A Biennial of Catastrophes

The fifth edition of the Quebec City biennial, Manif d'art 5, has been tagged with tagged with the rather unusual title of “Catastrophe? Quelle catastrophe!” Whether that exclamation — “What a catastrophe!” — is one of delight or exasperation, it certainly indicates an irreverent take on the recently staid biennial circuit.

Scheduled for May 1 through June 13, the biennial — curated by Sylvie Fortin at 12 institutions and various other temporary sites around the city — will be anything but business as usual. Fortin's selections include Patrick Altman (Quebec City), Salvatore Arancio, (London), Luca Buvoli (New York), Sarah Emerson (Atlanta), Laurent Grasso (Paris), Daniel Joseph Martinez (Los Angeles), Lynne Marsh (Montreal, Berlin, and London), Gean Moreno (Miami), Trevor Paglen (Berkeley), and collective Superflex (Copenhagen), among others.

Contemporary art and catastrophe are certainly not strangers, of course, and many of the works in the exhibition will be familiar to some viewers. Superflex, for example, will exhibit their 2009 film, The Financial Crisis (Session I-IV), which is currently on view at Peter Blum Gallerys Chelsea location, and Ahmet Ö?üt will present his Exploded City piece, which debuted at the 53rd Venice Biennial.

Other work, though, has been specially commissioned by the biennial, like a single-channel video installation by Lynne Marsh, Plänterwald, which focuses on a derelict amusement park on the outskirts of Berlin. (One wonders about possible parallels between that subject and the seemingly endless biennials that have proliferated over the past two decades.)

The editor-in-chief of Art Papers, Fortin currently lives in Atlanta, but she is hardly a curatorial carpet-bagger, having previously worked in Quebec City as curator of contemporary art at the Ottawa Art Gallery from 1996 to 2001. As a press conference earlier this month in New York, she said she arrived at the theme of catastrophe for the biennial at the height of the financial crisis. But from New Orleans to Haiti to Chile, catastrophe seems to have been everywhere in recent years, and Fortin promised that the biennial would engage with these current issues while also offering futuristic and imagined interpretations of the theme. Then, when the show opens in May, one will be able to take a scenic stroll through Quebec City and survey the damage.