The newborn field of research that looks to reconstruct histories of exhibitions is yet to address in full the tour de force of exhibitions in terms of implanting topics into the public sphere. It would benefit the field to acknowledge that, on many occasions, it is not an exhibition per se that merits examination or historization but instead, it is the conjuncture at which it was put together and the broader theoretical, political, or social context the nexus brings to the fore. Without discrediting an individual exhibition’s merits, the study of the cluster within which it takes place helps illuminate the broader context—the climate, the ideas, the discussions—that it precipitates or responds to. Importantly, such macro level of analysis might also allow for the study of exhibitions to gain sociological agency—looking to trace the impact of the ideas they communicate in the public sphere, functioning from but also beyond art circles and their discourse.
One such case is the emergence of several large-scale exhibitions that thematize modernity within prominent Western European institutions at the end of the 2000s, beginning of 2010s. Their approach appears to have been influenced by the simultaneous advent of critical theories that reassessed the modern paradigm. This exhibitionary phenomenon achieved particular density c. 2008–13, with examples such as Modernologías, Altermodern, Modernités Plurielles—a group of exhibitions that have received no joint scholarly attention, and only scattered secondary sources trace the links between them and how they attest to a wider theoretical phenomenon. This article zooms in on the case of Altermodern (Tate Triennial’s fourth edition that ran from February 3 to April 26, 2009 at Tate Britain, London) within this ‘modernity’ phenomenon as its wider context.
Modernity and modernism were the subjects of new waves of scholarship in the early 2000s, specially focusing on their engagement with imperialism and colonialism. Aníbal Quijano’s modernity/coloniality concept was first translated into English and published in the journal Cultural Studies in 2007. A concept that grew amongst Latin American scholars during the 1990s and early 2000s, decoloniality postulates the inseparability of modernity from the European colonial project (Quijano; Walsh; Mignolo), and has produced critiques of culture (Torres Maldonado; Alban Achinte), epistemology, universalism (Castro-Gomez; Grosfoguel), gender (Lugones, Segato), and development (Vazquez; Izaca). Different from postcolonial discourse in its geographical remit, decoloniality also postulates a heterochronic narrative—starting c.1492—and is characterized by a particular relationship with English-speaking academic communities. Simultaneously, and also diverging from postmodernism in its ambitions, sociologists that were inspired by the postcolonial and globalized worldview of the turn-of-the-century conceptualized alternatives to modernity and its overwhelming Eurocentrism. Multiple modernities (Prakash; Eisenstadt; Bonnett) was one such divergence, also reaching its maturity in the early 2000s.
My research into the aforementioned cluster of exhibitions starts from the hypothesis that it was precipitated by the advent of these critical theories—but that the actual influence of the theory on the individual is divergent. Altermodern itself included important exponents of these discourses such as Okwui Enwezor, Walter Mignolo, and Peter Osborne. The last two featured as opening speakers in a symposium titled Global Modernities that took place on March 14, 2009 and functioned as an appendix or discursive event complementing the displays. Both presenters addressed their reading of the modern paradigm, detailing how and why they detached from the concept of the altermodern while also reinforcing the importance of a critique of modernity. While Mignolo summarizes it in short statements like “I inhabit a different tribe” and “Altermodern reproduces imperial design,” Osborne unpacks the issue by explaining: “It’s not clear to me that there is any connection between either the curatorial or artistic logics of the Tate Triennial and the body of theory towards which the word ‘altermodern’ so vaguely gestures. I think these are just parallel, instrumentally related discusses with no conceptual connections.”
Generally speaking, and from an art historical perspective, the cluster of exhibitions took place at a time characterized by the emergence of fields like Global Art History following from prevailing discussions around multiculturalism. The turn of the century had brought a solidification of global worldviews—a process triggered by the 6th and 7th editions of documenta (1997; 2002) and the biennial boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. From a wider viewpoint, the 2008 economic crisis shook the neoliberal, post-capitalist system on which much of (post)modernity functioned. This snapshot is significant because the exhibitions share a similar point of departure in their Western European setting. The hosting museums and venues are typifications of the kind of cultural institution that both grew alongside but also served as condition of possibility for the modern paradigm to flourish. Part of modernity’s backbone, the fact that these institutions worked as spaces from which to articulate and/or contest Eurocentric thought-systems is paradoxical.
My research stems from the consideration of the birth of the art exhibition as a cultural form being coetaneous with the 18th-19th century dawn of European modernity, and asks if, given these shared and entangled roots, the exhibitionary form can be used to critique modernity as a socio-cultural phenomenon. What I find novel and important is that these exhibitions seem to offer a contemporary reassessment of ideologies that, while seemingly in the past, still hold sway in the sociological mesh on which art rests. They open up a space for a critical discourse on exhibitions’ ideological infrastructure. Symptomatic of their moment of crisis, the cluster exposed the extent to which modernity pervades 21st-century exhibitions and offered a contemporary re-evaluation of its influence and leverage. It is within this framework that the following analysis unfolds.
Altermodern was curated by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud. It took place at Tate Britain with twenty-eight artists displayed across almost all of its space for three months. That previous editions of the triennial had focused solely on British practitioners while Altermodern included a third of foreign artists and another third based but not born in the United Kingdom, was one of the big controversies around the curatorial proposition. Amongst the numerous and mostly uncomplimentary reviews the exhibition spurred, the geographical spread of the artists’ nationalities became a somewhat insignificant piece of information. However, having been established as an occasion to showcase British contemporary art, it could be argued that Bourriaud’s failure in complying with the triennial’s parameters was one of the breaking points for this fourth edition to become Tate Triennial’s last. In a press release that explained the discontinuation due to construction work in the gallery, the institution also asserted that it was pointless to wait for any further editions of the short-lived mega-exhibition project. How much the overambitious curatorial proposal—and its chilly reception—was responsible for this halt, remains unanswered. What is interesting is to speculate on the extent to which the institutional mission—Tate Britain being the guardian of British modern and contemporary art—mingled with the triennial’s: How independent was the curator? How was the mega-exhibition conditioned by the collecting institution’s ethos? Can biennials, triennials, and other periodical exhibitions be subsumed under the conventions of art institutions successfully?
At the core of Bourriaud’s theoretical framework for the exhibition lay the concept of ‘wandering’—the circulation of producers and well as production the world over, in a circuit of art that allegedly knew no boundaries and left no part of the world unexplored. “And so the artist, homo viator, turns nomad. They transform ideas and signs, transport them from one point to another. All modernity is vehicular, exchange-based, and translative in its essence; the variety apparently announcing its arrival today will become more extreme as it develops, for the first time in human history, on a planetary scale.” Ironically, as this article is being prepared for publication, the world begins to lockdown in response to Coronavirus—which makes this ‘wandering core’ feel all the more politically incorrect, and even (although it may be premature to say so) outmoded. The homo viator statement was probably difficult to digest in 2009, given its infatuation with a planetary scale that in reality omitted so many parts of the globe and its populations, its disregard for economic sustainability (let alone an ecological one), and its generalization or ‘taken-for-grantedness’ manner when it comes to the nuanced issue of these nomadic ventures’ horizontal accessibility. In the current context—when all flights have been cancelled, countries have closed their borders, and the majority of the world’s population is behind closed doors—Bourriaud’s statement compares to insipid sci-fi: flaunting a futuristic view that fails to impress.
And yet over and above my anachronistic analysis of his theory’s core, what was criticized at the time and still remains current (as much today, in March 2020, as it did in November 2019), is his pretentious invention of the word ‘altermodern’ (it was editor-at-large of Frieze magazine Dan Fox who aptly used that word to describe the discomforting curatorial gesture in a review from the time). Altermodern as a term was badly received on many levels, given its lack of accuracy from a philosophical and historical point of view, and the therefore lukewarm message it sent out to the general public about contemporary art. Academics, curators, artists, and institutional producers and leaders were unable to endorse a concept that appeared to only serve the purpose of adding further controversial terms to Bourriaud’s career. Extensive literature published at the time of the exhibition already covers the flaws of this curatorial framework, which is why I’d like to focus on how some examples of the works on display—and even Altermodern itself—can be read in productive ways, which deconstruct the predominant and ever-present notions of Western modernity and thus deliver what the curatorial concept did not. The triennial seemed to suffer from its curator’s suffocating presence—re-reading the press reviews and scholarly articles from the time, ‘altermodern’ feels like a rife shortcut to discredit the exhibition’s contents and prosthetics. That the art and the discursive events might have been eclipsed by the term is then another failure to add to the effects of this word. Philosopher Tristan García’s dissection of the exhibition’s ontology crisply explains that “the one who exhibits prepares his own disappearance”—and thus distinguishes an exhibition from a gesture, a show, or a representation. Such a maneuver is lacking in the case of Bourriaud.
Coming in through the Millbank Entrance—and after walking past Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Private Collection, Year 3000 (2008)—Matthew Darbyshire’s grand ‘re-dressing’ of the exhibition’s threshold awaited. Red neon lights and spots set the tone, yet the artwork’s engagement with the gallery’s space operated beyond the bling-bling thanks to more subtle, complex resources. “It seeks to analyse the ideologies and social policies that underpin large cultural buildings such as Tate,” states the artist’s profile on the triennial’s bespoke website. In a statement about his work published later on, Darbyshire recalls that the project originated when he realized the “uncanny similarities” between Tate’s building and Warsaw’s Palace of Culture (where he was conducting research for a different exhibition). That these two geographically distant buildings could be united in a style of architecture says less about the virtues of neoclassicism than it does about the long-stretched influences of Western models. Suspicious, the artist proposes a hybrid of three cultural buildings’ aesthetics: “A hypothetical face-lift on the Palace of Culture and Science, inspired by The Public in West Bromwich [UK].” Palac questions past and present histories and the effectiveness of the current, somewhat ubiquitous, colourful space design for which The Public is an archetype. How different is the agenda of this new celebrity architecture from the one neoclassicism pushed at the time? Darbyshire appears to caricature the hegemonic values that underlie these styles—equating those of our time with the ones that prevailed two-hundred years ago. In his critical reading of trendy architecture as a vehicle of power, he exposes the fact of modernity’s continuity. Considered within other efforts to revisit modernism in Northern Africa that happened at the time, the merit of Darbyshire’s installation is to highlight the significance of discussions around colonialist architecture, adding current agency to a necessary re-examination of models of the past.
Peter Coffin’s Untitled (Tate Britain) (2009) uses a similar strategy, drawing connections between disparate objects and allowing new readings of them—or different perceptions of the narratives they convey. A selection of eleven artworks from Tate’s collection become altered through a video projection with sound, in another eclectic dialogue between local and foreign. Examples include kaleidoscopic patterns that twist and turn behind the silhouette of Teucer (1881—by Sir Hamo Thornycroft, actually part of the Royal Academy of Art’s collection), while Joseph Albers’ Study for Homage to the Square: Departing in Yellow (1964) sits beside it and is distorted by the light and shadows that bounce on its color fields. Opposite, Linear Construction No. 2 (1970–1, by Naum Gabo) is in turn a cloud, a twirling ballerina, or the volume of a hexagon. In Coffin’s installation, the systems that allow us to apprehend things as one thing and not another gently collapse. With other possible appearances comes the grasping of an object’s many possible readings, and the revelation that might follow is that of wanting to know how much could reality itself be read differently. Questioning perceptions can function as the anteroom to questioning epistemologies, which means the critique does not stop at the collection of artworks but moves further into the ideologies that form its foundations. One of modernity’s strongest achievements is the hegemonic establishment of Western epistemology—with Science and History determining nature, gender, race, etc. Coffin’s is an invitation to explore the many ways in which we can see a given object, and possibility of furthering this deconstruction on to the world around us.
While these two works greeted the public at the triennial’s entrance, it is only after zig-zagging through most of its rooms that they arrived at Olivia Plender’s Machine Shall Be the Slave of Man, but We Will Not Slave for the Machine (2008). Tucked in a long rectangular space departing from the one where works by Tacita Dean and Charles Avery were displayed, Plender’s installation showed three mannequins framed by a green curtain, a working desk—complete with a computer, lamp, and notebooks—and a wood-and-glass vitrine. All these elements document the artist’s investigation of Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a 1920s socialist youth movement that is hard to pin down. In examining them, Plender’s work reflects on the layers of modernity’s knowledge production systems. First, the mixture of both museological and private furniture—such as studying desks and personal computers—blurs the limits of the archival and the DIY, of the institutional and the personal, questioning the authoritativeness of the former over the latter. Second, the video playing on the desk computer moves back and forth in time, furthering the integration of the public and the private, as fragments of the group’s history and the artist’s personal history interweave, always with the same legitimacy. Finally, the object of study—Kindred of the Kibbo Kift—in itself dismantled many of modernity’s core values and placed nature over productivity, commons over consumerism, ancient knowledge over the scientific one. Slender grapples with the apparatus of modernity, its methods, its classifications, and its values.
This article does not present a comprehensive review of all artists in the triennial, but brings in these three to illustrate the ways in which the art opened up a discussion, a reframing of modernity. They are a useful counterpoint to the exhibition-making, which provided little food for thought in this regard—in spite of Bourriaud claiming it was a central concern of his. On the one hand, the project was stuck between wanting to include some of the eccentricities of mega-exhibitions—big site-specific installations such as Subodh Gupta’s—while accommodating to the setting of a collecting public institution with its multiple-rooms plan. Incongruent, the final product joined both strategies with little unity. On the other hand, and compared against, for example, the efforts made by Jean-François Lyotard in his classic exhibition on the postmodern and the irruption of technology into everyday life—Les Immatériaux, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1985—the glimpse of the altermodern era that Bourriaud presented felt very much like any other previous experience of an art exhibition. In Les Immatériaux, disturbing lighting, unstable narratives, and fragmented displays helped convey the confusion that the irruption of technology was causing for society in the 1980s. On the contrary, the public of Altermodern was invited to follow a one-way route where the nomadic spirit that made up the core of the displays was left as a theoretical point of connection.
Already the fact that there was one entry point and one exit point is telling of the lack of materialization of the curator’s ideas on to the exhibitionary form. But a more powerful sign is that of artists being allocated a space each—in what feels like the substitute for national pavilions in other periodical exhibitions. What message could have been conveyed if Charles Avery’s Untitled (The head of an Aleph) (2008–9) had been separated in space from the drawing depicting a bourgeois couple contemplating the sculpture? Rather than an odd wink to Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965)—and a link to its Western canonical weight—Avery’s work might have reinforced the fantastic-realist narratives of his alephian creature. Imagine the excitement of finding a drawing that kind of portrays the situation one was in a few minutes ago, as one stood in contemplation of the sculpture. If altermodernity is the time when we are able to see the whole world at once, why not spatialize this idea, moving between the time and space of the exhibition?
Two ideas constitute the open conclusion of this article, ideas which in turn form the basis of further propositions that are part of my wider research project. The first is asking if and how a critique of the modern worldview transpires into, and constitutes a demand for, a fundamental change to the exhibitionary form. The case of Altermodern is a case in point of the paradoxical aspects of art exhibitions’ relation to their modern ideological infrastructure. The tension between the curatorial concept, the exhibition-making, and the artworks emerges from their dissimilar levels of engagement with a critique of modernity. The fact of the overambitious concept being of use only at face value meant that it had no impact on the organization of the space, on the exhibitionary props and ephemera, on the distribution of the works, on the lighting or the wall-coloring, or on the conventionality of the route through the displays. Any of these aspects could have been employed to subvert the modern structure that all exhibitions share. ‘Altermodernity’ could use the space of display in a way that embodies its nomadic and heterochronic ethos; employing lighting and other tools to express the “chaotic journeys” that characterize this new present; allowing the organization of space and its floor-plan to concretize the overwhelming globalization of culture, its constant “translations, subtitling and generalised dubbing.” If indeed humanity were entering such a new time with such a new set of values, the exhibitionary form that emerged as a product of the worldview that is being left behind would have to be ditched and reconfigured. The (modern) exhibition emerged and has been used to push forward universality instead of “creolization,” the scientific method in lieu of “cultural relativism and deconstruction,” the organization of the world in center and periphery rather than “planetary negotiations.” When this ideological infrastructure shifts dramatically, its ramifications on the space and form of the exhibition shift, too.
The second concluding point is a speculative consideration of the public sphere as a realm that is more easily impacted by a cluster of exhibitions than by any individual example, and hence the querying of a methodological aspect: needn’t exhibition studies start addressing clusters of exhibitions as its object of study? When the inspection of the case of Altermodern proves futile in terms of imagining new exhibition models, a broader analysis of what it shares with other contemporary examples might still give fruitful grounds for the reconstitution of the exhibitionary form. A methodology that reassembles a connected history of these exhibitions according to their shared approaches and theoretical sources—considering the forms of display that trended at the time and mapping the networks of power, circulation, and influence within which the exhibitions were enmeshed—might best serve to address the cultural concepts underlying their displays and informing their curatorial approach. It is, ultimately, in this nexus where the public sphere gains traction.
Catalina Imizcoz is a researcher and editor. She has published articles in Third Text, OnCurating, Kunstlicht, Caiana, Revista de História da Arte and has participated in symposia held by the Vrije Universiteit and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Biblioteca Herziana in Rome and in the Exhibition Histories series of conferences in Hydra. She was part of Bibliothèque Kandinsky’s fifth summer university and contributed an article to its journal. She is a visiting lecturer at MA Publishing, University College London, and at the MRes: Exhibition Studies, Central Saint Martins. From 2016 to 2019, she was a full-time editor at Phaidon Press, where she continues to work on a freelance basis. She is currently applying for funding to develop PhD research, starting in September 2020.
 My PhD research proposal looks at this cluster as one of its case studies. The full list of exhibitions that I am aware of includes: In the Desert of Modernity, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2008; Altermodern, Tate Triennial, 2009; Modernologías, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2009; The Deep of the Modern, Manifesta 9, Belgium, 2012; Modernités plurielles, Centre Georges Pompidou, 2013–15. Also related although less pertinent to this research: Modernism as Ruin, Generali Foundation, 2009; Desvíos de la deriva, Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2009; Animism, Extra City and MuHKA, 2010; Museos y Modernidad en Tránsito. Modernidad fetiche, Red Internacional de Museos Etnográficos, 2011. Other scholars who have studied this cluster are María Iñigo Clavo and, indirectly, Marion von Osten (2018) and Francisco Godoy Vega (2015), unpublished PhDs.
 Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” New Formations 4 (Spring 1988); Tristan García and Vincent Normand, eds., Theatre, Garden, Bestiary: A Materialist History of Exhibitions (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019).
 The Tate Triennial started in 2000. See also: the Biennial Foundation’s website https://www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/tate-triennial for factual details; and The Observer https://observer.com/2011/12/tate-torpedos-2012-triennial for the news of its discontinuation. Accessed March 2020.
 Dan Fox’s review of the reception of the exhibition by the British press was published in Frieze https://frieze.com/article/altercritics. Accessed March 2020. Interestingly, Fox’s book Pretentiousness: Why it Matters? came out in 2016, and in an interview with Haley Weiss for Interview magazine that same year, he recognizes the article on the triennial’s reception as one of the precedents for his thinking around the concept of ‘pretentiousness’. In a nice series of coincidences, that article bears a spot-on remark about the trajectory of words, alluding to another critic’s use of the adjective ‘degenerate’ to describe British art, which is, of course, a careless choice in view of the history of the word ‘degenerate’ in art. I found it interesting that Fox’s use of the word pretentious here would then move on to have a history of its own, too.
 Some articles on the triennial include Marcus Verhagen, “The Nomad and the Altermodern: The Tate Triennial,” Third Text (2009); Andrew Hunt, “New Journeys in a Teeming Universe: Tate Triennial,” Tate Etc. (2009); David Cunningham, “Returns of the Modern,” Journal of Visual Culture (2010). On prosthetics, see, for example, Stewart Home’s sarcastic description of the typeface in the article “Bourriaud’s ‘Altermodern’, An Eclectic Mix of Bullshit and Bad Taste,” <https://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/bourriauds-altermodern-eclectic-mix-bullshit-bad-taste>. Accessed March 2020. On exhibition prosthetics in general, see Joseph Grigely, “Some Stories, Various Questions,” Exhibition Prosthetics (2010).
 See the triennial’s bespoke website: <http://www2.tate.org.uk/altermodern/explore.shtm#>. Accessed March 2020.
 “At the time I was making a show at the Hayward Gallery called Fun House which was looking at Cedric Price’s Fun Palace plans of the 1960s on the now-Olympic site in Stratford. It was a sort of collision. I was over in Warsaw doing some research at the Palace of Culture for my Hayward project and then realised that the Palace of Culture was uncannily similar to Tate Britain. They had these really weird architectural crossovers with everything from the entrances to the floors, columns, the emblems in the floors, so many things.” <https://museu.ms/article/details/111833/artists-statement-matthew-darbyshire-on-tate-shopping-malls-smoking-shelters-and-student-halls> Accessed March 2020.
 “The Kibbo Kift Kindred were a British youth movement established in the 1920s by an artist and novelist named John Hargrave. Originally part of the Boy Scouts, the Kibbo Kift split from Baden Powell’s conservative organisation in order to establish a left wing youth movement, in collaboration with veterans of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage and the Co-operative Movement. Inspired by the writings of Ernest Thompson Seton, as well as the Arts and Crafts movement, they were opposed to the ‘useless toil’ of the factory, adopting William Morris’s ideal of a return to a pre-industrial golden age. They were initially involved with such emancipatory causes as environmentalism, clothes reform, pacifism, vegetarianism and the democratisation of the arts, but were radicalised during the economic crisis of the 1930s into forming a single-issue political party advocating Social Credit – a now discredited monetary reform theory.” <https://elephant.art/5-questions-olivia-plender/> Accessed March 2020. See also Annebella Pollen, The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians (London: Donlon Books, 2015).
 “BR: If the Altermodern is a new paradigm, did it change your approach to exhibition making? I am interested in how you approach space and material concerns—it is something I think you rarely get asked about though I have noticed some positive reviews relating to the installation.
“NB: Thank you for asking this. I tend to think that the spatial organization of an exhibition has to be directed towards a specific effect, and has to be articulated in order to make a certain pattern appear. Here, it was a certain feeling: scattered or fragmented forms, archipelago-like, and the impression of a journey. One critic from a London newspaper wrote that he had the same feeling visiting the show as when browsing on his computer: he summed up what I tried to provide to the visitor. More concretely, I tried to organize the exhibition as a maze, with many pathways leading to smaller rooms, and a general plan in the form of a snail, that comes from and leads to the spacious Duveens’ Hall of the Tate Britain.”
 Altermodern Manifesto https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/altermodern/altermodern-explain-altermodern/altermodern-explained, Accessed March 2020.