Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts

A version of this review of Over you / you, the 31st Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana, appeared in issue 50 of Mousse magazine:

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Karpa Godina’s Umetni raj (Artificial Paradise)

At a time when biennials are legion, what makes Ljubljana’s Biennial of Graphic Arts distinctive is its long-standing commitment to a specific medium, that of printmaking. Now in its 60th year, the biennial started life as the International Graphic Exhibition, animated by idealistic goals and the ambition to act as a meeting point between east and west, in keeping with the host city’s central European location and the country’s non-aligned status. Aptly named “There is no east or west”, Asad Raza’s animation of street lampsdesigned by Ljubljana’s celebrated architect Jože Plečnik for the broad central promenade of Tivoli Park – visually connected up in a programmed sequence of blinking lights the two main biennial venues situated at each end: Moderna galerija and the International Centre of Graphic Arts (MGLC), the event’s organizer.

Built around a selection of print works from the collections of MGLC and Moderna galerija, which were included in past editions of the Biennial from its inception until 1999 (when the open submission format was finally abandoned), Giles Round’s engaging archival display at Galerija Jakopič, titled “Ljubljana, 1955”, gave a measure of the vitality and ongoing relevance of this mode of image-making. Illustrating a range of printmaking techniques – from woodcuts and lithographs to etchings and screen prints – the show featured the likes of Gino Severini, Emilio Vedova and Karel Appel alongside lesser-known figures such as Edvard Zajec, whose abstract patterned compositions were informed by his pioneering use of video art and computer graphics.

Round’s findings and layered presentation, in which the hand of the artist-archivist is made visible, were echoed in the overall concept and look of the 31st edition, curated by Nicola Lees with Stella Bottai and Laura McLean-Ferris. Starting with the title – “Over You / You” – taken from the corner of a drawing by Martin Kippenberger, which beautifully conveyed the idea of something being copied, reproduced, pressed down. David Maljković’s “Untitled” (2011), in which a banana plant is squeezed beneath a wooden shelf occupying a room’s corner, vividly portrayed the latter. The titular slash or horizontal line was present in the shape of twin wood sculptures “Shelves for my parents”, mounted onto the wall one beneath the other, as if in a family tomb, in Becky Beasley’s deeply personal solo show “Sleep is when you grow” at the off-site Škuc Gallery, spilling over into the National University Library – Plečnik’s masterpiece – with a series of printed posters charting Beasley’s exhibitions and love life over the course of six years.

As befits a graphic arts biennial, special care had been taken with the printed output, from tickets and programme leaflets to the exhibition guide and logo, in Mina Fina’s visually arresting graphic design. The cover of the guide book featured a blown-up, pixellated fragment from Round’s facsimiled copy of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1963 lithograph “Accident” bearing the trace of the broken stone used for its making, which won the artist first prize at the Ljubljana Biennial that year. Pleasing in their recurrence, Luca Frei’s vignettes of lithographic stones showing signs of wear and tear appeared framed by a coloured background and pasted directly onto the walls in several rooms at MGLC. Ruptures, seam lines and glitches were equally flaunted in Andrew Hazewinkel’s haunting installation “12 figures (after Niccolò), studies in collective anxiety” (2015), for which the artist made twelve non-identical plaster copies of a terracotta bust attributed to Donatello by deliberately misaligning the different parts of a silicone mould. Using sculptural means, the work explored the tension between the hand-made and mass-reproduced object inherent in printmaking.

The biennial exhibition as a whole steered clear of the unique object, focusing instead on reproducible art prints, in line with the biennial’s original remit. Besides artist-made books, drawings, posters, postcards, photographs and ephemera printed on paper, “Over You / You” showcased prints applied to more unexpected material supports: white raffa hanging down from the wall in loose plastic strips on which Adriana Lara printed a rudimentary diagram as part of her serial “Interesting Theory #11-b” (2012); a hand-woven Gobelin tapestry inscribed with a supermarket receipt detailing the contents of a purchase in Gabriel Kuri’s “Superama III” (2003-05); or a banner bearing black-and-white photographs of Walter de Maria standing amid fellow landscape artists from the Slovenian OHO Group in Ištvan Išt Huzjan’s “Exchange Banner – OHO and Walter de Maria” (2015).

The decision to include a number of moving image works in a biennial ostensibly dedicated to the graphic arts is more problematic, even though a film can be copied and reproduced. Weaving fact and fiction, Karpa Godina’s filmic account of Fritz Lang’s six-month stay in Slovenia during his military service, “Umetni raj (Artificial paradise)”, paired with Mike Cooter’s thoughtful installation at Moderna galerija, which included a cinemascope lens-distorted Hans Hartung print curtain featured in the 8th Biennial in 1969, appeared relevant in the local context; Declan Clarke’s film “Group Portrait with Explosives” (2014), looking at the trade of military equipment made in former Czechoslovakia and deployed by Irish resistance forces in Northern Ireland, rather less so.

Curators of the past two editions of the Biennial have adopted a radically different stance with regards to the chosen medium that has historically been its raison d’être and abiding concern: either turning away from what is perceived as an outmoded art form to adopt a new focus, or emphasizing the specificity of printerly processes and what makes them appealing for artists working today. Lees’s intuitive approach to exhibition making steered a middle course. Working with her own set of rules and understanding of what it is that makes graphic arts graphic, she has struck the right balance between printed matter per se and artworks that address similar concerns – with doubling, duplication, distribution, and dissemination – albeit through other means.

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