used in a modern context to interrogate modern constructs.Biennales Around the World
You can find further information on any of the European and worldwide biennales at the Biennal Foundation.