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Rethinking the Format

Biennials, Triennials and the Like

Joseph Beuys installing his 7000 Oaks (1982-ongoing) at Documenta 7, Kassel, Germany, 1982. Photo credit: Günter Beer. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York. Art © Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

BY Allan Schwartzman
co-founder of AAP & chairman of Sotheby's Global Fine Arts

Published
In Allan's Intro

Have biennials, triennials and the like outlived their usefulness? In the face of their hugely increased cost, frequency and proliferation—and the rapid-fire global access that has linked those of us paying attention to virtually every potentially compelling artist on every mountaintop anywhere in the world with a bar of cell service—might all that money be better spent mixing up the formats and experimenting with new paradigms?

It could be argued that these international events have become more about the social circuit and marketing machinery of our industry than provocative and unique touchstones about where art is today (with “today” being more of a weekly occurrence than the singular, potentially magical moments of insight that they were when you had to wait years for them to come around again).

I have been asking myself these questions for some time now. My answer tends to be yes (yes!). Let’s rethink the format. It is time to stage a show dedicated to the work of 12 artists rather than 120; or to shift some events to entirely different environments where they are as attuned to their times and locales as we expect their curating to be; or to give the multi-million-euro budget to just one single artist, if a visionary curator is certain that this one artist’s voice can change the world, or at least the way we see it.

And yet, I remember Documenta 7 (1982, directed by Rudi Fuchs), which forever changed how I and many of my fellow American art enthusiasts saw the world of contemporary art. Or Documenta 11 (2002, curated by Okwui Enwezor), which recharted the established cultural map to cover much more of the world. The fourth Berlin Biennale, curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick in 2006 transported the visitor on a profound journey through life, history, birth and death—all within a five-block street in the former East Berlin.

When I recall the countless other -ennials, pavilions and unforgettable works of art that were created just for them (I don’t think I have attended a single Venice Biennale and not encountered one work—if not dozens—that profoundly changed my understanding of the vitality of art as it develops), I realize that I am not ready to give up on the premise. Yet, like so many of us, I am itchy for experimenting with ways to get us off the track of being on the track (which is the same track far too often).

In this issue, we take on the question of what it might mean to rethink the perennial -ennials. We hope you enjoy.

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