BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 11 JUN 16
Featured in
Issue 180

Artists Only

The rise of the artist-curated biennial

BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 11 JUN 16

Read the Chinese translation here: 

During the early decades of the European avant-garde, artists were the orchestrators of just about every pivotal exhibition. From the first Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1884 to the International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920, these small yet seismic shows took form long before the birth of the roving contemporary curator. Situating themselves in opposition to the salon and the academy, these exhibitions lay on the fringes of official culture. Titles, designs, venues, selections, the works themselves – everything was in the hands of artists. 

At the beginning of the 21st century, the figure of the artist- curator is now a familiar one. However, as biennials have bloomed and sprawled over the last two decades, this particular strain of perennial exhibition has rarely been tended to by artists. The call to arms of Jens Hoffmann’s project The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist (2003–04) has gone unheeded. Marshalling the requisite funds and favours that large-scale exhibitions depend upon has seemingly required a figure who is part diplomat, part impresario. This itinerant role became so narrowly defined that, during the late 2000s, I had the distinct impression every single biennial was curated by one of four people. 

Rendering of Pavilion of Reflections at Manifesta 11, 2016. Courtesy: © ETH Studio Emerson

Maybe something has loosened since then. Or, less optimistically, you could say it’s just another symptom of a tired format on the lookout for new energy and easy hype. Whatever the answer, all of a sudden artists are being invited to organize major biennials – I count half a dozen in the next 12 months or so. The Lebanese artist Tarek Atoui is a co-convener of the Bergen Assembly’s rolling programme while, later in the year, Raqs Media Collective will curate the 11th Shanghai Biennale and Sudarshan Shetty will curate the third Kochi-Muziris Biennale, itself an artist-initiated project. Next autumn, Elmgreen & Dragset will oversee the 15th Istanbul Biennial. The list goes on. This summer, the New York-based collective DIS is organizing the 9th Berlin Biennale (which has some form in this area: Maurizio Cattelan was a co-curator of the much-loved 4th edition, while Artur Żmijewski was responsible for the much-maligned 7th). Opening in Zurich a week later, Christian Jankowski’s Manifesta 11, titled ‘What People Do for Money: Some Joint Ventures’, brokers 30 collaborations, pairing artists with local tradespeople and professionals, from dentists to self-driving car manufacturers. Quite aside from the varying merits of these appointments, this trend clearly opens a new chapter in the always-mutating history of the artist-curator. 

Beyond the biennial circuit, major institutional exhibitions curated by artists have been on the rise for at least the last decade. This tendency has, for some, thrown fresh light on familiar collections, while providing alternative histories of museums and their holdings. For others, including the British art historian Claire Bishop, these presentations mark little more than a polite late phase in the evolution of the artist-curated show. In a cranky essay published in Artforum last year, she argued that the days of artists – like Fred Wilson, say, or Group Material – using the exhibition as an instrument of institutional critique are long gone. Today’s artist-curators are, Bishop argues, more concerned with ‘the foregrounding of individual sensibility’; critique has been defanged, swapped out for gnomic selections and whimsical installations. This complaint rests upon the assumption that, as a form or genre, the artist-curated exhibition has a recognizable set of common characteristics. But those I’ve loved in the past few years have, if anything, been defined by their eclecticism. There have been idiosyncratic retrospectives, such as ‘Forrest Bess (by Robert Gober)’ (2012–13) at the Whitney Museum in New York and ‘Ugo Rondinone: I ♠ John Giorno’ (2015–16) at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. There have been essays in techno-animism, like Mark Leckey’s UK touring show, ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ (2013), and quixotic reconstructions such as the transposition of ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ from Bern in 1969 to Venice in 2013, co-organized by Thomas Demand. 

This spring, at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, I saw one of the most rewarding exhibitions I’ve seen for a while: ‘To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll’, conceived and designed by Goshka Macuga. Somehow, it was simultaneously sharply concise and endlessly capacious. In this omnivorous web of connections, Edward Snowden was brought into conversation with Ada Lovelace, Pussy Riot with Kanak Man. Robots busily scribbled while an android – blinking and bearded – held court. Whether this was an artist-curated show or an exhibition-as-art-work, and whether that distinction matters any more, I’m not sure. The compendious accompanying publication is titled Before the Beginning and After the End. Was Macuga’s exhibition itself a beginning or an end, or something else entirely? Too soon to say, but here’s hoping that these upcoming biennials will hold some answers. 

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.