Jens Hoffmann. Show Time. The 50 Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art.

Review by Olga Speakes.

I have been really looking forward to reading Show Time, The 50 Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art, by Jens Hoffmann published by D.A.P and available from the Hiddingh Hall Library. Something about the title made me burst with curiosity and an almost palpable anxiety not unlike FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out- for those less familiar with urban slang). Finally, after some waiting and a light tussle in the library for the temporary ownership of this desirable item, the curator’s version of “100 Places to See Before You Die” was in my hands. The obvious thing to do, if I am really honest, is to quickly look through the Contents page to check out your personal score- how many of those exhibitions listed in the book I have actually seen. I have to admit my score was a pathetic 3. It seems that throughout my years living in Russia, the UK and South Africa I was never in the right place at the right time to witness the history of exhibition making being shaped. Oh well, at least I can read a book about them to make up for this lack of first hand experience.

It turns out exhibitions are not so easy to capture. A lot of the time no one thinks of capturing them in the first place. Even when catalogues are published they tend to capture artists’ practices, research that is undertaken into artists’ careers and their creations, not the exhibitions themselves. Until relatively recently exhibitions were regarded as mere instruments in bridging the gap between artists, their production and the public; the undergarments of art history meant to support its elaborate dress on show; the headache for museum curators who had to account for their research and public funds allocations to the tax paying audience. Hoffmann’s book sets out to point out, through highlighting specific shows, how the role of exhibitions changed. He focuses on the conscious innovation within the exhibition practice itself. This gesture is both a sign of and a claim to exhibition making as a mature discipline in its own right.

The book is organized in chapters, each dealing with particular, still fairly broad areas of innovation or contribution to the history of exhibition making practice and containing information on five to eight shows. The information is, on the one hand, encyclopedic — precise and exhaustive lists of participating artists, curators, dates, locations and publications – and on the other hand, extremely brief and high level – a few short paragraphs summing up the title, premise, specific area of innovation, and, in some cases, critical and audience reception. I hoped to find out more about these highly acclaimed and influential shows that are all described to be ground breaking in some way. Instead I was provided with the basic data and fairly brief factual rather than analytical notes. This was somewhat disappointing but, I did find the information provided valuable and the thematic division into sections helpful as basis for further research. <i>Show Time</i> reminded me of guidebook that provided helpful hints and pointers but, as with any guidebook, one really needs to go on one’s own journey in order to see what the places described in the guide are really all about.

Illustrations were the most puzzling aspect of the book for me. In the introduction Hoffmann mentions that many of the images are rare and are being published for the first time, which does provide a wonderful opportunity to appreciate some previously inaccessible aspects of the visual experiences that these shows offered their audiences. Although I have had first hand experience of only three shows in the book, there were a number of others that were familiar to me through catalogues, references in other publications and my own research. I had to wonder how representative the few chosen images were of <i>Magiciens de la Terre</i>, <i>The 2nd Johannesburg Biennale</i> or <i>Mike Kelly: The Uncanny</i>. The first two I have researched and the last one I was lucky enough to see. It highlighted the difficulty in documenting exhibitions as opposed to specific artists’ works: the sheer expanse of some of these events, often multi-site and time bound, with complex relationships between exhibits and their environment, does not lend itself easily to snapshots. Reflections, analyses and critical writing could make up for some of these challenges but they were not part of Hoffmann’s book.

What truly delighted me was the inclusion of exhibition ephemera- fliers, opening night invitations, catalogue cover designs, posters and newspaper clippings. These objects often do not survive or enter the post-exhibition history and public archive. Yet they are integral to the choreography of the experience of each show. Hoffmann’s background in theatre and performance making and curating came through for me in his approach to this exhibition “detritus”. Not unlike performance art, these objects, alongside photo and video footage, are the only documentation we have of the event itself.

Despite the inclusion of many shows that took place outside the usual Western centres of the art world, the book does not ultimately manage to shed the Euro- or Western- centric approach to the construction of art exhibition-making history. Hoffmann recognizes this post factum in the last chapter of the book, which includes interviews with a number of influential curators. Despite his admission, it was jarring to read chapter titles like “New Lands” and “Others Everywhere” referring to exhibitions that engage with the Global South. Although, perhaps, meant to be lightly humorous, they signal a lack of awareness of the potential pitfalls when definitions and standards of achievement are claimed to be universal while being defined from very specific and historically narrow subjectivities.

Exhibitions are not meant to last forever; they are limited in time, respond to their specific contexts and are centered increasingly on experience. Their archiving is just as challenging and controversial as that of performance art. They cannot be revisited even when they are re-staged. Yet tearing through the fog of forgetting and lack of first had experience, the snippets of documentation and data allow those of us interested in contemporary art curation a glimpse into the stories that are racing fast into the past. <i>Show Time</i> offers a guiding and helping hand, however imperfect, to embark on our own research journeys and investigations, despite distances, borders and time that seems rarely on our side.

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