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.