Why the Biennial Project Matters

The Biennial Project, a dynamic new collective body of work by artists Eric Hess and Anna Salmeron (working with an ever-changing group of accomplices) takes off from one elegantly simple organizing principle.

Several mid-career visual artists (The Biennial Project members, playing themselves), feeling that their work merits greater acclaim, set out on a pilgrimage to discover the secrets to success at the top levels of the art world.

Drawing upon the phenomenon of prestigious national and international biennial exhibits, and their role within the art world in determining which artists will be granted global recognition, near celebrity status and high commodity values for their art, as well as the nearly universal desire by artists to have the opportunity to exhibit at such venues - the Project provides a metaphorical vehicle to explore the underlying dynamics of who gets validation from the art world apparatus and why - at the same time addressing the artist’s internal dialectic between expected and achieved success in external and personal universes.

Moving on two planes simultaneously, unmasking both the appeal and the hollowness of success in an arena often dominated by players with a financial stake in promoting their own artist and venues, the project is an exhilaratingly gonzo field trip into the internal landscape of the artistic consciousness.

Taking advantage of the substantial charisma and performative abilities of member artists, as well as their unique chemistry as a working group, the collective produces a body of work that succeeds in simultaneously identifying with and mocking the grasping aspirationalism and bewildered sense of unfulfilled entitlement underlying much artistic endeavor today. Creative people everywhere will recognize themselves in the collective’s deadpan portrayal of the misadventures of our befuddled crusaders as they attempt to scale to the peaks of the art world.

The Biennial Project member artists are part of a generation of global artists whose aesthetic identities transcend simplistic categorization. While clearly referencing the development of art in the post modern period, the body of work they have created wears its citations lightly. The aesthetic vocabulary and narrative strategy it adopts have an uncanny command of idiom, and succeed in making surprising connections between seemingly disparate ideas and media.

The Biennial Project has an intentionally breezy tongue in cheek quality that could not have existed without the example of the currently de-rigueur post-modern ironic detachment. But by folding post-modernism’s disjunctive effect back onto the unvarnished ambition of its group of earnest pilgrims, the Project elicits a frisson between its inherent irony and the sincerity and desire of purpose that lie beneath - and as such represents a reinvigoration of the expressive potential of post-modernism.

By adapting conventions of advertising signage and promotion, and by harnessing the associative power of corporate branding as a way to promote the agenda of the project, they raise the question of where the line lies between acceptable ‘fine art” self-promotion and embarrassing hucksterism. They deftly appropriate popular vernacular associated with “reality” programming in which contestants, often with no special skills or accomplishments, vie for fame and fortune. The prize here is art world success – with the quest at turns poignant and ridiculous.

Rather than devolving into a meditation on life’s inevitable disappointments, the Project artists create a dazzling deconstruction of the myth of the self made artist. Determined to raise themselves up by their portfolio straps, they present an ironic take on the ever-resonant American success myth – that if one bangs hard enough on the door to success, and persists at all turns with an undoubting and simple-minded positivism, like the little engine that could – in the end one will be rewarded with success. With squirm-inducing directness they implicate the viewer and force their audience to confront it’s own complex set of motivations and desires vis-à-vis art world success – thereby allowing no safe viewing distance from which to objectify our hopeful crusaders and their relentless “It’s About Us” mantra.

This rhetorical strategy also deconstructs an impulse that is central to the history of minimalist art – the desire to make art in such a way as to reduce or erase the fingerprint of the individual artist. Standing this convention on its head, the Project deliberately plays to and with the personas of its member artists. In this context, telling idiosyncrasies and autobiographical references resonate with irresistible particularity.

As one follows the infectious high-jinks of this band of merry pranksters “acting in the gap between art and life” (a la Robert Rauschenberg), mining ideas from high and low art and appropriating them to the service of their cause, one realizes the extent of their accomplishment. They have fashioned a deceptively simple construct which manages to collapse the conventional dichotomy between art and commerce into a new genus, and with this paradigmatic shift have succeeded in locating The Biennial Project at precisely the nerve center of the current zeitgeist. With their finger firmly on the pulse of art-making today, their work is uniquely relevant – addressing several of the core questions confronting artists and their supporters at this historical juncture. Bravo!

Clea Saharoli, September 2008