The story of Skulptur Projekte Münster’s origins reads like modern folklore: a long time ago, the City of Münster announced its plan to purchase and install a public artwork by George Rickey, an American kinetic sculptor. Unfortunately for Rickey (and the city), Münster’s residents reacted negatively to this news. The outrage was so acute that the sale had to be cancelled altogether. After a lot of political posturing, Rickey’s work was in fact acquired by the city, albeit as a donation. The sculpture was erected in the Engelenschanze park, where it still stands today. And if the entire disagreement was the result of a misunderstanding, as the director of Münster’s Westphalian State Museum of Art believed, the public’s appreciation of Modern Art just needed to be encouraged by new outreach initiatives. Thus Skulptur Projekte was born. The exhibition would help educate the local public about international trends in art, and the city would ultimately be improved by the presence of new artistic works.
While showing the public how to enjoy art might sound patronizing, Skulptur Projekte has tended to steer clear of preachiness, instead taking a down-to-earth approach to the economic and cultural development of the city. In many ways, the show resembles an architecture or urban planning competition. Artists are invited as “qualified international experts,” who are asked to submit a proposal for a project to be realized on site in Münster. Skulptur Projekte’s curators then choose from the proposals with an eye to providing an overview of current trends in contemporary art. By virtue of a further selection, some of the works chosen for the show are purchased by the city. These works stay on as permanent public sculptures. Every time Münster adds new artworks to its landscape, it also reenacts an event from its own history, and this clever and unique combination works to augment its cultural heritage.
The event itself attracts a mass of international art tourists in numbers about equaling the population of Frankfurt. The current fashion is for visitors to rent bikes featuring beer crates strapped on as baskets. This mode of transportation allows for a relaxed, ambling tour through the city. Even if otherwise completely unfamiliar with Münster, art lovers are likely to cover substantial ground. Locals put on a good face, offering directions to wobbly, map-clutching strangers. The whole thing is an exercise in civic hospitality. Skulptur Projekte’s press material, in reminding readers that “the city discovered the exhibition as a unique selling point for Münster,” is as much a call for municipal pride as it is informative for those from abroad.
Münster is as modern and prosperous as any city in Germany. But while it might not be a provincial backwater, it does know how to play the part to its own benefit. For instance, although most artists have little desire to live permanently in Münster––at least, not for its contemporary art scene––they are, as a whole, eager for their work to be included in Skulptur Projekte; only a modest number of artworks, whose prominence has been established by being included in just these types of events, have ever been granted a place in the city. In return, Münster adds a cosmopolitan flair to its own identity. Skulptur Projekte provides the stage for this transaction, and acts as an intermediary for all parties involved.
The first city to establish a major art exhibition attracting an audience of international travelers was Venice, where the Venice Biennale was inaugurated in 1894. The show was originally conceived as a competition between nations, much like the modern Olympic Games, which had also been founded at around the same time. The resemblance between the two events is no accident. The founder of the Biennale pitched his idea to the Senate of Venice by asking: if people were willing to come to Venice to see a soccer match featuring teams from different countries, why wouldn’t the same work for art and artists? Today the Biennale’s Golden and Silver Lion prizes, its twenty-nine national pavilions, Lifetime Achievement Award, and litany of ceremonies, in which artists hoist up trophies for the cameras, can all be traced back to that rhetorical question.
Like its athletic precursors, the Venice Biennale is just as much a pretext for a display of national identity as it is a display of ability. The United States Pavilion is nicknamed the White House, and is administered by the US Department of State. The German Pavilion, originally designed by an Italian architect, was remodeled in 1938 by Ernst Haiger, a Nazi specialist in graves and temples. In 2015, ten new countries, including Grenada, Mongolia, and Seychelles, made their official debut at Venice. In the same edition of the Biennale, the absence of Kenyan artists in the Kenyan Pavilion, in which the majority of exhibiting artists were Chinese, provoked outrage and petitions.
The Venice Biennale would be in danger of being an outright spectacle of patriotism if it did not also include, as a counterpoint to the national pavilions, a massive group exhibition of works selected and organized by its head curator. This year, the curator has divided the show into sections that have somewhat fancifully also been named “Pavilions,” as if to mimic (parody?) the national competition. These include: the Pavilion of the Earth, Pavilion of Traditions, Pavilion of Shamans, Dionysian Pavilion, Pavilion of Colours, Pavilion of Time and Infinity, and Pavilion of Joys and Fears.
So what’s with the esoteric names? One answer is that the curated section of the Biennale must, above all, be a tribute to liberal-democratic aesthetic ideals. Artworks can be seen as being exemplary of these ideals in three respects: first, as the achievements of their creators as individuals; second, as partaking in a pursuit of a common standard of quality; and lastly—crucial in this context––as being free from the idea of a hierarchy of nations. For example, in the current Biennale’s curated exhibition, when Sopheap Pich, who was born in Battambang, presents his work in the Pavilion of Traditions, it is not as a traditional, or even a Cambodian artist, but as an artist tout court. The choice of pavilion for Pich’s work is deliberately arbitrary. By design, all of the art in the curated section would be equally at home in any of the “fantasy” pavilions. Whose work doesn’t belong under Joy and Fear, or Time and Infinity? A far cry from the aforementioned Chinese artists in the Kenyan Pavilion.
This points to the dilemma facing the artists showing in the national pavilions: the context demands that their work embody individual expression, as is the case for the artists’ counterparts in the fantasy pavilions, while also assertively portraying their country’s collective national identity. The artwork must also not seem excessively patriotic or hackneyed. This year, the exhibition in the German Pavilion, whose title, Faust, is virtually unsurpassable in its ur-German mythic and literary associations, included, as symbolic motifs, high fencing, steel and glass barriers, and Doberman pinschers. These allusions to the violence of authoritarian state power were presented alongside––and even as––high fashion tropes, prompting some critics to react with scorn. (Faust won the Golden Lion anyway.) But even aside from the history-laden German Pavilion, showing in any of the pavilions involves a delicate balancing act of reflecting on one’s own identity and origins.
The Venice Biennale and Skulptur Projekte, by virtue of their success as well-publicized, economy-stimulating cultural events, have inspired dozens of similar exhibitions and art festivals worldwide. Most have been founded in the last two decades or so. As a result, the organizers and curators of these shows find themselves faced with the problem of coming up with ideas to differentiate their event. When they don’t succeed, their exhibitions tend to fall back on similar artist lists, organization, and rhetoric, making them predictable and redundant. A select group, including the Venice Biennale, Skulptur Projekte, and with them, documenta, are still recognized as being the largest and most notable, but with audiences suffering from “exhibition fatigue,” even these are at risk of being buried under a mass of lesser newcomers. Another problem is that serious curatorial claims, whether related to the exhibition’s selection criteria, cultural mission, or political intent, risk seeming contrived, or worse, being quickly forgotten, as the audience’s attention drifts from show to show.
For their part, the curators of this year’s documenta, now in its fourteenth edition, attempted to make their show stand out from the other mega-exhibitions by attacking the practice of making biennales and festivals as a whole. In an article in South as a State of Mind, the periodical published by documenta 14, the exhibition’s directors condemn what they call the “Large International Exhibition,” or “LIE.” They claim, perhaps somewhat impetuously, that their exhibition is “not another readymade biennial, triennial, quadrennial, or even quinquennial.” Documenta would reject the LIE. It would not be more of the same, but a complete disavowal of the “stale and self-perpetuating business of exhibition making.”
Realistically speaking, there is no chance that documenta 14 will mark the end of readymade biennials. But the show was different from previous iterations of documenta in several ways. One notable difference was its two-part structure: the exhibition first opened in Athens, where it ran for several months, after which a second opening marked the continuation of the show in its usual location, Kassel. For the show’s curators, moving documenta outside of Germany’s borders was a statement of purpose––the word “solidarity” cropped up frequently when referring to the gesture. In the years leading up to documenta 14, Greece faced severe economic depression after being forced to implement austerity measures by the European Union. Many argued that these policies were enacted to benefit Germany, or more specifically, its banks and political class. By relocating to Athens, the institution of documenta assumed a critical attitude towards its chief benefactor, the German state, and distanced itself from the idea that the Greek people were solely responsible for their own hardships.
The move to Athens was also part of a broader, coherent ethos. If the Venice Biennale and its kind are “international” in character, documenta 14 could be described as “transnational.” It neither represented its host nation, nor arranged its artists according to their nationalities. In place of the nation as an organizing principle, documenta proposed the concept of the diaspora. This had the effect of making documenta appear more in step with the challenges posed to humanity in today’s globalized world. For instance, the exhibition featured numerous works by indigenous and minority artists, such as the Sami Artist Group, who claim the right to self-determination, despite living and working within the official borders of several countries. These and other complex treatments of global identity and legitimacy were all the more timely in view of the recent burgeoning worldwide of xenophobic rhetoric and nativist movements.
Nevertheless, the distinction between trans- and international is more subtle than it may seem, at least insofar as it concerns showing and looking at art. In Kassel and Athens, artists did not only represent their own individuality; they were also surrogates for political concerns, whether as witnesses to violence, advocates for the right to be recognized, or commentators on a current state of affairs––to name but a few approaches. The viewer, then, was presented with the opportunity to imaginatively identify with the artists and the people represented by the works. The recurring image running throughout documenta 14, that of crossing borders, was an allusion to the potential for shared experience through the vehicle of art. Generally speaking, this image also applies to the Venice Biennale. For instance, the decision to increase the number of pavilions at the Biennale resonates positively, at least on a symbolic level, because it represents a broadening of the international stage to include new participants, often former colonies. Even so, this does nothing to undermine the existing hierarchy of nations, whether wealthy and powerful or less so, and here documenta 14’s shift towards emphasizing the transnational marks a refinement of the older show’s progressive idealism.
Documenta 14’s disavowal of its host nation provoked criticisms that came, ironically, from two diametrically opposed camps. The German far right party, as would be expected, used documenta as an example of mismanaged spending, the subtext being that documenta’s funding wasn’t benefitting German citizens. A lawsuit was filed against documenta by the Alternative for Germany party after an independent audit confirmed that the exhibition’s budget had been exceeded by 6 million Euros. The audit also revealed that the proposal to make Athens a second host city had been agreed upon under the condition that no more than ten percent of documenta’s total budget would be spent in Greece, and that it was unclear whether this limit had been surpassed.
The second group of detractors believed the exact opposite of Germany’s far-right party. They not only refused to accept that documenta had repudiated its relationship to Germany, but argued that the exhibition was an instrument of quasi-colonial power. One of these critics was the former Greek finance minister, Yannis Varoufakis, who claimed in an interview that the few public and private resources available to the Athens art scene, such as the use of public buildings, as well as hotel and travel sponsorships, had been diverted to support the staging of documenta. Varoufakis conceded that some resources had come to Athens from Germany, but he described documenta 14 as being, on the whole, an “extractive process,” comparable to the forced takeover of Greece’s airports by Fraport, a German state-owned transport company.
Evidently, both sides believed they had been swindled. But Varoufakis’ most plausible criticism had nothing to do with the mismanagement of resources. In another interview, he claimed that documenta 14’s move to Athens was nothing more than a “gimmick by which to exploit the tragedy in Greece to massage the consciences of some people from documenta.” Part of his criticism appears misplaced––why would documenta assume responsibility for the Greek crisis? Nevertheless, the other side of Varoufakis’ argument, which claims that the Athens portion of the exhibition was a “gimmick,” or marketing ploy, is harder to dismiss. While other large shows have emphasized the transnational (most notably Manifesta, an exhibition held every two years in a different European city), they have not challenged the host-city model to the degree that documenta 14 has. So in comparison with the world’s mega-exhibitions, it might seem as if documenta 14 has introduced a fundamental change. As a subject for art, however, the transnational is not unfamiliar. Artists have often achieved success championing an antagonistic position to their home country’s policies and national identity. It is also common for artists to explicitly identify with a global diaspora, or to depict the experience of living in exile. All of these ideas also play a major role in other cultural events, such as film festivals, literature prizes, and music awards. If documenta 14’s double-hosting could be seen as a gimmick, it was because it was not an isolated gesture; it drew on an already existing framework for promoting contemporary culture.
Since their inception, Skulptur Projekte, the Venice Biennale, and documenta have commissioned major works by artists, and it is partly through the visibility of these shows that the commissioned artists have become well-known. Like massive pillars, the three exhibitions play a crucial role in supporting and defining the entire field of exhibition making. The histories of these mega-exhibitions have, likewise, become intertwined with the history of postwar art. As the contemporary art-world has expanded, both economically and geographically, the three have also grown, and in addition to being platforms for art, they have become entities in their own right. As such, they have developed their own agendas. When a new edition of one of these shows is presented, it must distinguish itself from the others, and reinvent itself to attract its share of the art audience’s attention. For this reason, one can think of the three exhibitions as brands, and the large-exhibition circuit as an industry.
The three shows have also grown to complement each other. Each stakes its claim on a different definition of geographic identity, be it local, national or transnational. This might be taken as a sign of the mega-exhibition’s relevance today: the definition of personal identity and belonging are clearly urgent political issues. In a recent article in the German weekly der Freitag, sociologist Cornelia Koppetsch described the stratification of society into three demographics: the upper-transnational, lower-transnational, and “middle class.” The upper-transnational demographic is at the top of the economic ladder, and is made up of a highly qualified, globally mobile elite. At the bottom of the ladder, the lower-transnational is made up of people who are forced to move for economic reasons. For this demographic, migration is the only chance at social mobility. Finally, the third group, the middle class, resides, economically speaking, between the two transnational demographics. Of the three groups, its members are the most reliant on municipal and national institutions, such as labor unions and the welfare state, and as a result, their native citizenship. According to Koppetsch, the middle class demographic is the main target for parties such as Alternative for Germany, because it has been strongly affected by the decline in state power relative to global financial and corporate interests. It is striking how parallel Koppetsch’s model runs to the organizing principles behind Skulptur Projekte, the Venice Biennale and documenta 14. The question is: to what degree do the mega-exhibitions, for all their rhetoric, actually address today’s debates, as opposed to merely using these concepts in an effort to market themselves?