Bodies of work

Three big exhibitions in Europe’s summer of art will use man as their medium


There are museums of contemporary art across Africa, Asia and the Middle East; in 2017 there will even be an Antarctic Biennale. But three major exhibitions will draw attention back to Europe: the Venice Biennale, Documenta in Greece and Germany, and Skulptur Projekte Münster. Together, these three make 2017 a once-in-a-decade artistic blockbuster.

The Venice Biennale, founded in 1895, is the oldest and largest. When it opens in May, it will showcase as many as 150 artists in two massive venues. Around 90 countries will present shows in national pavilions and up to 50 other exhibitions will spring up around the city. Documenta takes place every five years. In 2017, in a gesture of solidarity with debt-ridden Greece, it will first open in Athens in April, then at its usual home, Kassel, in June. Founded in 1955, it is now the most admired curatorial event in the world. The last outing, in 2012, featured work by over 200 artists, as well as conferences, publications and off-site events. In June, Skulptur Projekte Münster—the fifth edition of an overview of monumental works held once every ten years—will flood the medieval German city with people eager to witness cutting-edge installations.

Together, the three events cost as much as €100m ($110m). More than 2m people are expected to attend, and collectors, curators and museum directors are already planning their trips from one exhibition to the next. Annual commercial events like Art Basel in Hong Kong and Switzerland and media-saturated auctions in New York may suddenly seem less important.

The last time the big three coincided, in 2007, Ai Weiwei brought 1,001 people from China to Kassel as a work of art. Most had never been able to travel abroad. He gave each a suitcase, some clothes, a place to stay and a modest stipend. They were free to wander the city and interact with locals or not as they chose. “Fairytale”, which cost €3.1m, was one of the most expensive works shown at Documenta. Ephemeral and performance-based, it touched on global inequalities and was made by an artist from a country that was only just entering the mainstream of art. It made Mr Ai a global name.

It is already clear that performance, the body and participation will again feature strongly in the European summer of art in 2017. “In a digital age, where the body is reduced to data and replicated in bits, the reality of the physical body cannot be ignored,” says Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of Documenta. In Münster a Turkish artist, Ayse Erkmen, will create an “invisible” footbridge, sunk a few inches below the surface of the city harbour. Shoeless visitors will appear to be walking on water; without people, the work disappears.

Christine Macel, director of the 57th Venice Biennale, says performance will permeate “Viva Arte Viva”, the title of her central show. Twelve themed sections, moving from “the artist’s inner world to the infinite or eternal”, will take viewers on a “poetic” journey. Every Saturday, the public will be encouraged to share lunch with artists and discuss art together.

Documenta will present a participatory critique of political repression. Marta Minujín, from Argentina, will build a huge replica of the Acropolis out of 100,000 banned publications in a Kassel square. The public are invited to donate volumes and take part in an as-yet-undefined activity at the end of the work.

This kind of art will find a growing audience among millennials, who tend to care more about amassing experiences than accumulating stuff. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss-born artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, has been tracking the activities of 7,000 young artists born since 1989, the first generation who grew up with the internet and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He says that in a world organised around virtual connectivity, “there is much more interest in the live experience, in the real body, and a fear that the online world is trapping us in a ‘filter bubble’ of our own, algorithm-controlled predilections.”

Olafur Eliasson, a Danish-Icelandic artist, encouraged people to turn his “Weather Project” at Tate Modern in 2003 into a hangout space. In 2010 the Museum of Modern Art in New York could barely cope with the numbers of people who queued for hours to watch Marina Abramovic as she sat impassively at a table (pictured above). In 2017 it will be continental Europe’s turn to get a—perhaps sorely needed—dose of performance, participation and empathy.

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