The World, from Europe: The Mega-Exhibition of Mid-2007

Terry Smith

Lawrence Weiner, PRIMARY SECONDARY TERTIARY, 2007. Installation view at Padiglione Italia, 52nd International Art Exhibition. Courtesy Lisson Gallery, London. Photo Courtesy of The Moved Pictures Archive.

The rare conjunction, in June 2007, of the 52nd Venice Biennale, the Basel Art Fair, Documenta 12 at Kassel and the 4th Muenster Sculpture Project promised visitors an unprecedented overview of the state of contemporary art–at least, as it is seen from Europe, or, more precisely, from these prominent European vantage points. Despite the instant artworld that has ballooned around its Miami offshoot, Art Basel remains the art fair to beat, and to be at. An ongoing, public debate about “public art,” conducted mostly between the works themselves, and carefully overseen since 1997 by Kasper Koenig, the Muenster Project announced that it would be more archival of previous editions, and more responsive to political orientations and “post-sculptural” forms, than before. There was against-the-grain potential, too, in the fact that the Venice Biennale was, for the first time, under directorship of a North American–New York-based curator, critic and educator Robert Storr. And that the Austrian partnership Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, director and curator respectively of Documenta 12, had issued a set of Magazines, with articles drawn from art journals all over the world that had agreed to explore the exhibition’s hot topics: Is modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? What is to be done?

Both the Venice Biennale and Documenta 12 received a hammering in the first responses of most print journalists, whereas Muenster was warmly welcomed. Guardian writer Adrian Searle is representa- tive. He headlined the “critical inanities” in various national pavilions at Venice–not least Britain’s, which featured a febrile display by Tracey Emin–and the lack of “a genuine flair for exhibition-making” in the main pavilions. Responding to Storr’s admonition that viewers should take in the exhibition slowly, he comments “Slow down too much and we might notice the tired alignments, or how dreary Robert Ryman looks, and how Storr is shaky when it comes to photography and sculpture.” (June 12, 2007). A week later, in Kassel, his review was headed “100 days of ineptitude,” and his overall reaction was blunt: “Documenta 12 is a disaster.” (June 19, 2007). By the time he got to Muenster, he was so relieved to find a focused event, conducted in a spirit of (mostly) unalloyed optimism, that his leader declared it “Not only great–but great fun!” (June 26, 2007). He did not get to the bun-fight at Basel (nor did I–seen one, seen them all) so I will leave the art fair aside.

What causes reactions such as these? Searle is explicit about his starting point: “With a budget approaching $20M, the exhibition lays claim to setting the international artistic agenda: Documenta identifies which artists, living and dead, we should be looking at, what ideas and issues we should be attending to, what problems and opportunities art faces at a given time.” For many decades, the same expectation has been true of Venice, especially in the broad-scale, survey exhibitions presented by the directors in the misnamed Italian Pavilion and in the Arsenale. Carry this expectation to Europe this spring and summer, however, and you are bound to come away disappointed.

My reactions were, basically, the reverse of the reviewers’ consensus. I had come to these mega- shows with, I admit, a question that I hoped would be answered–in new and useful ways–by these exhibitions, and by others in Europe this spring and summer. Or, perhaps, as has so often, so rewardingly happened in my fortunate experience, the answers would be suggested by certain artworks that might appear within them. The question is a big one, having been wrought, during the past decade, with as much care as I can muster. A demanding question, yet wide open as to the kinds of answer it might attract. Here it is: Had the curators and their teams grasped the fact that the overriding concern of contemporary art around the world, the concern most proper to it as contemporary art, is the growing, alarming and inescapable disjunction– experienced by all of us living in the conditions of contemporaneity–between the small-scale, specific yet fragile facts of our everyday lives and the accelerating incomprehensibility, indeed, the often deadly incommen- surability, of competing global world-pictures? If they had seen things this way, did they assemble works by artists able to display at least aspects of the extremely complex architecture of this dislocation, and by those artists able to point us toward the recovery, or discovery, of concrete kinds of locality, timeliness, identity and selfhood?

Further Reading