The Paris exhibition that changed global contemporary art

The entrance of Les Magiciens de la Terre at La Villette.
The entrance of Les Magiciens de la Terre at La Villette.
Image: Photo courtesy of Centre Pompidou, Bibliothèque Kandinsky
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By the time Les Magiciens de La Terre, the biggest show of the year, opened on May 18 in Paris, 1989 had already been quite a year—which is befitting, considering it was the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. 

In March, Tim Berners-Lee, a CERN software engineer, published a paper titled “Information Management: A Proposal,” in which he laid out what would soon be known as the World Wide Web. China/Avant-Garde, China’s first contemporary art show, had closed within two hours of opening in Beijing in February 1989, after performance artist Xiao Lu shot a gun at her own painting. Her performance was a sign of what was to come: Right as the exhibit opened in Paris, an estimated one million students and allies were protesting in Tiananmen Square, following demonstrations and hunger strikes that had been going on since mid April. Within a few days, the government would use military force to clear the square, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands. The year was not even close to done: before December, the Berlin Wall would come down and Poland would leave the Soviet Union, the Dalai Lama would be holding a Nobel Peace Prize, and millions of people around the world would be reading Steven Hawking’s newly released A Brief History of Time

“This will be the first truly international exhibition of worldwide contemporary art,” curator Jean-Hubert Martin promised of Les Magiciens de la Terre. Indeed, 30 years after it opened, it is nearly impossible to have a conversation about the history of global contemporary art that does not—with respect, or skepticism, or both—mention the exhibition.  

In the introduction to the show’s catalog (whose copious use of the expression “tiers monde,” third world, reads quite jarring today), Martin wrote that “the commonly admitted idea that there isn’t creation in plastic arts but in the Western world or strongly Westernized has to be ascribed to the arrogance of our culture.” 

“The time has come to look again at the categories, as well as the geographical and cultural boundaries, which have divided and prejudiced opinions on the relations between different cultures in the world,” he concluded, in presenting to the world an exhibition that was to the global contemporary art world what the 1874 show of Impressionist painting in Jean-Hubert Martin’s atelier in Paris was to (Western) modern art. 

In his introduction, Martin wasn’t just addressing general thoughts and feelings about non-Western contemporary art: he was quite specifically throwing shade to a recent, spectacularly failing attempt at global art showing undertaken by MoMA. In 1984, the New York institution had put up a show, curated by William S. Rubin, then the museum’s director of painting and sculpture. The show, titled “Primitivism in 20th Century Art” juxtaposed art by European modern masters with non-Western objects. The works were presented out of context, mainly serving inspiration and influence on Western genius. The show didn’t analyze whether and how the European artists had crossed the thin line between appropriation and inspiration, rather clearly putting their art at a higher level than the one that had inspired it. 

Many critics loved the exhibition. (The New York Times, for instance, described it as “an immensely important show”), but others found it problematic. In Artforum, Thomas McEvilley wrote a heated takedown of the show, titled “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief,” in which he argued that “[t]he museum pretends to confront the Third World while really co-opting it and using it to consolidate Western notions of quality and feelings of superiority.” McEvilley—who got into a heated argument with Rubin in the pages of Artforum—accused the show of being souveniristic in its approach, a criticism that seems channeled by Martin when he writes in the Les Magiciens de la Terre’s catalogue that the show is not “a simple collection of objects.”

Were there doubts about Martin’s desire to oppose his show to the MoMA’s, McEvilley authored one of the essays of the catalogue in which he speaks of the art’s role in defining, and evolving, the “collective I.” 

Set up between two venues, the second floor of the Centre Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette, the exhibition displayed the work of 100 contemporary artists—50 Western, and 50 from the rest of the world. The Western artists featured included some of the defining artists of the end of the century: Barbara Kruger, John Baldessarri, Alighiero e Boetti, Louise Bourgeois, Richard Long, Jeff Wall, Marina Abramovich (and Ulay, from whom she had separated a year prior in a stunning performance). The global artists included many names (both emerging and established) who would define contemporary global art for decades to come, such as Bodys Isek Kingelez, Cildo Mireles, Huang Yong Ping, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Chéri Samba, and Lobsang.

Among the most-represented countries were Haiti, Nigeria, and India. Three Chinese artists made the selection: Dexing Gu, Yang Jiecang, and Huang. 

The show was massive—in display and intellectual scope—and was quickly seen within the art world as a landmark exhibition. It wasn’t without controversy: On the one hand, it shifted the paradigm of contemporary art (at least partially) away from Western hegemony; on the other, it united all of non-Western art under the same umbrella, essentially continuing to read all art under a Western viewpoint, even while giving global artists a platform far more respectful than the Primitivism show. The exhibition also featured some religious objects and artifacts from other cultures that were displayed as works of art, which was seen as a form of souvenirism. For some of the critics, Martin’s view was only a different flavor of the same colonial approach thad had been criticized in Rubin’s.  

Les Magiciens de la Terre questioned the place of the west in the global art establishment, but didn’t really provide a reframing. Nor has much of the global art world in the years that followed, despite the fact that the exhibition effectively opened the door to much greater inclusion of global art in prestigious biennales and fairs around the world. Too much of the ways in which art is understood and studied is based on Western understanding and categories. 

This is one of the most interesting opportunities in the rise of China: That with some more time to simmer, a market and art scene as big as the Chinese one may birth not just the biggest new global art player to emerge in, well, ever—but also a way of thinking and evaluating art that is as unique and defiant of Western rules as the continent its represents.