Still Jet Lagged and Eye Sore (2019)

Abstract: The phenomenon of recurring international exhibitions is addressed with respect to an “aesthetic of experience” and the role played by international curators in the creation of contemporary art. Drawing on recent publications by Caroline A. Jones, Charles Green, and Anthony Gardner, it is argued that critical power of experientially immersive contemporary art projects commissioned for biennials, triennials, and documenta is highly overrated.

To some of us involved in the wave of 1970s dis-affirmative art, the fruitful pandemonium of that decade offered few indications of the depth and severity of the call to order to come. That settlement, nearly five decades in the making — and arguably not yet completed — is taken for granted by the majority of persons entering the artworld today as the order of things, regardless of their role in it. Perhaps the most visible aspect of this pervasive change is the proliferation of biennials and other forms of recurring international exhibitions, institutions that the existing art world cannot live without.[1]

These spectacular events — their origins, turbulent development, and contested significance — are the subject of the two books under review. The authors of both volumes argue that contemporary art would be impossible without these exhibitions, which comprise a genuinely global network for the production and dissemination of art. Contemporary art is defined institutionally as that type of art that owes its existence to a global network of recurring international exhibitions. According to Caroline A. Jones, ‘biennial culture’ — our epoch’s version of the Grand Tour — had its origins in the French Revolution, gathered pace at the Crystal Palace of 1851, became exclusively about art with the first Venice Biennale in 1895, devised spectacular displays and an international outlook through the experience of world’s fairs, and came to rest with documenta and scores of biennials and triennials mounted in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.[2] Above all, the art that has come to dominate these recurring international exhibitions — an art that has become synonymous with the contemporary — manifests itself in the shift from art as an object of vision to art as the instigator of a total sensual experience.[3]

A striking feature of both books is their attention to the role of a cluster of contradictions —historical, cultural, theoretical, and political — that are deemed responsible for the specific structure and content of the art presented within biennial culture. In this conceptual setting none of the major actors in this global system seem to be able simply to impose their will and advance their cultural vision in an atmosphere free of conflict or dripping with geopolitical significance. In other words, tension is the normal state of affairs, where nothing is ever straightforward for the curators, artists, sponsors, and host locales of international exhibitions of art. Art lives in a world saturated by competing ideological and identitarian claims. The history and theory of recurring international exhibitions of art, from Venice in 1895 to the most recent, is a history of strife. For Charles Green and Anthony Gardner, this situation guarantees the continued relevance and innovative character of recurring international exhibitions, the most significant outcome being the progressive diminution of Western cultural hegemony. Jones also acknowledges the significance of the emergence of counter-biennials to test the hegemony of western art, adding that the culture of the biennial in general has given rise to works of art that induce a state of critical reflection in the viewer, opening up to the spectator a host of novel issues of breathtaking existential and geopolitical significance. What is disquieting about all of this is how competing visions in art can be so politely contained, year on year, within the singular format of the biennial. It is as if artists have been anaesthetized to the real consequences of difference, imagining that all that surrounds them in the privileged and charmed space of the biennial is in alignment with some higher, cosmic plurality. Attached to this delusion is the likelihood that risks taken by artists will amount to nothing at all outside the world of art. Almost by definition, the challenges rendered through biennial art projects will leave the institution of the biennial intact.

My skepticism towards both books originates from, in the case of Green and Gardner, a rather easy acceptance of the commonplace notion that such a thing as critical art is possible and not simply an effect of biennial culture. In Biennials, Triennials, and documenta, the authors narrate several accounts of the internal history of the mounting of international exhibitions, many of which seem only gossip about minor bureaucratic adjustments to the overall structure of such institutions but now elevated to the status of ideological debates. This imbues the study of Green and Gardner with the rather unpalatable flavour of a corporate history from the point of view of the CEO. Jones’s treatment of the biennial juggernaut is more nuanced, more historically and theoretically dense, but equally unpersuasive. Is there any good reason to wish to celebrate biennial culture in this way? The final chapter of Jones’s book presents a view of ‘critical globalism’ in practice. I have a great deal to say about the term critical globalism. But for the moment it is only necessary to point out that one accomplishment of the recurring international exhibition has been to provide a medium within which two kinds of work through art — the cognitive and the emotive — have been melded irrevocably into one mode of art-making.

Jones, rather than Green and Gardner, is much more attuned to this aspect of biennial culture. Jones is content to give art its due, to let poetry do its work, and is not shy about pointing out when a work of art — say, Mariko Mori’s hilariously ridiculous Wave UFO 2003 — fails to deliver. But Jones is positively gushing when the bluntness of didactic art gets softened by the gaze of approving institutions, the moment when the shimmer is dressed as substance. A commonplace to which all three authors subscribe is that the institution of recurring international exhibitions upholds the highest values of professionalism in art. Unquestionably, art will find a way.

At this point, I am compelled to recall a prior personal entanglement with biennial culture that took place during a time when critical interventions could still be distinguished from the category of ‘political art’. Some of us who were active in the collective Art & Language during the 1970s were not so certain that this would always be the case, that the cultural space at the margins of the artworld could still conceivably be a home for errant practice. In 1975, we received an invitation from Carlo Ripa di Meana, the director of La Biennale di Venezia (1976), to exhibit in the Aperto section.[4] During spring 1976, we decided on the production of a large red cloth banner on which the following inscription in white would be placed: ‘Welcome to Venice: the Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie Eternalizes Local Color. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis Est.’


Our plan was simply to display the banner on the exterior of the Arsenale, one of the venues of Aperto. Olle Granath, a curator associated with the Biennale, expressed horror at the possibility of such an installation actually taking place. In a telegram dated 20th May 1976 and addressed to the group in New York, Granath wrote: ‘I only want to communicate to you that there is no possibility to put your ‘banner’ outside the pavilion of the exhibition, it has to be put inside.’[5]

Since 1975, Art & Language had already realized discursive projects in Melbourne and Belgrade that addressed the hegemony of late Modernist art, the rapaciousness of the New York artworld, and the relation of ‘periphery’ to ‘centre’. With two issues of The Fox already published and a third on the way, we believed this project of work would join others that we had developed  to resist cultural institutions and practices we deemed affirmative of cultural imperialism. A pamphlet published in conjunction with the banner proclaimed,

(P)A&L_PAMPHLET ACCOMPANYING VENICE BIENALE BANNER_1976The intellectual life of the ruling class gets its apotheosis in a world of Doris Days. The Venice Biennale is a necrotic extremity of that intellectual life. The market for the ideological imperialism of pretentious untruth, over-fed opinion, the corpulent choice, the leisured appropriation, ‘society’ in harmony … [is] an insult to the achievement and goals of the workers in Italy … The conditions of the production of high culture are not somehow apart from these machinations in brutality … and the artists are not exempt from the charge of connivance at the proliferation of force, violence: the barbarism of imperialism.’[6]

The pamphlet referred repeatedly to class struggle and the way in which culture and the working class is brought face to face through such spectacles as the Venice Biennale. The banner was installed on the exterior of the Arsenale and just as swiftly it was removed on the orders of Ripa de Meana. This frontal attack on ruling class culture, specialization, the mystification of art by critics and artists, and the narrow interpretation of creativity that made it the exclusive province of high art was not well received. Ripa de Meana considered it to be a naïve gesture, a travesty of left politics. Some of us in Art & Language considered this a valuable lesson about the brittleness and hypocrisy of institutions of high art, an incident that only accelerated our desire to exit that world. By the end of the 1970s a new generation of ‘smart’ artists were casting about for a way into the art world while not appearing to be too keen to gain legitimacy. The institutions, too, were beginning to learn how to accommodate art that was previously inconvenient. I am afraid that the generation succeeding Conceptual art tended to view the interventionist projects of the 1970s essentially as failures; by the time ‘neo-Conceptualism’ entered the critical lexicon in the mid-1980s, artistic practices embracing the strategies of advertising, mass media, and realism were claiming the art-political high ground and setting a standard for the art and social justice movement of the 1990s and after.


This historical digression is important because it seems to me that the great virtue of misalignment among the institutions of the artworld is a palpable sense by all concerned of the need for change. It seems that current thinking among some art historians is that the militant practice and posture exemplified by Art & Language’s encounter with the event structure of the Venice Biennale have been prudently displaced on the world stage by a different sort of encounter. For example, Green and Gardner claim that biennials ‘created and enabled a world-picture of art that was globally networked without necessarily being a mere handmaiden to globalization.’ (276) There is the presumption of stability in this assertion, even as one works one’s way through their well-organised, informative, and highly readable volume of cultural strife and reconciliation. The case studies presented by Gardner and Green are bristling with ideological disputes between curators and artists and between artists and the culture of biennials, neo-liberal capitalism, and the very idea of a global art transcending nation states and ethnic identities. Their book situates contemporary art squarely in the midst of this dynamic setting and sets out to answer three key questions, in an attempt to affirm the centrality of biennial culture to contemporary art: ‘how have postwar biennial cultures functioned, and to what uses have they been put within broader social politics?’; ‘how have art and exhibition histories been changed by the conditions of “peripheralism,” and the sly, subversive politics they can engender?’; and ‘how have artists, curators, and other key figures within postwar art potentially exceeded our usual understandings of biennialization . . . to generate new modes and genealogies of transcultural exchange through the exhibition as a medium and as a context for dialogue?’[7]

The response to these questions is to be found in the art of the recurring international exhibition where, we are told, curators and artist are free to ‘appropriate the signs of politics, of teams, and of experimentation, [while] matching these to a conventionalized idea of artistic imagination that was, in effect, postcritical and peculiarly spectacular, by which we mean that biennials became very public contexts for spectacular audience intimacy.’ (Green & Gardner, 2016: 276) In a further expression emblematic of contemporary art’s remoteness from confrontation and intransigence, Green and Gardner assert that provocation and intervention had been sublimated by biennials, which successfully substituted ‘symbolic power for social affect’, becoming ‘cynical, pragmatic, and idealist all at once.’ (Green & Gardner, 2016: 277)

The takeaway is that the real power behind this transfiguration of international recurring exhibitions of art resides with the curators, whose ‘critical, self-reflexive curatorship of contemporary art . . . [was] now reformulating art history along global lines.’ (Green & Gardner, 2016: 276) Are we to assume that curators are the figures most responsible for having provided a space of free play for art against the encroachments of neoliberal capitalism? This extraordinary gift of curatorial power is, in fact, the reality that the most visible and ambitious contemporary artists are being confronted with, wherever they live and work. Jones’s massive study, being far more imbricated historically and theoretically proficient, attempts the construction of an even more formidable narrative of institutional power. Several chapters rehearse the origins, structural and ideological, of what we have been calling biennial culture. Towards the end of the book, in chapter six, Jones presents a discussion on the aesthetics of experience, her neologism for the artistic spirit of the age. As Green and Gardner also assert, and as already noted, the recurring international exhibitions have become event structures that provide the ‘very public contexts for spectacular audience intimacy’ (Green & Gardner, 2016: 276). As Jones claims, the aesthetics of experience is not only the defining feature of contemporary art, but existed as an incipient aspect — the trope of blindness, later elevated to ‘blind epistemology’ — of the best works of art displayed in the earliest international exhibitions.

I have remarked a number of times on Jones’s fondness for blending historical narrative and philosophical discourse, a feature that endows her book with a gravitas appropriate to the postgraduate seminar room. While the glosses and critical reflection on the work of philosophers and theorists of art found in the book are undeniably provocative, they are strikingly uneven in exposition and effect. Jones’s prose style and chapter organisation of The Global Work of Art cries out for a stern editor. Arguments richly seasoned with theoretical concepts drawn from Kant, Nietzsche, Dewey, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Rancière, Badiou, Barthes, and a host of other critical and curatorial voices, often fail to advance the argument for which they have been pressed into service. For example, the centerpiece of Jones’s narrative — the aesthetics of experience — seems to me to be situated on the continuum of embodied thought that has been developed to good effect by earlier historians of art such as Miwon Kwon. On the other hand, the extended discussions of ‘blind epistemology’ and Heidegger’s idea of a ‘world-picture’ — two concepts mobilised in support of Jones’s contention that the spectacle and the affect of contemporary art is founded on an impossible idea — do clear the ground for the introduction of the idea of critical globalism. In earlier sections of the book, critical globalism is developed as the condition of the aporia that resides between globalisation’s desire for a world-picture, the curator’s need to address local culture, and the artist’s desire find a space of free play within these parameters.  This is enviable in its intellectual depth and complexity. Again, we have a restatement of the general conditions of strife; quite dynamic, not necessarily dialectical, and emblematic of a widely accepted description of biennial culture and indeed contemporary art in general.

While Jones’s historical and philosophical digressions make for a more strenuous read, her book explores ideas in a way that is absent from the case-study methodology employed by Green and Gardner. More often than not, their narrative presupposes crucial theoretical concepts as given. A good example of the theoretical meat that Jones captures is her discussion of art’s agency or what she terms ‘the work’ of the work of art.[8] ‘Above all,’ writes Jones, ‘I aim to reanimate a term that has ossified in art historical practice: the work of art. Art works. It is and has been active, working on the viewer historically, working on me still. My emphasis on art’s actions, on work as a verb, reflects the historical shift this book narrates, from art as an object of craft to art as an expectation for experience.’ (Jones, x) There are many sources that Jones could have consulted to round out that discussion, such as Peter Lamarque’s excellent Work and Object, the later works of John Roberts, or the writing and exhibition on precisely that subject by Art & Language.[9]

Thus far I have argued that the contemporary recurring international exhibition of art has proliferated and differentiated itself sufficiently to be able to hold its own contradictions in a state of suspension. The evidence provided by Jones, Green, and Gardner point in that direction. This is a fairly optimistic and promising situation from the point of view of the curator. The artist, however, occupies a position quite distinct from that of the curator, so naturally the question arises, ‘what of the art itself?’ So much of the work under discussion in Jones’s book — which has the great virtue of acknowledging the role of the artist — is problematic with regard to its claims for critical engagement with local culture or as a channel of reportage and expression. This is because it is indebted to the differences supplied by cultural identity. Cultural identity is not something that one can reason over, as if it were a logical proposition or a belief held by an individual or group that could be shown to be either true or false. The same may be said about the emphasis placed on experience rather than interpretation and meaning. How are ‘feelings’ linked to the promise of subsequent agency? It turns out: in a way that cannot be pinned down. Critical globalism, writes Jones, ‘does not want to destroy biennial culture … it thrives on the rupture of the event’ (Jones, 2016: 247) and the aesthetics of experience ‘does not explicitly offer a politics’ (Jones, 2016: 250).

Now, to some contemporary artists this is precisely the condition and possibility of the ‘rupture of the event’. No wonder that ‘poetry’ in art — what deconstructionist theorists identify as ‘literary language’ — has assumed such a prominent position. For a work of art that trades on affect to ‘work’, a sense of the unintelligibility of feelings must be accounted for. But that would seem to raise questions about the claim by some artists that the desire to say something about the world in a critical way should be agential as well, but in some unspecified sense. If this is the case, how is criticism to be offered aesthetically while dodging the sin of fetishising the very reference linked to the signifier?

Neither book offers a solution, which would entail the thinking through and constitution of a coherent model for alternative institutions outside the circuit of recurring international exhibitions. Instead, we find the ambitious contemporary artist who participates in biennials, triennials, and documentas faced with the prospect of representing dissent through the very institution that provokes it. The recurring international exhibition, with its various theoretical and political platforms, publications, dispersed sites, and projects of social engagement provides a kind of high energy shell, one that is undeniably linked to markets yet somehow imagining that it circulates on an altogether higher plane. The curatorial model of a ‘timely’ or ‘urgent’ cultural theme has supplanted that of the comprehensive survey, pointing to a situation where the so-called global work of art will continue to be embedded in an increasingly complex system of mediation.

The very term global art is supposed to annihilate all cultural binaries. In its place, there is only difference. But for Jones, and perhaps Green and Gardner as well, the difference of which they speak, and which is the content of recurring international exhibitions, cannot sustain itself without stability and a means of circulation, lest it becomes an indelible expression of parochialism in culture. Jones’s argument is that this difference is emergent in the mode of experience of art, of blind epistemology and the aesthetics of experience. But, surely, there must be something more to global art than the experience of a remote spectacle bracketed by the elephantine scale of a biennial. Much is made of the fact that these art expositions are being mounted across the world; certainly, all of these events have a stake in the way that the institutional theory of art has determined contemporary art practices and made the very idea of global art possible. Who would argue against the way recurring international exhibitions have enabled the visibility of non-Western contemporary art? Less charitably, one might call global art a condition that it increasingly seems to be heading for: a generic art distinguished by a spectacularization of the forms of address available to art.

If the reader perseveres with this view in mind, I believe much more of value can be gleaned from the work of Jones, Green, and Gardner. To do so, we must overlook the confusion and the bureaucratic affirmation to consider how to construct a bridge between what philosophers understand to be two competing views on the value of art; namely, the cognitivist and the emotivist. My sense is that the very institutional form of the contemporary recurring international exhibition of art aspires to be that bridge. Critical art may be revealed by first unraveling the assumption that art is agency. We assume that art engenders community and communion, something that the event spectacle framed by the large-scale international exhibition does very well. But what sort of community, and what purpose will this newly found solidarity serve? Such questions cannot be resolved solely through polite negotiation within the institution itself. Raising consciousness and raising hell are separated by a vast gulf of practice.


[1] Caroline A. Jones, The Global Work of Art. World’s Fairs, Biennials, and the Aesthetics of Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 85.
[2] ‘If one focuses on the emergence of the contemporary biennial, one quickly realizes that key structures of the current exhibitionary complex, the undisputed foundations of contemporary display, were put in place more than a century ago. The book thus examines defining moments in an exhibitionary past beginning roughly with the French Revolution.’ Jones, 2016: xi.
[3] ‘…[T]he dramatic shift from object to experience that forms the overall arc of this book…’, Jones, 2016: 77; ‘biennials became very public contexts for spectacular audience intimacy’, Charles Green and Anthony Gardner, Biennials, Triennials, and documenta. The Exhibitions That Created Contemporary Art (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley/Blackwell, 2016), p. 276.
[4] Carlo Ripa de Meana was a former member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and then the Italian Socialist Party; from 1974 to 1979 he was the President of the Venice Biennale.
[5] Michael Corris, ‘Inside a New York Art Gang: A Documentary History of Art & Language in New York’, in Alex Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds., Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), p. 478.
[6] Art-Language, vol. 3, no. 3 (1976): cover – p. 1.
[7] Green and Gardner, p. 9.
[8] ‘In this book, artists will be taken to be powerful agents of change…’ Jones, 2016: xiii.[9] ‘Not long ago we participated in a symposium addressing the question, “What work does the art work do?” On that occasion we suggested that for the sake of argument a distinction might be made along the following lines: on the one hand there are works of art – and theories about works of art – based on the proposition that work is what spectators do in variously animating the work of art through interpretation and exegesis. It should be clear enough that the art of institutional theatre tends on the whole to conform to this mode, and that it delivers itself up with some facility to journalism, whether of the popular or of the academic variety. . . . On the other hand, there are works of art – or theories about works of art – based on the proposition that whatever work is done is intimately connected to the intentional character of the artwork, and that it is what that artwork does in animating its suitably attuned and attentive spectator.” Art & Language [Michael Baldwin, Charles Harrison, and Mel Ramsden], ‘Emergency Conditionals’, in Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens, eds., Philosophy and Conceptual Art (Oxford: 2007), p. 260. See also Chris Smith, ‘What work does the artwork do? A question for art,’ Journal of Visual Arts Practice, vol. 6, no. 1 (2007): 5-7.

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