In all their spectacular glory, art fairs and biennials are often cited interchangeably as the exemplary exhibitionary sites of international contemporary art today. The fluid economic relations of free-market capitalism that followed the fall of a number of communist governments in 1989, along with the simultaneous boom of air-travel and digital communications, have drastically altered the face of the art world over the last decades and provided the ground for a proliferation of biennials and art fairs across the globe. The writing and translation of French post-structural texts and their diffusion into the milieu of contemporary art’s discourses via magazines such as October, hand-in-hand with the profound influence of the contested voices of identity politics throughout the 70s and 80s, has restyled the discourse of art display if not also its production and meaning. The ‘curatorial turn’ that took place in the 90s has culled from these languages of identity and globalism, providing curators and organisers of spectacular exhibitionary events with a complex series of issues on which to rest their ambitious displays.
Though increasingly prolific over recent years, the spectacular exhibitionary event characterised by the art fair and the biennial is not an entirely contemporary phenomenon. Nor are biennials and art fairs representatives of the only institutional transformations of the globalised art world today. The growth of grassroots artist collectives into fully-fledged institutions that have (or attempt to have) a global reach through their curatorial and productive activities is also a prominent feature in this explosion of the globalised art industry. Like Pakistan’s Vasl Artists’ Collective but to a greater extent with organisations such as Khoj Interntional Artists’ Association and Townhouse Gallery in India, Ruangrupa in Indonesia and Lugar a Dudas in Colombia, these event- and residency-based organisations have become curatorial platforms that expanded significantly in the funding-rich decades of the 90s and the 00s into capable and influential non-Western and non-commercial models that provide artists not only with mobility, but the means to place their work in a local and an international context simultaneously. At the same time, Europe’s 18th and 19th century growth of civic institutions for the arts and culture is now finding alternative reiteration across the world. The opening of Pakistan’s National Gallery in 2007 is one example of this trend, as is the expansion of the National Gallery of Modern Art in India in 2006 and the development of the Saadiyat Cultural District on the (under-construction) Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Though many national museums and galleries were established by European colonisers in the 19th century, over the last two decades we have nevertheless seen a growing museum culture in developing cities around the world, from the establishment of large-scale private museums for the public, to the expansion, modernisation and renovation of earlier colonial and post-colonial institutions, and the development of entirely new ones.
In order to understand this developing context however, it is useful to identify some of the prerogatives of these displays, along with their notable precedents. In a brilliant essay on the Great Exhibition of 1851, Tony Bennett charts the course of spectacular exhibitionary displays subsequent to that game-changing event in London’s Hyde Park. Drawing on Foucault’s analysis of the panopticon, in Bennett’s terms the Great Exhibition was the exemplary apparatus of a state shifting its language of authority after the intellectual developments of the Enlightenment and the political ravages of the French Revolution. Under this modern regime ‘the people’ became subjects of power rather than objects of it. In other words, museums and public exhibitions were (and still are) examples of governments moving away from disciplinarian displays of power (the military, the scaffold and associated spectacles of punishment), into less authoritarian models that the public enjoyed and actively participated in.
[Museums and spectacular exhibitions] sought… to allow the people to know and thence to regulate themselves; to become, in seeing themselves from the side of power, both the subjects and the objects of knowledge, knowing power and what power knows, and knowing themselves as (ideally) known by power, interiorizing its gaze as a principle of self-surveillance and, hence, self-regulation.
While the Great Exhibition and subsequent World Fairs and Expos morphed from displays of national and colonial authority (in some cases including ‘Human Zoos’ in which mock villages homed real people from the colonies for the duration of the display), into showcases for global unity and diplomacy, significant platforms for temporary exhibition of art were also taking on increasing scale and significance throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The first Venice Biennale was held in 1895 and by the late 20th century had become a premier site for the public display of contemporary art from around the world. In 1955 Edward Steichen’s seminal Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York brought together 503 photographs from 68 countries, and though the bulk of the photographs were taken by Americans, this hugely popular exhibition was visited by over quarter of a million people who were enthralled by its display of global diversity and humanitarian unity. Jumping even further ahead, in the ‘turning point’ year of 1989, Magiciens de la Terre curated by Jean Hubert Martin at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and The Other Story curated by Pakistan-born Rasheed Araeen at the Hayward Gallery in London articulated divergent but extremely influential versions of the new art contemporary art history – one that was politicised, globalised, multi-cultural and ready to expand. Though Araeen’s exhibition took a more aggressively political stance on the problematics of diversity and post-colonialism, both exhibitions are recognised as being representative of a ‘new world order’ in terms of contemporary art practice and the societies around it.
Moving into the contemporary moment with due attention to the art fair – the focus of the rest of this text – it is worth noting how this exhibitionary model founded on the principle of exchange has exploded internationally over recent years. The Frieze Art Fair opened in London in 2003 and last year Frieze opened two new fairs – Frieze Masters, dedicated not only to contemporary art but to anything made before the year 2000, and a New York edition. Art Basel in Miami opened in 2002 and long before this, the first Art Basel in Switzerland opened in 1970. The Hot Art Fair in Mexico and the Indonesia Art Fair opened in 2010; Art Beijing in 2009; the India Art Summit, and the Joburg Art Fair in 2008; Art Dubai in 2007; and Art Fair Tokyo and Contemporary Istanbul in 2005 – to name but a few. In all, since 2005 the annual art fair count has gone from a mere 69 fairs to 189 a year, despite a global economic recession. While ‘emerging’ art worlds subsisted before a global boom of exchange and display, the impact of this boom and with it, new regional art fairs within these respective markets – Art Dubai in the Middle East or the India Art Fair in South Asia, for example – cannot be underestimated. Such interventions encroach upon artistic practice at the same time as they localise the site of its exchange. A commercial gallery from Bangalore would be more likely to find a comfortable fit at a New Delhi-based fair than a New York fair, not least given the relative costs for the transportation of artworks and personnel. Yet the establishment of an art fair in India no doubt alters the ground for that gallery, which in turn, changes the ground for artists too.
As biennales and art fairs proliferate it is obvious that for their patently commercial status, fairs receive the most pejorative critiques. Symptomatic of the expansion and deregulation (and subsequent economic and social inequality) of global free-market trade, art fairs represent an apparatus of economic colonialism from the west (and even for regional fairs), the cultural, aesthetic and economic assimilation of previously ignored artists and art practices. The globalised art world is highly manipulated by the art fair, which, unlike the transitory curatorial marks left by biennales, has a largely fixed and repetitive character. The consistently growing import of Art Dubai and the India Art Fair on the Pakistani art scene outweighs that of any biennale, even a regional one such as Sharjah. Artists finding their place in either one of these fairs can expect those fairs to become annual rather than occasional events within their production and exhibition calendars.
Returning to Tony Bennett’s analysis of the Great Exhibition however, it is useful to consider the spectacle of power embodied by biennales and art fairs. The public visiting the Great Exhibition were, in their unity in diversity, incorporated by the exhibition as subjects of power and of nationhood, and the artistic and general public participating in art fairs are similarly incorporated. Yet separating the forms of the biennale and the art fair, it could be argued that the art fair comes off as a more transparent entity. Not only this, but global exhibitions and biennales often have as their main theme ‘globalization’ and can therefore be regarded as forms of propaganda for the globalising tendencies of which art fairs are the more profit-oriented representatives. Despite this, and as already mentioned, art fairs receive far more criticism. Yet there is a case to be made that this criticism largely comes from countries that have a healthy non-profit sector for the arts and in which ‘commercial’ can become a defining (pejorative) description of an artwork rather than a typical one.
As problematic and potentially damaging as the promotion of sale and saleability placed on artworks in fairs can be (and this should not be ignored), what is potentially more dangerous about biennales is the manner in which artists and artworks are philosophically rather than commercially subsumed. As Daniel Buren noted in 1972, increasingly “the subject of an exhibition tends not to be the display of a work of artworks, but the exhibition of the exhibition as a work of art”. One might easily leave a biennale with the theme of the biennale pressing more on one’s memory than the art within it, and while art fairs may not provide the intellectual knots and pleasures of a thematically curated biennale, it could be argued that art fairs are better places to look at artworks without programmatic directions on exactly how to look.
Standing within the walls of an art fair, one can see what is happening: artworks are being bought and sold. Our ability to see particular forms of power manifest within the exhibitionary structure of a biennale, however, is far more difficult. Illusions of liberal cosmopolitanism promoted by biennales may be just as dangerous as the focus on profit within the art fair, reinforcing a particularly European history of ideas and an increasingly outdated vision of democratic liberalism, and recreating non-Western publics as subjects and objects of that vision. In terms of the exhibitionary complexes of biennales and art fairs, criticism of one should not ignore the partnering articulations of ideology and power of the other.