PRINT March 2014


Making Art Global

View of “Magiciens de la Terre,” 1989, Grand Halle de La Villette, Paris. Foreground: Kane Kwei, seven coffins (Eagle, Elephant, Fish, Lobster, House, Onion, Mercedes), all 1988. Midground left: Mario Merz, Untitled, 1989. Midground right: Nera Jambruck, Fronton de maison des hommes (Pediment of the House of Men), 1988. Rear wall: Richard Long, Red Earth Circle, 1989. In front of Red Earth Circle: Claes Oldenberg, From the Entropic Library, 1989.

AROUND THE TURN OF THE MILLENNIUM, books dealing with the relatively new art-historical subgenre of exhibition history were few and far between. The category pretty much comprised the anthology Thinking About Exhibitions (Bruce W. Ferguson et al., 1996), Bruce Altshuler’s The Avant-Garde in Exhibition (1998), and Mary Anne Staniszewski’s The Power of Display (1998). These methodologically disparate works had little in common beyond their obscurity: Simply being aware of them felt like being part of an esoteric minority seeking cult knowledge. Since the late 2000s, however, as institutionally lucrative master’s programs in curatorial practice have proliferated, so, too have publications on the subject, from books like Charlotte Klonk’s Spaces of Experience (2009) and Paul O’Neill’s The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (2012) to specialist journals (Manifesta Journal, The Exhibitionist, and Journal of Curatorial Studies).

Despite this explosion of literature, book-length analyses of individual exhibitions remain rare. Only the journal Afterall, based at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, has attempted this focused approach. Launched in 2010, Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series so far includes five books, each bringing together new and archival texts in order to illuminate one or two landmark shows. The newest volumes have been published as a pair, under the shared title Making Art Global. Focusing on two shows from 1989, the collectively curated Third Havana Biennial and Jean-Hubert Martin’s “Magiciens de la Terre,” the books consolidate the now-pervasive idea that the year of the Berlin Wall’s demise marked the birth of a new art-historical paradigm, the “global contemporary,” which was both a product of and a response to the triumph of neoliberalism. “Magiciens,” presented in Paris at the Centre Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette, is well known for having billed itself as “the world’s first global art show.” Organized as a riposte to the heavily criticized “Primitivism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1984, it was widely viewed as having repeated the ethnocentric crimes it sought to redress, lumping together works from various regions and traditions under the rubric of contemporary art. The Third Havana Biennial also aimed to reconfigure art-world geopolitics, albeit from a very different ideological perspective: This city-wide array of exhibitions proposed an alternative network of cultural exchange for the Global South, particularly between artists in Africa and South America.

The first of the books, Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989, has the virtue of being more concise than its counterpart, and makes a substantial amount of material available in English for the first time. The main essay, by art historian Rachel Weiss, carefully elaborates the tensions between Fidel Castro’s restrictive cultural policies and the radical ambitions of the curatorial team—particularly Gerardo Mosquera, who championed critical and experimental work. Dispensing with national presentations in favor of themed sections, or nucleos, Mosquera and his colleagues aimed to facilitate dialogue among traditional and popular forms (chair altars, carnival masks) on the one hand and work by artists such as Eugenio Dittborn and Lázaro Saavedra on the other.

There is a great deal of useful history here, from details of the financing (most artists paid their own way) to illumination of the realities of cultural production under censorship (such as the curatorial decision to bury an exhibition of the biennial’s most critical art under the misleading moniker “La tradición del humor”). Such attention to institutional structures necessarily means less space for discussing art, and this leads to some frustrating gaps, albeit in areas that are, arguably the remit of art history rather than exhibition history. The Third Havana Biennial is said to have followed a “golden age” of Cuban art in the ’80s, which left me craving a discussion of this earlier work; I was also curious to read an analysis of the different artistic media in the show, particularly in relation to the aesthetic traditions of the various countries represented. Perhaps most frustratingly, although the Third Havana Biennial is renowned for its opening-week conference—a program that augured the discursive orientation of Documenta 10 and innumerable biennials thereafter—this crucial aspect of the show is not covered in real depth. But such reservations aside, this is an informative and accessible tome that offers an important counterpoint to the prevalent impression that “Magiciens de la Terre” was the pioneer of global exhibition-making.

In contrast, Making Art Global (Part 2):Magiciens de la Terre 1989 is somewhat long-winded, with a turgid introduction by Pablo Lafuente giving way to a narrative history by Lucy Steeds (both are editors at Afterall and professors at Central Saint Martins). The most enlightening aspects of Steeds’s essay, as with Weiss’s text, concern questions of genesis and context. However, Steeds also attempts to turn her factual chronicle into a more speculative theoretical argument. “‘Magiciens,’” she asserts, is an “early move within the value sphere that Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello identify as the ‘project-based polis’ that will define the 1990s.” For Steeds, “Magiciens de la Terre” was an “inadvertent precursor” of this “neoliberal world to come” because it was the “vision-led product of global artistic labor gathered together over a limited period on the basis of networking, and as a bid to boost the cultural kudos of the host city.” As such, it exemplified what she calls “transnational projecthood.” However, this argument isn’t fleshed out or anchored to specifics, and the claim that Martin’s exhibition was the harbinger of a new economic-political regime comes to seem excessive. The ungainly term “transnational projecthood” is slippery and ungraspable and doesn’t convincingly distinguish “Magiciens” from other shows: Although it relied on a global network of advisers, and most of the work was made on-site, “Magiciens” was another multimillion-franc blockbuster, like many before and since.

Another disappointment is the dearth of space allocated to the more artisanal practices from Africa, Australia, and South America (since this is the hardest information to obtain and relay when teaching), while well-known works by Cildo Meireles, Richard Long, and others are amply described. Many objects in the former category had ritual or practical uses, but these are barely touched on. The final section of the book, containing supplementary texts, is also hit-or-miss. The reprinted contemporary critical responses are for the most part already familiar and readily available in Artforum, Art in America, and Third Text. Of more value are the installation shots that clarify the relationships among the works, and an interview with Alfredo Jaar in which the artist maintains that the show, for him, affirmed a new horizon of global practice: It marked the first time that a Western art institution “thought about the world . . . rather than about a couple of privileged countries, and this was absolutely revolutionary.” It’s a useful reminder that an exhibition like “Magiciens”—even if almost universally panned—can have a catalyzing effect.

Art history has a long tradition of lavishing attention on singular authors and artifacts, a tendency that in turn has supported long-standing clichés of male genius. Exhibition history can be a corrective to this, embedding works in institutional contexts, showing how funding and cultural policy shape art’s production and reception, and proposing more complex models of authorship. It can also usefully amend the hasty assessments of reviews penned in the white heat of initial response, even though such revision often comes at a cost, exchanging immediacy for what can feel like a dutiful slog through the facts. These pros and cons came to my mind several times while reading these two volumes. Both books deal with watershed exhibitions comprehensively and in great factual detail. But is this enough?

A dynamic exhibition history needs to present the show under discussion as a complex node of competing and contradictory forces while also paying close attention to the exhibition as a medium. An understanding of the exhibition as medium is central to differentiating a show whose content is important for art history (e.g., “Primary Structures” as the first roundup of Minimalist sculpture) from one whose form is important to exhibition history (e.g., “January 5–31, 1969,” which reversed the relationship between catalogue and exhibition). “Magiciens” and the Third Havana Biennial established the two models of exhibition-making that dominated the 1990s and 2000s by tinkering with both form and content. “Magiciens” initiated the “safari” model of curatorial research: Martin’s team divided the world into continents and set out to find art in far-flung places to bring back to Paris. For better or worse, this became (and remains) the formula for most biennials. Havana, for its part, innovated in three ways: Its organizers rejected the Western centers, abandoned national representation, and placed an emphasis on dialogue and debate. If the second and especially the third of these tactics are commonplace today (what exhibition is complete without an accompanying events program?), then the first is still exceptional (how often do you encounter a biennial without an artist who’s lived in New York, London, or Berlin?). The essays by Weiss and Steeds allow us to comprehend the importance of these two exhibitions but not to fully grasp the nature and extent of their influence.

Ultimately, every exhibition is a combination of a highly authored “vision-led product” and contingencies upon contingencies: dreams and ambitions encountering institutional compromises, realpolitik, and situational constraints. The measured objectivity of Weiss’s history seems to enumerate these contingencies without synthesizing them, while Steeds’s rigid argument seems to diminish contingency altogether (the neoliberal network is omnipresent as an abstraction, but not as an embodied phenomenon). If neither book quite arrives at the ideal balance of fact-finding, interpretation, and argument, however, they do avoid the unsatisfying pitfalls of elevating the curator to an all-determining authorial figure, instead proposing a contextual and polyvocal model of history. The task now is to make this history more riveting and polemical—in ways that invite us to reflect on why exhibitions matter and what they might be capable of today.

Claire Bishop is a professor in the Ph.D. program in art history at CUNY Graduate Center, New York.