Cornell Biennial Turns Artistic Eyes on Planet’s Uncertain Future

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After COVID forced the 2020 show’s cancellation, the popular event is back—with twice as many works as in years past

By Joe Wilensky

Across a swath of the Arts Quad, colorful fabric stretches between trees. Tucked next to Tjaden Hall, a semicircle of a half-dozen repurposed toilets sprout fruit crops. Inside the Johnson Museum, three robotic heads engage in real-time, computer-generated musings.

The 2022 Cornell Biennial—a showcase of installations, artwork, and performances curated by the Cornell Council for the Arts (CCA)—returned this year for its fifth iteration, following a pandemic-canceled 2020 season.

It’s the largest Biennial yet, twice the size of previous ones: the work of more than 40 invitational artists and collectives are being exhibited on a rotating schedule that began in July and runs through December.

"UNFRAME," a built environment wood sculpture installation on the Arts Quad
On the Arts Quad, a new take on wood framing techniques reaches skyward.

This year’s theme—“Futurities, Uncertain”—challenged participants to imagine their visions of the world through interdisciplinary projects that draw on such fields and topics as art, biology, social justice, design, information science, and engineering.

“We wanted to provoke a conversation that addresses the global situation we’re all now in,” says Timothy Murray, CCA director and the curator of the Biennial.

“COVID, the Black Lives Matter movement, global warming, infringements on female rights and indigenous rights—over the past few years, these pressure points have mushroomed in unexpected ways that overlap.”

In addition to works by 23 invited artists from 11 countries, the Biennial includes 17 Cornell-based projects by faculty and students.

We wanted to provoke a conversation that addresses the global situation we’re all now in.

Timothy Murray, Biennial curator and CCA director

The event’s scope has also expanded this year, notes Murray, who is also a professor of comparative literature and literatures in English in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Cornell Tech is participating for the first time, with two commissioned digital artworks on display on its New York City campus.

And the CCA teamed up with Ithaca’s Cherry Arts collective to host an Upstate regional competition with the related theme “Local Futurities.”

Notable Biennial events include “Ceaseless Waves,” a visual and auditory performance in Sage Chapel (hosted by MFA candidate Esther Kondo Heller) that featured several poets and sound artists.

In “To Rent or Own: On Benefits Absolute and Vulgar,” author and poet Wendy Walters, MFA ’95, PhD ’00, gave a literary reading on themes of race and social justice.

Scenes from the Biennial

Among the more unconventional installations is one that could be taken for the work of nature. “Libe Slope Wild Garden” comprises plantings of flowers, grasses, and seed pods by Matthew Dallos, MA ’20, a grad student in history, that has been growing on the Slope since early 2020.

The Arts Quad boasts two large structures built by architecture faculty and researchers—works that explore new methods of wood reuse, recycling, and reconfiguration.

At the Johnson Museum, A.D. White Professor-at-Large Xu Bing has interpreted, in shadowbox form, a classical Chinese ink painting from the museum’s collection.

And in the Martha Van Rensselaer Gallery, a multimedia work projected the faces of frontline workers onto the walls, over representations of data charting the impact of the pandemic.

Created by So-Yeon Yoon, associate professor of design and environmental analysis, it’s titled “Immersive Portraits of COVID: [Pause].”

Other highlights include:

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‘At What Point Does the World Unfold?’

The fabric installation on the Arts Quad, by artist Sara Jiminez, takes the main architectural elements of Beaux-Arts-style Goldwin Smith Hall and abstracts them.

"At what point does the world unfold?" is a fabric sculpture on the Arts Quad
Elements of Goldwin Smith Hall, abstracted and reimagined in fabric.

The translucent but brightly colored textiles are printed with floral patterns that evoke some of the local species that once filled the landscape before the campus was built.

The piece is also meant to prompt questioning of the history of the building, and the 19th-century professor for whom it is named.

‘Cornell Sage Knoll’

A small hill near Day Hall played host to this work, shaped like Cayuga Lake and utilizing geocells—forms designed to stabilize soil by replicating the support that plant roots provide—as building blocks.

The work of landscape architecture professor Jennifer Birkeland and NYC-based architect Jonathan Scelsa, it explored the effects of current and future erosion on the lakebed and its connected watersheds.

‘Waste Not’

Two members of the Class of ’22 teamed up to create one of the Biennial’s most striking installations.

Former plant science major Isabella Culotta (now working as a researcher on campus) and Matéa LeBeau, an art major who’ll graduate in December, used six reclaimed toilets to make a living sculpture in the rock garden near Tjaden Hall.

The "Waste Not" installation by Matéa LeBeau ’22 and Isabella Culotta '22
Culotta (left) and LeBeau tend to their creation.

They used recycled human waste, turned into biochar, to grow an edible garden in a safe soil media. (Volunteers provided the, er, “raw material” for the project.)

They aimed for the installation to break through taboos, challenge perceptions of waste, and demystify adaptive solutions to sewage treatment.

‘The Animal, Vegetable, Mineralness of Everything’

An installation in the Johnson Museum’s entrance hall includes three identical, human-looking heads (each a self-portrait of their creator, artist Ken Feingold) mounted on robot arms and guided by artificial intelligence.

The heads blink their eyes, gaze at the sculpture that connects them, and engage in real-time dialogue—displaying distinct personalities, discussing their fears, and openly wondering about their curious situation.

‘Armadillos (Little Armored Ones)’

"Armadillos," a trilingual participatory and large-scale puppetry performance event on Ho Plaza
Larger-than-life puppets on parade.

Employing large-scale puppetry, it used the armadillo as its muse and model in parsing interconnected themes of migration, climate change, and indigenous roots.

(Native to Latin America, armadillos have been increasingly traveling northward into the U.S. due to warming temperatures.)

Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz, assistant professor of performance and media arts, brought together puppeteers, storytellers, and other performers for a performance on Ho Plaza.

Top: Video scenes of the 2022 Biennial, by Cornell University. All images in this story by Cornell University photographers Noël Heaney and Ryan Young.

Published October 17, 2022

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