Identity Exhibitions: From Magiciens De la Terre to Documenta II

Article excerpt

Despite a continual morphing of the large, high-profile, temporary, group-identity exhibition, the provocative case studies published in this issue of Art Journal argue that, in the fifteen years between Magiciens de la terre and Documenta 11, the genre operated in a closed-loop system. The roller-coaster image chosen by Norman Kleeblatt for the title of the 2004 College Art Association session ("Identity Roller Coaster: From Magiciens de la terre to Documenta 11") in which the essays were first presented alludes to the end-game aspect of the ride as well as to its tips and downs, its twists and turns, its exhilarating and terrifying speeds, its performance as spectacle, and its ultimate function as entertainment-not exactly an image that connotes optimism when linked to identity exhibitions and their programs of social justice and radical reform. Kleeblatt's second formulation of identity as a free radical operating in and circulating around an exhibition nucleus in bipolar tensions rather than binary oppositions offers more possibilities, if the promises of identity exhibitions are to be realized.

Kleeblatt's shifting terminology raises questions about the rapidity with which terms associated with identity move in and out of currency, the importance of language to the project of identity reformulation, and the degree to which discourse can catalyze structural change. His use of a secular, scientific model is also a reminder that exhibitions that interrogate identity and globalism also interrogate models of the spiritual in relation to sociopolitical change, raising another set of questions about contemporary interpretations of magic, shamanism, the fetish, the avant-garde as a spiritual quest, and exhibition making and viewing processes.

If the case studies point to the difficulties of negotiating change, they also assess how specific exhibition practices can disrupt or self-reflexively comment on the loop. For example, the relationships of processes of selection to curatorial theses and their repercussions are raised in each essay. Johanne Lamoureux's analysis of the inconsistency with which the two sets of selection criteria, one for Western artists, another for non-Western artists, were applied in Magiciens introduces a set of considerations about the resulting unconscious, counter-differentiated, or further-differentiated narratives that can emerge. Even with "blinder" selection processes, curatorial prerogative often prevails. In his review of Documenta 11, Anthony Downey suggests that, even though 70 percent of the work was commissioned, the response "to what was a clear, perhaps overprescriptive curatorial mandate" may explain the evenness of output.' Sylvester Ogbechie's reminder that only 20 percent of Documenta s participants were nonWestern serves as a caution about confusing selection and assessment criteria.

Even when curatorial theses and selection criteria run parallel, they are not always accepted, as Elisabeth Sussman points out in her review of the negative criticisms of the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Her analysis suggests that the strident rhetoric against exhibitions of difference functions, as it always has, to maintain the marginalized status of difference, different aesthetics, and the avant-garde. Here, Boris Groys's formulation of the avant-garde as a minority culture is helpful.2 Sussman differentiates between the initial negative reactions and the long-term positive results of altered selection criteria, citing the ongoing reconfiguration of American identity in the public sphere of museum exhibitions, and, I would add, especially at the Whitney, which subsequently opened the curatorial process of the Biennial to regionally based curators, widened the selection to residents as well as citizens of the United States, and, in 2003, with Lawrence Kinder's American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, invited non-Americans to comment on American hegemony and identity.

Sussman's inclusion of short- and long-term effects in her assessment suggests the need for different criteria when judging exhibitions. …