If you think that this kind of question is too much to ask of an exhibition, then you have ignored the ambition of the Bienal de Habana when it began in 1984, and its actual achievement since 1994, when the curatorial team at the Wifredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art first fully realized a goal of precisely this kind: to show the world, and in particular its region, what, in the aftermath of the Cold War, art from the Third World was like, and how it related to the larger world (dis)order. The first Documenta, in 1955, had aimed to do something similar, albeit on a narrower scale: to reconnect German art to its modernist lineage by reviving its pre-Nazi past, and by linking it to the major currents of avant-garde art in the rest of the West, not least the United States. Since then, Documenta exhibitions have, every five years, striven to intervene in art history. Not only to point up directions for present day art going forward, but also to propose reinterpretations of past art that have, in the minds of the curators, relevance for present practice.
Catherine David’s Documenta 10 of 1997 contained within it revelatory mini-retrospectives such as Helio Oiticica, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Marcel Broodthaers. Young artists everywhere are still busily engaged in exploring the implications of their innovations, and those of artists like them. In 2002, Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 continued this tendency, allotting a central space to Hanne Darboven, but he also, and more powerfully, brought to the center of European art institutions the legacy of Havana, and of Dakar, where a biennale of the arts was first staged in 1992. The visual cultures of the non-aligned states during the Cold War era, the art emergent from the processes of decolonization, have influenced art practice everywhere. This amounts to what he has dubbed “the postcolonial constellation.”
The artworld reaction, in the U.S. especially, and to a different degree in Europe, was swift. These were, after all, the months of the invasion of Iraq, with its “shock and awe” tactics, and rhetoric of U.S. invincibility. Less violently (but in the aftermath of horrible violence) the EEC was undertaking an abrupt expansion in its membership, into the ex-Soviet zones and eastward, while the numbers of those desperately seeking to enter Europe from the global South was rising. The result: alarmed specters of “fortress Europe.” For these and a host of internal artworld reasons (not least the burgeoning of contemporary art into market leadership) curators everywhere retreated towards more aesthetic themes, thrust interpretation into the hands of bemused spectators or stacked on the thematics in “everything goes” arrays. Organizationally, they multiplied into “curatorial teams,” spread the responsibility, and into ducked the spotlight. The Venice Biennale of 2003 fell victim of this rush from judgment.
It echoes still. As you step off the vaparetto at the Giardini entrance to the 52nd Venice Biennale, a sign greets you: “The Biennale has no position on conflict and no part in it. RS.” The initials are those of the Biennale director; the sign uses the Biennale’s signature colors and typography, but it does not include the otherwise ubiquitous logo. Is it one of the countless instances of visual commentary, unofficial intervention, fellow-traveling or outright attention-seeking that the Biennale spawns, in the city and beyond? Afterall, it has already attracted one of the most wishful of these ever present stickers: the Israeli flag, in Palestinian colors. Yet the sign’s sentiment, and its tone, is quintessential Storr: an openhearted, bold assertion of having no position, stout liberalism facing down the ideologies of all stripes that currently besiege it. This spirit drives his introductory essay to the Biennale’s three-catalog set, in which he reminds aesthetes and artworld “professionals and hangers-on” that “biennales are the places where a multiplicity of art worlds meet in the presence of a vast, varied and–contrary to what commentators across the political spectrum have said–avid and unpredictable public.” Thus the exhibition’s one-step-up-from-Disney slogan: “Think with the Senses–Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense.” A similar nervousness about audience appears in the public stance of the Documenta 12 director/curators, right there in their anodyne preface, in such disingenuous remarks as: “It was not our aim either to highlight artist’s names or succumb to all-encompassing concepts, nor did we want to favour geopolitical identity (a la “art from India”).”