PRINT Summer 2014

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Artforum March 2014 cover: Terry Adkins, Muffled Drums (detail), 2003–13, eleven found bass drums, mufflers, steel, 30' 3“ x 3' 1/2” x 1' 7".

IT WAS EXCITING to find Artforum opening a debate on exhibition histories in relation to art history, via Claire Bishop’s review of the two-volume Making Art Global [March 2014], the second and fourth books in Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series. The Afterall approach to the new field differs somewhat from Bishop’s, and I thought some comments on the distinctions might be of interest.

The plurality of exhibition histories, in place of a monolithic exhibition history, is important to the Afterall model. Something of this plurality is represented in an important early book Bishop does not mention in her summary of the early literature in the field, perhaps only because she restricts herself to books in English. Die Kunst der Ausstellung (The Art of Exhibitions, 1991), edited by Bernd Klüser and Katharina Hegewisch, is significant for us because, unlike Bruce Altshuler’s ensuing monograph and Ian Dunlop’s before it, different authors—with different approaches to writing—were invited to convey the history of different contemporary art exhibitions of the twentieth century. Contrary to the way Bishop reads them, each volume in Afterall’s book series brings several voices to bear on the same exhibition or cluster of exhibitions. Within and across books, no single historiographic mode is insisted on.

Afterall rejects exhibition histories as an “art-historical subgenre.” One of the tantalizing prospects of this nascent field is that, distinct from art history, and indeed curatorial studies, it is developing across a worldwide network of initiatives rather than being genealogically rooted in North America and Western Europe. Another is that, contrary to Bishop’s assertions, exhibition histories does not necessarily mean a focus on institutional structures at the expense of art—the work of museology, for instance, may play a role, but the defining point is to analyze art in its becoming public, as it takes shape in collective experience and kindles debate.

In terms of issues more specific to the exhibitions considered in Afterall’s paired volumes, I think it is important to emphasize that “Magiciens de la Terre” (1989) was billed as “the first worldwide exhibition of contemporary art,” not as “the world’s first global art show.” The difference is more crucial than it might initially seem, given the distinct philosophical implications of global and worldwide. Actually, Bishop’s slip appears to naturalize the very case she suggests my own contribution to the books overstates. As argued by Peter Osborne a year ago, for instance: “Globalization represents a new spatialization of historical temporality: a mapping of planetary wholeness as ‘globe’ onto that irreducibly phenomenological concept of ‘world’ that emerged in the course of European colonialism to provide the geographical space of the concept of history.”

Bishop’s description of “Magiciens” as “almost universally panned” inadvertently perpetuates something of what she describes with the term ethnocentric crimes. Specifically, she seems to assume that what is published in one’s own language counts for all that is written. Her statement is surprising, given the international press reviewed in Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989, and also in light of the paper given by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak during the show (and published for the first time in the Afterall book), which offers a carefully measured response that cannot be described as a panning. One of Spivak’s points also reiterates the significance of the “worldwide” (as opposed to “global”) claim made in the strapline for the show—an argument that draws on Heidegger before offering a gendered critique, in French, of world (le monde) in relation to the land (la terre) referenced in the show’s title. But my point here is not that when panned the exhibition did not deserve criticism—nor that Spivak, for instance, defended it against its failings—but rather that appraisal of its critical reception demands greater appreciation of debate, and in more than one language.

More speculatively, if unquestioningly, Bishop describes “Magiciens” by contrasting it with the Third Havana Biennial of the same year, saying that the former show “initiated the ‘safari’ model of curatorial research,” and going on to elaborate how curator Jean-Hubert Martin’s team “divided the world into continents and set out to find art in far-flung places to bring back to Paris.” Yet the curatorial research method might equally be described using words written by Gerardo Mosquera on that biennial (as commissioned for Making Art Global [Part 1]: The Third Havana Biennial 1989): He and the rest of the team “travelled throughout different regions in the world and came back with information and recommendations . . . the globe was divided into zones in which different Bienal curators specialized.” At the same time, she misses the significance of the transnational dimension of worldwide—indeed subsequently globalized—curating, which I believe marks out “Magiciens de la Terre” as an exhibition and makes it a conspicuously “vision-led product,” however familiar and dystopian that vision might now seem. Transnationalism in this context means that the curatorial research was undertaken without primary recourse to an international network of national embassies in order to make the necessary cultural introductions, and that artists were likewise independently funded from the exhibition budget to come and make or install their work in situ.

It has become something of a local cliché to rubbish “Magiciens de la Terre” unthinkingly—to be so swept up by the later wave of global art shows in the West as to miss how radical its transnational ambition felt at the time, albeit in the face of significant flaws that might broadly be described as neocolonial. It is also something of a paradox to criticize the show for “lumping together works from various regions and traditions under the rubric of contemporary art” and then—as a professor of contemporary art (and theory and exhibition history)—to crave more information about the work that suffers most under this banner, “the more artisanal practices” (which came from not only Africa, Australia, and South America but also Asia and indigenous communities of North America). For more on African and Australian work in the show that might be described as such, I would direct Bishop to the films by Philip Haas, coproduced by the Centre Pompidou, that profile the practices of ten contributing artists. As she might have noticed, chair-altars—which she appreciates in dialogue with contemporary art in the “Tres Mundos” (Three Worlds) show as part of the Third Havana Biennial of the same year—were present in “Magiciens,” as contributed by Patrick Vilaire. For more on Vilaire’s work there are again filmic sources: A monographic study was screened in the Pompidou’s cinema in 1989 as part of the extensive program that accompanied the show (in a session titled “Haiti and the Vodun Cult”). I can only regret that in attempting an evenhanded discussion of work by the hundred or so contributors to the show, my own essay in Making Art Global (Part 2) could not have conveyed more information without becoming unwieldy.

Turning specifically to the Third Havana Biennial, there are terminological and geographic slippages in Bishop’s text that seem worthy of a brief note. For example, she describes particular emphasis being given to connectivity between artists in Africa and South America, whereas the regulations republished in the Afterall book, from the show’s catalogue, flag both broader and more particular concerns, with “Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America” identified—and this scope is represented in the final list of more than five hundred artists. Geeta Kapur’s participation in the opening conference, alongside further speakers such as Mirko Lauer, underlines this extended geography (both papers are published in their entirety in the book). More broadly, Bishop describes the Havana project as having “proposed an alternative network of cultural exchange for the Global South,” whereas the rhetoric of the time did not yet concern the Global South but instead—significantly and proudly, while not unproblematically—the third world. This latter term was introduced in the 1950s to insist on independence from the Cold War binary between the US and the USSR, yet it soon became denigrated by those in the first world who proclaimed hierarchy and announced that what was connoted was poverty of resources, or third rank in terms of development. There is a risk that neglect of this term indicates, more generally, an engagement with non-Western structures and practices that, in seeking polemics, sacrifices critical care.

More promisingly, this helps to foreground a little of all the urgent work that needs to be done in the emerging field of exhibition histories. Here Afterall’s own endeavor must be set within a worldwide context that includes, for instance, the conference programming and online databasing work of Asia Art Archive, the pan- African research of the Chimurenga initiative, and the independent but related work of the Archive des Festivals Panafricains research project based in Paris (at the CNRS and EHESS). I look forward to seeing how all this will be represented in Artforum in the future.

—Lucy Steeds
Coeditor, Afterall: Exhibition Histories

Claire Bishop responds:

It’s great to have so much more detail to add to the already exhaustive description of “Magiciens de la Terre” available in Making Art Global (Part 2). Or is it? Doesn’t this letter just reaffirm that exhibition history needs to move its sights beyond a worthy array of facts? Imagine how much more intellectually invigorating it would be to read about the changing status of transnationalisms (from “Primitivism” to “Magiciens” to Havana and contemporary biennials) and to be offered a forceful position on this flow—an argument that even speaks to other disciplines—rather than being left to drown in a relentless accumulation of minutiae as long as my original review.

I’m reluctant to keep adding to this mountain, but here’s a handful of points. I am familiar with Die Kunst der Austellung, which largely comprises anecdotal essays by curators speaking about their own shows (Jan Hoet, Achille Bonito Oliva, Harald Szeemann, etc.); to praise this as polyvocality is ludicrous, and Afterall sells itself short by claiming this as a model. If exhibition history isn’t an art-historical subgenre, then please tell me, what is it? Afterall aren’t publishing books on exhibitions of anything other than art. Steeds has a curiously blinkered idea of art history if she thinks the discipline is just Euro-American. (Her point seems to be more about branding and territorialization than about any profound methodological difference.) My first draft of the review mentioned Spivak’s contribution as rather rote and preprepared, topped and tailed with references to a few works in the show; the only memorable moment is the feminist point about terre that Steeds mentions above. Even so, it’s hard to see what Spivak’s distinction between monde and terre has to do with my “slip” from worldwide to global: mondial is the word used in the exhibition’s French publicity materials, and can be translated into English as both “global” and “worldwide.” I’d bet that in 1989 the difference between the two was yet to be theorized; at any rate, it’s ahistorical to prove this point by quoting Peter Osborne in 2013. I could go on, but I’ve just fallen asleep.