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Photo courtesy of Centre Pompidou, Bibliothèque Kandinsky
The entrance of Les Magiciens de la Terre at La Villette.

The Paris exhibition that changed global contemporary art

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.  

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