Biennials in flux: Rethinking the value of Documenta and Skulptur Projekte

Since the 1990s, biennials have become a mainstay in the world of contemporary art. However, little in-depth research has been carried out on the biennialization process, not only because “the biennial” in itself is a relatively new phenomenon, but also due to the fact that a certain amount of complexity now surrounds the biennial’s primary custodian: the curator. Despite the lack of a clear frame of reference, there is growing concern towards the biennial’s legitimacy and its ability to instigate an autonomous form of critical discourse under new socio-economic conditions. Within this context, the question has been raised as to whether biennials are pet objects of capitalism, or if they are in fact capable of giving rise to alternative perspectives.

In response thereto, this dissertation sought to explore the biennialization process, and to examine the current characteristics of curatorial practice within biennial culture. To this effect, a case study approach was adopted and a comparative analysis of two of the oldest and most renowned biennials – Documenta and Skulptur Projekte – was conducted. Broadly translated, the findings indicated that Documenta reflects the trends towards biennialization, whereas Skulptur Projekte has specificities that make it an independent discourse in the more general circuit of biennials. The main conclusion is that temporality, curatorial consistency, and a flexible organizational framework can enable a biennial to set itself apart from biennialization. Looking forward, it is suggested that further research should focus on individual biennials and their historical development in order to establish the key proponents to autonomy of vision.

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Correction: An error was made in the image citation of Claes Oldenburg's Giant Pool Balls (1977). For accuracy's sake, it should say "Stadt Münster, photo: LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münster/Rudolf Wakonigg".