At a seminar named Next Documenta Should be Curated by an Artist after the book with the same title edited by curator Jens Hoffmann in Istanbul two years ago, one of the panellists gushed out about how biennials are being merely a window for the market and nothing else. Undoubtedly the market and the prices for works of an emerging artist grows remarkably after being included in a major art show, and major dealers are known to push the limits of what bribery is and is not for the years before a major show like the Venice Biennial or Documenta opens its gates. However, the muttering at the Istanbul seminar was not left unchallenged; Martha Rosler, who was one of the panellists, disputed that that we mustn’t ever forget that the biennials also are important windows for ideas.
New biennials see the first day of light in remote places every year with regional or city branding on the agenda with the potential in-float of capital and ventures in mind. Art has historically always been a means in the hands of religion, national interests or other “higher” schemes for goals further at hand. Looting or ruining other countries cultural treasures has for instance traditionally boosted the national ego of the “winning state” in warfare, so the idea of the positive effects the possible gentrification processes can have to a district is not so far fetched.
New art fairs are popping up all over the world in the same rate that new biennials did ten years ago in distant places and they are all flying in the essential collectors and VIP’s making sure they will have a good time and thereby hopefully discover new (local) investment artists and pieces of art to buy. But isn’t this idea of art as commodity a bit outdated after all? With all the fuzz about “relational aesthetics” and “process related art” (whatever one might think about that) in the last decade it is remarkable to see that little of this category of art make it into the biennials.
Instead some of the art fairs seem to adopt a different approach with more and more emphasize on Art with a capital A including the intellectual discourse around it, as well as the “unsellable art” rather than to just focus exclusively on the exchange of money like before. Like for instance in the section Art Performa in Art Basel Miami in 2005 where above mentioned Jens Hoffmann curated a performance programme on the beach where none of the performance pieces performed was for sale even if a potential buyer would against all odds show up. Perhaps it is an overheated market that has pushed the art fairs in this direction, but the approaches of the larger biennials leave a little more to wish for in this development even if things are starting to happen. Still it is indeed difficult not to agree that the fairs nowadays have become the “new biennials” as Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz contends but it is also becoming more evident than ever that the biennials have become more or less the “new fairs”.
But will anything happen with the system of the mega-show after the openings of Documenta, Münster, Venice and the Art Basel fair, all within a couple of weeks next year? Something is already definitely brewing.
The obvious problems of internationalization, homogenization and the focus on the same few artists and curators over and over again exists, and it has also raised issues about that artists might be “overproducing” which in turn might lead to not only re-enacting art works that previously made the artists popular, and leaves the artists without guts enough to try out new ideas, and in fact not having time enough to find new ideas. The overproduction of (certain) artists today is due to the fact that they are being pressured to not only produce for gallery shows, but for all the fairs that their gallery tours to. And if the artist are connected to multiple galleries the demand is of course multiplied, and then there are all the other exhibitions, biennials, triennials etc that the artist must supply work to. Some contend that there soon will be more producers than there will be audiences in not only the art trade, but also in other branches of culture like theatre, literature, music and cinema. This might not be such a totally misguided assertion.
Collectors, that tend to listen to each other, often want more than one work from an artist’s production once they start to collect; they often want to “cover” an artist’s development over years. This in turn has started the chase for the “new” and the “next new thing” like never before. Some gallery quite recently even boasted about that they wouldn’t start to show an artist until they at least had finished third year at art school, but they had no problem with fourth year or fifth year students. A term for this phenomenon is neophilia. Prices for the works of young and emerging artists are now at the same rate as for works from more experienced artists which already have had a long career.
Years back, when the critic was still an important person in the art world for validating an artist and was someone that galleries feared and collectors listened to, the artists that could come into question for a review would have to be “discovered” by someone and would have had their first exhibition before anyone would be able to write about their art. During the 90ties the role of the critic slowly diminished in favour for the curator who now became the validator of taste and were the voice that collectors listened to. The curator was the one that did the massive research, went to all the artist’s studios to “wash out the gold”. To some degree this role has now been taken over again by the role of the collector who in the hunt for this “newness” is either doing the “dirty work” all by him/herself or hires curators to their collections to be their private advisors. Private collectors with their own showcases are becoming more and more important in this circuit, and an example is the frenzy before the Rubell collection opened in Miami last year, where collectors lining up to try to get a sneak preview of which new artists were included in the collection so that they could rush off to the Art Basel Miami fair which was on at the same time to buy works from the same artists for themselves to invest in. The inclination to blame the whole overblown hysteria of the so called “Leipzig-school painting” to the collectors fear of being outside a group of star-collectors that collect this kind of painting is indeed tempting to adopt.
The right kind of new is also an important factor. Exoticism or neo-colonialism might not be the correct terminology here though since what is appealing is something that is different in the right kind of way as in; not too exotic or strange. One has to feel comfortable with the newness, which might explain why some of the booming Chinese artists have given in to the expectations of the market and started to make art that includes references and/or critique to the communist system because this is what is in demand. It is anyway much easier to make it inside the western art system being an artist from a remote place outside the western hemisphere than an artist already within one of the large metropolis of the art world nowadays since the hunt for the new takes the hunters further a field to find it, just as long as you live up to some of the expectations.
A biennial that made its first appearance in 2005 was the Moscow Biennial with six well-known and well-travelled curators (Joseph Backstein, Daniel Birnbaum, Iara Boubnova, Nicolas Bourriaud, Rosa Martínez and Hans Ulrich Obrist). The curatorial statement of the first edition of the Moscow Biennial indeed included reflective criticism against the biennial system about head-hunting, neophilia, homogenization processes and also the commercialisation of the biennials. The curators wanted to emphasize that the limitations of the biennials are not connected to the lack of funding but instead to an intellectual limitation, the lack of ideas. This brings us back to Martha Roslers statement about the Biennial or mega-exhibition as a market place for ideas first and foremost, and the approach of the Moscow curators was refreshing. In fact the buzzwords at the press conference for what they were trying to do were “intellectual friction”. Whether or not they succeeded with this in the exhibition in Moscow is a totally different question; but it is indeed interesting that a curatorial team makes a statement about working against an art market with such a strong emphasize.
The lack of ideas and the lack of self reflecting is then again perhaps what were so remarkable about the Venice Biennial in the very same year. The biennial machine was efficient and everything was ready at the opening day which was a small miracle in itself considering the extreme short time of 6-8 months the two curators had to prepare the show, and in comparison with the chaos at the 2003 year edition of the biennial curated by Francesco Bonami and a team of 10 curators everything moved on quite swiftly. But what was problematised in the curatorial statement of the Moscow Biennial seemed not only to be ignored by Maria De Corral and Rosa Martínez (who also was in the curatorial team of the Moscow Biennial) but the problems were also manifested and incorporated in their curatorial approach. The Bonami-curated biennial was regarded by the united international press as a fiasco but was in retrospective a role model for something fresh and actually regarded as a platform for ideas and not merely like the 2005 edition that was a traditional exhibition without surprises that very well could have looked the same 20 years ago. Another biennial that was judged even worse by critics was the 2006 Whitney Biennial that was often compared to look just the Armory Fair that opened the week after the Whitney opened. And the Armory Fair is really not worth while striving to look like. The Venice Biennial of 2005 and the Whitney Biennial of 2006 are prime examples of what creates speculation about the end of the biennial system.
With the assertion that art can change the world, the curators of the ninth Istanbul biennial Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun (see interview with Kortun in this issue of SITE) chose Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community as the “key text” for the biennial. This act turned out to be the strongest curatorial statement of the biennial, where the curators chose a very low-key curatorial role but instead pointing out the political and economic implications of the biennial in a confrontational matter, choosing the title of the anthology for the biennial “Art, City and Politics in an Expanding World”. Maybe this approach of art as something that can change the world is both utopian and romantic but at the same time Esche and Kortun tried to create something with their exhibition, just as the Moscow Biennial curators tried to create a platform for exchange.
The latest biennial to open in Europe in the moment of writing this text was the fourth edition of the Berlin Biennial Of Mice and Men curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick. The trio searched for a more poetic grip to the problematics of the biennial exhibition in an attempt to resist the stereotypes of the biennials. In fact in one sense the curators seemed totally uninterested in the idea of a biennial with a common concept or as a vehicle of ideas. On the other hand the trio also made some serious efforts to make contradictory statements in all directions, so that in fact the result was that they covered up for every possible angle for critique possessing the curatorial helm like an instormable fortress. By this they actively and admittingly tried to avoid dealing with the (uncomfortable) history of Berlin, gentrification, economic factors etc in strong contrast to both the Moscow biennial and the recent Istanbul Biennial of 2005. What was notable was the high percentage of certain commercial galleries’ artists incorporated in the exhibition.
There are in fact also other ways of dealing with, and resisting, stereotypes of the mega show which are even less convincing. The curator of the next Documenta, Roger M. Buergel is someone who contends the system in which curators seem to travel as much as they can to the most distant places to make new discoveries. This doesn’t of course necessarily transcend into a good exhibition and when invited to countries to do research trips and to explore unknown artists Buergel simply says “no” since he finds that his research for the Documenta exhibition is long ago finished and artists are already been chosen for the show.
Breaking thoroughly with any stereotypes in a more productive and interesting way are the curators of the next Manifesta in Nicosia, Cyprus. The sixth edition of Manifesta will not become a traditional exhibition but instead will transform Manifesta into a temporary art academy in Nicosia. Mai Abu ElDahab, Anton Vidokle and Florian Waltvogel are the curators for this ground-breaking endeavour. What is interesting with the concept is not only that it is experimenting with the system of biennials, that it is infusing one institution with another and that they are contending the limits of what an exhibition can be, but also that it is setting a new standard to what it means for an exhibition to be a site for generating new ideas. Hopefully this will not become just another stop-over for the same group of travelling art world people to get together for a three month long party. It remains to be seen.
In an interview with Anton Vidokle in the book preceding Manifesta 6, Notes for an Art School, Boris Groys says: The correct attitude is to think that art is simply a commodity […] [and] to hate this fact. In this respect, the Marxist tradition reproduces, on a rhetorically sophisticated level, the common-sense opinion that life and, especially, art are actually shit. Adorno is especially good at formulating this evident truth in philosophical language. If one adopts this way of thinking about art, the equilibrium of the art fair and the biennial is inevitable. If there is more to art in the capitalist system within the westernized world, it is simply a question about attitudes and willingness/naïveté towards ideas and ideals, utopian or not.
Power Ekroth (who owes some of the above ideas from Marc Spiegler who she has spent hours of discussions with on this subject)