The Scales, Politics, and Political Economies of Contemporary Art Biennials

Julia Bethwaite

Faculty of Management, Degree Programme of Politics, University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland

Julia Bethwaite is a Doctoral Student in International Relations in the Faculty of Management, University of Tampere, Finland. Bethwaite explores the role of art in international relations with a focus on Russian actors in the transnational field of art. She examines practices of cultural diplomacy, transnational cultural relations and the interaction of state and non-state actors within the field of art.

Anni Kangas

Faculty of Management, Degree Programme of Politics, University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland

Anni Kangas is a University Lecturer in International Relations and acts as the Academic Director of the Master’s Programme in Leadership for Change in the Faculty of Management, University of Tampere, Finland. Her research interests are in the role of art and popular culture in international relations and the impact of urbanization on world politics. Her research dealing with these issues has been published in Geopolitics, Global Networks, Journal of International Relations and Development and Millennium: Journal of International Studies.


The number of contemporary art biennials has increased significantly over the last 25 years giving rise to the phenomenon of biennalization of contemporary art. In this article, we detail the world politics of biennalization through a review of mainly academic literature on biennials. We analyze internal definitions within the reviewed material through three dimensions: scale, politics, and production of value (political economies). Our analysis shows the world politics of biennials revolves around a set of productive tensions between the order of nation states and its alternatives, cultural dominance and resistance, and various modes of value production.



Contemporary art biennials are large-scale, high-budget international group exhibitions recurring every two to five years. Their number has proliferated rapidly especially over the last 25 years. There are now estimated to be some 150 such exhibitions taking place in more than 50 countries (Filipovic et al. 2010; Vogel 2010; Sassatelli 2016a). Marchart (2010 [2008]) has come up with the notion of biennalization to refer to the proliferation and standardization of contemporary art exhibitions under the biennial format. Arguably, biennials now constitute a key context through which contemporary art is encountered and experienced. They attract considerable amount of international attention and are seen to provide a setting for surveying trends in “cutting-edge art” (Sassatelli 2016a:1). Biennials are often grandiose and dispersed across several locations in a city. They are locally embedded but usually “global in ambition” (Filipovic et al. 2010:13).[1]

This article probes into the world politics of biennials through an analysis of academic and scholarly materials where biennials are analyzed and debated. On the surface level, the discussion seems polarized. Some argue that the proliferation of biennials can turn contemporary art into a genuinely “global” phenomenon. In their view, biennalization can open up new kinds of spaces of resistance, diversity, reflection, and cross-fertilization of ideas. It can lead toward more democratic redistribution of cultural power (e.g. de Duve 2007:681).[2] Others consider biennalization as a proof of the capacity of neoliberal globalization and culture industry to standardize and instrumentalize contemporary art subjugating its autonomy to demands of political and economic convenience (e.g. Stallabrass 2004; de Duve 2007: 684–687; O’Neill & Wilson 2010). In this article, we seek to move beyond this opposition. We first detail how scholars and commentators see space to matter to the politics of art biennials. We show that multiple spatialities are implicated in the discussions and debates. To name just a few, biennials are seen to negotiate between the national, global, mobile, and universal. Such spatialities are co-implicated not only with each other but also with different understandings of politics: representation, contestation, hegemony, and empowerment. We argue that understanding the world politics of biennials requires appreciating this co-implication (cf. Leitner et al. 2008).

We have structured our review essay in the following way: We first examine how biennials are scaled[3] in scholarly discussions. We discuss the embeddedness of biennials into the Westphalian spatial order but also highlight a productive tension between the order of nation states and its alternatives, which has been a long-standing element of biennial practices. We also scrutinize arguments according to which biennials are—or have a potential to be—a genuinely global phenomenon as well as suggestions that the notion of “glocalization” best captures the scalarity of contemporary art biennials. From there, we move on to a more explicit discussion of the politics of biennials framed in terms of whether biennials are bound to remain an instrument of cultural domination, a reproduction of the hegemonic—or whether they can fulfil the often-heard promise that biennial art is able to open up new kinds of spaces of resistance, diversity, and reflection. This leads us to a discussion of the political economy of biennials, i.e. to the question of types of value that biennials produce.


Scaling the Biennials

One of the key axes of analysis in the politics of contemporary art biennials is their scalar order.[4] We use the notion of scale to refer to the discursive framing of sociospatial orders, such as local, regional, national, and global (e.g. Delaney and Leitner 1997). In this section of our review article, we examine the scaling of biennials, i.e. the kinds of sociospatial orders into which biennials are embedded in the scholarly literature. We detail the tensions between the order of nation states, globality, g/locality, and universalism in the debates and discussions on biennials.

The Nation and its Discontents

Art biennials have had and continue to have an intimate connection to the national scale. Lawrence Alloway’s characterization of the Venice Biennalethe oldest and best-known contemporary art biennial—revolves around nations and national imaginaries:

The pavilions in the Giardini … are erected by each country and the styles are a vivid array of national self-images. … The Hungarian pavilion is folkloric …, so is the Soviet pavilion. … The classical styles are all highly indicative of their countries. … The American pavilion is Colonial neoclassic [… and …] the Danish pavilion sharp and austere. (Alloway 2010 [1969]:140)

The fact that he—as well as others—has chosen to highlight the role of nations in discussions of biennials is not surprising.[5] In contrast to group shows organized by artists’ associations or art museums, invitations to participate in the biennials not only in Venice but also in Cairo, São Paulo, and New Delhi were, for a long time, sent through diplomatic channels to national representatives of specific states. State representatives, such as the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Culture, appointed national commissioners who then selected artists. As a result of this, biennial participation was also taken to reflect the status of a state in international relations (Vogel 2010:7). The institutional history of biennials thus ties them firmly to the Westphalian framework of nation states, diplomacy, and international relations.

However, the framing of biennials in national terms is not only a matter of their institutional set-up. Analyses of biennials often take up the idea of nations competing against each other. They may characterize these events as the “Olympic Games of the Art World” (Sheikh 2010 [2009]:153; see also Sassatelli 2016a:5; Baker 2010 [2004]:450–451). This association is strengthened by the fact that founding of the Venice Biennale took place in close temporal proximity to the founding of two other events based on the idea of competition among nations: the first “world expo” (1851) and modern Olympic Games (1896) (Vogel 2010:17). The framing of biennials as elements in international competition may also take place through defining biennials as “a tribune, on which to represent power” (Bertelé 2013:45), or characterizing art presented there as “an ambassador” (Vogel 2010:8). Jeannine Tang (2007:248) claims that today’s biennials remain useful in competitive geopolitical games among states; in Tang’s definition, biennials present “ample opportunities for constructing or revising dazzling national representations for cultural competition, as the exhibitions may also combine forces to mobilize regionalism and stake out territory in an internationalized art market” (ibid.).

Characterizing the biennial as a site of national representation is another way of scaling biennials to the context of nations and their representations. This often involves questions such as who is eligible to represent a nation and what kind of art has the right to demonstrate a nation’s cultural competence. Sarah Scott’s analysis of Australia’s participation at the Venice Biennale is an example of this approach. There was a 20-year gap in Australia’s attendance at the Biennale after its first participation in 1958. Scott argues that this illustrates a struggle of finding a consensus about how contemporary art should represent the nation. In the 1950s, the Australian Contemporary Art Society saw the Venice Biennale as an opportunity to “increase Australia’s links with the international art scene” (Scott 2003:59). But while the Biennale’s nature as “a platform for nationalist aspirations and for establishing the canon of each respective country’s art” was acknowledged, the status of abstract art as a vehicle of national representation was contested. Being too international, contemporary art was seen to lack “distinct national flavor” (Scott 2003:62).

Today, it is common for artists and other art world actors to explicitly take distance from national framings. The concept of national representation is also being increasingly problematized in practices and discussions surrounding biennials. In 1994, Manifesta—the “roving European Biennial of Contemporary art”—emerged to problematize place-boundedness and to map out a “new cultural topography” in the aftermath of the Cold War (Manifesta www document; Filipovic 2014:50). The 26th edition of the São Paulo biennial was framed as a critique of national representation and an attempt to attain “freedom from the great geopolitical machine ruling cultural bureaucracy” (Lagnado 2006:17; see also Vogel 2010:7). Some scholars, however, insist that the framework of nations and states should not be ignored in analyses of biennials. Chin-Tao Wu, for example, claims that it is still possible to interpret the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale in relation to the geopolitical power of various countries (Wu 2007:381; see also Rodner & Preece 2016). A similar claim is voiced by Tang, according to whom the institutional privileging of powerful states is a defining feature of the Venice Biennale. The Biennale’s curatorial rhetorics often resonate with postcolonial critiques and are full of intentions to level cultural hierarchies. However, the less powerful countries with temporary pavilions are still situated farther away from the valuable locations, such as the main entrance. As Tang notes, this “defines visibility within a field of competing national representations, as most visitors ultimately view pavilions close to the main venue” (Tang 2007:253).

The way in which the concept of national representation is simultaneously reproduced and problematized through biennial practices is a focal point of much of current research on biennials. As Caroline A. Jones aptly suggests, biennials are an enlightenment project, which “secures a kind of nationalism in the act of transcending it” (Jones 2010:76). Although it has become common to claim that the national pavilion system of the Venice Biennale is obsolete, nations remain central. The concepts of nation are needed at the same time as the “desire for the world picture” prompts subjugating terms such as “nation” and “internationalism” to critique (Jones 2010:83; see also Basualdo 2010 [2003]:129). Chu-Chiun Wei’s (2013) analysis of the changing curatorial strategies of the Taiwanese pavilion—or collateral event—also shows the character of contemporary art biennials as a flexible mechanism. They both reproduce and reject the modernist idea of nation states. Rafal Niemojewski highlights that biennials vary in their relationship to the world of nation states. Founded as a “celebration of the nineteenth-century idea of the nation state”, the relationship of the Venice Biennale to the world of nation states is different from that of the Havanna Biennial, for example. La Bienial de la Habana was born in the context of historical transformations associated with globalization (Niemojewski 2010:99–100). Its stated departure from the frame of the nation state is also reflected in its practices: For example, the artworks are displayed according to formal criteria, not according to national origin. In the exhibition catalogue, the artists are arranged in alphabetical order, not by nationality (Niemojewski 2010:96).


From International to Global

As the above examples show, some scholars continue to emphasize the importance of nations and states in the politics of biennials. At the same time, it is increasingly common to critically evaluate the national and international aspects of biennials and contemporary art. This may involve, for example, foregrounding the idea that the biennial institution is “at its core, global” (Filipovic et al. 2010:22) or pointing out that art, by character, is transnational or post-national.

Several scholars argue that the development of the biennial institution, and especially the proliferation of biennials in different parts of the world, offers evidence of a move away from the Westphalian imaginary toward a “unified, transnational institution of art” (Carroll 2007:138). In contrast to artistic exchange occurring across different art world institutions—such as Japanese theater and European theater—Carroll sees contemporary art as an internally coherent practice with a shared language, tradition, and sense-making strategies: conversational presuppositions, hermeneutical gambits, recurring themes, and sense-making strategies.[6] At today’s biennials, Carroll argues, artworks deriving from nominally different cultures, stand side by side, play related language-games and share the same traditions of interpretation (Carroll 2007:141). According to Marian Pastor Roces (2010 [2005]:55), this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, a spatial discourse of the global was part of the universal expositions that can be treated as the predecessors of the biennials. Both the Venice Biennale and the Expos had universal ambitions in the sense of being tied to the idea of humanity’s progress.

Contemporary art biennials may also be argued to have an active role in creating alternative world orders. Boris Groys, for example, suggests that biennials have a specific role to play in today’s world where capitalism operates globally, but there is no global political project. In these conditions, biennials offer a terrain on which models for a new global order can still be envisaged and imagined (Groys 2009:64–65). Working with the Kantian idea of sensus communis, de Duve also sees biennials as a mechanism able to surpass local specificities; there is potential for “aesthetic cosmopolitanism” in them. Esthetic cosmopolitanism would be a form of cosmopolitanism that is founded esthetically, not politically. It utilizes the idea of universality and universally shared feelings and agreements, and takes place in negotiations concerning the label of art and esthetic judgments (de Duve 2007: 684–685).

[Kant] grasped that an issue of such magnitude as peace on earth was at stake in a sentence so anodyne as “this rose is beautiful”. When replaced by “this cultural product is art”, the real depth of his thinking on aesthetics comes to the fore (de Duve 2007:686).

Another way of addressing the global character of contemporary art biennials is presented in Nadine Siegert’s analysis of the Luanda Triennial. Siegert’s analysis takes place against the background of Becker’s well-known idea of an “art world”, which is constituted by individuals (and organizations) who contribute to the production of works of art while being dispersed around the world (Siegert 2014:176). Siegert points out that such a conception of the international art world has tended to exclude the Global South: the proliferation of the biennial institution across the world does not guarantee mobility and interaction in equal measure for all. Today’s art world “consists of a number of smaller, locally embedded art scenes, each with very different histories and dimensions” (Siegert 2014:176). It is thus global in the sense of being a decentered and pluralized entanglement or assemblage. As Siegert emphasizes, it is important to pay attention to the intertwining of the global and local and the resulting political dynamics when discussing the “globalization” of biennials. Interestingly, Siegert discovers that the idea of national reconstruction and representation has played a crucial role when biennials—e.g. the Cairo Biennial, Dak’art, Rencontres de Bamako, and Johannesburg Biennale—have been founded on the African continent. For example, at the same time, as the actors involved with the Luanda Triennial aspire to “global participation” and seek recognition from the “international art world”, the exhibition has had an important role in negotiating and reconstructing the decolonized, postwar Angolan society, and its relation to the world. The Luanda Triennial, while avoiding the concept of national art, remains in many ways tied to the key notions and images of Angolan patriotism and nationalism (Siegert 2014:188). Siegert’s analysis thus illustrates an important point about biennials more generally: a variety of sociospatial orderings matters and different spatial framings are productively intertwined in the politics of biennials.


Biennials as an Instrument of Cultural Domination

The way in which biennials are scaled is closely related to the question of their politics, i.e. whether and how biennial practices produce and reproduce existing power relations and serve as mechanisms of cultural domination. In other words, the scales of biennials are co-implicated not only with each other but also with different understandings of politics: contestation, resistance, dissent, hegemony, and empowerment. In this section of the review article, we detail this aspect in the world politics of biennials.

Replicating Cultural Hegemony through Biennials

There is a wealth of literature debating whether it is possible to contest existing power relations through biennials. Filipovic (2014) argues that although biennials claim to offer a counter model to the modern, Western museum institution, they replicate some of its questionable paradigms. Despite aiming to decenter the traditional notions of modernity and give voice to underrepresented cultures, histories, and politics, they most often end up replicating the Western museum’s frame—the white cube. Arguably, such homogenization is paradoxical. It goes to the heart of the neoliberal model of globalization against which many biennials seek to position themselves:

[N]o matter how fervently biennials and large-scale exhibitions insist on their radical distinction from the idea of the museum, they overwhelmingly show artworks in specially constructed settings that replicate the rigid geometries, white partitions, and windowless spaces of the museum’s classical exhibitions, that is, when biennials are not simply bringing artworks into existing museums without altering their white cubes. Timeless, hermetic, and always the same despite its location or context, this globally replicated white cube has become almost categorically fixed, a private “non-place” for the world of contemporary art biennials, one of those uncannily familiar sites, like the department stores, airports, and freeways of our period of supermodernity described by anthropologist Marc Augé. (Filipovic 2014:48).

It is, indeed, quite common to claim that biennials—the Venice Biennale in particular—play a role in replicating the cultural hegemony of the West or Global North (e.g. de Duve 2007:681). The logic of this argument often is that having emerged as part of the modernizing, civilizing, or colonizing projects of the Global North (or West), it is quite impossible for biennials to escape this legacy. Marian Pastor Roces suggests that although an “attempt to outstare the colonizer’s gaze” forms part of the shift toward global art events, these are still “spaces of contest that mirror the spaces created by the forces contested”. She is thus sceptical that spaces that were produced in the nineteenth century for the global diffusion of capitalist power could be converted into spaces for social justice (Pastor Roces 2010 [2005]:53–54; see also Bakshtein 2015:394). In a similar tone, Valerie Kabov argues that the Venice Biennale represents the “northern version of the seeing and representing the world.” In opposition to the Global South and “emerging markets”, it is tied to “Northern views, needs and agendas” (Kabov 2016:1). Kabov comes to this conclusion through an analysis of the Venice Biennale as a mechanism for emerging countries to seek validation from the Global North. She suggests that the Venice Biennale is a seemingly democratic system that recites postcolonial critiques in its curatorial rhetorics, but in reality supports and reproduces the existing power relations and inequalities on the global scale. The Global North still has the power to decide what gains recognition (Kabov 2016:3–5).

A related claim is that the popularity and expansion of contemporary art biennials does not signal the emergence of a decolonialized, democratic, and global art world. Chin-Tao Wu argues that the biennials embody “the traditional power structures of the contemporary Western art world; the only difference being that ‘Western’ has quietly been replaced by a new buzzword, ‘global’” (Wu 2009:115). In this interpretation, hegemonic power is at play in the mutually shared agreement to obey the established conventions of the biennial institution. In a similar way as Kabov, Wu argues that the “culturally dominated” feel the need to be present at biennials in order to have their identity recognized (Wu 2007:385).


Sites of Resistance and Dissent

In contrast to arguments that biennials cannot avoid reproducing cultural hegemony, some scholars see possibilities for resistance in them. Rafal Niemojewski, for example, highlights the need to foreground the significant differences among biennials. While some biennials may indeed be seen to reproduce existing power structures, others do provide a site for “promoting peripheral art scenes as part of the global circuit” (Niemojewski 2010:95). Niemojewski problematizes the commonplace treatment of the Venice Biennale as the hegemonic form to which other biennials should be traced. He foregrounds the role of the Havana Biennial as the “most important point of reference for the contemporary biennial” (Niemojewski 2010:101; see also Basualdo 2010 [2003]:128). In this interpretation, the establishment of the Havana Biennial in 1984 marked a new turn in biennial history; it established the biennial as the platform for the critique of the modernity that the biennial institution can be argued to have sprung from (Niemojewski 2010:100). “By focusing on creating horizontal connections (South-South) that provide alternatives to the art routes inherited from modernity the Havana Biennial enabled a new type of global exhibition that debunks the myths of teleological modernity and explores the plurality of modernism” (Niemojewski 2010:100). However, the capacity of the biennial institution to provide an alternative to the existing institutional frameworks within the contemporary art world is a question that, according to Niemojewski, remains open (Niemojewski 2010:101).

As economic and cultural hegemony has been one of the often-discussed subjects among the scholars and representatives of the art world, it has also inspired opposed actions. For some, the utopian promise of the biennial has been, and is, the promulgation of counter-narratives and experimentation with counter-models (Filipovic et al. 2010:23). For Filipovic, biennials remain a site of ambiguity, inquiry, and experimentation, a critical site of experimentation. They offer counterpoints to the regular programming of the museum and other traditional art institutions, platforms for addressing politically charged issues as well as eliciting a questioning of artistic practices (Filipovic 2014:47; see also Basualdo 2010 [2003]:124–135; see also Hoskote 2010:308). Paul O’Neill argues that it has been through providing platforms for critical discussion and recognizing wider audiences that biennials have been able to provide models of resistance to the hegemony of established art institutions and Western art history (O’Neill 2012:85; see also Marchart 2013).

Thus, for many scholars the fact that biennials have been firmly tied to hegemonic structures does not mean that it would be impossible to use them to advance other agendas. Okwui Enwezor claims that biennials are still able to expose the limits and contradictions of Western epistemologies. Being aware of the fact that an expansionist mode of biennials has given rise to a negative impression of biennials as “an agora of spectacle” (Enwezor 2010 [2010]:434), he claims that biennials may enable a transformation of spectatorship toward a less possessive direction (Enwezor 2010 [2010]:441). Enwezor is thus among the scholars claiming that the “globalization” of the phenomenon of biennials can be made to signal a process of fragmentation and that this can unhinge totalizing notions of art and culture. Understood in the wider context of feminism, multiculturalism, liberation theology, resistance art, queer theory, and rights of indigenous peoples, the hegemonic concept of spectatorship becomes fragmentary and is replaced by the idea of “general spectatorship”, which is tied to neither the logic of the nation state nor that of imperialism (Enwezor 2010 [2010]:442–444).

Curiously, participation at the Venice Biennale can be interpreted as a counter-hegemonic act as such. An example of this is offered in Wei’s analysis of the Taiwanese pavilion. After being symbolically diminished from the status of an official national pavilion to a collateral event at the Venice Biennale in 2003, the function of the pavilion changed. Instead of representing Taiwanese art and making the public familiar with Taiwan, representing a “critical perspective” became the main function of the Taiwanese unofficial, self-proclaimed pavilion (Wei 2013:475–481). In Wei’s words, it “critiques the logic of cultural, political and economic hegemony dominating the biennale and caus[ing] Taiwan’s own marginality”, acting as a device of critical globalism (Wei 2013:483). Arguably, the case of the Taiwanese pavilion shows that the non-Western participants and the “oppressed” are not passive, hegemony-obeying victims, but can also use the existing structures to advance their own agendas[7] (Wei 2013:474–484).

From the point of view of an analysis of the politics of space of contemporary art biennials, Simon Sheikh’s interpretation of the possibility of biennials to function as sites of resistance is particularly interesting. Sheikh recognizes that a residue of national myth-making and production of citizenry is at work in biennials and that they are intimately tied to processes of capital accumulation. However, he claims that things start to look different if we examine them through the prism of interconnectedness—the sense of any place being always seen in relation to another place, or a series of possible places: “What goes on ‘here’ always has effects ‘there’, and vice versa, even when we are not aware of these movements. … [O]ne of the characteristics of advanced art is precisely that it allows one to see more than one viewpoint: more than one story or situation, and more than one way to look at them” (Sheikh 2010 [2009]:158). Working with such relational understanding of space (e.g. Massey 2005), Sheikh approaches biennials through the category of the heterotopia. They are “capable of maintaining several contradictory representations within a single space” (Sheikh 2010 [2009]:163). Heterotopia allows for the fact that while biennials are part of hegemonies, mechanisms for generation of monopoly rent or city branding, this does not mean that they need to affirm such hegemonies. They can be made to signify differently: “It is improbable that a biennial can exist without taking part in … processes of capital accumulation (both symbolic and real, of course), so the question is rather, can they do something else simultaneously?” (Sheikh 2010 [2009]:163).


Cultural Political Economy of Biennials

An important dimension in the world politics of biennials is their cultural political economy, i.e. the question of the kind of value that is produced at biennials. There are two interlinked dimensions to this discussion: The first reviews contributions examining the biennial phenomenon in the context of post-Fordist processes of capital accumulation and search for monopoly rent through exclusivity. The second takes up the character of biennials as badges of distinction and mechanisms of accruing not only economic but also symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1983).

Some scholars highlight the fact that the oppositional value of contemporary art has been suppressed namely as exchange value considerations have taken over. The embeddedness of contemporary art biennials in the search for monopoly rent has implications for the capacity of biennials to function as spaces of justice and to realize their stated goal to bring into being liberating “new worlds” (Basualdo 2010 [2003]; Kompatsiaris 2014). Panos Kompatsiaris discusses the contradictions that emerge when a biennial’s ideological agenda—e.g. social criticism toward the neoliberal economic model—collides with their practices of funding and hiring labor, for example: “One must necessarily begin by asking what kinds of worlds are these institutions capable of producing and more importantly for whom” (Kompatsiaris 2014:77, 82–86). Filipovic, van Hal, and Øvstebø also suggest that the increasing dominance of the place-branding agenda in biennial operations has lent legitimacy to the claim that the word biennial stands for little more than “an overblown symptom of spectacular event culture” (Filipovic et al. 2010:13). Biennials are argued to instrumentalize the symbolic value of art which flows from art’s presumed autonomy from the market logic (Basualdo 2010 [2003]:129–130) and characterized as commercially driven showcases akin to Disneyland (Filipovic et al. 2010:13). Tang suggests that biennials function as “tastemakers, mobilized to reinforce certain politics through aesthetic representation” while being smoothly integrated into “capital’s flows and political status quos” (Tang 2007:258).

Money has, indeed, always played a role at biennials, and a strand of the literature on biennials focuses on its implications for the politics of biennials. One of the primary goals of the Venice Biennale when it was established in the late nineteenth century was to establish a market for contemporary art. In 1968, the ban on sales was established as a result of student protests that saw the Biennale as a site for the commodification of culture (see also Jones 2010:79). Despite this, several analysts note that it is difficult to distinguish contemporary art from various kinds of economic circulations. This is the case especially taking into consideration the financialization of contemporary art and the consolidation of the figure of the “art investor” (e.g. Coslor 2016). The Venice Biennale plays a specific role in building momentum for art as an investment class. “Showing in Venice speeds up sales, gets artistic careers going, cranks up price levels and helps artists land a dealer ranked higher in the market’s hierarchy,” as Olav Velthuis argues (Velthuis 2011:22). This “Venice effect” is built on a paradox: due to its noncommercial nature, the Venice Biennale enables demonstrating one’s independence from the market and autonomous interest in art. However, this symbolic capital can be easily converted into economic capital: “So the paradox is that the curator’s resistance to commerce and Venice’s official status as a non-selling event is exactly what makes its quality signals influential in the art market” (Velthuis 2011:23).

In addition to the Venice effect on the art market, there is some discussion in the existing literature on the influence of funding and corporate sponsors on what is exhibited at biennials (e.g. Grace 2015; Kabov 2016). Robert Grace, for example, points out while the ratio between governmental and private funding varies considerably between the participating pavilions at the Venice Biennale, corporate funding is often involved. The motivation of such funding for contemporary art is generally based on the logic of commercial exchange, which has implications for the autonomous status of art. Grace illustrates this with the example of a major sponsor of the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015, who set a condition to serve beer produced by one of his companies at pavilion’s vernissage (Grace 2015:25–26). Valerie Kabov has also scrutinized the influence of funding on the politics of biennials. She remarks that in the case of private and NGO funding, the paths often “run along colonial and neo-colonial lines” molding the artists from the “emerging countries” according to the needs of the Western funders (Kabov 2016:4–5). When this is combined with the limited ability of governments from the global south to support the costs of mounting national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, their ability to participate remains dependent on the imperatives of northern funders: “What this unambiguously suggests is that participation of Southern artists in Venice Biennale will continue to be is filtered to tune of Northern money and Northern audiences” (Kabov 2016:4).

The economic dynamics of biennials are not always as straightforward as the question of how the funding of biennial activities is tied to attempts to further specific interests. More complex economic processes are also at play. Two strands of discussion can be distinguished here: one focuses on the connections of biennials to processes of capital accumulation and the other on their role in the accumulation of symbolic capital. One of the scholars who have tried to tie their analyses of biennials to wider circuits of capital and mechanisms of capital accumulation is Panos Kompatsiaris. He highlights that the proliferation of biennials has to be examined in the context of post-Fordist processes of capital accumulation. While the extraction of surplus value was tied to the production site under Fordism, in post-Fordism its extraction becomes diffused in the sphere of the circulation of capital in the financial, touristic, and cultural sectors—“the seeking of valorization in collective desire … has been capital’s response to the problem of growth” (Kompatsiaris 2014:81; see also de Duve 2007:682, Sheikh 2010 [2009]:155).

Monica Sassatelli’s work provides a counter argument to claims of the logic of commodification dominating biennials. Sassatelli has pointed out that analyzing biennials in terms of the logic of commodification is reductionist in the sense of, firstly, hiding the specificities of symbolic production and, secondly, positing economic value and value of art as “hostile worlds” (Sassatelli 2016a:4). Instead, Sassatelli promotes an analysis of biennials in terms of the “symbolic production of art”. This approach is able to take into account questions of value production without explaining everything away using the logic of commodification. The notion of the “symbolic production of art” stands for the process of valuation rendering a work, an artist, or a genre relevant and appreciated. In this capacity, biennials mediate between “the constitution of aesthetic dispositions and the legitimation of regimes of meaning and value” (Sassatelli 2016a:3; see also O’Neill 2012:72). In terms of politics of space, an analysis of the symbolic production of art could imply keeping a closer eye on ongoing struggles and searches for new rationales for what is actually valued and what is not (cf. Sassatelli 2016a:13).



In this review article, we have reflected on the world politics of contemporary art biennials. Three key dimensions emerged from our analysis: scale, politics, and value. Scale refers to the sociospatial ordering of biennials. Politics stands for the question of whether biennials reproduce or challenge existing power relations, and value refers to the ways in which not only economic but also symbolic capital is produced in and through biennials.

Analyzing scholarly articles on biennials, we have shown that a significant amount of practices of and academic discussion on biennials takes place around the question of scale. Scholars writing about biennials often depart from the relevance of nations and national representation and propose alternatives to it. There is, indeed, a productive tension between the order of nation states and its alternatives—the global, local, or glocal—within biennial practices as well as in commentaries on them. There are also suggestions that such relational notions as heterotopia or assemblage would best capture the spatiality of biennials. This shows that a variety of sociospatial orderings matter for the politics of contemporary art biennials. Multiple spatialities and scales are relevant in order to understand the politics of space of contemporary art biennials. There is no need to privilege any of them but rather to pay attention to their co-implication, e.g. to the way in which they intersect and influence each other.

As to the politics of biennials, we have discussed the capacity of biennials to offer models of resistance, expose contradictions within epistemologies, and provide platforms for countering various forms of dominance. We have also detailed claims according to which biennials tend to reproduce hegemonies through their art practices and political economies. Probing the biennials’ cultural political economies, we showed that they are intimately linked to the dynamics of capital accumulation and production of monetary value within the current capitalist model. However, not only economic but also symbolic, cultural as well as political capital, can be generated through biennials. They can thus be connected to other regimes of value than commercial value. The idea of multiple, co-implicated spatialities and ways of being political also suggests that the persistence of national framings or hegemonic connections does not mean that biennials cannot be something else at the same time. Foregrounding such heterotopic character of biennials can also offer a way out of polarized interpretations, which see biennials either as global spaces of diversity and resistance or as examples of the way in which neoliberal capitalism commodifies culture.



The research for this article was made possible by funding from the Kone Foundation and the Academy of Finland (project number 298883). The authors would like to thank the members of the research project Spaces of Justice Across the East-West Divide and participants of the Tampere Security Research Group (TASER) as well as the editors and referees of the AIA Journal for insightful comments on the manuscript. The Kiasma Library offered invaluable research help.



Alloway, Lawrence. (2010 [1969]) The Biennial in 1968. In The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, 136–149. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Baker, George. (2010 [2004]) The Globalization of the False: A Response to Okwui Enwezor. In The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, 446–453. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Bakshtein, Iosif. (2015) Sovremennoe Iskusstvo i Ego Proekty. Biennale i Vokrug. In Vnutri Kartiny. Stat’i i Dialogi o Sovremennom Iskusstve, 389–394. Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie. [Бакштейн, Иосиф. (2015) Современное Искусство и Его Проекты. Биеннале и Вокруг. In Внутри Картины. Статьи и Диалоги о Современном Искусстве, 389–394. Москва: Новое Литературное Обозрение.]

Basualdo, Carlos. (2010 [2003]) The Unstable Situation. In The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, 124–135. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Bertelé, Matteo. (2013) From Stateless Pavilion to Abandoned Pavilion. Russia and the Soviet Union in Venice, 1920–1942. In Russian Artists at the Venice Biennale 1895–2013, 44–51. Moscow: Stella Art Foundation.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1983) The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed. Poetics 12 (4–5): 311–356.

Bydler, Charlotte. (2004) The Global Artworld, Inc. On the Globalization of Contemporary Art, 151. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet.

Carroll, Noel. (2007) Art and Globalization: Then and Now. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65 (1): 131–143. Special Issue: Global Theories of the Arts and Aesthetics.

Coslor, Erica. (2016) The Financialization of the Art Market. E-International Relations. <; (Accessed 10 November 2017).

de Duve, Thierry. (2007) The Glocal and the Singuniversal. Reflections on Art and Culture in the Global World. Third Text 21 (6): 681–688.

Enwezor, Okwui. (2010) Mega-Exhibitions and the Antinomies of a Transnational Global Form. In The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, 426–445. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Filipovic, Elena. (2014) The Global White Cube. 22: 45–63. <; (Accessed 29 February 2017).

Filipovic, Elena, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø. (2010) The Biennial Reader. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Grace, Robert. (2015) Australian Pavilion Venice. Architecture Australia 4: 20–27. <> (Accessed 20 December 2017).

Groys, Boris. (2009) From Medium to Message. The Art Exhibition as Model of a New World Order. Open 2009, The Art Biennial as a Global Phenomenon 16: 56–65.

Hoskote, Ranjit. (2010) Biennials of Resistance: Reflections on the Seventh Gwangju Biennial. In The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, 306–321. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Jones, Caroline A. (2010) Biennial Culture: A Longer History. In The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, 76–83. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Kabov, Valerie. (2016) The Role of the Venice Biennale Partnership with the Art Market in Real and Perceived Democratization of the Art World – African Contemporary Art Case-study in the Context of the Global South. Paper presented at IESA conference ‘The Venice Biennale and the Art Market, the Venice Biennale as an Art Market: Anatomy of a Complex Relationship’, London, February 3–5 2016.

Kompatsiaris, Panos. (2014) Curating Resistances: Ambivalences and Potentials of Contemporary Art Biennials. Communication, Culture & Critique 7: 76–91.

Lagnado, Lisette. (2006) Introduction. In 27a. bienal de São Paulo, 1618. São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

Leitner, Helga, Eric Sheppard, and Kristin M. Sziarto. (2008) The spatialities of contentious politics. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33 (2): 157–172.

Manifesta www-document. About the Biennial. <; (Accessed 11 January 2017).

Marchart, Oliver. (2010 [2008]) Hegemonic Shifts and the Politics of Biennialization: The Case of Documenta. In The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal & Solveig Øvstebø, 466–491. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Marchart, Oliver. (2013) The Globalization of Art and the Biennials of Resistance. In CuMMA Papers 7. Helsinki: Aalto University. <> (Accessed 20 December 2017).

Massey, Doreen. (2005) For Space. London: SAGE.

Niemojewski, Rafal. (2010) Venice or Havana: A Polemic On the Genesis of the Contemporary Biennial. In The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, 88–103. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

O’Neill, Paul. (2012) Biennial Culture and the Emergence of a Globalized Curatorial Discourse: Curating in the Context of Biennials and Large-scale Exhibitions since 1989. In The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), 51–85. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

O’Neill, Paul, and Mick Wilson. (2010) Introduction. In Curating and the Educational Turn, eds. Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson, 11–22. London: Open Editions.

Pastor Roces, Marian. (2010 [2005]) Crystal Palace Exhibitions. In The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, 76–83. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Rodner, Victoria L., and Chloe Preece. (2016) Painting the Nation: Examining the Intersection Between Politics and the Visual Arts Market in Emerging Economies. Journal of Macromarketing 36 (2): 128–148.

Rogoff, Irit. (2006) The Art Biennial Geo-Cultures: Circuits of Arts and Globalizations. Open! <; (Accessed 3 February 2017).

Sassatelli, Monica. (2016a) Symbolic Production in the Art Biennial: Making Worlds. Theory,      Culture & Society 34 (4): 89–113. DOI: 10.1177/0263276416667199.

Sassatelli, Monica. (2016b) The Biennalization of Art Worlds: the Culture of Cultural Events. In Handbook of The Sociology of Art and Culture, eds. Laurie Hanquinet and Mike Savage, 277–289. London: Routledge.

Scott, Sarah. (2003) Imagining a Nation: Australia’s Representation at the Venice Biennale, 1958. Journal of Australian Studies 27 (79): 51–63.

Sheikh, Simon. (2010 [2009]) Marks of Distinction, Vectors of Possibility: Question for the Biennial. In The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, 150–163. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Siegert, Nadine. (2014) Luanda Lab – Nostalgia and Utopia in Aesthetic Practice. Critical Interventions 8 (2): 176–200.

Smith, Neil. (1992) Contours of a Spatialized Politics: Homeless Vehicles and the Production of Geographical Scale. Social Text 33: 54–81.

Stallabrass, Julien. (2004) Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tang, Jeannine. (2007) Of Biennials and Biennalists. Venice, Documenta, Münster. Theory, Culture & Society 24 (7-8): 240–260. DOI: 10.1177/0263276407084709.

Tang, Jeannine. (2011) Biennalization and its Discontents. In Negotiating Values in the Creative Industries. Fairs, Festivals and Competitive Events, eds. Brian Moeran and Jesper Strandgaard Pedersen, 73–93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Velthuis, Olav. (2011) The Venice Effect. The Art Newspaper Magazine. June, 21–24.

Vogel, Sabine B. (2010) Biennials – Art on a Global Scale. Vienna: Springer.

Wei, Chu-Chiun. (2013) From National Art to Global Criticism. The Politics and Curatorial Strategies of the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Third Text 27 (4): 470–484.

West, Shearer. (1995) National Desires and Regional Realities in the Venice Biennale, 1895–1914. Art History 18 (3): 404–434.

Wu, Chin-Tao. (2007) Occupation by Absence, Preoccupation with Presence: A Worm’s Eye-View of Art Biennials. Journal of Visual Culture 6: 379–386. DOI: 10.1177/1470412907084514.

Wu, Chin-Tao. (2009) Biennials without Borders? New Left Review 57: 107–115.



[1] There are obviously significant differences among biennials but they also share a significant set of traits: commitment to a cosmopolitan perspective combined with efforts to articulate the particularisms of their host cities; financing by mostly public or private sources which are not usually directly dependent on art investors, which gives biennials a “public” character (as compared to art fairs, for example); groundedness upon an idea or concept expected to be communicated by the curators (Kompatsiaris 2014:78). For an articulation of differences among biennials, see e.g. Bydler’s (2004:151) classification of three types of biennials: capitalist-philanthropic enterprises initiated at the turn of the twentieth or mid-twentieth century (e.g. the Venice Biennale); events originating in the post-Second World War setting and marked by bloc politics or “underdevelopmentalist” reactions (e.g. Documenta and Münster); and biennials characterized by “event orientation” and “flexible production” in the 1990s and 2000s (e.g. Manifesta).

[2] Panos Kompatsiaris is one among scholars who suggests viewing biennials as attempts to create new worlds. They offer spaces for knowledge production and social criticism, often merge elements of political and social activism into their agendas and may also involve “non-artistic” actors such as “activist groups and marginalized communities” (Kompatsiaris 2014:85). This highlights the potential of biennials to serve as discursive sites for questioning the existing structures and challenging hegemonies. However, this is far from an uncomplicated argument and, as Kompatsiaris also notes, it is pertinent to ask what kind of worlds biennials produce and for whom. Biennials can also be examined as a “lifeblood of contemporary capitalism” engaging with neoliberal economic models and serving the neutralization and institutionalization of the critique (Kompatsiaris 2014:77, 81).

[3] The scale can be understood to refer to a simple hierarchy of nested scales (akin to International Relations’ levels-of-analysis discussion). Here, however, we have in mind the idea of scales not as something that pre-exists societal activity but rather as something that is produced in and through societal activity, notably practices of spatial differentiation. Such activity, in turn, produces and is produced by spatial or geographical structures of social interaction. Given this, production of scale is also a potential site of political struggles, which makes it pertinent for discussions of spaces of social justice (Smith 1992:62).

[4] A biennial denotes an exhibition, which occurs once every two years. The Italian word “Biennale”, with a capital letter, is often used in relation to Venice Biennale, the oldest art biennial in the world.

[5] However, Shearer West’s analysis of the first eleven editions of the Venice Biennale (1895–1914) shows that while the event was intended as an “international” exhibition, the exhibitions actually represented traditional regionalism and biennale activities were focused on enhancing the image of Venice and increasing flows of tourism and commerce (West 1995:413).

[6] Carroll (2007:141) exemplifies this with the idea that urinating into the Tate Modern’s version of Fountain, Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi may or may not have been aware of Pierre Pinoncelli urinating into another version of Fountain in Nimes. However, both were able to make a gesture as they were tapping into the tradition of Duchamp.

[7] In short, relational understanding of space suggests that types of associations and relations between entities precede identities (Massey 2005).