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by Nina Möntmann

Plunging into the World: On the Potential of Periodic Exhibitions to Reconfigure the Contemporary Moment

Contemporaneity has become a key concept in the cultural field.[i] Already since the early 1990s, museums of present-day art are no longer called museums of modern art, but museums of contemporary art. The concept of the “modern” seems no longer to hit the mark when reference is to be made to the present, to what is current. Modernity is now understood as a designation for an historical era, an era that is over and that stands for a break with the past, for a movement of progress, for renewal and liberation from history, for avant-garde and abstraction. The notion of the “contemporary,” by contrast, is undefined and open; there is no master narrative on which everyone could agree. Hal Foster observed in 2009 that “in its very heterogeneity, much present practice seems to float free of historical determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgment.”[ii] But neither does it follow the logic of postmodern plurality of anything goes, which, for its part, defined itself via hefty conflicts with history by seeking to leave the teleological narrative of modernity behind in favor of a complementary collection of various approaches and interests. In fact, “contemporary art” comprises all media and orientations. There are no longer any artistic styles or successive movements, such as abstract expressionism, minimal art, conceptual art, etc. Rather, the boundaries are blurred, which also corresponds in a way to the current academic topos of transdisciplinarity. This relation to history and temporality allows for a polychronic perspective on the current moment. In the following, therefore, I side with those who distinguish the concept of “contemporaneity” from art that is called “contemporary” simply because it is made at the present moment. According to Peter Osborne, for example, the notion of contemporaneity follows a new logic, that of a globalized world-system with networked coordinates and a relationship to the past that is no longer characterized by attempts to overcome history, but by a self-conscious resumption of it.[iii]

This raises many questions: How do we periodize the present? Can the distinction between modernity and the present be maintained at all in a global context? For instance, the Western concept of modernity is closely tied to abstraction, ruptures, avant-gardes, progress, and innovation, whereas in other countries, such as India for instance, processes of modernization followed in a much less disruptive manner, never breaking away from the sequence of narrative and figurative modes in favor of abstraction. With a view to exhibition practice, one may therefore ask: How is a changed relationship to history and an awareness of new geographies in art and curatorial practice implemented? And how can this lead to an idea of futurity? These questions also shed new light on how art is presented, contextualized, and mediated, and thereby on the crucial role and responsibility of exhibitions in negotiating the current moment. In particular for the regularly recurring large-scale exhibitions, such as documenta, their societal role is a matter of how contemporaneity is conceived. Since documenta exhibitions, as large-scale and important as they are, do not stand alone, completely detached from the realities of the world, in the following, I will take up the broader historical context of exhibitions, addressing the geopolitical order and postcolonial constellations that were also so relevant to documenta X and Documenta11.

The Founding Narrative of Periodic Exhibitions

For the profile of every recurring large-scale exhibition, the so-called founding narrative is decisive, i.e., the guiding idea with which the first edition is initiated and which is ideally updated with each new edition, from which a perspectival interpretation or definition of the contemporary moment can be derived.[iv] This profile is not always cultivated, and some editions of biennials do not always fulfill the expectations placed upon them. Nevertheless, these guiding ideas of the founding that are nourished, on the one hand, by local conditions and, on the other, by an intentional positing of its founders, leave their mark on the subsequent history of each exhibition. For instance, the Berlin Biennale was initiated only in 1998 as the “young,” urban biennial of a quickly changing metropolis. It stands for an unconventional thematic orientation and experimental formats, even in the city's own marketing campaigns, and in this context is supposed to enable new ideas to be hazarded. Hence, a certain hipness factor cannot always be avoided by the curators, or may even be intended by those responsible for its branding. Manifesta, in contrast, has been taking place as a mobile European biennial already since 1996 at different, but strategically important cities to embody European values after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Its agenda is characterized by various approaches, such as challenging the specific post-Communist constellation, or dealing with stereotypes of the East and the West. Very far removed from this more recent biennial profile, the Venice Biennale, founded in the 19th century with its country pavilions, stands for the model of national presentation, underscored by each represented country's national economic interests, budgets, and organizational structures. The pavilions are supplemented by a large curated international exhibition at the Arsenale and the central Italian pavilion.

The first documenta was given decidedly 20th-century political responsibility by its founder, Arnold Bode, in 1955 for connecting the situation of Germany to an extended context that was initially Western European. A “return of German art into the continuity of European modernity,” as Manfred Schneckenburger put it, a continuity that was allegedly disrupted by the Third Reich through its denigration of modern art as “degenerate.” In later documenta exhibitions, the urgency of the reconstruction and integration of Germany into the West diminished, and the context was slowly expanded to eventually encompass art from around the globe, particularly since the end of the Cold War. Today, documenta assumes a hegemonic role as the world’s most important exhibition of contemporary art. The expectations of the art field towards each documenta are aimed accordingly not only at a “seismographic” registration of current trends—a formulation that was often used in the 1980s and 1990s—but at decisively activating a global art field as the spearhead of a discourse oriented toward the future. In so doing, guiding themes of all documenta editions since the fall of the Iron Curtain have included interrogating social formations within society, the inequality of global relations under globalized capitalism, and the search for new forms of collective identities viewed from various angles. The significance of periodic exhibition formats in general has risen rapidly since the early 1990s. It is hence no coincidence that Charles Green and Anthony Gardner subtitled their 2016 publication Biennials, Triennials and documenta with the phrase, “The exhibitions that created contemporary art.” They claim that “since the early 1990s [periodic exhibitions] define contemporary art.”[v]

In 1989, (the year of the “victory” of global capitalism) two large-scale exhibitions were early examples to tackle, with quite different trajectories, the dimensions of a new globalized world order. Magiciens de la terre, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Centre Pompidou and in two further locations in Paris, was an early attempt to show contemporary artistic positions from Western art centers together with those from the global South, still regarded at the time as peripheral. However, the show was harshly criticized for its selection and presentation: artworks were largely arranged according to the formalist criteria of Western art history. One example is the immediate vicinity of a wall painting by Richard Long with a traditional painting of the Yuendumu, an Australian aboriginal community (Grande Halle, Parc de la Villette, Paris 1989). In this way, religious or ceremonial artifacts were subsumed under “Western” aesthetic standards. There were many similar examples, which have been read as an unintended reproduction of colonial power relations by the curatorial team.[vi] The Third Havana Biennale, curated by Gerardo Mosquera and his team, was conceived around very different trajectories related to an idea of globalism. It showed works by 300 artists from 41 countries, many of which were in Africa and Asia. Its achievement was, above all, that it became a social hub for non-Western artists and thus an early example for forging southern global networks independently of Western art centers, even before the collapse of the Iron Curtain and perceivable progress in globalization.[vii] It is precisely the underlying question that is now relevant here: how can art and how can exhibitions, which account for the field of art as a globalized one, position themselves critically? What relationship to their own temporality is necessary, and how can this flow into a creative artistic or curatorial process?

The Plunge into the World

Thus, the success of recurring large-scale exhibitions in the “Former West” is also located within the context of larger political changes in the early 1990s—the noticeable and rapidly expanding process of globalization after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In many exhibitions, the social function of artistic practice was increasingly thematized: the 1993 Whitney Biennale, for instance, was dubbed the “PC Biennale” because it no longer gathered together market trends, but assumed a radical political position in the context of liberation movements related to identity. Further projects dedicated to social change include the 1993 Project unité, curated by Yves Aupetitallot in Le Corbusier’s residential block Unité d’habitation in Firminy, where so-called “context art” was shown by artists such as Renée Green, Fareed Armaly, Liam Gillick, Tom Burr, and many others. Moreover, it should be mentioned that the AIDS crisis precipitated a multitude of exhibitions in institutions and in the public sphere. These exhibitions no longer merely showed various objects, but they also contextualized a social field in which, and from which, the objects and their meanings are produced. In the words of the artist Yvonne Rainer, an “art exhibition does not have to separate, or isolate, its objects from the conditions in and under which those objects have been produced.”[viii]

The format of the exhibition accordingly went through a “re-evaluation and reconception [...] in the artistic field”[ix] in the late 1980s and 1990s. According to the editors of Thinking About Exhibitions, it was turned into the “primary site for exchange in the political economy of art, where signification is constructed, maintained and occasionally deconstructed.”[x] This intrinsic critique of the exhibition and its capacity to produce meaning and value could be seen as the fundamental condition for opening up the format to create new platforms for negotiation. It paved the way for a new sensitivity to the process of curating, which reflected the potential societal involvement of the exhibition. On this basis of raising awareness for the exhibition’s political intertwining with the art industry as well as with more broadly conceived social interconnections, art’s worldliness came into focus, defining art production at that time. It was perceived as enabling active participation in defining a contemporary moment. In this sense, Pamela M. Lee speaks of a “geopolitical immanence,” which occurred when, during the most recent wave of capitalist globalization, art lost its (critical) distance from the world. She argues that art’s professional sphere, that is, the methods of production and distribution, have become one with the global economy.[xi] The artwork itself is thus simultaneously an object and agent of globalization, but can no longer be assumed as an autonomous, independent entity withdrawn from the world.

As a conclusion to this situation, Lee proposes Forgetting the Art World, which is also the title of her book. This can be understood as proposing that we can achieve a nuanced understanding of the present only if we recognize that the present situation relates asynchronously to the historical worldview of the 20th century, whose canonical paradigms were developed from a critical distance. For the present, however, we must recognize that the situation has shifted completely, and a self-contained art world has given way to a fast-moving, transitory, global paradigm with no easy distinction between artistic and non-artistic modes of production. However, it is all the more important not to lose sight of the problematic implications of a (reciprocal) crossover between globalization and contemporary art as such, which we are experiencing today. This blurring of boundaries lies in the economization of all areas of the art field as an industry, with all the dependencies that thereby arise, particularly the danger of reproducing or maintaining colonial power structures in global relations. It is precisely this awareness and the thematization of the critical, problematic implications of globalized art industries that enable a new perspective on or relation to the world, even from an immanent position. It makes it possible, I would argue, to move on and develop ideas for an alternative “world-system.” In contrast to earlier sociological theories that have investigated social change on the level of individual societies, the theory of world-systems analyzes the relations among societies with a view to the mechanisms and effects of globalization. World-system theory can be fundamental for understanding how interconnections in our present-day world work systematically—also that we currently find ourselves in a crisis-ridden transitional phase from a capitalist system to a new world-system.[xii]

World Systems at documenta X and Documenta11

Two previously mentioned exhibitions were among the first curatorial endeavors that registered the “plunge into the world,” thematizing and taking advantage of their own participation in how the world-system functions: Magiciens de la terre brought non-Western positions together with Western ones, while the Third Havana Biennale, with its focus on the global South, imagined an independence from the West, which also paved the way for social networks of the South by enabling artists to meet and connect. The history of documenta, not without ruptures and leaps, may also be read as exemplary of the movement from the model of worldviews developed from a distanced position—among which Harald Szeemann's Individual Mythologies at documenta 5 (1972) can also be counted—to a geopolitical immanence. But this “plunge into the world” is not an illustration of what is happening in the world, but an alternative imaginary produced from an intrinsic position with the means of the arts, of curating, and of theory, which can act as a corrective to the factual world-system. Documenta11 (2002), curated by Okwui Enwezor and his team,[xiii] is a good example of an exhibition that pursued this discourse in the cultural field and that effected a radical shifting of the canon, as Green/Gardner (2016) note, prepared by Catherine David's documenta X (1997), with David opening documenta to global and postcolonial positions and theorizing. Already the catalogues of both exhibitions reveal these tendencies. The “plunge into the world,” as I call it, or geopolitical immanence, was enacted already on the first pages of the catalogues of both the tenth and the eleventh editions of documenta, but each time with different premises, which can be read as a development in the direction of a transcultural approach.

documenta X, catalogue image, 1997

documenta X, catalogue image, 1997

The catalogue of documenta X opens with photos of Kassel destroyed by war, images of concentration camps, poems by Paul Celan, an essay by Bertolt Brecht, a political map of the Cold War, an image of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and finally a diagram showing the hierarchy of centers and peripheries in the world that—superimposed over a photo of the Petronas Tower in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur—refers to global shifts and the rapid development of parts of Asia into economic powerhouses. Corresponding with this series of photos, theoretical links to the Frankfurt School, French-influenced poststructuralism, and finally postcolonial theories may be observed in the catalogue’s essays. Right at the beginning of the Documenta11 catalogue, we also find a series of press photos of global political events and conflicts spreading over thirty pages without comment. They include images showing the ruins of the Twin Towers after 9/11 and hopelessly overloaded refugee boats, the still of a video message from Osama Bin Laden, an image of the violent clash between Israelis and Palestinians in front of a mosque in Jerusalem, and one of Milosevic before the United Nations’ war tribunal at The Hague, the largest war-crimes trial since the Second World War. The essays that follow, written mainly by members of the transcultural curatorial team, are on bio-politics, film, globalized urban economies, and documenta as a zone of action. Thus, whereas at documenta X there was still a Euro-centric gaze, widening successively from the site of Kassel, via Germany to the global situation, Documenta11 presumes and takes for granted a global perspective from the outset. This was also apparent, of course, in the respective exhibitions’ overall layout and in many individual artworks.

Documenta11, catalogue image, 2002

Documenta11, catalogue image, 2002

As an example, I would like to discuss a key work from Documenta11, which opens up the past’s potential to reshape the present. More precisely, I would like to consider how Steve McQueen's bipartite video installation, Western Deep / Caribs’ Leap, commissioned for the show, offers possibilities for reconfiguring the globalized present from a colonial past. Western Deep shows workers in a South African gold mine. McQueen concentrates the film on the visual elements of the movement of sweating, hard-working bodies, which is occasionally accompanied by the threatening metallic rattle of the elevator and machines: in the depths of the mine a speechlessness seems to prevail. At Documenta11, the film was presented in one of its infamous black boxes in the Binding Brewery, which blacks out perception of the immediate surroundings, enabling the viewers’ excursion into the far-off underworld of the mine. The unbearably long journey down into the apparently unending, narrow, dark, and hot shaft becomes a trip to hell. The TauTona Mine, known under the Apartheid regime as “Western Deep,” is four kilometers deep, the deepest mine in the world. Nobody has ever been closer to the earth's core; temperatures rise as high as 55 degrees Celsius. The trip down takes three hours; elevators have to be changed several times because with a single shaft into such a depth, the ground would collapse. Therefore, the shafts also lie far apart. It becomes obvious that the workers risk their health and lives, while multinational companies make the profit. The film conveys that there is a lack of legal liability in accordance with OECD guidelines, which include respect for human rights, along with a prohibition of discrimination according to race, skin color, or gender. Almost all the workers in the gold mine are black and male.

Steve McQueen, Western Deep, 2002 (video still)

Steve McQueen, Western Deep, 2002 (video still)

McQueen displays Western Deep in an installation, juxtaposing it with the piece Caribs' Leap, which consists of two video works. One, projected on a big screen, shows hypnotic shots of a slowly falling, dark figure before a densely cloudy sky mirrored in the sea. The artist shot the film on the Caribbean island of Grenada, where his parents were from. He evokes an historic event from 1651—more than 150 years after Christopher Columbus reached the island—when the French colonialists eventually defeated the Caribbean population. Up until then, the Caribbean people had successfully resisted European colonization. The last inhabitants on the island apparently chose a quick death rather than dying the slow death of colonization. They jumped off a high cliff that is today called Caribs' Leap. McQueen shot his film precisely at this site of sacrifice, recounting the story of the political act of the collective final refusal of being colonized. On a small monitor in the same space, the second part of Caribs' Leap documents leisure scenes on the beach of the island, children playing, while fishermen are pulling their boats onshore—before the camera eventually pans over open coffins in a morgue. In the correspondence between the pieces, Western Deep and Caribs’ Leap, the Caribbean rebels, who would rather jump to their deaths than live under colonial power, appear like “angelic messengers” to the capitulating mine workers, who put their lives into the hands of their exploiters.[xiv] The lift’s racing descent into the mine's hellish shaft thus appears more cruel in contrast to the lightness of a free fall into the beyond. Moreover, their “plunge into the world” is updated in that of the mine workers: the work depicts a story of colonization that has not ceased to the present day. In the process of globalization, exploitation has assumed other forms that now pay out in the currency of neoliberalism, while the power relations have remained the same. The juxtaposition of the historic event with the situation of the exploited mine workers today also opens up the potential for giving this story another outcome: to imagine an empowerment of the mine workers gained through collective resistance, not only on a local basis but on a planetary scale, to the apparent mechanisms of globalized neoliberal as well as neo-colonial capitalism.

Steve McQueen, Caribs’ Leap, 2002 (video still)

Steve McQueen, Caribs’ Leap, 2002 (video still)

Caribs' Leap / Western Deep was not only one of the most impressive works I have seen, at one of the most pioneering exhibitions, but it can also be regarded as paradigmatic for the world-system devised at Documenta11. The curator Owkui Enwezor and his team had initiated five platforms that took place in different cities around the world.[xv] At the one that took place in Saint Lucia, one of the nodes of the world-system was documented with the concepts of “Créolité” and “Créolisation.” The Caribbean is regarded as the model for “Créolité.” It is exemplary of a region in which the historically specific experience of colonization has led to an interdependent cultural identity and language. At the same time, the Caribbean is marked by a diversity of West African and European influences, so that the language is a mixture of African syntax, Caribbean vocabulary, and French dialects. “Créolisation” is understood in this context as a social process of reciprocal cultural interpenetration that is not tied exclusively to the Caribbean, but stretches over the entire world. The writer and philosopher Édouard Glissant was one of the first to describe the process of cultural globalization, discerning a relational “poetics of diversity” as its potential.[xvi] The temporal relation of the colonial past and neocolonial present in McQueen’s work can be described with what T.J. Demos calls the “specters of colonialism in contemporary art.” Artworks which “acknowledge the ghosts, […] open up the repressed histories, […] admit the colonial present, and […] commence this politics of memory in partnership with the dead in struggle,” are suggesting “what is to be done otherwise.”[xvii] This approach of acknowledging the specters of the past in the present moment and instigating alternative outcomes pluralizes the temporality of the contemporary moment and endows it with the potential to think alternative presents.

Whereas the relation of McQueen's work to the concept of Documenta11, for which it was made, is thus closely related to the programmatic direction of the exhibition, I would like to conclude by discussing a work by Dora García, who realized a piece that updated a historical moment of a brutally crushed uprising within the rather open curatorial conception of the 11th Gwangju Biennale (2016), fourteen years after d11.

The Contemporary and its Polychronic Narratives

Dora García, Nokdu Bookshop for the Living and the Dead, 2016 (Installation view, Gwangju Biennale)

Maria Lind’s concept for the Biennale did not follow a specific thesis, but asked the question, “What does art DO?”—in the sense of, “What can art achieve? What can art move? How does art position itself in society?”[xviii] García related her ideas very directly to the specific history of the Biennale's founding by drawing on the connection to the May uprising in Gwangju and bringing it into the contemporary moment. The Nokdu Bookshop for the Living and the Dead is a reconstruction of the legendary Nokdu Community Bookshop in Gwangju in South Korea, which was a meeting place for rebels during the Gwangju Uprising against the military dictatorship and martial law decreed on 18 May 18, 1980. In the original bookshop, a multiplicity of activities took place: the Paris Commune was discussed as a model, women organized to parry gender-specific violence, news was exchanged, corpses from the bloodily suppressed revolt laid out and mourned, and finally, of course, books were sold, discussed, and read. For the 11th Gwangju Biennale, García conceived her work not as a monument to this bookshop, but as a similarly living place of contemporary exchange. The activities taking place at the reconstructed bookshop—readings, discussions, book presentations, workshops, etc.—were designed by García herself in cooperation with the Book Society in Seoul, the local McGuffin bookshop, and the original owners of the Nokdu bookshop. These jointly organized activities were related to the history of the uprising and its survivors, but also to the current political situation, feminisms in Korea, independent publishing in the country and so on: all things one can imagine taking place in a “real” independent and active bookstore. García writes that there are places, such as the shop for instance, which function as nodes where an infinite number of events, historical processes, narrative strands, life stories, ideas, needs, worries, positions, memories, and desires collide. They all crystallize in relatively small, unimportant places—what Jorge Luis Borges called “The Aleph.”[xix] García's bookshop, reconstructed as a simple wooden structure, was managed during the Biennale by book dealers from the local McGuffin bookstore. Together with the Book Society in Seoul, they were responsible for the new selection of books on sale in the store. Older books, documents, and posters that were not for sale had been donated and loaned by contemporaries of the 1980 revolt. Many of these items had been bought at the time in the original Nokdu Bookshop. The supplementary objects in Dora García’s 2016 reconstruction were replicas of the rebels’ everyday objects from the 1980s. Other objects, the coffins, flags, fruits, and shrouds were designed or arranged by García to emphasize the connection of the original bookshop with death, where the killed rebels were washed, laid out, and thus presented to their families.

The Nokdu Bookshop for the Living and the Dead thus relates directly to the history of how the Gwangju Biennale was founded. This Biennale is the oldest biennial for contemporary art in Asia. It was founded in 1995 in the city of Gwangju to remember the violently suppressed rebellion of the civil democracy movement in 1980. The programmatic agenda behind the appointment of each curatorial team and the expectation placed on the art is tied to critical social and political positions, which has been fulfilled over time to a greater or a lesser extent. Dora García’s reactivation, updating, and reactualization of the Nokdu Bookshop in the exhibition context is implied already in the work’s title: Nokdu Bookshop for the Living and the Dead. The process of updating (Aktualisierung) in contemporary art, I would like to argue, is not only performing an alleged breakdown of linear time, as was achieved in art practices of the 1960s,[xx] but it sets out to evoke situations in which unused potentials are revived and prohibited liberations are given new prospects.[xxi] In that sense, the bookshop is untied from canonical historiography as a fragment of the history (the lost revolution of the dead), a time capsule, which is set free in order to conceptualize alternative histories and, ultimately, alternative versions of the present and the future (the potential for collective action as a liberation of the living). Therefore, the present is not presented as post-revolutionary but as still pursuing the same objective, which has not yet been achieved, but is now equipped with new findings, strategies, and energy.[xxii] These trajectories were created and opened up in García’s bookshop, they were explored by the visitors and participants, and they were shared in the workshops, lectures, reading groups and discussions from where they were potentially diffusing into wider societal spheres.

Remarkably, artworks that engage with updated historical fragments are today frequently key works in the exhibition in which they are shown, backing my thesis that the principle of updating has assumed a particular relevance in defining the contemporary moment. Quite often, these works combine documentary elements with fictional and poetic ones, a matter-of-fact register with a suggestive one, and information with personal narrative. In this combination, they embody the potential to clear the path for abandoned views toward the future or alternative outcomes of the past. They call attention to what could have happened and in fact still might happen. Rather than accepting the lost battles of the past as failures, they create an opening to look upon these struggles as unfinished business to be revived. This specific mode of dealing with history, which marks a rupture with the concept of chronology and genealogy in favor of an updating of historical fragments is, in my view, specific for the current critical understanding of contemporaneity and the actualization of its potentials in the age of globalization. Geoff Cox and Jacob Lund speak of an “expanded present, […] in which several temporalities and times take part in what is perceived as present and as presence.”[xxiii] Contrary to a simplified dictum of “learning from history,” this plunging out of chronology into a multiplicity of temporalities enables us to reread history not as given sequence of completed entities, but as a complex net of open-ended threads and polychronic narratives, which can still be diverted in different directions.


The chronological openness in dealing with history in contemporary art as well as in developing curatorial conceptions enables fragments to be taken out of the hegemonic historiography for a moment in order to open up other histories and alternative presents. In this sense, as Pamela M. Lee summarizes, “Art actualizes, iterates or enables processes of globalization.”[xxiv] By doing so, it breaks with the previous principle of art history, which is genealogical, as well as with an expectation towards the contemporary needing to be innovative. A polychronic understanding of contemporaneity refutes the idea of an end of (art) history, as stated by Francis Fukuyama, Arthur Danto, or Hans Belting, and instead opens up future perspectives based on revived and as yet unfulfilled narratives from the past.[xxv] On the basis of these insights, the potential for periodic exhibitions, such as documenta, to define the contemporary moment in the cultural field lies in developing alternative versions of world-systems nourished by as yet unrealized struggles for liberation and social and economic justice, with a future perspective of a planetary society as a civilizational project of collective desire.

Translated from German by Michael Eldred, with independent extensions by the author.

Nina Möntmann is a curator, writer and Professor of Art Theory and the History of Ideas at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. Curated projects include Fluidity, Kunstverein in Hamburg 2016 (together with Bettina Steinbrügge and Vanessa Joan Müller); Harun Farocki A New Product (Deichtorhallen Hamburg, 2012); If We Can't Get It Together. Artists Rethinking the (Mal)functions of Community (The Power Plant, Toronto, 2008); The Jerusalem Show: Jerusalem Syndrome (together with Jack Persekian), 2009, Parallel Economies in India, (Frankfurter Kunstverein, 2006) and the Armenian Pavillion for the 52nd Venice Biennale. She participated in the long-term Israeli/Palestinian art and research project Liminal Spaces, and in 2010 was a research fellow at the Museo de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. She organized a number of symposia, such as Scandalous. A Symposium on Art & Ethics, 2010, and New Communities, 2008 (both at Moderna Museet in Stockholm), We, Ourselves, and Us at the Power Plant in Toronto, 2009, and ReForming India - Artistic Collectives Bend International Art Practices at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School in New York, 2007. Recent publications include the edited volumes Brave New Work. A Reader on Harun Farocki’s Film ‘A New Product,’ English/German, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 2014; Scandalous. A Reader on Art & Ethics, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2013; New Communities, Public Books/The Power Plant, Toronto, 2009; and Art and Its Institutions, Black Dog Publishing, London, 2006. Her essays have been published in numerous critical readers and catalogues.

[i] See, for example, as an early, initiatory contribution to the discourse on contemporaneity: Arthur Danto, After The End of Art, Princeton/NJ (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1997; Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? Contemporary Art, Contemporaneity and Art to Come, Artspace Critical Issues Series, Sydney, 2001; or, more recent publications: Peter Osborne. Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art. Verso, London and New York, 2013; Geoff Cox and Jacob Lund, eds., The Contemporary Condition, a publication series by Sternberg Press initiated in 2016, with individual books by Cox and Lund, Terry Smith, Jussi Parikka, et al.  

[ii] Hal Foster, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’,” in October No. 130, Fall 2009, pp. 3–124, cit. p.  3.

[iii] Osborne labels contemporary art in this sense as “post-conceptual,” drawing on the legacy of conceptual art practice of the 1960s: “Contemporary art, in the critical sense in which the concept has been constructed in this book, is a geo-politically reflexive art of the historical present of a postconceptual kind.” Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All, p. 176.

[iv] During their presentation at the Bergen Biennial Conference in 2009, Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk and Jonas Ekeberg pointed out the relevance of the founding narrative of biennials and also the responsibility that goes along with this in terms of maintaining the trajectories attached to this narrative. Therefore, for newly founded biennials and triennials it was, according to them, crucial to carefully and responsibly drafting the outline of the first edition. See Monika Szewczyk’s review of a part of the conference “How to Run a Biennial? (with an Eye to Critical Regionalism),” in Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, Solveig Øvstebø, eds., The Biennial Reader. The Bergen Biennial Conference, Bergen Kunsthall, Hatje Cantz, Bergen/Ostfildern, 2010, pp. 27-32, cit. p. 30.

[v] Anthony Gardner and Charles Green, Biennials, Triennials, and Documenta: The Exhibitions that Created Contemporary Art, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2016, p. 3.

[vi] For an in-depth discussion of the concept, reception, and impact of Magiciens de la terre, see Annie Cohen-Sola, “Revisiting Magiciens de la Terre,” in Stedelijk Studies Journal, No. 1, Fall 2014, http://www.stedelijkstudies.com/journal/revisiting-magiciens-de-la-terre/#_edn13; and Lucy Steeds, ed., Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989, Exhibition Series No. 4 (Exhibition Histories), Afterall Books, Koenig Books, Cologne, 2013.

[vii] The main theme of the third Havana Biennale was “Tradition and Contemporaneity” and included the international conference Tradition and Contemporaneity in the Arts of the Third World.

[viii] Yvonne Rainer, preface to “The Work of Art in the (Imagined) Age of Unalienated Exhibition,” in Brian Wallis, ed., If You Lived Here, The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism, A Project by Martha Rosler, New Press, Seattle, 1991, p. 13.

[ix] Matthias Michalka, “to expose, to show, to demonstrate, to inform, to offer. Artistic Practices around 1990,” in Matthias Michalka, ed., to expose, to show, to demonstrate, to inform, to offer. Artistic Practices around 1990, Walther König,Vienna/Cologne, 2015, p. 12. Exhibition catalogue.

[x] In: Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, Sandy Nairne (eds.), Thinking about Exhibitions, London/New York 1996, Introduction p. 2.

[xi] See Pamela M. Lee, Forgetting the Art World  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), p. 5

[xii] Immanuel Wallerstein envisages a new world system will be established around 2050. A point of reference for the analysis is world-system theory as developed by Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, or Beverly Silver, each with their own specific focus, such as the relationship between the centers and the peripheries (Wallerstein), the economy (Amin), or work and labor struggles (Silver).

[xiii] Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya.

[xiv] Rachel Taylor in her description of the piece in a leaflet of Tate collection, 2012.

[xv] Democracy as an Unfinished Process took place in a Western metropolis, in Vienna; Experiments with the Truth: Legal Systems in a State of Transformation and Processes of Finding Truth and Reconciliation in Delhi; Créolité and Créolisation on Saint Lucia; Under Siege: Four African Cities, Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos in Lagos. The fifth platform was the exhibition staged in Kassel.

[xvi] See Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, VA, 1989.

[xvii] T.J. Demos, Return to the Postcolony - Specters of Colonialism in Contemporary Art, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2013, cit. p. 18.

[xviii] Maria Lind in the press release for the 11th Gwangju Biennale.

[xix] Dora García in an email to the author from October 13, 2016.

[xx] See Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004.

[xxi] Nina Köller and Kerstin Stakemeier explored the hindered liberations of historical fragments to be “rescued” as a concept for a series of exhibitions at their project room “Space for Actualisation” in Hamburg in 2007.

[xxii] For the counter-hegemonic potentials of small-scale local projects in taking up old and as yet unfinished struggles as opposed to the large-scale “global exhibitions“ discussed here, see Mark Fisher and Nina Möntmann: “Peripheral Proposals,” in Binna Choi, Maria Lind, Emily Pethik, Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, eds., Cluster Dialectionary, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2014, pp. 171-182.

[xxiii] Geoff Cox and Jacob Lund, The Contemporary Condition: Introductory Thoughts on Contemporaneity & Contemporary Art, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2016, p.16.

[xxiv] Pamela M. Lee, Forgetting the Art World, cover text.

[xxv] Danto, After The End of Art; Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?,” in The National Interest No. 16, 1989, pp. 3–18; Hans Belting, Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte?, Deutscher Kunstverlag, Munich, 1983.

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Issue 33

the documenta issue

by Nanne Buurman & Dorothee Richter

by Vesna Madžoski

by Ayşe Güleç