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by Rime Fetnan

Biennials and Cultural Difference: Between Critical Deconstruction and Essentialism

This essay intends to question the role played by some of the most emblematic biennials in recent years in terms of the recognition and promotion of cultural or racial difference. Our analysis is based on three case studies, a corpus of exhibitions that took place in Europe between 1997 and 2003[1]: Documenta X (curated by Catherine David in 1997), Documenta11 (curated in 2002 by Okwui Enwezor and six co-curators[2]), which both took place in Kassel, Germany; and the Venice Biennale in 2003, untitled Dreams and Conflicts: the Dictatorship of the Viewer (curated by Francesco Bonami, along with eleven curators[3]). We will present some of the results we obtained during our PhD research: we would first like to demonstrate how institutions, curators, and artists have participated in the deconstruction of the principles of Western modernist ideology. The latter sees the artist as evolving in a hermetic world vis-à-vis society: the creative genius must be autonomous from the issues of bourgeois society in order to access a pure and absolute state.

Since 1960, curatorial and artistic practices have shown a desire to decentralize from the masterpiece[4]: at documenta 5 (1972), for example, we can observe a reflection on the links between production of different natures: advertisements, comics, and objects from political propaganda. In many ways, Harald Szeemann’s approach is similar to the one adopted by Arnold Bode[5] during the first editions of documenta, which notably enabled the integration of design and art considered at the time as “minor.”

If we can find similar processes of deconstruction of the principles of differentiation and hierarchization of the arts, the exhibitions that interest us today present a novelty: the deconstruction of the autonomy of art is done through a contextual framing that highlights the cultural dimensions of any artistic production.

Curatorial framing that has broken its ties with Western modernist ideology
In both Documenta X and Documenta11, curators wanted to initiate—or at least to be part of—the deconstruction process. Firstly, both of them embodied the changes they foreshadowed: Catherine David was the first woman at the head of the event, and Okwui Enwezor the first black man. If both curators share certain points of view on cultural and racial difference in contemporary art, they take divergent paths in the way they reconsider the autonomy of the artistic field. For Catherine David, she adopted a curatorial methodology that aimed to consider the works through a historical prism which placed them in a historical, political, and cultural context. The Documenta X catalogue, entitled The Book, is completely representative of this methodology, since it “situates artistic productions from 1945 to today in their political, economic and cultural context of appearance.”[6] In doing this, we can consider that Catherine David has a ‘heteronomous’[7] approach to works that first came from the specific field of art.

On the contrary, during Documenta11 Okwui Enwezor put the artistic and aesthetic values of the works in the background—we do not find any occurrence of these terms in the statement—and gives the artist new functions, based on citizenship and ethical values: “In the democratic system […] the demands of citizenship place strong ethical constraints on the artist based on his or her commitment to all ‘forms-of-life’. The practice of art presents the artist with the task of making such commitment.”[8] Being primarily considered as a citizen, then his status as a creative genius is called into question, along with his ability to generate ‘masterpieces’. Thus, the work of art no longer comes from an autonomous and closed field:“To understand what constitutes the avant-garde today, one must begin not in the field of contemporary art but in the field of culture and politics[…].”[9]

This change of approach is to be linked with the cultural openness defended in curatorial discourses (“The careful examination and analysis of contemporary art […] should also be understood in relation to those other changes taking place across disciplinary and cultural boundaries that inform today’s artistic procedures” Okwui Enwezor[10]). Thus, to the uniqueness that characterizes the universalist ideology of modernism, artistic production is now qualified as heterogeneous (“the extreme heterogeneity of contemporary aesthetic practices and mediums […] and the very different, even irreconcilable experiences of space and time they imply” Catherine David[11]). Cultural and geographic diversity is now one of the central values of curatorial framing, and is intrinsically linked to the redefinition of modernity because it introduces pluralism, and therefore a form of decentralization, exemplified in Documenta11 by the five platforms spread over several continents[12] (“The exhibition counterposes the supposed purity and autonomy of the art object against a rethinking of modernity based on ideas of transculturality and extraterritoriality. Thus, the exhibition project of the fifth Platform is […] a container of a plurality of voices.”[13])

Calling into question the autonomous field of art through the renewal of curatorial framing is illustrated, within the exhibition space, in opposition to the principle of the white cube, which often embodies, in discourse, modernist ideology, because it aims to present the works in a closed and autonomous space, as described by Brian O’Doherty: “The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light […] The art is free, as the saying used to go ‘to take its own life’ […] Modernism’s transposition of perception from life to formal value is complete.”[14]

For Catherine David, the “universalizing” nature of the white cube is problematic because it excludes certain forms of artistic practices, in particular those from “non-Western cultural zones where the object of ‘contemporary art’ is often a very recent phenomenon, even an epiphenomenon […].”[15] The curator considers that this Western presentation model does not correspond to “non-Western expressions” that take more the form of musical, oral, literary or theatrical productions.[16] Therefore, we can understand the “parcours”[17] established in the city of Kassel for Documenta X, as well as the discursive space of 100 days–100 Guests as a way to get around the white cube model.

What is interesting in those analyzed discourses is that the rejection of the white cube and modernist modes of presentation do not rest on the fact that they are considered unsuitable or outdated regarding any form of artistic production—including Western ones—but that they are unsuitable for a certain production: that coming from geocultural areas that are different from those where the white cube was established.

The scenography set up in the exhibition Z.O.U.–Zone of Urgency as part of the Venice Biennale in 2003 is quite exemplary of this de-hierarchization process: the curator Hou Hanru called on the architect scenographer Yung Ho Chang (founder of Atelier FC3Z) who built a mezzanine in a part of the Arsenale, doubling the exhibition space originally planned for Z.O.U.

The result is an erasure of linearity, in favor of a juxtaposition and accumulation of works: the picture rail is absent, and some pieces are suspended. The same type of process is established in The Structure of Survival, another exhibition of the Venice Biennale the same year[18]: the picture rails were absent, the works were juxtaposed in space, arranged on mobile structures, tables, or on the floor.[19]

The exhibition also included a “media space” dedicated to artists working with computers or the videographic medium. Catherine David used a similar gathering for Contemporary Arab Representations, an exhibition that follows the last two: instead of dividing the video installations as Okwui Enwezor did for Documenta11 (in particular at the Fridericianum and the Binding Brauerei), Catherine David brought them all together in the same room, the screens placed on the floor. In addition, many chronological landmarks were hung on the walls, as a sign of the importance of context in the curatorial framing.[20]

If, for some curators, the concepts of Western modernity are called into question through a reconfiguration of the exhibition’s methodology, others go further by questioning the uniqueness of the institutional space itself. Taking the works out of the institutional space seems therefore to be the concretization of this desire for “decentering” that we can observe in the statements. It is as such that we can interpret the platforms of Documenta11, described by Okwui Enwezor as a “non-hierarchical model of representation.”[21] Although the spaces of the fifth platform remain very conventional, adopting the white cube’s principles; the curator believes that the non-hierarchy of content and the decentralization of the curatorial framing come primarily from the extraterritoriality that he established for Documenta11.

Although there is a sincere approach to integration and enhancement, this process is accompanied by phenomena of the characterization and essentialization of identities, which constitute a paradox.

Racialization of identities in curatorial statements
This part is focused on the designations of artists and works that are linked to—within the discourse—to the theme of cultural difference or otherness. The semiolinguistic analysis I have conducted shows that expressions used for the attribution of values are made in relation to a “norm” which is related to the West. The comparison between expressions used to designate non-Western artists/works and Western artists/works is useful to highlight each of their specificities.

For example, Catherine David often relates Western art and artists to historically situated artistic values (“Western modernity”[22]) unlike the “non-Western expressions”[23]that are not considered as contemporary art (understood as an artistic and aesthetic category). Rarely the reference to non-Western production is made through the terms of “art” or “artwork.” In fact, the only mention of contemporary art is made with quotes, and therefore distanced:

The object of ‘contemporary art’ is often a very recent phenomenon, even an epiphenomenon, linked in the best cases, to an acceleration of the processes of acculturation and cultural syncretism in the new urban agglomerations, and in the worst cases, to the demand for rapid renewal of market products in the West.[24]

This extract is almost an explicit testimony to the fact that the ‘contemporary art’ category, as it is imagined in this part of the world, is considered to be an artificial construct linked to the West. Which mediums are considered authentic for these “non-Western expressions”? Catherine David quotes the “music, oral and written language (literature, theatre, and cinema)” which she associates with the notion of tradition (“interrupted or violent destroyed traditions”[25]; “forms which have traditionally contributed to strategies of emancipation”[26]).

The statement by Okwui Enwezor for Documenta11 (“The Black Box”) operates a rupture because it introduces the notion of “modernity” in expressions related to otherness and cultural difference, even if this integration is still done in relation to the Western standard (“artistic modernity not founded on Westernism”[27]) and that the concept of modernity remains however principally attached to the West. In addition, if some artistic references illustrate “Western modernity” (Futurism, Dada, Surrealism), we find on the side of the theme of cultural difference and otherness only one artistic reference made to traditional forms (“tribal object particularities and peculiarities which also define their marginality”[28]).

In the statement of the exhibition Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes (curated by Gilane Tawadros during the Venice Biennale in 2003[29]), the “contemporary artist/artwork” expression is often used by the curator to designate African artists, as the title of the exhibition suggests it (“contemporary artists from Africa and the African diaspora”[30]). Gilane Tawadros also uses mediums traditionally attached to the “Western contemporary art” category to qualify their works (“15 artists working across a range of media from painting and sculpture through to architecture, photography and installation.”[31]) However, if the curator uses the notion of “modernity” to qualify these works, she distinguishes it from “Modernism and modernity in Western terms,” which she defines as “a decisive break or rupture with the past.”[32] Indeed, the concept of modernity as it is used with reference to artists/works from African and the African diaspora results more from a negotiation between tradition and modernity (“In the work of the celebrated Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, it is the negotiation between tradition and modernity […] that is articulated through his vision of an architecture for the poor”[33]). Thus, the category “contemporary African art” is systematically approached through this dichotomy, like the work of Frank Bowling (“Bowling not only put the political into ‘Pop Art’, but also put postcolonial concerns into contemporary art”[34]), which makes it possible both to characterize it and to distinguish it from Western modernity. This extract also testifies to an attempt to integrate an artist categorized into “contemporary African art” within a Western categorization (Pop Art), without this being complete, as the use of quotes shows.

Although the curators’ intentions seem to be moving towards a tolerant or even politically committed approach of cultural difference, we can observe that part of the speeches highlight the “dark part”of otherness, using imagery based on the fear.[35] For example, the statement of Okwui Enwezor describes the West as an hegemonic entity at the origin of relations of domination and inequalities, but his description of Islam distinguished itself by the use of a vocabulary which emphasizes its violent and aggressive character (“ferocity of fundamentalist Islam’s hostility”; “bloody resistance”; “excessive violence”[36]). The hostility shown by “Islam” towards the West is certainly considered by the curator as symptomatic of a process of emancipation from imposed domination, but it is also often associated with internal conflicts and embodied by radical movements (“radical Islam has often drawn from theories of Jihad, which it narrowly interprets from a binary oppositional standpoint”[37]).

In addition, we can observe a process of projection of this radicalism onto the image of Islamic societies: Enwezor’s discourse produces a conflation between what generally relates to Islam as a religion—which is normally qualified as “Islamic”—and some radical or conservative movements of Islam, which come under the term of “Islamism.”

This distinction between the two notions (Islam and Islamism) is not made by the enunciator who confuses a radical political movement and societies characterized by their religious affiliation in the following excerpt:

By objectifying violence […] and by proposing very little innovative political model for its interaction with the rest of global society, radical Islam risks alienating other blocks of the disaffected global policy[…]the place of women and religious modernities, the lack of transparency and corruption in its elite, and the lack of political rights and participation of a large segment of its societies further undermine Islam’s claim to universalism.[38]

These extracts show, in our point of view, the consequences that the September 11, 2001 attacks may have had on the Arab-Muslim imaginary[39]: as Sarah Mazouz points out, Islamic societies are portrayed in constant conflict with the outside world, in line with the figure of the terrorist, which constitutes an essentialized vision of Muslims.[40]

In Enwezor’s discourse, Islamic societies and Islamist movements are merged in the same imaginary with echoes of the figure of the barbarian, stemming from the myth of Orientalism. In fact, unlike the figure of the savage—who is the other figure of otherness and exoticism according to geographers Bernard Debarbieux and Jean-François Staszak[41]—the barbarian is civilized: he lives in a society, in cities, and adopts behaviors closer to those of humans than those of animals. However, if the society in which the barbarian lives is civilized, it is in a deviant way: evidenced by the relationship with women, religion, freedoms, and the law. Besides, in Enwezor’s discourse, it is this deviance that prevents these societies from having any influence (“further undermine Islam’s claim to universalism”). This results in the implicit legitimization of the superiority of Western societies that, even if they are considered hegemonic and dogmatic, are nonetheless considered to be civilized in a non-deviant way.

In Enwezor’s statement, it is interesting to note that African societies are not related to the same imaginary: they are more often described as fragile, unstable, even chaotic, from a social, political, and economic point of view (“African cities have witnessed increased population growth, migration and the pressures of fragile urban governance, and state and economic collapse”; “fragile urban systems”; “State collapse […] civil conflict […] pernicious dictatorship”[42]).

We can make a comparison with Gilane Tawadros’ statement in Fault Lines, where we find the same topos: artists and descriptions of artworks are a way for the curator to produce a general discourse on certain African societies, characterized by a climate of political unrest and instability. (“Salem Mekuria’s beautiful film installation that evokes the periodic breaks in continuity and stability—the eruption of conflict, war, famine and exodus—in Ethiopia’s recent history”[43]; “Political and social violence is a recurrent theme.”; “ordinary Egyptians and their daily effort to survive. Everyday struggles have taken the place of the nationalist struggles in this new post-colonial world order[…].”[44])

These three biennials have called into question the autonomy of the artistic field, by setting up creative and alternative displays to the white cube. These methodologies, along with the selection of artists, have had an important resonance in the art world. But the analyses of discourses show that representations are still imbued with certain Orientalist or primitive imaginaries. In the light of these elements, it seems that some imaginaries conveyed through the statements are part of a process of “racialization” that comes from a process of radicalization and undervaluing of certain forms of otherness. Racialization is borrowed from Frantz Fanon[45] and has to be distinguished from the notion of racism, because it does not only concern categorization processes linked to the idea of race, but also includes notions of culture and religion. Thus, the notion of racialization allows us to highlight the complex dimension and dynamic that underpins power relations.

Rime Fetnan is a postdoctoral researcher at CNRS. She obtained a PhD in arts and communication in 2019. Specialized on international contemporary art biennials, her dissertation was focused on the “Otherness as an imagined community” in six exhibitions that occurred between 1989 and 2012.


[1] We chose these exhibitions because they made cultural difference a central theme, and also because they have prestige among large-scale exhibitions, as well in contemporary art history.

[2] Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya.

[3] Carlos Basualdo, Daniel Birnbaum, Catherine David, Massimiliano Gioni, Hou Hanru, Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, RirkritTiravanija, Gabriel Orozco, Gilane Tawadros, and Igor Zabel. They were all in charge of an exhibition.

[4] Jean-Marc Poinsot, “L’art et son context ou  la question du culturel,” in Harald Szeemann, Méthodologieindividuelle, ed. Florence Derieux (Grenoble: Le Magasin, 2007), 26.

[5] The creator of documenta in 1955.

[6] Catherine David, “Introduction,” in Documenta X – Short Guide, ed. Françoise Joly (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 1997), 12.

[7] In sociology, heteronomy is opposed to the autonomy of the artistic field, that is, what is related or comes from the commercial or political field.

[8] OkwuiEnwezor, “The Black Box,” in Documenta11_Platform 5 : Exhibition, eds. OkwuiEnwezor et al. (Ostfildern-Ruit: HatjeCantz Verlag, 2002) 54.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Ibid., 42.

[11] David “Introduction,”11.

[12] Platform 1 took place in Berlin, Platform 2 in New Delhi, the third platform in Saint Lucia (Caribbean), the fourth in Lagos, and the fifth in Kassel.

[13] Enwezor, “The Black Box,”55.

[14] Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986), 15.

[15] David “Introduction,”11.

[16] Ibid.

[17] In French in the text.

[18] The one curated by Carlos Basualdo.

[19] “The Structure of Survival,” Universes in Universe, accessed December 17, 2018, http://universes-in-universe.de/car/venezia/bien50/survival/e-lab.htm.

[20] “Contemporary Arab Representations,” Universes in Universe.

[21] Enwezor, “The Black Box,” 48.

[22] David “Introduction,”11.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 11-12.

[27] Enwezor, “The Black Box,” 47.

[28] Ibid., 46.

[29] Gilane Tawadros “Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes,” in Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer: 50th International Art Exhibition, eds. Francesco Bonami, Maria-Luisa Frisa (Venice: Marsilio, La Biennale de Venezia, 2003), 133-134.

[30] Ibid., 133.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] For Sally Prince, this rhetoric is characteristic of the evocation of primitive artists.  Sally Price, Primitive Arts in Civilized Places(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 64.

[36] Enwezor, “The Black Box,” 47-48.

[37] Ibid., 48.

[38] Ibid.

[39] In his statement, Okwui Enwezor only mentions Arabic-Muslim or Middle Eastern societies (using the examples of Algeria and Iran).

[40] Sarah Mazouz, La république et sesautres, politiques de l’altérité dans la France des années 2000 (Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2017), 16.

[41] Bernard Debarbieux, Jean-François Staszak, “Identités collectives et altérités: la fabrique des imaginaires,” radio program on France Culture, broadcast February 10, 2016. https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/planete-terre/identites-collectives-et-alterites-la-fabrique-des-imaginaires.

[42] Enwezor, “The Black Box,” 52.

[43] Tawadros, “Fault Lines,” 133.

[44] Ibid., 133-134.

[45] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Harmondsworth: Penguin, Banton, 1967).

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Issue 46 / June 2020

Contemporary Art Biennales – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency

by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter


by Daniel Knorr

European Influenza

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

Detox Dance

by Delia Popa

Mice Insanity

by Diana Dulgheru

50 HZ

by Daniel Knorr

Instant Community

by Farid Rakun


by Raqs Media Collective


by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala


by Ekaterina Degot


by Yung Ma


by Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk


by Raluca Voinea


by Răzvan Ion


by Daniel Knorr

Trams and Institutions

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

Biennials and Hegemony: Experiences from the Thai Laboratory

by Raqs Media Collective

Freeing the Weights of the Habitual

by Robert E. D’Souza

Before, During, After Biennale

By Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis

The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence.

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

Curating the Revolution: Meeting Points 7 [1]

by Henk Slager


by Vasyl Cherepanyn

East Europe Biennial Alliance

by Ksenija Orelj

We’re Off

by Catherine David

documenta X

by Okwui Enwezor

The Black Box

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

On the Documenta 14 in Athens

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

The Paradoxes of the Biennale

by Federica Martini

One Biennale, Many Biennials

by Vittoria Martini

Venice, the Biennale and the Bees