Stop the globalisation, I want to get off

The Bienniale de Lyon 2000 promised an unpatronising mixture of Western and Third World art. But its anti-capitalist, low-tech nostalgia betrays its good intentions
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The Independent Online

This year's Biennale de Lyon aims high: a new way of presenting the plurality of contemporary art, free of ethno-centrism, a new framework for presenting Third World artists beside those of the West on equal terms. Behind the title, Partage d'Exotismes, lies an appealing idea of the reciprocal allure of exoticism between a West fascinated by other worlds and other worlds intrigued by the West.

This year's Biennale de Lyon aims high: a new way of presenting the plurality of contemporary art, free of ethno-centrism, a new framework for presenting Third World artists beside those of the West on equal terms. Behind the title, Partage d'Exotismes, lies an appealing idea of the reciprocal allure of exoticism between a West fascinated by other worlds and other worlds intrigued by the West.

The guest curator Jean-Hubert Martin was one of the first to include Third World artists in his 1989 exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre, but while non-Western artists are now regularly included in international art exhibitions, it seems no easier to judge their work or avoid the suspicion that we have a very partial vision of production elsewhere. Here, he has enlisted five anthropologists, who have grouped the works according to anthropological criteria, each category introduced by an often-fascinating fetish object (among more obvious deities are an intriguing pair of wax breasts from Portugal, five fragments of a legionnaire's tatooed skin and an 1870 monocycle).

Isn't this just what we're all looking for: a generous, egalitarian way of saying this is art? One hundred and twenty artists from five continents, famous and unknown, conceptual pieces alongside craft.

Then disillusion sets in. First, many of the pieces aren't very good, whether it's some boring Chinese class photos or any number of things simply too hideous to look at: Valérie Belin's photos of body-builders, Rona Pondick's nightmarish mutants looking like something from Terminator, or photos of Marcel Biefer & Beat Zgraggen cavorting in tin-can willy-protectors, which will hardly transform the image of Swiss humour. Six young artists from Peking do some nasty things to dead animals on video, and Groupe Semefo, from Mexico, hang up a merry-go-round of mummified foals.

It's hard not to distinguish between those who form part of an international art system and those who relate to crafts and rituals, difficult to avoid going round saying, "That's by a European artist, that's by an African artist, that's by an African artist working in Europe."

Paradoxically, the Biennale falls into its own trap, as categories such as "Mask", "Eat", "Tattoo", "Live In", "Die", "Fight" and "Suffer" recreate exactly the traditional clichés of the noble savage it is trying to challenge. Indeed there seems to be something wilfully retrogressive, anti-capitalist, anti-global in the definitions and artists chosen, a deliberately low-tech nostalgia for the Third World of crafts and rituals, a backlash against internet, media, technology and the exploding urban growth of the developing world, lots of recycling, painting and photography, little video or sound.

Fortunately, the good works are strong enough to stand out. The Egyptian Ghader Amer's painting and needlework images don't seem to fit in with anything else but deal with female sexuality. Cai Guo Qiang's giant aviary - where birds flutter around amid rocks imported from China, wizened bits of tree-trunk, a bubbling jacuzzi (visitors are invited to take a dip) of soothing, medicinal herbs - combines every last issue in contemporary art with age-old elements of Chinese heritage.

In the lineage of his Eighties post-Pop Art consumer icons, Haim Steinbach has taken cooking vessels from different cultures, posed on a labyrinth of steel scaffolding. Thomas Hirschhorn takes on world politics with the UN disguised as a vast chaotic mini-golf course, a rickety minefield of war zones - Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Lebanon etc - as peace efforts are weighed down by sheaves of UN publications and reports.

Wenda Gu's United Nations sits on the wobbly fence between beautiful and kitsch. The symbolism of the seats, half-Louis XV, half-traditional Chinese (sitting on two cultures, says the artist) is rather laboured, but the building, constructed from panels of different scripts made from locks of black hair and glue, is a delicate evocation of the Babelof languages.

Andrea Robbins and Max Becher's photographs show how the appropriation of cultural signs can be a curious two-way traffic: on the one hand, Germans who dress up as Native American Indians in homage to the 19th-century writer Karl May; on the other, the small US town that has faked a Bavarian identity to become a tourist destination.

As with any exhibition with a compulsory route, the immediate temptation is to disobey, to shortcut or backtrack by sliding between the blue curtains and the piles of sandbags. It's like being funnelled round Ikea, only here, when you miss an arrow, you find that you have suddenly leapt from "Exchange" to "Heal" without passing "Suffer".

In fact you do need to cheat, to wander between "Eat" and "Sex" or "War" and "Cosmos": the most interesting pieces cannot be simply slotted into one neat category, because Wenda Gu's cosmos may be equally about language or territories, or because the Poiriers' yoghurt-pot city may not be just about exotic lands, but about environmental apocalypse.

 

The Biennale de Lyon is atthe Halle Tony Garnier, Lyon, France (00 33 4 72 76 85 70) until 24 September

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