In the art world, a biennial is a once-every-two-years event, a massive group show that aims to cover the waterfront of what’s new and now in contemporary art.
Venice started the tradition — which is why biennale, the Italian version of the word, is often used by snooty art types — in 1895, and starts this year’s edition on June 1. The Whitney Museum of American Art has one of the most famous biennials in the United States, surveying contemporary art every even-numbered year.
This month, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art launches a biennial of its own — but, this being Utah, it looks to be different.
“This is, in a way, a reaction to the biennial movement,” said Aaron Moulton, UMOCA’s senior curator of exhibitions, overlooking the exhibit space where the first Utah Biennial, subtitled “Mondo Utah,” will open on Friday.
A traditional biennial “is almost a colonial thing, taking art history and making things make sense,” Moulton said. The Utah Biennial “is an anti-biennial. It’s not looking at art history. It’s like we’re just pretending it’s only Utah, looking at Utah language and culture.”
The Utah Biennial is actually a series of smaller exhibits, which Moulton compares to Russian nesting dolls — each one linked to the next. Some of the juxtapositions would have made P.T. Barnum smile, just for their sheer variety and outlandishness.
Some of the works, such as an exhibit from the collection of the Salt Lake Art Center (UMOCA’s predecessor), will be from Utah artists. Others will evoke Utah-specific works by artists who were just passing through.
Utah artifacts • One of them, a towering figure in the UMOCA main exhibit hall, is a reproduction of Italian artist Gianni Pettena’s “Tumbleweeds Catcher.” The original was constructed in 1972 on a vacant lot in Salt Lake City, a nearly 50-foot tower of pine boards filled with tumbleweeds. During his short stay in Utah, Pettena also covered a house entirely in clay and painted a bright red line along the city limits of Salt Lake City.
Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork “Spiral Jetty” is evoked by filmmaker Jennifer West, whose specialty is manipulating her celluloid in all manner of liquids. For the Utah Biennial, she will show a work involving two briny locations — with a film that was first dunked in the Dead Sea and later unspooled in the Great Salt Lake at “Spiral Jetty.” And, in what Moulton calls “almost an Oedipal gesture,” West will present not only the resulting celluloid but a “reference film” describing the process — similar to how Smithson and his wife, Nancy Holt, created a film to capture the making of “Spiral Jetty.”
Speaking of Holt, Moulton touts another “artifact” that will be shown at the Utah Biennial: a concrete core taken from one of the holes in Holt’s “land art” classic “Sun Tunnels.”
In another corner of the show will be artifacts from another strange visitor to Utah. The story goes, according to Moulton, the famed “pop” artist Andy Warhol gave a lecture in Salt Lake City in 1968 that left the audience disappointed. A year later, word got out that it was a hoax, and that the man claiming to be Warhol was an actor named Allen Midgette (pronounced “mih-ZHAY”), who impersonated the artist in a Andy Kaufman-like stunt endorsed by Warhol.
In connection with this part of the show, UMOCA will show three of Warhol’s famous “screen tests,” in which he pointed a camera at his subject for five minutes without any direction, leaving the action at the subject’s discretion. The three tests will show painter Marcel Duchamp, filmmaker Jack Smith and Midgette.
Faith and film • Moulton, who moved to Utah in early 2012, called Utah “the most spiritual place I’ve ever been to in my life,” and spirituality factors into the Utah Biennial in various ways. The LDS Church History Museum will curate one exhibit within the show. The Central Utah Art Center will organize another, under the theme “Faithful Abstraction,” featuring abstract work by artists of faith. And the show will include items from the born-in-Utah religious group Summum — including masks and mummified animals.
Politics from all ends of the spectrum are represented. Artist Andrea Bowers is organizing a long table featuring fliers from activist organizations. Follow that table all the way to the end, and you’ll find works by Provo painter Jon McNaughton, whose unapologetically anti-Obama works have drawn praise from right-wing media and withering ridicule on “The Colbert Report.”
Two eras of maverick Utah filmmaking will be juxtaposed in one exhibit. Works from the 1970s, including Trent Harris’ documentary “The Beaver Kid” and Mike Cassidy’s animated cult classic “Attack of the Giant Brine Shrimp,” will screen on monitors alongside films and posters by Provo filmmaker Stephen Groo, who represents the new generation of low-budget Utah filmmaking, Moulton said.
Other works include a quilt with a 72-hour survival kit sewn into the patches; a miniature skateboard ramp resembling the Wasatch mountains; and a “lost” guidebook of Utah’s own Bigfoot-like myth.
Put it all together, Moulton said, and the first Utah Biennial promises to be a cultural event like no other.
“I don’t think the art world is going to get this show,” Moulton said, “unless they’re from Utah.”
Utah Biennial: Mondo Utah
P The first Utah Biennnial, subtitled “Mondo Utah,” is a wide-ranging show of art with Utah connections.
Where • Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City.
When • May 10 to Dec. 14.
Admission • Free.
Hours • The museum is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays (open until 9 p.m. Fridays).
Opening reception • Friday, 8 to 10 p.m., with an artist lecture, live music, food and a cash bar.