BY Sam Thorne in Features | 01 OCT 13
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Issue 2

Biennials and Beyond

A new book by Bruce Altshuler explores the history of postwar exhibitions

BY Sam Thorne in Features | 01 OCT 13

Until about 50 years ago, the most significant exhibitions of contemporary art were organized by artists. This was the case for much of what is loosely defined as the Modernist era: from the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874 to Gutai’s actions and happenings in Tokyo in the late 1950s. In the 1960s, however, a new figure emerged: the independent curator.

It’s at this moment that the second volume of Bruce Altshuler’s Exhibitions That Made Art History begins. The first of these weighty books, Salon to Biennial (2008), covered just under a century, starting in 1863 with the Salon des Refusés in Paris and ending in 1959 with ‘The New American Painting’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The concluding part, titled Biennials and Beyond, was published earlier this year. Together, these impressive books catalogue close to 50 wildly different exhibitions: from the 1913 Armory Show, which introduced the new European art to America, to the propagandistic ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art) in Munich in 1937 — which was sponsored by the Nazis to ridicule that same work; from the covert ‘apartment shows’ held behind the Iron Curtain to the first large-scale celebration of globalized diversity, ‘Magiciens de la terre’ (Magicians of the Earth) in Paris, which took place in 1989, the year that the Soviet Union crumbled.

Altshuler, who is director of Museum Studies at New York University, is well-placed to tell this story. Edited in collaboration with Phaidon, both Salon to Biennial and Biennials and Beyond focus exclusively on group shows of contemporary art. This tells us something about how exhibition-making is currently being historicized, with the group show being privileged over the retrospective or the historical survey. Both books are ordered chronologically, and mix invaluable installation views with floor plans, excerpts of catalogue essays and critical responses from the newspapers and journals of the time. Each entry is introduced with a deft one-page essay by Altshuler, which provides some context and hints at the exhibition’s context and legacy.

Biennials and Beyond opens in 1962 with the raucous installations of ‘Dylaby’ (Dynamic Labyrinth) at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and moves swiftly through the emergence of Pop, Minimalism and Arte Povera before arriving at the banner year of 1969. This is where three of the volume’s 25 entries can be found: Seth Siegelaub’s pioneering exhibition of Conceptual art, ‘January 5–31, 1969’ in New York; Lucy Lippard’s equally laconically titled ‘557,087’ (which referred to the population of the host city of Seattle); and Swiss curator Harald Szeemann’s groundbreaking ‘Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form’, which brought together Post-Minimalism, Land art and Conceptual pieces at the Kunsthalle Bern (the show is currently being restaged at the Fondazione Prada in Venice). As Altshuler notes: ‘One major story running through the art history of the second half of the twentieth century is that of the large-scale thematic exhibition, and of the rise of a cadre of experts who would assemble them.’ Nomadic, prolific and well-connected, Szeemann without doubt did most to shape what we now call the independent curator (though he actually preferred the title austellungsmacher, or exhibition-maker).

The rise of this auteur-like figure soon prompted an angry response from artists, some of whom felt instrumentalized or, worse, usurped. In 1972, Daniel Buren wrote an open letter in response to Szeemann’s Documenta v of that year: ‘More and more, the subject of an exhibition tends not to be the display of artworks, but the exhibition of the exhibition as a work of art.’ A few years earlier, the critic Peter Plagens had complained that, ‘Lippard is in fact the artist and her medium is other artists.’ These debates continue to this day, though the late 1960s marked the point at which curators started inviting artists to produce new pieces rather than selecting existing art works. As artists shifted their attention from studio-bound objects to ideas and site-specific projects, a new generation of curators were on hand to steward the process.

The Venice Biennale is sometimes referred to as the art-world Olympics, though it was actually inaugurated a year before the first modern Summer Olympics, in 1895, and the competitive idea of national representation continued with the establishment of the São Paulo Biennial in 1951. But aside from the founding of the Biennale of Sydney in 1973, the world of the large-scale exhibition remained predominantly European and North American until the 1980s. That decade saw the coming of age of postcolonial states in Africa and the Caribbean, the break-up of the Soviet Union and significant ideological change in China. As Altshuler argues, it was also the period when the large-scale exhibition first became globalized. The Fidel Castro-sponsored inaugural Havana Biennial of 1984 was the first in a socialist country, and had the unique aim of presenting art from developing countries (it must also be one of the largest biennials of all time, with some 835 artists participating). Three years later came the first Istanbul Biennial and, at the end of the decade, Jean-Hubert Martin’s contentious ‘Magiciens de la terre’ (installed at the Centre Pompidou and the Grande Halle at the Parc de la Villette in Paris) which paired 50 artists from the ‘centre’ with 50 from the ‘periphery’. Widely derided by the left as a colonializing exercise, and by the right for its claims to universalist ideas of beauty, the late American critic Thomas McEvilley nevertheless presciently saw that the sprawling two-part show was ‘the first major exhibition consciously to attempt to discover a postcolonialist way to exhibit objects together’.

In the 1990s, more than 40 biennials were created, many in cities not traditionally associated with exhibitions, such as Dakar (1992), Sharjah (1993) and Porto Alegre (1997). Some of these initiatives had explicitly, even naively, Utopian ambitions, such as the nomadic European biennial Manifesta (1996), which aims to promote pan-European dialogue. Others wanted to heal a specific trauma: 1995 saw the foundation of biennials in both Johannesburg, just a year after the end of apartheid, and Gwangju, which 15 years earlier had witnessed the massacre of demonstrators against the later deposed South Korean dictatorship.

As Altshuler argues, this boom in international biennials was underpinned by ‘the emergence of a group of curators who were sought out repeatedly by biennial sponsors for their curatorial ideas and art world knowledge, management and promotional skills, and international notoriety’. He sees this as reinforcing Buren’s complaint — made three decades earlier — about the exhibition-of-the-exhibition, as well as the focus on the curator as singular creative figure. Szeemann himself, who remained active at an international level until his death in 2005, came to see globalization as ‘the enemy of art’. However, many of the nomadic curators who rose to prominence during the 1990s — from Hou Hanru to Hans Ulrich Obrist — were dependent on this globalized form of exhibition-making.

The two volumes of Exhibitions That Made Art History are the first books of their kind to attempt such a broad sweep, and do some important work in terms of bringing together hard-to-find archival material. While they don’t have the scholarly depth of recent publications such as Afterall’s ‘Exhibition Histories’ series, they are well illustrated and full of frequently entertaining anecdotes. For example, I was intrigued to discover that Szeemann initially intended Documenta v to have a section dedicated to pornography, while Bern residents were so angry about ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ that the curator often had to remove piles of manure from outside of the Kunsthalle. Similarly, many of the reviews that are compiled are wonderful, such as Brian O’Doherty’s 1962 New York Times piece on ‘New Realists’, a Pop show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York that featured Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein: ‘It’s mad, mad, wonderfully mad. It’s also (at different times) glad, bad and sad, and it may be a fad.’

However, the rigid format of Altshuler’s books gives more space to the knee-jerk reaction than to the long view. This feels confused, given that many of these exhibitions are included less for their initial impact than their later significance. The 1993 Whitney Biennial, for example, was critically lambasted when it opened for what was perceived to be its moralizing tone — Roberta Smith quipped that it should be renamed ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. Only in the last couple of years has that exhibition’s emphasis on identity politics, video and performance come to be seen as important; much of the work in the New Museum’s recent survey ‘nyc 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star’ was debuted in that edition of the Whitney. But Altshuler’s books are mostly content to use exhibitions to illustrate his (undeniably astute) thesis of the evolution of exhibition-making. So while he insightfully catalogues the who, what, when and where, he doesn’t always show the how. For example, if you don’t already know how Nicolas Bourriaud’s 1996 exhibition ‘Traffic’, at the capc Bordeaux, was important to his later conception of Relational Aesthetics, this book may not help you much.

The first volume of Exhibitions That Made Art History ended with a cliff-hanger, with the MoMA-organized ‘New American Painting’ symbolizing the triumph of AbEx over pre-war European art. The second volume also finishes with a ‘What happens next?’. Its final entry is Okwui Enwezor’s acclaimed Documenta xi (2002), frequently cited as the first major show of its kind to thematize the postcolonial condition, as well as to institutionalize the so-called documentary turn. (One often-repeated factoid about the show is that it contained more hours of film than was possible to view in its 100-day duration.) Enwezor expanded Documenta from its traditional home in Kassel, in central Germany, organizing ‘platforms’ in New Delhi, Lagos and St Lucia — as Altshuler recognizes, this was ‘the culmination of a period of artworld expansion beyond Europe and North America’. But this was 11 years before Biennials and Beyond was published. Why are no exhibitions included from the last decade?

Altshuler seems to want to keep the question of what exactly lies ‘beyond’ the triumph of the biennial open (indeed, of the 25 exhibitions catalogued in this volume, only five of them are actually biennials). So what happened after Documenta xi? Altshuler’s cut-off date stops short of a decade in which biennial organizers became stricken by self-consciousness. This was clearly signalled by the title of Bergen’s 2009 conference ‘To Biennial or Not to Biennial’, which mangled a quote from that paradigmatic worrier, Hamlet; elsewhere, the 2010 Taipei Biennial went so far as to take biennials as its theme. So one possible answer to the question ‘What happened beyond the biennial? would be: a new era of navel-gazing and doubtfulness. The snake seems to have eaten its own tail. I’m waiting to see what happens next.

Main image: Ai Weiwei, Template, 2007, installation view, documenta 12, Kassel, Germany. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: JENS-ULRICH KOCH/DDP/AFP via Getty Images

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