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It happened that this past September I had a chance to explore the 16th Lyon Biennale curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellarth. It’s been very long since last I visited the Lyon Biennale—perhaps not since 2011 for The terrible beauty is born, when Thierry Raspail was the artistic director and Victoria Noorthoorn, the curator. And the very different times and expectations at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century are certainly reflected in what I found there.

Today we can clearly see and feel how the world and its global political landscape have changed so drastically, and how fragile humanity feels after the pandemic. So Sam and Till are not sourcing this biennale from the events that marked the past few years. Rather, they’re using the past to re-invent and question the future, carefully investigating the fragility of the latent dreams that mark our time.

“The quest starts with a story about a woman named Louise Brunet, who was sent to prison for her role in the 1834 revolt of Lyon’s silk weavers, only to find herself a few years later sent from Lyon to the silk factories of Mount Lebanon.” Blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, the Bardaouil/Fellarth curatorial team coordinate their elaborate artistic research with the serendipity factor in a sharp-witted manner. 

This well-curated biennale is certainly worth visiting, not only for the cathartic feeling that its collection delivers, but for the prodigious and eclectic 200+ artists selected from 40 different countries represented therein, who collectively conduct an investigation into “three interconnected layers, where fragility and resistance are explored through the lens of individual, the city and the world respectively.”

During my visit, a journalist said to me, “Don’t you think it’s too political? It throws these ideas right into your face.” But I must disagree completely with this sort of criticism. Sure, it’s political and maintains a strong didactic approach, but its measure and subtlety are its strengths. I advise all young curators to visit this biennale, as there is much to learn from it, particularly in terms of how to keep a subtle balance between ideology and artistic choices. 

One hopes to return from each biennale with a mindset reinvigorated by new art discoveries—from up-and-coming artists, known artists, and unknown artists; new works by known artists, old works by new artists, commissioned works by known and unknown artists alike, and even more.

The Manifesto of Fragility contains all of that. However, I’d like to call attention to a few standouts. This will not grant due justice to all the talented artists who’ve been invited to participate in this biennale, but perhaps at the very least I will be able to portray its atmosphere through a small selection of these works.

I can’t help but dwell on Mahsa Amini’s tragic death in that Iranian police station, killed by the morality police. As I mentioned above strange serendipities contextualize this biennale, so I have to attend to the evermore relevant work by Erin M. Riley, which explores the traumatic imagery and burden of female identity in one tapestry called Wife Beating and Crimes Against Women.