Any discussion of the Tenth Havana Bienal necessitates a brief recap of its particular history. In recent years it’s become a something of a cliché to lament the biennial as prime symptom of the art world’s increasing homogenisation. To visit the Tenth Havana Bienal, however, is to be confronted with an exception to this rule. This is partly due to Cuba’s unique situation as a country under economic blockade, enduring the final, disintegrating flourishes of state socialism. But it is also due to the specific remit of the Havana Bienal, which has since its inception asserted consciousness of centre-periphery relations and the need to establish an alternative model to the West. The first three biennials (1984, 1986, 1989) set out to promote dialogue across the Southern hemisphere – the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. As such it was the first international biennial to pay serious attention to the post-colonial theory and to reflect this in its selection of artists – a discourse that would become the norm, indeed the expectation, for most Western biennials after 1989. The early Havana biennials were also the first to support the exhibition with a conference – another innovation that would only later become current in the West a decade later. What this means historically, as Rafal Niemojewski has argued, is that the Havana Bienal arguably stands as the model for today’s discursive, transnational biennial – in contrast to Venice, which emerged from a nineteenth-century framework of the nation-state. (1) Yet although many of the characteristics of early Havana biennials have been absorbed by the Western model, there remain important differences that continue to reflect the anti-hegemonic attitude of the island...
(1) Rafal Niemojewski, The rise of the contemporary biennial: a new topography for the contemporary art world, forthcoming PhD, Royal College of Art, London.
*read more at http://clairebishopresearch.blogspot.com/
**The full review will appear in Artforum, Summer 2009.