Just as bad things sometimes happen to even the best people, bad circumstances sometimes threaten even the most worthy artistic plans. This was my first thought a few days ago, when I read that Lahore, Pakistan would open the city's inaugural biennial exhibition in November 2017.
Curated by respected Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, the 1st Lahore Biennale will reportedly be "the largest contemporary art event in the country," according to Lorena Muñoz-Alonso of artnet news. But as deserving as it may be of the art world's attention, the exhibition faces two major challenges. And I worry that those challenges may cripple this historic event before it has a chance to stand on its own merits.
The Lahore Biennale's first obstacle is what I call the tyranny of options. For perspective, the aptly named Biennial Foundation––a nonprofit dedicated to tracking and promoting the world's many contemporary art biennials, triennials, and other rare special exhibitions––currently lists 173 qualifying events in its directory. Let's assume that their respective organizers tailor their schedules to minimize direct competition with each other. Given that all but a few of these exhibitions take place every other year, basic arithmetic would suggest that Lahore could still be battling for attention against 80+ fellow biennials during its run.
Even if that crude estimate oversells the Lahore Biennale's "of like kind" competition, it dramatically undersells the broader programming conflicts the exhibition faces. The annual art-industry calendar is already bloated like a gouty toe with important non-biennnial events, from art fairs to auctions to major gallery and museum openings. Only an art-industry superhero (or sociopath) would be able to see everything worth seeing in 2017. Everyone else in the field will have to make hard decisions about where to focus their limited time and resources.
Except, it turns out that those decisions generally aren't all that hard, either in contemporary art or elsewhere. And they all tend to be made based on the same brand-conscious psychology. As George Packer wrote about readers' responses to a seemingly infinite book market in the era of self-publishing, “When consumers are overwhelmed with choices, some experts argue, they all tend to buy the same well-known thing."
The simple fact is that, in an overcrowded contemporary art industry, the 1st Lahore Biennale is not that well-known thing. Though its exact dates haven't yet been announced, its November kickoff could already conflict with the tail ends of the 57th Venice Biennale (closing November 26th) and the 15th Istanbul Biennial (closing November 12th), two of the more prestigious events on the biennial calendar. It will definitely conflict with the fourth edition of the increasingly buzzy Prospect New Orleans, on view from November 11th, 2017 through February 2015, 2018. Those scheduling clashes put Lahore, an unknown quantity, in a difficult position.
And again, those are strictly the direct clashes. By November, it's only realistic to assume that many potential attendees will be in the grips of serious travel-hangovers from earlier brand-names special exhibitions, such as Documenta 14 and Skulptur Projekte Münster, along with a slew of non-biennial activity around the world. Given all these bigger-name must-sees, will a meaningful number of influential collectors, dealers, and other players add a trip to Lahore onto the back ends of their 2017 itineraries? I'm not optimistic.
At this point in art history, any new biennale would have to overthrow the tyranny of options. But Lahore's second challenge extends from its particular circumstances––and more to the point, its geopolitics. That challenge is the perception that real danger may be waiting for any and all visitors to Pakistan, whether for the biennale or any other reason.
Sadly, within hours of the exhibition's announcement, news broke of a bus bombing that killed 11 people in Peshawar, a few hundred miles to Lahore's northwest. At least 11 terrorist incidents have been reported in Lahore itself since 2009. And Pakistan as a whole has earned a reputation as one of the world's most volatile regions over the course of my lifetime. None of these factors do the exhibition any favors.
Especially not when you consider the intended audience. Remember, the Lahore Biennale's international success depends on attracting at least some people who are generally too risk-averse to even engage with artwork not already universally approved by the market's high end. How likely are they to strike out for a country where the military has decided to covertly cart its nuclear warheads along civilian roadways in delivery trucks "without noticeable defenses, in the regular flow of traffic"?
Lahore's biennial and its culture deserve better circumstances than these. But to quote Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, deserve's got nothing to do with it. The art industry in 2016 is not a bastion of fair play, and has not been for many years (if it ever was). I wish the event's organizers and participants the absolute best. I just fear that, on some level, the 1st Lahore Biennale may be over before it had a chance to begin.