When I called João Laia to talk about the 12th edition of the Gothenburg Biennial (GIBCA), for which he is the curator, he vividly described a new installation by the Spanish artist Maria Jerez. It’s a pulsating queer landscape with smoke and light that will serve as the heart of the presentation at Röda Sten Konsthall when the biennial opens on 16 September. Laia promises emotional, expressive, and compelling works – a break from the more strict, academic, and theory-driven aesthetic that has dominated GIBCA in recent years.
Thematically, however, forms of the surrounding futures joins the ranks by embracing the social criticism that has often characterised GIBCA, as well as many other biennials: a dismantling of the dominant narrative in order to reveal stories from the periphery. Nevertheless, for Laia, it is important not to get stuck in the critical. He wants to make room in this year’s biennial for voices that aim to offer paths towards imagining a future beyond the “permacrisis.”
Born in Lisbon in 1981, Laia has been chief curator at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki since 2019. His most recent work includes Tom of Finland: A Bold Journey and a solo show with Daniel Steegmann Mangrané. Both are currently on view at Kiasma. In 2022, he curated ARS22 together with the museum’s director, Leevi Haapala.
Tell me about your plans for this year’s GIBCA. The only thing I’ve read so far is the press release, which wasn’t very explicit about what we can expect.
People tend to point out that my press releases are short. I like to give some space for the art and exhibition in itself and not put too much weight on it beforehand. But, ideally, the exhibition will be an animated, living, pulsating, and energetic, celebratory space of imagination. [laughs]
I get the impression that you want to create something more vibrant and upbeat than what we’ve seen in the last Gothenburg biennials. Is that correct?
I hope the exhibition will be a celebration, not of the dire state we’re in, but of the different possibilities we still hold to move elsewhere. I reject the idea that we’re doomed; I believe it creates alienation and a nihilistic understanding of our reality. I want to strengthen agencies that want to offer other ways. There is a lot of humour in the show, which I think is needed in art.
In the press release you speak about scenography. Can you elaborate on how that will be present in the exhibition?
Throughout my work as a curator, it’s always very important for me to experiment with the problematic vessel that is the white cube – either by pushing the idea of what the white cube is, or by deconstructing it. The white cube in its classical sense silences and even oppresses the bodily in favour of visuality. Because of my interest in embodiment, how space choreographs bodies and how that is part of knowledge production, I’ve always been more drawn to the stage of the theater as this non-space that can be re-choreographed and reformulated every time you use it.
In the past, I’ve sometimes used heavy-handed scenographic strategies, but that’s not the case this time. We’re not going to build any walls, for example. This time, I felt like the works in themselves are very performative. I’m not doing much; I’m just choreographing and the works stage other possibilities than the white cube. With that being said, sometimes, it will be quite dark.
Tell me about the participating artists! What’s been important for you when selecting? Are there any common denominators?
There is and there isn’t. My shows are usually not very coherent in the sense that all artists are beating the same drum. The common thread is the refusal of the dominant and oppressive narratives that are in place in the now, and the offer of other ways for inhabiting the planet. It’s not very subtle or minimal work: all the works speak quite directly to the viewer. All the artist are working with forward-looking critique.
I also noticed that there are quite a few very young and emerging artists.
It was not predefined, but I’m quite happy that we have many names on the list that are not so familiar with these big platforms or have exhibited in the Nordic countries before. Hopefully, it will not be read as if the future is held only by the younger generation.
Will there be new works produced for this show?
Not that many. Joana da Conceição’s work is totally new. Rasmus Myrup has made a very ambitious new body of work, which is a development of a previous project of his where he looked at the queer aspects of Danish mythology. Prem Sahib will transform the stairs in Röda Sten through a new work and Tarik Kiswanson will contribute with a new work. Other than that, we will see a lot of adaptations and developments of artist’s older work in the show.
How does your GIBCA relate to previous biennials? What do you take with you and what do you want to do differently?
With biennials, there is a succession of positions that accumulate and together design a narrative. This edition adds to the social vocation and the recurrent interest to engage in wider conversations that are not limited to art. It also continues the tradition of experimentation that we’ve seen in previous biennials. Compared to the last two editions, this exhibition will be less archeological. It doesn’t stem from the literal context of Gothenburg. I think my show will look different from previous exhibitions due to my approach to exhibition making.
In what way?
I make shows that are borderline chaotic. It will not be a well-behaved exhibition.
How do you view your role as a curator?
I don’t know. I think we should use art as a platform to think about social dynamics. I’m not an art historian. I think about how art inhabits society and what art can contribute to the wider conversations. Art is not autonomous.
You spoke about yourself as a choreographer before.
I think the choreographers might kill me if I say I say I am. [laughs] But I’m very interested in the body as a system built of different types of perceptions that all come together to form our understanding of the world. I emphasise choreography because I want to deconstruct the idea that vision and sight are predominant. I’m interested in a production of knowledge that is holistic.
Is the biennial format still relevant today?
I think it is. From a curatorial and artistic perspective, I think the format of the biennial lends itself to experiments. The ephemerality of the biennial makes it possible to reconstruct it. You can add and change in other ways than you can in an institution.
There has been this boom of biennials over the last fifteen years. Do you think it’s become over-saturated? Has the biennial become a mere spectacle? Should we continue to build the art world around these international events that require artworks and people to be shipped all over the world?
There is definitely a need for much more sustainable approaches to exhibition making, but I think the experimental potential of the biennial is something to safeguard. Unfortunately, with the multiplication, I think the spectacle has often been favoured over experiments during recent years. It’s been a strategy to attract audiences. If an event is pure spectacle, it just ties in with flows of symbolical and actual capital. It’s very frustrating and sad to see the format being appropriated in those terms, but I still believe there are many people that try to use the biennial as an experimental platform to react and be in dialogue with society.
Sophia Al-Maria, Adam Christensen, Joana da Conceição, Niko Hallikainen, Rodrigo Hernández, Maria Jerez, Agnė Jokšė, Kem, Tarik Kiswanson, Yarema Malaschuk & Roman Khimei, Esse McChesney, Sandra Mujinga, Rasmus Myrup, Ania Nowak, Outi Pieski, Luiz Roque, Prem Sahib, P. Staff , Iris Touliatou, Ana Vaz, Osías Yanov, Yong Xiang Li and more.
Röda Sten Konsthall, Göteborgs Konsthall, Hammarkullen Konsthall & Göteborg City Library.