Fifty shows that changed everything
According to the curator Jens Hoffmann
By Ben Luke. From Frieze New York daily edition
Published online: 08 May 2014
The history of exhibitions is increasingly being mined. Bruce Altshuler’s magisterial two-volume opus Exhibitions That Made Art History set the benchmark, documenting the rise of the curator, and particularly the peripatetic biennial specialist, in the age of globalisation. This is the core theme of this latest book in the field.
The author, Jens Hoffmann, is himself a roving curator, having been at the helm of the San Juan Triennial in 2009, the Istanbul Biennial in 2011 and the Shanghai Biennale in 2012. Later this year, he will co-curate the People’s Biennial at one of the two museums at which he is currently based, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit (he also has a senior role at the Jewish Museum in New York). Acknowledging this growth in studies of exhibition-making, Hoffmann writes that the “unique aim of Show Time is to serve as a guidebook through a more recent history of exhibitions, presented by a practising curator”.
As Hoffmann argues, curatorship has changed vastly in recent decades. “From practices that revolved mostly around the conservation, interpretation and display of objects in museum collections,” he writes, “they have become truly creative professions.” He goes on to say that “exhibitions have come to be understood more and more as vehicles for intellectual, cultural, social and political investigation and expression”, and that many of the shows included in his book look far beyond art, in terms of both the subjects addressed and the form of the exhibits, as they cross over into theatre, architecture, design and science.
The origins of the curator’s increasingly imaginative, subjective role arguably began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, led particularly by the late Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, to whom this book is dedicated, but this makes the choice to focus on exhibitions after 1990 perplexing. Hoffmann argues that the end of the Cold War precipitated the globalisation of the art world, and discusses “Magiciens de la Terre”—Jean-Hubert Martin’s 1989 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which aimed to confront the colonialist mentality of much of the art world of the time—as one of the starting points that acknowledged this wider world of art, and as a trigger for debates that would lead to the curatorial community following more radical paths. He also cites the emergence of dedicated curating courses in both Europe and the US, and the increasing professionalisation of curating as a discipline.
Many of the exhibitions, however, feel like steps along the road rather than the origins of the curator-as-creator phenomenon. Avoiding substantial discussion of landmark events in contemporary art, including Szeemann’s “When Attitudes Become Form” at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969 and his Documenta V in Kassel in 1972, where real debate about curators’ roles began, seems like an oversight. Perhaps the most problematic element is that weasel word in the title: “influential”. Defining and examining influence is fraught with difficulty, but Hoffmann suggests that the 50 exhibitions he has chosen “have altered the way we understand curatorial practice and its relationship to the world at large”.
His selection is broad, from major museum exhibitions and sprawling biennials to lower-key events, though it is still dominated by Western shows, even if a more global selection of artists appeared in many of them. Lists of all the artists, curators, venues and publications appear along with a short text on each of the shows, in which Hoffmann looks mainly at the curatorial approach and the core themes. But the text is rather too brief to allow a detailed discussion of the elements that make the shows influential. Hoffmann announces his aim to focus on the curators’ acts, but this should not exclude a more substantial engagement with the works shown and more forceful argument about how they added to the exhibitions’ significance. These were clearly groundbreaking shows, but too often the author appears straitjacketed by limited space and fails to animate his discussion of the shows’ curatorial theses. When he does—as with the most recent Documenta, for instance—the book becomes livelier. Unfortunately, his tone is matched by a dry design that similarly dampens the exhibitions’ power. The discussion that closes the book, between Hoffmann and a wealth of leading curators, is its strongest section.
Show Time ultimately falls between two stools—neither a handy guide nor a substantial critical analysis. Given that Hoffmann is one of the most dynamic curators around, and thus an ideal candidate to take on the subject, this has to be regarded as a missed opportunity.
Show Time: the 50 Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art
Thames and Hudson, 256pp, £29.95; published in the US by DAP, $45
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