WIKTOR KOMOROWSKI // Biennials, Triennials, and Documenta: The Exhibitions that Created Contemporary Art | Anthony Gardner and Charles Green

Biennials, Triennials, and Documenta: The Exhibitions that Created Contemporary Art Anthony Gardner and Charles Green  304pp, Wiley-Blackwell, 2016

Have you ever heard of the Biennale de la Méditerranée, one of the first large-scale periodic exhibitions on the African continent? Or have you come across the Ljubljana Graphic Art Biennial, one of the oldest and largest periodic exhibitions of prints, which, in 1963, brought Robert Rauschenberg his first international recognition? If these events remain a mystery to you, the new publication by Anthony Gardner and Charles Green will satisfy your curiosity. In their book, Green and Gardner revisit the history of exhibitions such as the 1972 Documenta5, elaborate on these grandiose events, link them with the history of obscure – yet still ground-breaking – periodical events, and create a coherent and compelling narration of the history of ‘biennialisation’.

The book consists of three parts, each divided into subsequent chapters, followed by an epilogue. The first part discusses exhibitions such as the Documenta5, the Biennale of Sydney, the Bienal de São Paulo and the Bienal de La Habana. These exhibitions, according to Green and Gardner, epitomise what they term the ‘Second Wave of Biennialisation’ (50). This surge of new survey exhibitions took place between the mid-1950s and the late 1980s, mostly on the ‘fringes’ of the twentieth-century art world, and was aimed to act as a counterweight to the almost exclusive division of the art world between Paris and New York. These shows became the model examples of alternative cultural strategies introduced to re-establish the patterns of global cultural exchange broken after World War 2, and to overcome the cultural dependency forged by the Cold War powers.

The second part reviews the biennials that came into being as a result of the major socio-political changes that took place after the Cold War era. The first chapter of this part focuses on the history of Asian survey exhibitions, such as the Gwangju Biennale and the Fukuoka Asian Art Show. This chapter is followed by an examination of exhibitions in Europe, particularly the Manifesta and its role in bonding the post-wall division of European cultural space. The idea of an art show as a space of mediation is then tested on the example of the Second Johannesburg Biennale (1997), organised under the term Trade Routes. This biennial sought to connect the local political context, marked by the uneasy confrontation of local apartheid, and the cosmopolitanism of the contemporary art world.

The third part introduces a polemic questioning the position of the more recent exhibitions in relation to the canon of survey shows established during the second half of the twentieth century. The main topic questions whether formulae for setting up recent survey exhibitions have become rigidly defined. This part covers exhibitions such as Documenta11 (2002), which was staged in five different locations worldwide in order to challenge the traditional pattern for organising a biennial in just one locality. Documenta11 questioned the authority of an art show that produces cultural discourse from an undeniable stance built upon the properties of institutional prestige. This part also covers, among other topics, The 50th Venice Biennale: The Dictatorship of the Viewer and the Tirana Biennale, which, similarly to Documenta11, challenged the traditional modes of organising survey shows.

The third part smoothly transits into an epilogue, which serves as a reconsideration of the publication’s prevalent lines of argument. Green and Gardner weave three themes into the narration carried out throughout the chapters. The first theme addresses the authors’ quest for a definition of the main properties of post-war biennial culture and its relationship with broader social politics. Secondly, the book tests whether art and and the impact these shows have on contemporary culture.

At first glance, this book may not appear to be particularly exceptional, but compared to other publications in the field, its original classification of the discussed events is striking.1 Green and Gardner’s main intention was therefore not to form a canon of survey exhibi­tions, but to delineate common denominators for these events and then, having these outlined, systemise the most important events into larger groups. As a result, this book will certainly become one of the first points of reference for audiences interested in the subject; nonetheless, due to its critical heftiness, it will be less suited to non-specialist exhibi­tion lovers, and more appropriate to those looking for a more critically narrated history of the survey shows of contemporary art exhibition histories have been changed by the conditions of ‘peripheralialism’ and the postcolonial discourse.

book cover Biennials, Triennials and Documenta


[1] Bruce Altshuler, Biennials and Beyond: Exhibitions that Made Art History: 1962– 2002 (London: Phaidon, 2013); Charlotte Bydler, The Global Art World Inc.: On the Globalization of Contemporary Art (Uppsala: Uppsala University Press, 2008).