What happens when the carnival is over?

In the previous post, I presented a recent claim that the strategies for international exhibition making used / pioneered by Jean-Hubert Martin in Magiciens de la Terre (1989) have become commonplace in contemporary biennial culture. Using Rasheed Araeen’s critique of the exhibition in Third Text (a primary resource by an artist included in the exhibition), which this claim cites as proof, it is important to analyze what this meant within (what Martin claimed to be) the first real international exhibition versus the standardization of international exhibitions in the rise of biennial culture from 1989 to the present by extending a comparative analysis of Magiciens and documenta 14.

If all the things are equal and same, why was nobody sent to the villages of Europe? Is there no folk or traditional art in Europe? If the purpose of the exhibition was to question distinctions between modern works of art and folk or traditional art, why was this not done also within or in relation to Western culture? It appears that the assumption is that Western culture alone has passed from one historical period to another and its contemporary creativity is represented only by modern art. Can one avoid an implication here that other cultures, in spite of their contacts with the West, do not yet have a modern consciousness? Or if they do, it is not important to their creativity? (pg. 11)

For one, a major critique of Magiciens is the lack of consultation of local modernism experts when selecting works from non-Western locations for inclusion. To take one step back first, Araeen notes that Magiciens departs from exhibitions such as “Primitivism in the 20th century”, which was curated by William Rubin at MoMA just five years earlier. Magiciens presented living and named artists, rather than living modernist European artists next to traditional works by unnamed artisans (not “art”) as in Rubin’s exhibition which placed tribal masks next to paintings by Picasso.

Magiciens also sought out traditional work in non-Western locations, but presented the work as authored “art.” Araeen notes that Martin bypassed Modernist museums and went to villages. Current exhibitions tend to be far more critically aware in this regard. documenta 14, for instance, fore-fronted the diversity of its curatorial team and the exhibition’s reliance on their local expertise. In fact they did this to a rather performative degree, making an implied argument that the curators’ respective subjectivities are evidence of authenticity or ethical inclusion. Regardless of how it is done, most curators, though certainly not all, are either educated or simply strategic enough to know that it is in their interest to consult local peers when they select artists outside of their own area of knowledge.

In addition to contemporary art’s flexibility, this is another defining trait of contemporary art which distinguishes it from the late modernist tone of Magiciens: that it assumes, to a violent and flattening degree, that “we” (the humans of the world) experience time in the same way–a temporality defined by standardized time produced to assist in the rise of global capitalism, to coordinate the flow of goods and people. In an effort to critique and correct the latter day “othering” which occurred in exhibitions like Magiciens, contemporary art can “same” in a way that while well-intentioned, is equally imperialistic and bound up in systems to maintain control. For example, to hang work by two artists from vastly different cultures next to each other based on formal resonance (even resonating subject matter, depending on how it is done), without acknowledging the differences that structure their production, circulation, and reception, the same erasure of differences happens to the same “family of man” result. Meaning, the defaulting result presumes that the works were produced under the same capitalist-driven conditions which structure one culture but not both to the same degrees.

To summarize, two major differences between Magiciens in 1989 and biennials produced in the present, is 1. their approach to local expertise and drive to present peers from different areas side by side and 2. that they do this in a way that, without proper contextual framing may “same” the respective artists in a way which is actually the flip-side of the same imperalistic coin as Martin’s.

This begs the question, what is an example of an exhibition which manages to make an argument for global scope and inclusion yet allows cultures to be presented to the public on their own terms, with their respective temporalities maintained. Is there a way that exhibition making may subvert rather than contribute to capitalism’s larger goal to exterminate ways of life and experiencing time which is not in the service of labor and capital accumulation.

Neoliberal capitalism is defined by it’s geographic scope: that it moves from place to place, exploiting cheap labor conditions until the workers of that location begin to gain power and raise the cost of production. It moves and repeats, but according to world systems theory, it will soon run out of space. Within the next 2 decades, we will see the current system change. Contemporary art, necessarily, will be changed as well. We can use the comparative case studies of Magiciens and documenta as hints towards how the next system will shape and be shaped by contemporary art, which is by now a considerable and profitable industry.


Image caption: Paul Gaugin, Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven, 1888, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington.