Exhibitions of the nineties in perspective
Former West: Art and the Social

Issue no2
April - May 2019
Magisch Realisme

At the same time as the Descholing Society symposium, organised by Hayward and Serpentine Gallery, happened, Art and the Social took place at Tate Britain. Both conferences were sold out and both tackled issues ranging from institutional critique to the role of education, exhibitions and institutions in a wider socio-political framework; topics which have been repeatedly addressed throughout the last year at several locations throughout Europe. (e.g. Kassel and Brussels in the last month)

Art and the Social explores the social turn in exhibition-making in Europe and North America in the 1990s, by examining the developments influenced by political activism, institutional critique and forms of socialisation. The symposium’s schedule divided the day into three main themes: ‘Exhibitions and Activism’, ‘Art in the Social Sphere’ and ‘Context, Relationality, Participation’. The presentations and discussions will act as starting points for a publication intended to map the history of exhibitions in the 1990s by looking at case studies.

In his introduction Charles Esche (director Van Abbemuseum) noted that history for these years is still to be written, a complicated task while archives have not yet come to rest. Esche proposes to look at the exhibitions presented as agents of change in the way the audience engages with art and society at large, in the way art practices develop and discourses take place. However, one might wonder whether writing history through case studies could lead to the creation rather than the documentation of a lineage of events and developments.

'Democracy' and 'Trap'

The first two speakers of the symposium were Doug Ashford of Group Material and Renate Lorenz who organised and talked about Democracy (1988–1989) at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, and Trap (1993) at Kunst-Werke in Berlin. The comparison of these two projects illustrated well the different national socio-political contexts and how exhibition formats are conceived accordingly.

Both projects considered the physical exhibition only as a part of what took place next to talks, conferences and workshops; both claiming that context is needed to make a point. ‘Without context’, Renata Lorenz says, ‘the idea of social change is neutralised.’ Doug Ashford pointed out that the public falsely interpreted Democracy as to be read only in the realm of politics, whereas to Group Material the alternative experiences of the archive created through the exhibitions was also a way to experience history as it happens. Renate Lorenz on the other hand didn’t remember the project Trap in full detail whereas most of the documentation got lost. Which gave her the opportunity to project her current interest on the historic event by proposing an engaged spectatorship based on the premise that there are two ways of considering an event – how it comes about historically and how you can go young and old in it.

The Social Turn

The social turn, a term mentioned in the introduction of the conference stems from Claire Bishop’s article The social turn: collaboration and its discontents published in Art Forum in 2006 where she mentioned that “it is tempting to link the rise in visibility of practices dealing with collaborative activity to the early 1990ties when the fall of Communism deprived the Left of the last vestiges of the revolution that had once linked political and aesthetic radicalism”. For her talk she briefly states a historical trace by referring to inclusive participatory work in Russia from 1917 and global participatory practice from 1968 and wants to develop an alternative history of the 1990ties as apposed to Benjamin Buchloh in Art since 1900.

She focussed on three exhibitions taking place in 1993, Culture in Action in Chicago, Unité d’Habitation in Firminy and Sonsbeek in Arnhem analysing the tension between faith in art’s autonomy and the belief in art as inextricably bound to the promise of a better world. As such the moral judgement that often is confused with the aesthetic judgement when talking about production processes and exhibition formats can be unravelled. In Sonsbeek for example Valerie Schmidt didn’t want to label her exhibition as a social exhibition as to highlight the continuity of the artists practices by setting it apart from the tradition of community art. In the catalogue of Culture in Action curated by Mary Jane Jacob, the images are treated as documentation what reflects on the status of the works within the overall concept of the exhibition: an active and long term engagement with local communities by artists such as Mark Dion and Suzanne Lacy. Claire Bishop remarks that the term project rather then artwork or exhibition appears in the documentation revealing the overall shift from representation to production in the nineties.

Also Stéphanie Jeanjean, who explored the viewers dimension of the works leading up to the Relational Aesthetics label in France, stated that in several of the exhibitions curated by Eric Trancy, (participating artists a.o. Liam Gillick, Pierre Huyghe, Carsten Holler and Rikrit Tiravanija) the exhibition was rather considered as a playground and the artists as teammates then as a place for representation.

Other presentations by Sabeth Buchman and Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt’s focussed on Kontext Kunst and Institutional Critique in exhibition-making in Germany and artist run spaces in the UK which in the discussion raised the question to what happened in South and East Europe during the nineties. Is it thus already possible to write the history of exhibitions in the nineties or are we too close and should we as Renate Lorenz act as an engaged spectator? Could it be that the current socio-economic and political environment is the catalyst to fire up the discussions about an identifiable purpose of and for art, exhibitions and institutions and the need to map its recent history?

Art and the Social, Exhibitions of Contemporary Art in the 1990s was organised by Afterall in conjunction with the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and the Van Abbemuseum and realised within the framework of FORMER WEST.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2019