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Art & artists

50 exhibitions you should know

— July 2014

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

Associated media

Carsten Höller, Y, 2003

Exhibitions come and go, but some leave a legacy

Showtime: The Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art by Jens Hoffmann

Its title, ‘Show Time’,  inevitably suggests entertainment, the celebrated hit of the moment and then soon forgotten, but this book sets out to correct this process by recording and recapping some of the major exhibitions of the last 20 years.

Jens Hoffmann claims that since the early 1990s the activity of curating exhibitions has fundamentally changed.  It has moved on from the functions of conservation, education and display of museum collections, largely in the hands of art historians, to a new kind of creative process, calling on a new kind of professional. This development is evident in the growth of university courses that focus on curating.

An additional factor that has propelled this change is the whole process of globalization of both production and knowledge within the art world.  The curator has acquired the status and responsibility (?) of becoming the dominant creator of taste.

Fifty exhibitions have been selected to offer examples of where the comfortable boundaries of the art world have been expanded to encounter wider fields of cultural, political and intellectual debate; installation views, posters, floor plans are included as well as details of locations, curators and exhibitors.  Hoffmann marks the start of this shift with the show ‘Magiciens de la Terre’  (‘Magicians of the Earth’) held in Paris in 1989, when Jean-Hubert Martin moved the process of selection away from the customary Euro-centrist view of the world, with its dismissive perception of the art of other peoples as ‘primitivism’. A number of other, but lesser-known, exhibitions went on to further this direction but often incurred considerable negative critical reactions.  The 1997 Second Johannesburg  Biennial, curated by Okwui Enwezor, and Dan Cameron’s ‘Cuido y Crudo’  (‘The Cooked and the Raw’) held in Madrid in 1994 are cited in this respect.

The notable growth in the number of biennials is another selected theme.  Once there was just Venice (which could still be said to hold its own as an authoritative array of current directions of contemporary art), but now a score or more have been established, reflecting new centres of economic growth and the associated surplus wealth that supports the art market .

Another theme considers more radical responses, which reflect the taste for subversion and constant interrogation of comfortable ideas that are fundamental to contemporary art. The 28th Sao Paulo Biennial, 2008, was arranged over the three floors of the exhibiting space like this: floor one was devised as a kind of public place, with scheduled interdisciplinary events, floor three had an exhibition area, a library and a conference room, but floor two was left absolutely empty. Even more challenging to the concept of the fixity of location and duration as defining aspects of an exhibition is ‘do it’, initiated in 1994 by Hans Ulrich Obrist, in collaboration with Christian Boltanski and Bernard Lavier, but still in progress. It mutates constantly in locations spread throughout the world, on television, online, even occasionally in galleries; its core idea is to create circumstances in which the public respond to instructions and prompts from invited artists.

Show Time,which should be of definite benefit to both professional curators and all who aspire to join their number, concludes with a round table discussion between a group of international curators. This reveals a healthy openness to self-scrutiny. Whilst it is not disputed that there should always be a readiness to challenge current expectations and to be alert to new cultural directions,  care should be taken against what Maria Lind characterized as ’curatorial pirouettes’ . A tension is acknowledged between the incremental expansion of data on a global scale and the exhibition solutions this engenders, with the need to promote local identities that resist standardization and novelty for its own sake; as Adriano Pedrosa affirms, ‘art should be more enduring than the wink of a twitter feed’.

Showtime: The Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art  by Jens Hoffmann is published by Thames & Hudson 2013. 256pp., 187 colour  and 15 mono illus. ISBN 978 0 500 239117


Robert Radford
University of East Anglia

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