Three Exhibitions That Changed Global Art History


A report from the editors of ArtSpace.

This year the Armory Show awkwardly placed curator Jarrett Gregory’s provocative exhibition “Focus” in the back corner of Pier 92 (the floor reserved for mostly Modernist dealers). “Focus” featured 12 artists from around the world whose work addressed socio-political issues ranging from queer politics in Mexico to capitalist systems of Western export in the Congo. The Armory’s decision to keep “Focus” out of focus reminds us of how global mega-exhibitions can be precisely the place where global specificity is lost, drowned amongst the spectacle culture of fairs, biennials, and triennials.

Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor once argued that biennials can still be places for what he referred to as “diasporic public spheres,” in which the global periphery can have a voice in the center without being subsumed by the West. Here are three excerpts from Phaidon’s Biennials and Beyond—Exhibitions That Made Art History: 1962-2002 to trace the history of three exhibitions that changed global art history. From the first “Third World” biennial of Havana to the exoticizing “Magiciens de la Terre” in Paris to Enwezor’s controversial “Documenta 11,” here’s a short timeline of the “global” exhibition culture we’ve become accustomed to.

Wilfredo Lam Center and other venues, Havana, Cuba, 1986

The Second Havana Biennial was the first to approximate the goal for which this exhibition was created, to display art from across the Third World. The only biennial presented in a Socialist country, it was funded by the Cuban government as part of a policy intended to strengthen the country’s cultural prominence in Latin America and among postcolonial nations. But beyond particular political goals, the Havana Biennial developed the model for the international biennials that would expand through the next decade—shows located outside the Euro-American centers, with exhibition sites and events dispersed in an urban area, engaged with real world and artistic issues through a range of discursive activities.

The Havana Biennial was the primary project of the Wilfredo Lam Center. Created in 1983 as an initiative of Fidel Castro, the center was dedicated to perpetuating knowledge of this important Cuban painter and to researching, promoting and exhibiting the work of Third World artists. In directing its efforts toward art from outside Europe and North America, it sought to establish an international artistic network apart from that dominated by the commercial art system.

The curatorial effort was directed by Gerardo Mosquera, the island’s most well known art critic. Mosquera had written the catalog for the important 1981 exhibition “Volumen Uno,” and was an enthusiastic advocate for the new generation of Cuban artists. The center had sent out an international call for participants, and Mosquera and his team expanded the range of the show to include art from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. With more than 2,400 works by 690 artists from 57 countries, it also exceeded the first Havana biennial in size. In addition to the primary exhibition in the National Museum, there were forty-five other shows around the city.

Despite its unique context and innovative structure, the Second Havana Biennial essentially was a report on current artistic practices across the Third World, albeit a survey mounted without the art market filter of other international exhibitions. It also maintained the conservative practice of giving prizes selected by a distinguished jury. The Third Havana Biennial eliminated such prizes as inconsistent with the collective spirit of the project, and adopted a thematic organizing principle instead of an emphasis on national representation. With more theoretically slanted conferences, more wide-ranging exhibitions and events, and a tighter curatorial structure, it developed the model initiated in 1984 toward that of the familiar international biennials of our time.  

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1989

“Magiciens de la Terre” (The Magicians of the Earth”) sought to present on an even footing fifty artists from the centers of the art world with an equal number of artist from outside Europe and North America. An ideologically charged project, the exhibition was attacked from the left for retaining the perspective of a dominant West, and from the right for undermining the notion of universal aesthetic quality. But the show was applauded for addressing the status of art in a postcolonial and increasingly globalized world. As an exhibition that highlighted the issue of equality in the aesthetic arena, it was one with its historical moment: the bicentennial of the French Revolution and the year of the Tiananmen Square protests, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the imminent end of apartheid in South Africa.

The head curator Jean-Hubert Martin assembled a team of curators, anthropologists, and regional specialists. Team members traveled throughout the world, with information from local experts directing them to certain artists. This kind of exploratory research was not needed in selecting the Europeans and Americans, who for the most part were well known.

Many non-Western pieces were related to ritual practice—a ground painting by members of the Yuendumu aboriginal community in Australia, a sand mandala by Nepalese monks, walls painted by Esther Mahlangu of South Africa. Others exemplified vernacular arts—carved caskets in automobile form by Kane Kwei from Ghana, papier-maché animals by members of the Lenares family from Mexico.

Martin’s project was conceived the year after the 1984 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” a show pilloried for displaying a paternalistic attitude toward tribal art. While “Magiciens” claimed to present Western and non-Western works on equal terms, for many the titled evoked associations of the non-Western with the irrational and the exotic. Critics took Martin’s talk of his aesthetic intuition to suggest the perspective of colonizers lording over the colonized, and pointed to the positioning of Richard Long’s mud circle high above the Australian aboriginal painting on the floor as a metaphor for the show’s true stance.

Despite much ideological and curatorial criticism, the exhibition opened the door to contemporary art from outside the centers being more widely shown in Western museums and commercial galleries, and facilitated international success for artists from outside Europe and North America. Little of their work, however, was of the folk or ritual forms conspicuous in “Magiciens.” And as international biennials expanded in the 1990s, the conceptual opposition of Western and non-Western would be overwhelmed by a single category of the global contemporary.

Kassel, Germany, 2002

Through both its content and structure, Documenta 11 was the culmination of a period of art-world expansion beyond Europe and North America. The thematics of works centered on globalization, and the exhibition itself consisted of five successive events held in four continents over 18 months. With its innovative format the show extended the discursive mode of the previous Documenta, bringing the resources of many fields to bear on its central concerns. While criticized as ignoring art for didactic documentation, Documenta 11 operated with a different conception of the role of artworks within the overall exhibition.

The artistic director was Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian-American critic and curator who was the first non-white and first non-European head of Documenta. At the Documenta 11 press conference, Enqezor spoke of his exhibition as “diagnostic,” investigating current political, social and cultural conditions of the globalized postcolonial world.

Rather than consisting solely of an exhibition of artworks mounted for 100 days, Documenta 11 was composed of five “Platforms,” the last being the presentation in Kassel. The two-part Platform 1 was held in Vienna and Berlin on the subject of democracy, Platform 2 in New Delhi on justice, and Platform 4 convened in Lagos to discuss urban Africa. Platform 5 took its place alongside these events as an equivalent element of the whole, its participants engaged in a parallel project conducted in a different language, that of visual art.

As it is not surprising for a show concerned with social and political issues, there was a great deal of film and video, much of it documentary. It was estimated that to see it all it would take 600 hours. Virtually all of Platform 5 was installed in Kassel’s four large exhibition facilites, with a few outdoor works in Karlsaue Park. Among the almost eighty special commissions, only Thomas Hirschhorn’s Bataille Monument was far from the center, in a poor Turkish-German housing project.

Punctuated by September 11, 2001, and with the dysfunctions of globalization as a central concern, Documenta 11 marks the end of the optimistic, expansive era of postcolonial and post-Cold War international exhibitions. Still increasing in number and continuing as sites of curatorial experimentation, “peripheral” biennials were now fully knit into the international art system. While signifying the end of one period, Documenta 11 pointed to another, for its platform structure extended and deepened the discursive turn introduced by Documenta X, encouraging a rethinking of what an exhibition could be and leading to a new direction in exhibition-making.

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