In the universe of words used to describe the history of human experience, there are few more problematic than “modern.” Consider the simple matter of capitalization, which has never been standardized and remains a baffling question of house style, though it is rarely consistent within a single publication. As a time period, too, “modern” is ambiguous: we may no sooner agree on its temporal range than Christians and Jews will come to an accord about the provenance of Jesus Christ.
That the word was adopted for the title of this year’s Lyon Biennial—the 13th edition, which opened in that historic French city on September 10th under the title “La Vie Moderne” (Modern Life)—seems both a cheat and a challenge, at once liberating and paralyzing in its vast subjectivity. Ultimately though, the presentation overcomes its elusive subject matter. While it offers few answers and certainly no thesis, it poses compelling questions that confront the salient issues of our changing world, alienation and technology primary among them.
Klaus Weber, "Emergency Blanket," 2015. Courtesy of the artists, Andrew Kreps Gallery New York, Herald St Gallery London, Contemporary Art Partners, and the Lyon Biennial 2015 © Blaise Adilon
Overseen by artistic director Thierry Raspail of the Lyon Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC Lyon) and guest curator Ralph Rugoff of London’s Hayward Gallery, “La Vie Moderne” is a smorgasbord of works by 60 artists from 28 countries. But it feels small, as far as biennials go, anchored by concurrent exhibitions at MAC Lyon, in the Northeastern quarter of the city, and La Sucrière, a former sugar plant in a recently gentrified industrial zone at the southern confluence of the Saône and Rhone rivers. Spread throughout the vintage factory’s three floors and nestled within the warm spherical vaults of its silos, the works also occupy numerous exterior balconies that look down on docked Lyonnais barge-bars and across the water at verdant banks—a glimpse of old-world charm that feels strangely at odds with the art inside.
Left: Camille Henrot, “No, ” “Hello & Thank you,” “Failed Dog Training (v1),” 2015. Courtesy the artist, Kamel Mennour, Paris, and the Lyon Biennale 2015. Right: Emmanuelle Laine, “Il paraît que le fond de l'être est en train de,” 2015. Courtesy of the artist and the Lyon Biennale 2015© Blaise Adilon.
It’s a tension that pervades the biennial as a whole. There is something nefarious, dystopian, even, haunting this edition. Recent developments in technology, science, and medicine are by and large depicted as sinister forces of the modern age. Take French artist Daniel Firman’s Rotomatic (2011), an old washing machine exhibited on a white pedestal in the airy foyer of an administrative building called the Hôtel de Région Rhône-Alpes. The device seems relatively benign, mounted in homage to outdated inventions, until it begins to rotate exponentially and threatens to spin out of control. It’s a household appliance possessed, a domestic manifestation of the Frankenstein effect.
He Xiangyu, "Cola Project-Extraction," 2009. Courtesy of the artist, White Space Beijing, and the Lyon Biennial 2015 © Blaise Adilon
At MAC Lyon, meanwhile, a gallery of saturated prints by German artist Lucie Stahl embodies the glut of contemporary consumption. Stahl takes photos of mass-produced products—potato chips, glossy women’s magazines—and then subjects them to a series of processes both digital and manual that take them progressively further from the originals, eventually covering them with a layer of polyurethane. The resulting images feel as familiar as the incessant feed of content we ingest daily, and just as impersonal.
Such modern alienation is taken up in a dark, nearby gallery by Chinese artist He Xiangyu. In Turtle, Lion, Bear (2015), human subjects photographed with high-speed film seem to suffer from extreme boredom or exhaustion, yawning, gazing blankly into the distance or rubbing their eyes. Each face appears on a flat screen, and every monitor is displayed in its own glass vitrine, effectively producing a network of neighboring but disconnected cubicles that isolate their subjects.
Anthea Hamilton, "Fruity Seating," and Avery Singer, "European Ego Ideal." Courtesy of the Lyon Biennial 2015 © Blaise Adilon
So, too, with British artist Anthea Hamilton’s sculptural boxes—every one covered in vibrant fruit-themed wrapping paper and stamped with a sepia-toned photograph of a nude woman—and with Avery Singer’s Cubist deconstructions, images of blocky female figures in disconcerting positions, created by projecting pictures made with 3D software onto canvases and painting them in. Both artists’ works variously flatten humanity, or, in this case, women, into two dimensions. In doing so, they embody the proliferation of a screen culture that consigns flesh-and-blood interactions to the realm of cyberspacecyber space, and concurrently evoke the history of the objectification of women.
Underlying all of this is the biennial’s archival issue: what characterizes the “modern” and where do its parameters lie? “The word ‘modern’ says ‘now,’ but it also evokes a long history,” Rugoff told press at the biennial’s vernissage. “And the question is, how can it do both things at the same time? Truthfully, the present moment didn’t come from nowhere. ‘Modern’ is sited at the intersection of the past and the present.”