The Bisbee Biennale: A Silent Exhibition | Bisbee, AZ, USA
In 1951, Robert Rauschenberg introduced arguably the most radical work of the 20th Century. His White Painting consisted of canvases painted a pure, even white. Rauschenberg aimed to produce a work without the artist’s mark: a multi-paneled tabula rasa. One year later, John Cage performed his seminal work, a musical composition titled 4’ 33’’. The performer follows the completely empty sheet music, leaving the audience to their experience of “silence”.
Using Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting (1951) and John Cage’s 4’33’’ (1952) as a springboard for discussion, the Bisbee Biennale considers the many forms and manifestations of “silence” in the setting of an American Ghost Town. Bisbee, Arizona was Queen of the copper-mining towns of the Southwest until all operations were halted in 1975. The peak population of 35,000 in the early 1900s has waned to about 5,500 today, and the town survives on an industry of tourism. Playing on this historical tension, the show will demarcate spaces throughout the city as “silent”, providing an opportunity for visitors to not only engage with the presented art, but also to challenge their personal notions and limitations of experiencing silence first-hand. From November 1st-23rd— Bisbee’s lowest point for tourism— this not-quite Ghost Town will exist as a location loaded with the paradoxes of silence. The site asks of the exhibition what it means to at once be present as a depopulated space that silence is forced upon, and a meditative space in which silence is elected. If discomfort with this contradiction comes from not wanting to fight fire with fire, the Bisbee Biennale endeavors to understand how one can fight silence with silence.
The Biennale is organized into five major events: The Main Exhibition, “Art Around Bisbee”, a Film Series, a Lecture and Mediation Series, and a Reading Room. The Main Exhibition and “Art Around Bisbee” showcase the work of eighteen international artists whose pieces speak to the theme. As the concept of “silence” lends itself to a global inclusion that moves beyond language, the Bisbee Biennial has an opportunity and a responsibility to bring together works from all around the world. The show also hopes to converse with past exhibitions on “silence”, such as the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s “Silence” Show (2012), and “Sounds Like Silence” put on at the Dortmunder U in Germany (2012). The Bisbee Biennale takes a different approach to the theme than past shows, because it offers the experience of a Silent Retreat—a holiday taken in order to reconnect with “inner stillness”. Formal retreat program approaches vary, some requiring participants to remain silent for the extent of the stay, while others balance exercises in silence with other meditative techniques. Whatever degree of silence visitors choose to practice, there is potential for vital questions to be answered on a highly personal level: How does absence manifest itself? How does silence feel? It is oppressive? Peaceful? What experiences define our relationship to silence? The events of the Bisbee Biennale are made possible by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also supported the BAM/PFA “Silence” show, the National Endowment for the Arts, Arizona Commission for the Arts, and various Art Councils and Universities in Bisbee’s Cochise County.
The Main Exhibition will be held in the Central School Project, the Bisbee Center for the Arts. There will be no speaking or cell phones permitted inside the exhibition hall, though what will certainly be a persistence of ambient sounds begs consideration of John Cage’s assertion: “There is no such thing as silence”. The curation of this part of the Biennale will work to establish an overarching discourse on three stages or forms of silence: Silence as Absence; Silence as Resistance; and Silence as Meditation. The artworks selected embody these categories and facilitate an understanding of silence as a multi-phased process, and are exemplary of the ways in which artistic depiction and performance can often give voices to the voiceless. The satellite events consist of a six-night Film Screening, with each night introduced by a different speaker, a five-part Lecture Series that will be spread over two days, Guided Mediation sessions, offered daily, and a Reading Room filled with extensive literature pertaining to silence that will be open to the public.
The Bisbee Biennale explores “silence” as a concept, as a metaphor, and as a tangible state to be experienced. The works of Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage that began the conversation on silence in the context of contemporary art are so monumental because they effectively embody the many-faced contradictions of silence: their passivity evokes reaction; their emptiness triggers our defenses, calls for our projections; their blankness is virginal, sublime, and an offer of transcendence. The Bisbee Biennale efforts to engage with the intention behind these pieces in order to provoke contemplation and further conversation on this paradoxical non-entity of “silence”. The Ghost Town site of Bisbee, Arizona reminds us of the silencing of a history that occurs when small non-metropolitan areas are overlooked, and often forgotten. Ultimately, the offer of the exhibition as an experiential silence retreat strives to establish a space for healing, for being present, and for listening.