In his keynote address at the start of this two-day conference, Hans Haacke focused first on the early years of Documenta, perhaps the quintessential 'landmark exhibition'. He recounted how he became involved in working on Documenta II while studying at the art academy in Kassel and how, through this experience, he was able to observe the ways in which Arnold Bode and his colleague Werner Haftmann set the terms for the exhibition--how Bode's choreography and stage management of the Fridericianum spaces articulated rankings between artists and art movements, how Haftmann became the exhibition's 'ideologue', and how the Documenta exhibition was used over the years to transform Kassel from an isolated backwater just a few miles from the Iron Curtain into a destination of national and international significance.
Haacke illustrated these points with some of the 300 or so extraordinary black and white photographs he made in 1959--each observing relationships between works of art in the exhibition and the exhibition's visitors--and he suggested the many ways in which this early exposure to the workings of a great exhibition machine contributed to what he described as his loss of innocence, laying the ground for his subsequent preoccupation with interrelationships between 'symbolic' and economic capital.
In the final session of the conference Walter Grasskamp, a key figure in the development of a history of museums, collections and exhibitions in the postwar period, also referred back to Documenta, describing the work he undertook in the exhibition's archive in the early 80s. He spoke of how he 'stumbled into the history of exhibitions' through his work with this unsorted hoard of photographic images; his growing fascination with the ways in which Bode and his team installed the exhibition; and his admiration for Bode's foresight in understanding that a high-quality photographic record would be necessary to ensure Documenta's place in history. Grasskamp then told the story of how, among the images he had selected from the archive for publication in 1982 in his magazine Kunstforum, there was one that was clearly not taken by the official photographer, and for which he could find no information. He described how he had been drawn to this image, taken at Documenta II, because it showed the lingering influence of National Socialism, expressed in the fraternity uniforms of two students in front of a Kandinsky painting of 1929. And gradually he revealed how this photograph, with its exemplary juxtaposition of two ideologies, turned out to be the work of none other than the young Hans Haacke, taken in 1959 and subsequently misplaced in the official archive.
These two presentations provided eloquent bookends for the conference and encapsulated some of its most important themes, among them the crucial importance of installation images and layout plans for the telling of exhibition histories, the ways in which artists' perspectives illuminate the recollection of exhibitions in which they participated, and the overlapping of agendas--art, politics and economics--embedded in the initiation and development of large-scale international exhibitions.
The conference brought forth rare and wonderful visual material. Daniel Buren's elegantly orchestrated PowerPoint presentation showed photographs of works made in situ since the late 60s, including images of a project for the exhibition 'Kunst bleibt kunst' in Cologne in 1974, referring directly to the censorship and cancellation of Haacke's proposed exhibition at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in the same city.
Lucy Lippard presented a rapid montage of slides and aphoristic observations relating to the development of the so-called 'number exhibitions' she organised between 1969 and 1973, a series of shows with unbound card index catalogues and with titles taken from the population figures of the cities in which they were first presented. She spoke of her interest in formulating frameworks for exhibitions rather than controlling their outcomes, and her desire to bypass the museum, siting artists' works to produce unexpected encounters in the wider world or making 'suitcase exhibitions' that would, at least in theory, need no institutional mediation. Talking of her current engagement with environmental activism she noted that she finds herself returning to strategies employed by the conceptual artists with whom she worked in the early years of her practice.
From these anchor points in the late 60s, the conference set out to explore the development of theoretical exhibition models in the 80s (the 1985 exhibition 'Les Immateriaux', curated by Jean-Francois Lyotard and Thierry Chaput, was the focus of this discussion) and, from the 90s to the present, the proliferation of biennales, and more recently art fairs. Both of these sessions suffered from a lack of visual evidence. 'Les Immateriaux' clearly represented radical departures in terms of its mise en scene or curatorial 'script', but even after three presentations of its organising principles and structure, its content remained elusive.
The discussion about the rise of biennales posed a different problem; there are now so many of these events that this subject alone could fuel a weeklong conference, or series of conferences, such as indeed are found in the programmes of increasing numbers of biennales around the globe. Vasif Kortun's decision to ground his remarks mostly on the experience of the 2005 Istanbul Biennial provided some clarity and sense of specificity, but overall this session felt like an attempt to cover too much territory, and a gesture towards a history that remains somewhat distinct from that of the 'landmark exhibition'.
A session entitled Not Exhibitions again led away from the declared subject, but in a more productive manner, providing at least an oblique interrogation of some of the terms of the debate. Lynda Morris spoke about the underestimated role of the 'curator-dealer' in the dissemination of the work of American artists in Europe in the 60s and 70s, while Guy Brett discreetly questioned the canonising impetus of the conference title and the seemingly inevitable emphasis on the 60s. He spoke instead about artists working with 'the elasticity of exhibition' and pointed to artists' interventions presented under the patronage of the Paris gallerist Iris Clert in the 50s (another 'dealer-curator' in the sense proposed by Morris), adding examples that have not yet found a similar place in history, such as Cildo Meireles's 24-hour event Sermon of the Mount: Fiat Lux in Rio de Janeiro in 1973 and Joao Penalva's Ormsson Collection at the Serralves Museum in Porto in 2005.
In the last session, How to Tell the Histories of Exhibitions, Reesa Greenberg gave an immaculately constructed demonstration of the potential of the web as a source of exhibition documentation. But this session did not fulfil its promise to explore the present and future state of 'exhibition studies', nor did it address the difficulty of ensuring wide dissemination for research material that is not published in English. The usefulness of the term 'landmark exhibition' was never debated and there was little time for synthesis. Is the landmark exhibition precisely one that is not considered successful in its own time, but which may be seen as a productive failure, in the manner of 'Magiciens de la Terre'? Can the increasing complexity and slipperiness of relationships between the publicly funded and market-related aspects of the art system still be discussed in Haacke's terms of 'for profit' and 'not for profit' economies? These and other questions are left hanging in the air, while Haacke's distinctions seem increasingly idealistic, even nostalgic, in a world where cultural or 'symbolic' capital has such close relationships with personal as well as corporate wealth.
Landmark Exhibitions: Contemporary Art Shows Since 1968 was a collaboration between Tate Modern and the Jan van Eyck Academie with the Royal College of Art and the London Consortium, Tate Modern, October 10-11.
TERESA GLEADOWE is an independent writer and curator and a commissioning editor for the new Afterall Books series, 'Exhibition Histories'.…