East Asian region jumps on the biennial art bandwagon

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 June, 2015, 10:29am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 June, 2015, 10:31am

Showcasing a country or a region's soft power to the world at international art biennials - or triennials and miscellennials in some cases - isn't the only ambition among countries and global cities these days. Hosting these events has also become a cachet and, inevitably, a marketing tool to brand cities.

"In theory, all mega events including biennials and film festivals and the spectacular architecture are built to attract tourists, investment and brand the city as a cultural or even history-conscious entity," says Ellen Pau, artist and member of Hong Kong's Arts Development Council.

Pau says the biennial phenomenon has long been a global trend, with some biennials held to promote museums while others are held to brand cities.

As the art market in China booms, Shanghai Biennale has also garnered greater global attention in recent years. Founded in 1996 at the Shanghai Art Museum, the biennial has been helmed by some of the most familiar names in the art world, including curator Johnson Chang from Hong Kong and Jens Hoffmann, currently the deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York.

Guangzhou Triennial, founded in 1997, has also established its reputation in a relatively short time.

Pau says these two events help mark Shanghai and Guangzhou on the world map of contemporary art.

"Shanghai always brings in a lot of international artists and collaborates with international curators. Guangzhou Triennial, on the other hand, has more closed-door discussion, which creates an image that they are more intellectual and critical," says Pau.

But these two have yet to compete with Gwanju Biennale in South Korea, which has established itself as the leading event of its kind in the region since it was founded in 1995.

Japan hopped on the bandwagon in 2001 with the Yokohama Triennale, while Taipei took up the challenge with a biennial five years earlier.

The Singapore Biennale was created in 2006. It is an important investment in the city, according to Paul Tan, deputy CEO of Singapore's National Arts Council.

"Art has a different connection to the community … Singapore has to make some investment in the long term," Tan says.