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by Beat Wyss

Globalization of the Periphery: The Venice Biennale Project

The Research Project

Miguel Covarrubias: El árbol de la arte, Vanity Fair, May 1933

#Alfred Barr: Art chart of abstraction, 1935

Alfred Barr: Art chart of abstraction, 1935

#Miguel Covarrubias: El árbol de la arte, Vanity Fair, May 1933

The historiography of art since 1900 has fostered the retrospective auctorial ideology of the avant-garde by conceiving its subject as a progressing international movement against a backdrop of local die-hards. The formative years of art historiography in the spirit of Hegelianism and Vitalism induced to the discipline this biologistic notion of an organic development in art. According to the paradigm, art geography consists in a field; ideas in art become disseminated by sowers who cultivate their acre. They come from metropolitan centers in order to fertilize peripheries which eagerly strive to conceive the major trends of a given time.


The Venice Biennale Project

#The Venice Biennale Project

The project which I will present now is intended to quit this evolutionist, colonial notion of art history. The research, launched in 2008 by the Swiss Institute of Art Research in Zurich, literally puts the cart before the horse. The aim is to gain a plural notion of modernities. We intended to explore the way different regions and nations act and react culturally within the effects caused by industrialization, colonization, nation-building, and the emergence of global markets. For this scope, the Venice Biennale delivers a coherent field of case studies.

The research focus on Venice as a specific curatorial place makes it possible to gain a kaleidoscopic, simultaneous view of art since 1900. The exhibiting sites of the former Serenissima represent a world en miniature, a political map of alliances, animosities, and idiosyncrasies among states that underwent dramatic developments during the last 119 years. Symbolically steeped in history, the Giardini of Venice had been installed by Napoléon, the Emperor in the spirit of French Revolution, who hammered through war policy the corset of Europe towards its modern shape.

The first project was dedicated to East Central Europe: a battleground of political systems from the times of both the German and the Habsburg empires, of Fascism, Socialism, up to the today’s post-Communist area. The research project happened in cooperation with an international initiative, supported by the Clark Institute and the Getty Center about art historiography in East Central Europe where I was appointed to the peer group.


Laboratories of Globalization

Histoire des habitations humaines

Histoire des habitations humaines

#Histoire des habitations humaines

The Venice Biennale type of exhibiting is a relic of 19th-century world exhibitions. The concept of pavilions, constructed in a national style, found an apogee in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, when Charles Garnier, the architect of the Paris Opéra, laid out a world history of human housing in model buildings at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. The Venice Biennale pavilions follow the idée fixe of arranging architecture according to national characteristics. Whereas the mostly ephemeral buildings were normally torn down after the show or shipped back to the countries of the participants, the Venice art pavilions remained as a fossil of a national competition idea from Old Europe. The first Biennale di Venezia took place in 1895, just one year before the first Olympic Games took place in Athens. The latter’s founder, Pierre de Coubertin, had originally planned to combine the sporting encounter of the world’s youth through a peaceful contest with an international art exhibition.


Columbian World Fair Chicago, 1893

#Columbian World Fair Chicago, 1893

The industrial world fairs of the 19th century represent an early form of supranational power structures with imperial claims in politics and economy. The leading nations outbid each other not only by the popular performance of accelerated means of transport and technical communication…


Bilder von der Globalisierung

#Bilder von der Globalisierung

…but also by exhibiting to the masses of visitors, hungry for sensation, an exotic human menagerie, through the importing of subjects from the colonies, instructed to perform their so-called primitive life within artificial habitats. The World Fairs showed globalization en miniature whose proceeding creates a paradox: it is precisely technical progress and homogenization that provoke the claim for cultural identity. Technological internationalism and cultural regionalism are twins.

Homogenization and differentiation as a synchronous process of globalization can be observed back to the deep 19th century. This assumption relies on Roland Robertson’s term of glocality,[1] which intertwines the “global” and the “local.” As an inveterate Hegelian, I explain it through the wit of my master: Identity is the identity of identity and non-identity,” says Georg Friedrich Hegel. The sentence out of the Science of Logic[2] may help us understand the dialectics of globalization. Its process consists in the effect that a consciousness for cultural differences emerges just through industrial homogenization. That way, homogenization corresponds with identification: that levelling by appropriation, that use of force, by which the “non-equal” appears. So, the non-identical is fabricated by the process of identification. Identity is equal to non-identity, as it becomes identic with nothing else than with itself by identification.


Louis-Joseph Anthonissen: L’intrus, or Le petit ramoneur, 1883

#Louis-Joseph Anthonissen: L’intrus, or Le petit ramoneur, 1883

This picture shows how a black boy is identified by white people as the Other, the one who is non-identical with themselves, those who are lounging here, freshly bathed, on the riverbank.

Even the title of the picture remains non-identically oscillating: the catalogue of the 1889 World Fair where the Belgian painter Anthonissen had been awarded, names the painting: L’intrus/The Intruder, like the sans papiers, paperless boat people of today. More politically correct is the title I found in a current auction list: Le petit ramoneur/The Little Chimney Sweep. How harmless, identification turns into a carnival joke.


The Russian Village at the Vienna World Fair, 1873

#The Russian Village at the Vienna World Fair, 1873

The process of globalization and the process of identification follow the same dialectics. Let us translate it into political terms and differentiate the two reverse motions: the hegemonic and the cultural identities. The Venice Biennale offers a variety of case studies. Hegemonic identity is the brand of success, which marks the prerogatives of the leading nation states. Hegemonic is the self-evident claim for imperial power, the dominant influence in the global market, the military and political superiority.


Jeff Koons in front of Palazzo Grassi #Chen Zhen at the Artiglierie, Venice Biennale, 1999

Chen Zhen at the Artiglierie, Venice Biennale, 1999

#Jeff Koons in front of Palazzo Grassi
#Chen Zhen at the Artiglierie, Venice Biennale, 1999

Jeff Koons’ Dog might work as an example of ruling hegemonic identity: the spectacular post-Pop eye-catcher matching with Venice event tourism.

The particular cultural identity, instead, doesn’t compete for dominance other than for the peculiarity of being different. Cultural identity manifests itself in aesthetics: in forms of local specificity, of curiosity, of otherness. Patterns of cultural identity stem back to the aesthetic discourses of antiquity where musicians distinguished the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Locrian modes: harmonies indicating a local provenance.  The consciousness of cultural identity implies cultural self-determination.


Paris World Fair, 1937: Soviet Pavilion

Paris World Fair, 1937: German Pavilion

#Paris World Fair, 1937: Soviet and German Pavilions

In the first wave of globalization, the right for cultural autonomy remained the privilege of nation-states and colonial powers, which also colonized the Giardini of Venice by building their pavilions. Art was homonymous with Euro-American art; products out of the colonies and protectorates were considered to be artisanry. The prescribed terminology on international fairs between national “arts” and colonial “crafts” kept being mandatory until mid-20th century.


German Pavilion, 2013

#German Pavilion, 2013

Nevertheless, in the long run, the process of globalization, to put it with Hegel, performed a ruse of reason. The world exhibition constituted the laboratory of a gradual undermining of the borders between self-proclaimed high culture and primitivity. The spectacle was in fact designed as a showcase for the achievements of the leading industrial powers, but, at the same time, the culture of the European nation-states was subject to a gradual creolization. The Westernization of the world simultaneously brings about an Orientalization of the West.[3]

The history of this process finds its laboratory in the history of the Biennale di Venezia.


The Landmarks of Biennale History

1. Cultural Cabinet Policy of Old Europe: 1907 – 1922

The Klimt exhibition at the 1910 Biennale

#The Klimt exhibition at the 1910 Biennale

During the first Biennale exhibitions, the old European Entente powers indulged in their cultural and colonial sovereignty, in a style between academism, Impressionism, and Art Nouveau, by ignoring and repelling the avant-gardes. During the 1910 exhibition that showed works by Klimt, Renoir, and a retrospective of Courbet, the secretary general Fradeletto ordered the removal of a painting by Pablo Picasso from the Spanish Pavilion. The turn-of-the-century novelties were appreciated by the Venetian curators with a considerable delay, when, for instance, in 1920 a group of artists between Post-Impressionism and Die Brücke were exhibited. A show of “Negro sculpture” in 1922 gave way to turmoil.


2. The Emergence of Totalitarian Systems, 1922 – 1942

Peasant Woman, by Vera Mukhina

Lenin in Smolsky, by Isaak Brodsky

Soviet Pavilion, 1934: interior with the portrait of Trotzky, by G. Annenkow

#Peasant Woman, by Vera Mukhina
#Lenin in Smolsky, by Isaak Brodsky
#Soviet Pavilion, 1934: interior with the portrait of Trotzky, by G. Annenkow

Russia entered the stage of the Biennale in 1914 still under the patronship of the Tsar, but after the First World War, the Bolsheviks hoisted the red flag with hammer and sickle above the national pavilion.


Interior of the Aeropittura exhibition, 1940 Biennale

#Interior of the Aeropittura exhibition, 1940 Biennale

The Biennale owes, cynically spoken, a first shy opening towards contemporaneity thanks to the mistress and first biographer of Il Duce, Margherita Sarfatti, the so-called “vanguard muse of Fascism.” Through her influence, the Venice Biennale has gained, since 1926, the function of an artistic figurehead of the regime.

By a royal decree, the control of the Biennale was passed from the city of Venice to the Italian state whose conductor, in the meantime, had ditched the semi-official education minister Sarfatti. This change was in line with the building up of an Iron Axis between Fascist Italy, National Socialist Germany, and Kōdō-ha militarist Japan. The Jewish origin of Margherita Sarfatti no longer matched the race ideology of these countries. Instead of fine arts, the mass media of cinema gained the favor of cultural policy. The first Esposizione internazionale d'arte cinematografica took place in 1932.


3. Cold War, Ideological Competition, “Peaceful Coexistence,” 1947 – 1964

Swiss Pavilion, by Bruno Giacometti, 1952

#Swiss Pavilion, by Bruno Giacometti, 1952

After a six-year break, the first Biennale after World War II took place in 1948. The postwar art system went through an era of rehabilitating the great masters of the European avant-gardes in retrospect. In 1952, Switzerland opened up a free-standing, functionalist exhibition pavilion by Bruno Giacometti, the brother of Alberto, in the spirit of Bauhaus.


Romanian Pavilion, 1954, Socialist Realism

#Romanian Pavilion, 1954, Socialist Realism

“The shadow of Yalta” (Piotr Piotrowski) separated the art field into an Eastern and a Western Hemisphere, in the realms of abstraction and of Socialist Realism.


4. American Triumph and Political Crisis in the West, 1964 – 1976

Robert Rauschenberg: Factum 1

#American Pavilion, 1930

#Robert Rauschenberg: Factum 1, 1957
#American Pavilion, 1930

Already in 1958, the American artist Marc Tobey had won the Gran Premio. But it was the award of the Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg in 1964 that provided evidence of a new era of American dominance coming up, by ending the dominance of the École de Paris, whose exponents had almost notoriously won, seven times in a row, the Gran Premio since the end of World War II.


Biennale 1968, Report by Stern

#Biennale 1968, Report by Stern

The student riots in 1968 led the Venice Biennale into a crisis. Since its foundation as a conventional trade fair, the organizers gave way to the leftist reproaches of “market slavery,” and ceased the selling activities in 1970. In the same year, the first Art Basel took place, founded by art traders and gallerists, among others the great collector Ernst Beyeler. It was the Basel response to the Kunstmarkt Köln, opened already in 1967, whose leftist tendency was criticized by the Swiss organizers. By the foundation of a specific art fair, the art system practiced an institutional differentiation between exhibiting and selling.

In 1974, in order to protest against the military coup of Augusto Pinochet, it was proposed that the Venice Biennale be dedicated to Chile, then it got canceled in its entirety. The conclusion is sobering: The so-called roaring Sixties left a blank space of iconoclasm in the Biennale’s history.


5. Dismantling of the Yalta Block System in the Spirit of Post Modernism, 1978 – 1997

Mimmo Paladino, Italian Pavilion, 1988

#Mimmo Paladino, Italian Pavilion, 1988

It would be another issue to discuss the Western leftist art policy, in general far away from contemporary tendencies, as the comrades contented themselves to recur on the debates of the 1930s by putting emphasis on Socialist Realism. A definite turn to advanced conceptual positions occurred by 1978 when Achille Bonito Oliva, the theorist of the Italian Transavanguardia, organized the exhibition Dalla natura all’arte, dall’arte alla natura. It was a decade of the ruling Arte Povera.

The scroll of the Berlin Wall seals the dismantlement of the Bloc borders in Eastern Europe by 1989. A new cultural geography emerged.


State of the Art: Global Peripheries

documenta, 1955, Jackson Pollock

#documenta, 1955, Jackson Pollock

A reputation for backwardness clings to the Venice Biennale, challenged since 1955 by Kassel’s documenta. Instead of a swarm of national contributors, a single curator decides about the works of art worthy of being included in the canon of contemporariness.


Haacke, German Pavilion

#Haacke, German Pavilion

The curatorial mainstream relinquished the old-fashioned concept of the Venice Biennale as an international art contest among nation states. The pavilions were disputed. The questioning of national representation reached a peak in the post-colonial decade of the Nineties. Under commissioner Klaus Bussmann in 1993, Hans Haacke smashed up the floor of the German Pavilion and, with a photograph of Hitler’s Venice visit at the entrance, recalled the construction date in 1938, on the eve of Second World War.[4]


Huang Yong Ping, French Pavilion

#Huang Yong Ping, French Pavilion

For their part, the French had already allowed the plaster to be knocked into stripes by Daniel Buren in 1986. In 1999, Jean-Pierre Bertrand extended the building’s right to hospitality so far that he invited Huang Yong Ping to administer a monumental acupuncture to the French pavilion: it was perforated with nine tree trunks on which mythical Chinese creatures were enthroned. The fact that the sculptor lived in Paris softened the culture shock. The self-portrayal of cultural grandeur by exhibiting the Other has, moreover, a solid tradition in the French Métropole, the scene of world fairs and colonial exhibitions.


White Cube with Frank Stella


#White Cube with Frank Stella 

The use of urban space and post-industrial locations in the context of the Venice Biennale was initiated by architects like Vittorio Gregotti. Since 1975, the former salt storage facility, the Saloni alle Zattere, has been used for exhibitions. In 1980, Paolo Portoghesi organized the first Biennale of Architecture in the Corderie of the Arsenale, the old shipyard of La Serenissima. Since 1999, the Arsenale has regularly been used as a gallery space, initiated by commissioner Harald Szeemann who created by dAPERtutto in 1999 und Plateau of Humankind in 2001, two Venice Biennali. The pace-setting director crossed the border from transatlantic postmodernism to global art. The Western art system was rivalled by artists from beyond the Euro-American era.


Wang Xingwei: Poor Old Hamilton, 1996

#Wang Xingwei: Poor Old Hamilton, 1996

At the 1999 show, Szeemann surprised the public with a large selection of Korean and Chinese artists, hitherto scarcely represented in exhibitions and certainly not yet in Western galleries. One of his favorite paintings was Wang Xingwei’s Poor Old Hamilton, because it deals with the work of one of the chief curator’s great heroes: Marcel Duchamp. Dressed up in a uniform shirt out of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a little boy has dared to damage the Large Glass and gets told off now by a female museum educator in a trouser suit typical for the emancipated Westernized businesswoman. On the wall hangs another programmatic icon by Duchamp: the ready-made L.H.O.O.Q., a print of Leonardo’s La Gioconda, distorted by a moustache. In the background, we recognize Richard Hamilton, the doyen of English Pop Art, playing a museum guardian, unable to prevent the iconoclastic act of the young Maoist campaigner.

The picture brings up the crucial question about the relation between universals in art and the local conditions of art-making. To what extent is the Western canon of modernism authoritative in the age of global art? Is the Duchamp effect indeed a prerogative to be observed by every contemporary artist in the world? Do the rules of Pop strategies belong to the universals in today’s art system? These are the questions that the Szeemann legacy had raised but not answered yet. It has been the basic theoretical and practical problem of the art system since it entered its global extension.

Against a fuzzy comprehension of Global Art, I assume the art system to be a historically unique cultural achievement, based on the ideas of European Enlightenment and the process of decolonization. I call them the four virtues or politics of art:

1. The humanist concept of the self-determined individual.

2. The civic estimation of work.

3. The economic practice of open markets.

4. The freedom of public opinion.

The possibility of art relies on these four socio-political conditions. Art is an essentially modern phenomenon. If only one of these four qualities is lacking, art is in danger or even non-existent. These achievements have developed over centuries from the philosophy of humanism via civic and republican social ethics to democratic achievements in Europe and liberation movements in the colonies. To borrow a term from Michel Foucault, these four policies constitute the historical a priori of art.


Conclusion: Diasporic Art in the Center

The impulse of globalization after the Second World War was supported by decolonization, but at the same time slowed down by the construction of the Bloc, installed by the Yalta Conference that divided the globe into two, later into three, zones of influence. Art as Western art survived under the protection of the Iron Curtain. The well-arranged world of meanwhile the “Former West” was “international” in the old-fashioned way. A less differentiated system shows less variety. Within the Former West, the artist’s provenance had little importance. Artistic positions didn’t mark cultural localization but strategies of production: Abstraction, New Realism, Concept Art worked as stylistic universals that neglected political borders.


Hung Tung-Lu, Taiwan, Biennale, 1999

#Hung Tung-Lu, Taiwan, Biennale, 1999

So, there is a direct relation between the end of stylistic universals. By the dissolution of the political bloc system, a completely different art geography emerged. Only now, the postcolonial order was aesthetically activated. Under global conditions, the local becomes the leading motive. That’s the dialectics of Globalization: it localizes cultural identity and globalizes the aesthetic principle of distinction.

By the dissolution of Western art, the habitual distinction between center and periphery becomes obsolete. The hierarchy of the poles is inverted: the peripheral as an aesthetic phenomenon constitutes the discourse. The local idiolect of an artistic position, the fact of a specific ethnic provenance is the message.

But attention: provinciality itself hasn’t paid off yet. The artist has to act peripherally on the platform of a center. Peripheral aesthetics needs the center as a contrast agent. Only here does he or she find efficient public and institutional attention. There might be powerful emerging economies in China, India and Brazil; nevertheless, despite of all the ethno-folkloristic touch they provide, the good old West is still managing the economy of attention and the market. The emerging countries instead are involved with contradictions in cultural policy. Hegemonic Western capitalism adorns itself tolerantly with a manifold of cultural identities. This sort of Machiavellianism lacks the political powers like China or Russia. They export their artists by political backslash: that’s the way the old Western centers are still flourishing: staging periphery in the diaspora. They don’t dictate their own styles anymore like the good old École de Paris. Amsterdam, New York, London, Barcelona, and Berlin offer a multicultural network of metropolitan Urbanity.

Let’s have a last look at Hung Tung-Lu, a Taiwanese artist, discovered by Harald Szeemann for the 1999 Biennale: A globalized, hybrid Manga figure in front of Holy Mary’s Coronation in Venetian Trecento-style alla bizantina: the artist’s homage to the hosting Serenissima. The iconography refers to the history of the native country of Hung Tung-Lu, stemming from Taiwan, the former Formosa island, baptized by Portuguese seafarers, colonized by the Dutch East India Company, driven away by Han Chinese settlers and actual colonizers. The Manga figure recalls Japan, a more recent and violent colonialist power that seized the island in 1894.

Hung Tung-Lu tells the history of a non-identitary cultural identity.

La Biennale di Venezia is a temporary center of the global art field. The exhibition space acts as a hub of peripheries in the diaspora of metropolises, called the art field. The aesthetics of contemporary art is migratory; its semantics evokes a specific provenance. So, any work of art exhibited in the international context of a Biennale, testifies to the paradox of logic stated by Hegel. In its singularity, it shows evidence of the formula regarding the identity of identity and non-identity. Identity is equal to non-identity, as it becomes identic with nothing else than itself through the gaze of any arbitrary, identifying beholder.

Beat Wyss is a Swiss art historian, professor ordinarius for art history and media theory at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, Germany, and member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.


[1] Roland Robertson, Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (London u. a. O.: Sage, 1992).

[2] Georg W. F. Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik II, Erster Teil (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1986), 349.

[3] The concept of “creolization” goes back to Ulf Hannerz. He aligns himself critically against the idea of the “global village,” which plays down the inequality between center and periphery that has an effect in real terms. cf. Hannerz, “Scenarios for Peripheral Cultures,” in Culture, Globalization and the World System, ed. Anthony D. King (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 107-128. The concept was discussed on the occasion of Platform 3 of Documenta11, see: Okwui Enwezor, et al., eds., Créolité and Creolization, (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2002).

[4] See Ursula Zeller, ed., Die deutschen Beiträge zur Biennale Venedig, 1895-2007 (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Cologne: DuMont, 2007).

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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

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Delia Popa

by Diana Dulgheru

by Daniel Knorr

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

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

by Raqs Media Collective

by Robert E. D’Souza

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

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

by Henk Slager

by Vasyl Cherepanyn

by Ksenija Orelj

by Catherine David

by Okwui Enwezor

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

by Federica Martini

by Vittoria Martini