Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts

The Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts is one of the world’s oldest biennial exhibitions of contemporary graphic arts. Founded in 1955, it has put Ljubljana and Slovenian visual art on the world map and given rise to a number of similar events throughout the world, thus laying the foundation for an active network for the exchange of graphic art experiences.

The Biennial has been internationally recognised as a high-quality event. Its renown has helped Slovenian art, which is represented in the world’s museum collections primarily with prints, to become more widely known also outside the country’s borders. Since its establishment the Biennial has been devoting continuous efforts to promoting the quality of Slovenian art. By regularly presenting the works of artists coming from other cultural and artistic backgrounds, it had a decisive impact on the domestic art scene and its development. It also played an important role in the formation of the Ljubljana Graphic School, as well as spawned art works that are now considered the pinnacle of classical Slovenian printmaking. The Biennial was founded in the period when printmaking and its reproduction technique captured perfectly the main preoccupations of art and society as a whole. This was namely a time when pop art already became an established art style in Great Britain and the USA. Post-war capitalism, consumerist society, and the shaky division between the so called high and low culture had a tremendous impact on art production. In such a climate, the Biennial quickly evolved into a globally recognised and respected art event, giving rise to a number of similar initiatives throughout the world. The biennials launched in Tokyo (Japan, 1957), Grentchen (Germany, 1958), Krakow (Poland, 1966), Florence (Italy, 1968), Bradford (Great Britain, 1970), and Fredrikstad (Norway, 1972) were all modelled on the Ljubljana Biennial, as were many national biennials in the former Yugoslavia (Zagreb, Bitola, and Belgrade) and elsewhere (Tallinn, Riga, Cairo, Bucharest, and Sofia).

From the end of the 1970s until the end of the 1980s, the currents in the art world underwent a change. The focus was again shifting to the so called personal touch of an artist’s hand, pushing printmaking as a technique of mass production into the background. Consequently, the Ljubljana Biennial was facing a period of crisis. The 1990s proved to be a time suited to printmaking as an art form, which was becoming increasingly committed to exploring the different aspects of the post-industrial society and focused on issues concerning ecological awareness, political correctness of ideas, and the communicative potential of art. In consequence, the International Biennial of Graphic Arts was again gaining in importance. During the sixty years of its running, the Biennial has presented printmaking within two mutually diverging art paradigms: between 1955 and 1999, it was an agent of Modernism, after 2001, of post-media art.

The transition to the post-media art paradigm was introduced by the 24th International Biennial of Graphic Arts in 2001, which aimed to revitalise and probe the structure and internal organisation of the event, but also to reflect on the relations with domestic and foreign audiences, curatorial work, and the medium itself. Self-reflection and examination of its own role have since then been practiced regularly by the Biennial, which is reflected in the Biennial’s decision to focus with each edition on a different topic and offer a distinct visual identity. The 2001 Biennial, which until then consisted of the central exhibition and exhibitions by selected awarded artists, added to its offer a number of different curatorial exhibitions. It completely eliminated the practice of selecting artists via an open call and expanded the graphic field by introducing new reproduction techniques and expanding its exhibition spaces to include also urban and media spaces and advertising boards. For the first time, it presented itself not only as a producer of the exhibition but of art projects as well.

The 25th International Biennial of Graphic Arts (2003) was a complex display consisting of an exhibition of contemporary graphic work, a documentary exhibition on the history of international graphic biennials from 1955 to the present, and a symposium on the relationship between publishers and artists. It featured presentations of artists’ books, newspapers and magazines, photocopies, posters, newspaper interventions and projects, and prints – all documenting the artists’ ideas about their realised or unrealised past or future projects. The first biennial edition to be given a title took place in 2005. The 26th Biennial of Graphic Arts entitled Thrust was conceived as an intersection between the biennial’s history and a reflection on its future, offering seventeen different and complex exhibitions under one roof, each aiming to answer the question of what printmaking is today. The central exhibition of the 27th Biennial of Graphic Arts bore the title The Unbound Eyes of Anxiousness. Presenting the work of selected artists, it showed the different creative worlds that coexist and shape a plurality of contexts in which art lives and presents itself. Special attention was given to the spaces for exhibition, addressing the audiences not only in gallery spaces, but also in public and media spaces, in the Biennial’s catalogue, and even in private apartments. The central exhibition of the 28th Biennial of Graphic Arts, The Matrix: an Unstable Reality (2009) responded to certain crucial questions raised by the cult film trilogy The Matrix that concerned society in general and art in particular. It aimed to answer a series of questions such as: does a medium stay the same once it has incorporated new technologies in its discourse, what is the social power of those who possess the matrix, etc. The exhibition offered a selection of over eighty internationally acclaimed and emerging artists, whose works ranged from traditional and contemporary printmaking to artist’s books and public, media, and computer interventions. The central theme of the 29th Biennial of Graphic Arts (2011) entitled The Event was the art event. The exhibition presented a selection of art events that explored some topical contemporary art issues under four headings: generosity, violence, emptiness, and the ritualistic search for the sacred. The 30th Biennial of Graphic Arts, Interruption (2013) returned to a renewed consideration of the nature of the graphic processes which are based on reproducibility and spoke of the way in which the artists of today are responding to contemporary communication tools and processes. The 31st Biennial of Graphic Arts (2015) entitled Over you / you explored the socio-political characteristics associated with the graphic arts, especially in relation to reproduction, publicity, and community. The 32nd Biennial of Graphic Arts titled Birth as Criterion (2017) renounced both its usual structure (thematic exhibition) and the central role of a curator. It ensued from a simple mechanism: the recipients of the Grand Prize of the last five biennial editions were invited to propose one artist each to participate in the 2017 edition. These five artists were then invited to nominate the next five participating artists. The process consisted of five more rounds and at the end, the 32nd Biennial of Graphic Arts was supplied with the names of around thirty participating artists. The invited artists were asked to contribute their artistic responses to the poem Birth as Criterion by the Slovenian poet Jure Detela. The 32nd edition has therefore spawned from a transgressive moment that aimed at a radical transformation – not only of the event’s content but also of its structure. The Biennial has thus shown how to avoid the proven and well-established ways of exhibiting, indicating the possibilities of approaching art in a different way.

Each edition of the Ljubljana Biennial is programmed to include a broad range of public events for all generations and structures of visitors (guided tours, workshops, symposia, lectures, art events, etc.).