Living art: A Whitney Biennial exhibit using people as part of a live installation demonstrates how versatile the exhibition structure can be. *Photo by Sheldan C. Collins / Courtesy of Whitney Museum
Living art: A Whitney Biennial exhibit using people as part of a live installation demonstrates how versatile the exhibition structure can be. *Photo by Sheldan C. Collins / Courtesy of Whitney Museum

FRIDAY, JUNE 8: As the Bermuda National Gallery prepares for its tenth anniversary biennial show, the question in many people’s minds is: “What exactly is a biennial?’

BNG director Lisa Howie, and curator Sophie Cressall, spoke to the Bermuda Sun about the upcoming exhibition and what the biennial means in today’s society.


How can an exhibition structure that has no specific theme, genre or medium requirements bring a body of artwork together to form one cohesive show?

The biennial does just that  — it is open game to any artist who has given their submission serious consideration and whose concept has a solid resolution.

But it is the “contemporary” that really binds the biennial. The exhibitions are made up of works that reflect the ever-changing social and cultural landscape, that mirror trends in artistic attitudes, and provoke discussion about the world around us. As such, the biennial has historically stood as the birthplace of many emerging art forms and movements.

We shall witness this as part of the Bermuda National Gallery’s upcoming tenth anniversary Biennial due to open to the public next week.

“The biennial is a reflection of the social times,” BNG director Lisa Howie told the Bermuda Sun: “There is an awareness about where we are and what people are going through.

“This year there was a strong commentary on people’s perception of self and of identity and society. It was a general theme even though there wasn’t a theme given. 

“The jurors felt that was an interesting element to the work — here we are, walking around with our mobile devises, really absorbed in our versions of self, and while we are hyper-connected to the globe, we are hyper-disconnected from each other.”

The biennial’s focus on the “contemporary” can sometimes be misunderstood as referring to medium. The materials and mediums are left completely open to the artist — the works do not have to be two-dimensional or mounted on a wall, they can be installation-based or even performance-based.

“We are not saying the work has to be new media,” Howie explains. “Subject and genre are not limitations, it is bigger than that. It is about whether the work is innovative within, say, a traditional form.”

Vaughan Evans’ submissions in this year’s show couldn’t demonstrate this more clearly, he is using an ancient technique of printing.

According to Cressall the artist has brought the method into a modern context.

“It is about opening up a new conversation. Here we see a European landscape represented in the Bermuda National Biennial — created through a traditional medium, using a Bermuda Palatte with postmoderrn lines. Thus, through this work we enter into a dialogue on identity, geography and nationalism the canon of the history of  art and the contemporary moment.”

Another defining factor of the biennial is, perhaps, how it cannot be solidly defined — as it moves with the times, its remit boundaries are constantly in flux.

As such there will be a number of firsts for the BNG’s tenth anniversary biennial including some submissions being considered as “works in process”.

Louisa Bermingham-Flannery for instance, known for using human hair in some of her art, will be working on her piece throughout the entire five- month show.


Another first for the BNG Biennial is collaborative work entered as a single submission.

James Cooper and Russell de Moura have collaborated on an installation piece under their recently formed Fungus Art Collective, while Biennial new comers Jamie Macmillan and Rohan Shastri have formed what they term an “artistic partnership”.

One important element to the BNG’s biennial in particular is the educational component — the gallery uses the exhibition as an educational resource to generate interest in fine art through a series of lectures, programmes and student competitions.

One of the most beneficial elements to the biennial for Bermuda’s artists is the opportunity to meet and present their work to professional international jurors. This year’s jurors are Naomi Beckwith, curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and Christopher Cozier, Trinidadian-based artist, curator, and cultural critic.

“We try to select someone who has a grounding in the Caribbean identity or Atlantic identity and then someone else from a major institution and we always ask previous jurors for recommendations,” explains Howie.

So, in its most simple form, the biennial is an exhibition of contemporary art that takes place every two years.

Lisa Howie claims that the Bermuda National Gallery Biennial has the potential to inspire the most “avant garde art to be produced in Bermuda”.

According to the book The Biennial Reader, the institution helps to define our times: “The greatest potential of biennials could lie in their capacity to be experimental forms whose contours are capable of continual change and which, in changing, can both question and reinvent themselves and the histories they participate in writing.”

See Wednesday’s Bermuda Sun for more coverage of the Bermuda National Gallery’s tenth anniversary biennial.

When: Members show is June 14 at 5:30pm. The show opens to the public on June 15 from 10am.
The show runs until November 24.
Where: Bermuda National Gallery, second floor of City Hall.