Summer 2017 may very well be one of the most important art seasons in recent memory. In the wake of political turmoil and the record sale of a Basquiat for $110.5 million at auction, the art fairs of Europe aligned to create a Grand Tour for contemporary art devotees around the world at a moment where contemporary art is alternately as political as ever and as commodified as possible. Comprising this art world blue moon were: the Venice Biennale, the largest international exhibition; documenta, the quinquennial curated exhibition of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany that this year had a complementary show in Athens; Skultpur Projekte Münster, the decennial exhibition of site-specific public art in the medieval German city; and Art Basel, a gallery-based annual exhibition in Basel, Switzerland (with other parallel Art Basel fairs in Miami and Hong Kong). Last June I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to three of these exhibitions, marking my first European art fair pilgrimage. After living in New York for ten years, I was familiar with large art biennials and fairs, especially the Whitney Biennial (which I managed to stop by just before flying to Europe) and the Armory Show. Traveling to Italy and Germany provided a more comprehensive—and equally overwhelming—picture of the contemporary art world. As I moved from Venice to Münster to Kassel, I was fortunate enough to travel with artist and art historian colleagues, and many of my thoughts on these shows comes from conversation throughout the trip.
I began my tour in Venice, undeniably the most picturesque of the three cities and the largest of the fairs, by far. The Biennale is comprised of two large official exhibition sites: the Arsenale, the formidable site of medieval and renaissance Venetian naval power, and the Giardini, a public park peppered with national pavilions and a large exhibition space for a group show. In addition to these two main venues, there are also national pavilions, “collateral events,” and unofficial sites scattered throughout the city in galleries, museums, restaurants, historical sites, and even small apartments. The group show mounted in two large spaces in the Arsenale and the Giardini was Viva Arte Viva—a general title, to say the least. The scattered exploration of artists’ themes and concepts in Viva Arte Viva, particularly the overcrowded galleries in the Giardini, led many critics to decry that this year’s Biennale lacked focus and even teetered on escapism in trying political times. Despite these broad critiques, a number of strong and even political works of art as well as the reevaluation of women artists formerly cast to the art historical margins made Viva Arte Viva an important pendant to the much stronger national pavilions. Indeed the transnational connections generated in Viva Arte Viva’s various thematic pavilions questioned the notion of national art in general. Some of the strongest national pavilions similarly investigated national histories and identities.
Anne Imhof’s Faust, winner of the Golden Lion for best in show and representing Germany, transformed the austere galleries of the German Pavilion into a performance space. Five young, androgynous performers dressed in casual athletic wear and carrying cell phones performed deliberate movements above, below, and among the audience members who stood on a raised glass platform reminiscent of the glass architecture of the finance industry. At times forming tableaux reminiscent of Gap advertisements and at others resembling classical sculpture, performers posed and interacted in deliberate and at times painstakingly slow movements. They made use of water hoses, lighters, amplifiers, brooms, and other props and occasionally covertly checked their cell phones, communicating with Imhof and each other through WhatsApp. The incorporation of cellphones made their deliberate movements and interactions teeter between meaningful, collaborative, corporeal expressions and the hollow, dehumanized movements of remote-controlled zombies. Far from promoting a fixed and triumphant national identity as the pavilion’s architecture, built in 1938 under the Nazis, originally claimed to do, the performers in Faust conquered the spaces of the pavilion not with metaphysical notions of greatness or identity, but with the living, breathing bodies struggling in the spaces and technologies of late capitalism.
The Swiss Pavilion similarly questioned the notion of the national pavilion through an investigation of the legacy of Alberto Giacometti, one of Switzerland’s most famous modern artists who never represented his native country at the Biennale despite his brother Bruno designing the pavilion in 1952. In Women of Venice, curator Philipp Kaiser brought together the sculptural work of Carol Bove, who quotes and reworks Giacometti’s multi-figure compositions with bright color and industrial forms, and the Swiss-American artist couple Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler. Hubbard and Birchler explore a previously unknown footnote in Giacometti’s career—his brief love affair with the American artist Flora Mayo—through documentary presentation and poetic juxtapositions of memories and fictions. In Bust the artists present the only known photograph of Giacometti and Mayo and reconstruct her destroyed portrait sculpture of her lover. Flora, a two-channel film installation weaves together documentary footage interviewing Flora and Giacometti’s son and a black-and-white reenactment of Flora’s time in Paris. Each channel is simultaneously projected on either side of a hanging screen, making the film sculptural and prompting viewers to walk between spaces and see the two sides of the story brought together through one channel of audio. The voices of mother and son weave together to tell a heartbreaking story of love lost, passions dwindled, and lives affected by, though not included in, the narratives of art history’s heroes.
Some of the other standout pavilions were off the beaten path and away from the mega-exhibition spaces of the Arsenale and Giardini. The Iraq Pavilion featured a wide-ranging exhibition titled Archaic and housed in an upstairs library of a 16th century Venetian palace. Ancient artifacts, works by mid-century modernists, and contemporary multimedia projects in glass vitrines presented an archeology of the present and explored the ways in which geopolitics and conflict impact national heritage. The Luxembourg Pavilion, tucked away in an old apartment in an alley, featured the quirky work of Mike Bourscheid. Introduced with a humorous video of the artist in elaborate costume conversing with a parrot while walking on a treadmill in a motel, Bourscheid’s sculptural installations explore identity and the gendered division of labor. Costumes featuring both sculptural composition and couture craftwork graced lavishly colored and decadent rooms to form one of my favorite surprises of the Biennale. Similarly surprising was the Tunisian Pavilion, which was an information kiosk located on a busy street just off the Biennale stop on the vaporetto, Venice’s public aquatic transportation. At the kiosk you can fill out an application, dip your finger in ink, and gain a “freesa,” all part of The Absence of Paths, a participatory artwork and protest that critiques the limitation of human movement by arbitrary national borders. The Absence of Paths prompts reflection on who can and who cannot cross borders and move freely through the world—an important and timely reminder of the relationship between privilege and geographic mobility when traversing Europe for the 2017 art fair season.
In Germany, my first stop was Skulptur Projekte Münster, an entirely different exhibition dedicated to public art. Set in a small northwestern German city, Skulptur Projekte not only happens less frequently but has a tighter focus on sculpture, specifically public sculpture (though this term itself has expanded in many ways). Skulptur Projekte even began in response to public sculpture, specifically a George Rickey kinetic piece that the local community found alienating. Curator Kasper König built on the community outreach around the Rickey conversation to invite contemporary artists to the small medieval city in 1977, mounting an international exhibition concurrent with every other documenta in Kassel. The city has bought a number of works from each show making a trip to Skulptur Projekte not only a contemporary art pilgrimage, but a visit to one of the premiere collections of public art in the world and a record of changing notions of site-specificity and of sculpture itself in the last four decades. Unlike the central spaces of the Biennale and even documenta, Skulptur Projekte is spread throughout the city, making it more akin to a scavenger hunt at times than a fair. The wayfinding and maps left something to be desired, and some precious time of my first day was wasted walking in circles, but after renting a bike the second day I was able to visit most of the 2017 sites and a number of the permanent works as well.
Most popular installation in Münster was Turkish artist Ayse Erkmen’s metal bridge just under the water’s surface crossing the city’s harbor that separates the developed north side from the industrial southside. With On Water, Erkmen invited visitors to literally walk on water and connect between two disparate parts of the city. Participatory in a completely different vein, British artist Jeremy Deller’s piece Speak to the Earth and It Will Tell You (2007-2017) asked members of Münster’s gardening community to document ten years in artist-provided diaries with writing, photographs, drawing, and pressed flowers, commencing with the last Skulptur Projekte in 2007 and concluding with their exhibition inside one of the small structures on each garden’s plot. Featuring a much more sustained engagement with the site than On Water, Deller’s piece similarly brought art viewers to the outskirts of the town, engaging not only the unique Kleingärten culture of German cities but also the last ten years of the ecological and social lives of the various communities and families that tend to them. American artist Michael Smith’s project Not Quite Underground also potentially left a long-lasting mark on participants. Sited in a small tattoo parlor, Smith’s short film documented a group of older women and men going to get tattoos and exploring the shifting cultural codes around tattoo art. Artists from this year’s and previous Skulptur Projekte’s designed unique tattoos that could be purchased at the shop. Should anyone over a certain age wish to receive a tattoo during the show, they would receive a discount.
Site-specific architectural interventions like German artist Christian Odzuck’s OFF OFD and the German-Romanian duo Peles Empire’s Sculpture deconstructed historical buildings to turn an architectural site into an enterable or climbable sculptural experience and reflection on the transience of urban spaces. Also deconstructing architecture was the massive installation by Pierre Huyghe, After ALife Ahead where the artist carved into the floors of a defunct ice rink to expose the layers of earth below. Periodically illuminated by opening apertures in the ceiling, the cavernous space became a complex system complete with other forms and systems of life: colonies of bees, temperature controlled vats of cancer cells, an aquarium of prehistoric aquatic life, and even an augmented reality app with virtual spaces. Notable for an exhibition on sculpture, this year’s Skulptur Projekte also featured a number of site-specific media projects. Japanese artist Ei Arakawa placed LED screen animations in a field outside the city; the German-Brazilian pair Wagner/De Burca screened their humorous documentary on Germany’s schlager music culture inside of a discotheque in the city center, and Brazilian artist Mika Rottenberg’s surreal film on transnational capitalist networks screened in the back of a closed Asian goods store. German filmmaker and artist Hito Steyerl also debuted a new work, HellYeahWeFuckDie, named after the top five lyrics in popular music according to Billboard magazine and filling the atrium of a modernist office building with a multi-screen video and sculptural installation.
Last on my tour of the fairs was documenta 14, only managing to make it to the exhibition in Kassel, a mid-sized city that has hosted the major international exhibition since 1955. Its location was selected for its proximity to what was then East Germany. This year’s documenta was titled “Learning from Athens” and curated by Adam Szymczyk both in its Kassel and Athens iterations. Intended to be an explicitly political show, documenta 14 featured a number of artists grappling with the precarious ecological and humanitarian present as well as a number of works that dealt explicitly with Germany’s fascist past. More than the other major shows, all of documenta betrayed a strong curatorial voice that occasionally reached the point where works were not able to stand on their own. The relocation of much of the collection of Greece’s National Museum of Contemporary Art to the Fridericianum, which introduced me to a group of artists I did not know well, still felt like it forced the theme a bit far, as did the Instagram-ready recreation of Argentinian artist Marta Minujin’s massive public sculpture The Parthenon of Books (1983/2017). Nevertheless works like Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe’s Monument for Strangers and Refugees in the busy Königsplatz made provocative and moving interventions in public space. Oguibe’s monument looked like a traditional urban obelisk at first, but had the passage “I was a stranger and you took me in” from the Book of Matthew inscribed in German, English, Arabic, and Turkish, celebrating Germany’s acceptance of refugees and inverting the urban monument’s traditional nationalist connotations.
Many of documenta’s most memorable works were multi-layered, investigating a political concept through diverse aesthetic lenses. German artist Maria Eichhorn’s nine-part Rose Valland Institute featured meticulous research into goods confiscated from European Jews during the Nazi regime and their on-going impact on broader European society. Most monumental was the large display of books until recently still held in public library collections that towered over the viewer and hinted at the desperately necessary cultural work still to be done in order to even partially repair the damages of Nazism. A multimedia installation by The Society of Friends of Halit similarly engaged research practice in making affecting art about injustice. The society’s investigations center on the murder of Halit Yozgat in Kassel’s Nordstadt, part of a string of murders believed to have been conducted by the NSU, or National Socialist Underground, an emerging anti-immigrant Neo-Nazi group in Germany. The documentary film component of the project featured an obsessive use of reenactment, undermining a key witness’s testimony. German artist Olaf Holzapiel multimodal exploration of borders and demarcations under the title Zaun (fence) connected large scale abstract sculptural practice to intimate paintings made of delicately bent straw, and a documentary film of the Chilean countryside.
As a contemporary art scholar, my personal experience of the contemporary art Grand Tour was at times completely overwhelming (I could have used an additional week to see everything) but also absolutely edifying and inspirational for new projects and research. This brief glimpse into some of the highlights of the three shows hopefully intimates the broad aesthetic and conceptual breadth but also the tremendous political and social potential of contemporary art around the world. The Venice Biennale, Skulptur Projekte, and documenta 14 painted three very different pictures of the state of contemporary art in 2017, though the desire for cross-cultural dialogue and warning against the rising tide of nationalism ran across projects that were both celebratory of the transformative power of art and cautionary conceptual works engaged in direct political critique.