Biennials and Beyond-Exhibitions That Made Art History, Volume II: 1962-2002

Article excerpt

In the introduction to this long-awaited sequel to the first volume of Exhibitions that Made Art History, Bruce Altshuler proposes that, with the beginning of the 1960s, we entered a period of curatorial ascendancy: 'the important exhibitions of advanced art before 1960, from the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 to the shows of the Gutai Artists Association in Japan and London's Independent Group in the late 1950s, were organised largely by artists. In contrast, beginning roughly in the 1960s, the groundbreaking exhibitions were often put together by professional exhibition makers, working in or for institutions, from those in commercial galleries to the huge biennials at the end of the century.' This assertion is in turn reflected in the selection of exhibitions in this book; whereas most of the exhibitions in the first volume were chosen as exemplifying an emerging tendency or movement in art history, the majority here represent significant moves in terms of curatorial strategy and approach.

Biennials and Beyond brings together documentation of 25 exhibitions, each section prefaced by a short descriptive introduction and incorporating images of the catalogue, installation photographs, catalogue texts and press reviews. In a very few cases correspondence is also reproduced but, unlike its predecessor, this book generally does not attempt the job of displaying primary archival materials.

The selection is wide-ranging and satisfying. The 1962 exhibition 'Dylaby' (Dynamic Labyrinth) proves a perfect first subject. An exceptional collaboration between artists and institutional curators at a time when the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was the most advanced art museum in Europe, it also introduced new levels of physical engagement by its audience. Initiated by the artists Jean Tinguely and Daniel Spoerri, with the museum director Willem Sandberg and curator Ad Petersen, 'Dylaby' included Spoerri's darkened room to be negotiated by touch, Martial Raysse's Beach installation, complete with beach balls and inflatables, Niki de St Phalle's Shooting Gallery, in which visitors could use air rifles to release streams of paint from hanging bags, and Tinguely's room of balloons. Ed van der Elsken's delightful photographs show visitors' clear excitement and wonder at these unprecedented museum experiences (and provoke a certain envy at what could be done in a self-confident institution before the advent of risk-averse health and safety legislation).

By contrast, photographs of the 1996 exhibition 'Traffic', curated by Nicolas Bourriaud, present rather subdued and sedentary forms of audience interaction, despite this exhibition's historical position as the first survey of 'Relational Aesthetics'. Here we see an art of social exchanges, seances, meditative states and participatory activities that are decidedly less exuberant than the physical adventures of 'Dylaby'.

The chapter on the 1968 event Arte Povera + Azioni Povere offers images of puzzled Amalfi residents getting to terms with the new art. Catalogue material and other documentation relating to Seth Siegelaub's 'January 5-31, 1969' and Lucy Lippard's '557, 087', 1969, look cool and elegant on the page. Other medium-scale curatorial ventures are comfortably accommodated within the format of the book--and the selection hits key shows such as Kynaston McShine's 'Information' at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1970, 'A New Spirit in Painting' at the Royal Academy, London in 1981, 'Chambres d'Amis' curated by Jan Hoet in Ghent in 1986 and Mary Jane Jacob's 'Places with a Past' at the Charleston Spoleto Festival in 1991.

But elsewhere the limitations of the book's format and editorial approach become evident. Exhibitions of the size and complexity of Harald Szeemann's 1972 Documenta 5, 'Magiciens de la Terre' of 1989 curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, Paulo Herkenhoff's 24th Sao Paulo Biennial, 1998, or Documenta 11 directed by Okwui Enwezor in 2002 cannot be adequately treated in the space of just a dozen or so pages. …