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Introduction: Making Art Global: A Good Place or a No Place?

1989 was one of the most significant years in the twentieth century. It saw the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the fall of communist governments across Eastern Europe and the invention of the World Wide Web, 01 events that resulted in a new political settlement, a new global economy and the growing collective consciousness that we live with today. In a contemporary art context, the exhibitions ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ in Paris, ‘The Other Story’ in London and the third Bienal de La Habana in Cuba – the latter being the focus of this book – coincidentally opened in that same year. 02 Each of these shows sought to deal with the question of how to realise an internationalist vision of art in terms that were shaped and understood locally. While the British exhibition sought to include into the national artistic narrative the consequences of post-imperial migration, and the French show recalled the universalist aspirations of the 1789 Revolution, the Cuban project aimed to mobilise marginalised art communities from both inside and outside the USA-led West on the basis of international socialism. Each was driven by a historical narrative specific to its national context, and yet all three coincided with a moment when the course of global events was sharply and irreversibly interrupted. Thus, as a plausible but unconscious grouping of shows, they address by default the new world that was emerging, whilst additionally serving directly to open up territory that has since come to be occupied by many new international artistic gatherings.

The changes wrought in 1989 were initially most obvious at political, economic and technological levels. A new phase of global economic concentration and of wealth redistribution in favour of a liberated world- elite was inaugurated. During the following decade, free market mechanisms came to be seen as almost a force of nature, and the overreach of the era can still be gleaned from Francis Fukuyama’s notorious diagnosis in 1989 of the end of history.03 Accompanying the growth of the super-rich and their exploitation of the new resources released by the ends of socialism, apartheid and national economic controls, there was an expansion of the art world, in which not only the price of art multiplied, but also the number of locations where it could be encountered. Both postcolonial and post-communist states were brought into the new world order on cultural as well as economic terms, and biennials or regular international exhibitions were one of the key means to position cities from these countries as open for business.

Very little of this could have been predicted with any certainty in 1989. Indeed, the Bienal de La Habana opened eight days before the Berlin Wall fell, and it seems to have been a total surprise in Cuba – as elsewhere – that the Soviet sphere of influence was as fragile and decadent as it suddenly proved to be. It is therefore only possible with the benefit of hindsight to understand those three major exhibitions of 1989 as auguries of developments in international art that extended throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The propositions in all three were nevertheless quite clearly taken up and extended by the growing number of contemporary art biennials that emerged during those two decades. Rejecting the traditional model of national representation that had been established by the Venice Biennale in 1895 and perpetuated by the Bienal de São Paulo, these new biennials favoured curatorially authored exhibitions and thematised themselves around general sociopolitical questions.

The mother of all curatorial statements remains Documenta. Although its significance has fluctuated since 1989, its trajectory in the 1990s and early 2000s reflects the paradigm shift that was taking place. As Rachel Weiss points out in the detailed discussion of the Bienal de La Habana that follows in this book, Jan Hoet, the artistic director of documenta IX in 1992, was actually a visitor to the 1989 Cuban exhibition, although, given the privileging of Western European and North American artists in his exhibition, his trip seems to have not had much of an effect. By the following edition in 1997, however, there was a strong theoretical acknowledgment of the terminal state of Western-aesthetic history that meant that while the artistic director Catherine David included few ‘global’ artists in the exhibition, the 100 days of talks and discussions programmed during documenta X were shot through with a new awareness of a global discursive sphere. Indeed, the precedent for this emphasis on debate, as well as exhibition, could arguably be the third Bienal de La Habana itself, as can be seen from the account and analysis of its activities presented in this publication. 04 By the time of Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002, global inclusion was assumed as necessary, and this continued even when inflected through the more aesthetically directed ambitions of Roger Buergel’s documenta 12 of 2007. This chronology of the Kassel quinquennial is important because it shows how much this key European exhibition was essentially playing catch-up with events elsewhere. In contrast to Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5 in 1972, when an attempt at global representation seems to have been restricted by ideological objections, 05 twenty years later it was curatorial conservatism that limited the geographic spread of the artists selected. While in 2007, with documenta 12, there was a lingering undertone of attempting to rescue the European Enlightenment project in the choice of venues and display techniques.

More immediate and tangible effects of the Bienal de La Habana, ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ and ‘The Other Story’ were actually felt outside rather than inside the old imperialist countries, where it was generally presumed that 1989 represented a victory rather than a new series of challenges. The new form of biennial ventured by Llilian Llanes Godoy, Gerardo Mosquera and the rest of the team at the Centro Wifredo Lam was extended and modified in Eastern Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. 06 Dak’Art, the Dakar art biennial, began in 1992, and, as with the first edition of the Bienal de La Habana, it focused on art produced in countries in the region and it maintained the nation-state representative structure of Venice’s example. By 1996, Dak’Art had become devoted exclusively to contemporary African art, fulfilling an agenda addressing production in the so-called ‘Global South’, perhaps, though largely restricting its consequences to one continent. Elsewhere, the Istanbul Biennial, starting with the third edition curated by Vasif Kortun in 1992, moved radically away from national pavilions and struck out for a singular curatorial vision in the tradition of the Havana event of 1989. This process of curatorial authorship was confirmed in subsequent editions by René Block and Rosa Martínez, 07 and the project established a degree of continuity and stability that has made it one of the key sociopolitical art events of recent times. The mid-1990s saw the foundation of the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates, the Johannesburg Biennial in South Africa and the Gwangju Biennale in the Republic of Korea, as well as the only significant European contribution with the launch of the peripatetic biennial Manifesta in Rotterdam in 1996, created with the aim of bringing Western and Eastern Europe into closer cultural dialogue. 08 By this point, the proliferation of new two-yearly events was accelerating, and although the models for each of the individual exhibitions differed both over time and between themselves, none looked to the old national representation and competition model that inspired the foundation of the Venice Biennale or the Bienal de São Paulo. Indeed, by 1998, São Paulo had given curatorial vision its head under the artistic directorship of Paulo Herkenhoff, and the anachronism of staging a world’s fair for art now survives only in Venice.

Tracing this history is useful because it clearly suggests that the changes within and outside the art world around 1989 were structural in nature and not the result of one or two maverick curators or artists. It is worth reiterating that when its first edition opened in 1984, the Bienal de La Habana was only the fourth international two-yearly contemporary art event on the planet. Fifteen years later it was already difficult to keep track, and by the end of the first decade of the new millennium there was an impression that at least one biennial was opening every fortnight somewhere in the world. 09 Almost without exception, these new events were and are defined in terms of the political and social mix of the cities that host them – something that was first given concrete form in Havana. They also share an embrace of curatorial authorship, a selection of artists and artworks on the basis of themes and the expectation of geographically expanded conceptions of who makes art. However, while rightly celebrating the increasing diversity that the 1990s biennial model introduced to the art field, we should question its sustainability and critically analyse the political and aesthetic challenges that are offered to the hosting city or audience – especially looking into the future. While undoubtedly effective in attracting more international attention than exhibitions in a local museum, a biennial costs relatively more to produce – especially considering the duration of its public presence – and the global repetition of the formula can begin to lessen its impact. If the goal of a biennial is largely educational, we must ask whether a non-specialised public is effectively introduced to art’s international symbolic value through this medium, or whether institutions with an ongoing programme might offer more potential in this respect. If the basic function of biennials is to contribute to tourism or gentrification, then that undermines certain claims of radicalism and, more crucially for their sustainability, it is not something that can be easily quantified. If what is wanted is the creation of value for the art market, it is likely that commercial art fairs will be more effective in the long term. Thus, it might be that, after twenty years of biennial growth, the process ushered in by the coincidence of a new internationalist understanding of exhibition production and the collapse of communism is running out of power, and another set of possibilities needs to be opened up.

The consequences of the 1989 edition of the Bienal de La Habana and the other pivotal exhibitions of that year have not only been in terms of curatorial authorship, geographic diversity and reach. A perhaps more fundamental shift has occurred in the nature and appearance of art itself – one that is likely to last a long time. The emergence of what has often pejoratively been termed ‘biennial art’ is in fact the result of formal shifts in terms of techniques and materials, as well as resulting from a new critical acceptance of art’s relation to politics and social context. The introduction of the notion of artistic autonomy as part of the modern project allowed art to construct enclosed utopias, where new rules that apply only within the limits of the realm of art are operative. This granted a useful regulated freedom from public and private patrons and insisted on a democratic public sphere in which previously private, minority pursuits were considered to be of general interest if made broadly accessible. In the world after 1989 this kind of public sphere has been radically diminished both by privatisation and the return of religious intolerance, while at the same time the cultural territory in which art is present and functioning has expanded. The end of a certain kind of political and ideological competition has had, as we know, profound effects on Cuba and its former Third World allies, and these are the countries that predominantly produced the work included in the early editions of the Bienal de La Habana. But the characteristics of some of the art that was represented there in 1989 – for instance its engagement with location and penchant for discursivity – have become almost paradigmatic for the international contemporary art that appears the world over today. Rather than dismissing such practices as merely representing an incoherent assemblage of cultural difference, as some critiques of biennial art have done, we might consider how specific artworks relate to an emerging sense of a global sensibility with its own aesthetic and social forms. Naturally, the local public spheres will continue to have their own particular expectations of art and of the role of the artist, and these should be analysed carefully. At the same time we might start to find ourselves reading and debating a global form of poetics, not grounded in any one local reality but generated through the interchanges between them in events such as these biennials. Such an approach would define the role of ‘biennial art’ with greater clarity and purpose, distancing it from the motivating forces of city or regional marketing and commercial art sales.

The idea of a global poetics draws us into one of the most intractable yet central tensions of the growth of global art production in the past twenty years. Who is this global art for? What kind of public can imaginatively transform, for itself, the references and internal logics of international contemporary art into meaningful life experiences? These questions still lie unanswered as the second decade of the 2000s builds its momentum. If there is such a thing as an emerging global public for this global art and if it is to be sustainable in any sense, then it must be accompanied by a still mysterious notion of a global politics, one that has yet to develop. In the absence of such a notion, the answer to the question of what global art can be will be reduced to suit the interests of a nomadic international elite – an elite that exercises and expresses its global taste through its purchase of artworks that demonstrate a sophisticated use of power in the face of global economic imbalance.

To go further and ask for a relation between art and social change requires more, and there are signs that genuine, even activist, global publics and politics are not simply the vain hopes of revolutionary nostalgics. In the Arab world today, in early 2011, something is happening that might begin to spread to other regions. The situation is not yet stable and could be eroded, but these collective actions might come to be understood as the emergence of a struggle between, on the one hand, educated but oppressed peoples increasingly oriented towards a democratic-inclined global public sphere taking shape on the internet, and, on the other, a modern nationalist worldview that preaches state sovereignty and economic-block isolation. In this struggle, in which the rich global elite are mere bystanders, the equitable distribution of resources and the right to free expression will both be at stake. The coming competition for a new common sense of what the world means and how it is organised, which actions now taking place in north Africa and west Asia predict, will inevitably go beyond current forms of national democracy. In these circumstances, the potential role for a global poetics, as sketched out over the last twenty years of ‘biennialism’, takes on new urgency in shaping the cultural emanations of and for a global public.

What this speculation about the role of global forms of art allows us to come to grips with are the processes by which values and cultural truths change. In the future, the minority international contemporary art community could reconnect with a traditional avant-garde notion and seize the attention of a much broader social class in the world. More disappointingly, it could simply concern itself with producing interior decoration for the small exploitative elite that maintains the status quo. While artists, writers, musicians, curators and their publics feel compelled to produce and engage with artworks that deal with the politics of exploitation and its social consequences, that same production and engagement can be easily commodified out of consideration. This is the paradox that art faces and that the biennialisation of art over the past twenty years has brought sharply into focus. Biennials, in their utopian desire, can shape either a ‘good place’ where society is present and participative or a ‘no place’ of global commodity fetishism. Both are implied in the semantic ambiguity of ‘utopia’.10 The reason why the third edition of the Bienal de La Habana in 1989 is so significant for current art is that it marks a crucial moment when a new turn of the screw was made in art’s poetic and political journey through the public world. That moment seems likely to come back and haunt us a few more times over the next decades.


  • The precise date of the World Wide Web’s invention is hard to pinpoint but here I am taking Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal to CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) regarding a global hypertext system as an inaugural moment.
  • ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ took place at the Centre Georges Pompidou and Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, from 18 May to 14 August 1989, and was curated by Jean-Hubert Martin. It will be the subject of a forthcoming book in the Exhibition Histories series, Making Art Global (Part 2). ‘The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain’ was on view at the Hayward Gallery, London, from 29 November 1989 to 4 February 1990, and was curated by Rasheed Araeen. The third Bienal de La Habana took place in the Cuban capital from 1 November to 31 December 1989, and was curated by a team working for the Centro Wifredo Lam, led by Llilian Llanes Godoy. While this book is titled in the English language to introduce the Bienal to non-Spanish speakers, we have adopted the Spanish form here inside, unless quoting a source that itself uses the English.
  • Francis Fukuyama, ‘End of History?’, The National Interest, Summer 1989, pp.3–18. The essay was later extended to book length, and titled The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).
  • Two papers delivered at the conference that opened the third Bienal de La Habana are reproduced in this book: Mirko Lauer’s ‘Notes on the Art, Identity and Poverty of the Third World’, pp.184–92; and Geeta Kapur’s ‘Contemporary Cultural Practice: Some Polemical Categories’, pp.194–203. The debates programmed as part of the Bienal are referenced in reviews reprinted here: ‘The Margin of the “Margin”’ by Coco Fusco, pp.204–05; and ‘The Third Biennial of Havana’ by Luis Camnitzer, pp.206–14.
  • For instance, artists from both the USSR and China were invited but refused to participate in a capitalist exhibition, though the absence of Conceptual artists from Yugoslavia or Poland might point out Szeemann’s own political partiality in favour of capitalist modernism.
  • Llanes Godoy was the director of the Centro Wifredo Lam from 1984 to 1999, and her introduction to the catalogue for the third Bienal de La Habana is reproduced in this volume, pp.178–83. Mosquera, who was involved in the first Bienal de La Habana in 1984 and became core to the curatorial team until his resignation in 1990, contributes a reflection on the first three editions, pp.70–79.
  • René Block curated ‘Orient/ation: The Vision of Art in a Paradoxical World’, the fourth Istanbul Biennial in 1995. Rosa Martínez curated the following edition, ‘On Life, Beauty, Translations and Other Difficulties’.
  • Only one of its eight editions has taken place in the former Eastern Bloc – the third, in 2000, in Ljubljana.
  • For a discussion of the spread of biennials, see, for instance, Lara Buchholz and Ulf Wuggenig, ‘Cultural Globalization Between Myth and Reality: The Case of the Contemporary Visual Arts’, ART-E-FACT, no.4, available at (last accessed on 16 May 2011).
  • Gerardo Mosquera invokes the ambivalence and paradox of the concept of utopia in ‘The Havana Biennial: A Concrete Utopia’, in Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø (ed.), The Biennial Reader, Bergen and Ostfildern-Ruit: Bergen Kunsthall and Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010, p.206.