My interest in the subject of biennials and their participants’ national affiliations dates back to the Taipei Biennial of 2004, the fourth such event in our city, and my reaction to a curatorial provocation there. I had been kept waiting for more than three hours for what turned out to be a crisp 30-minute interview with one of the two curators of the show, the Brussels-based Barbara Vanderlinden. I kicked off by asking her to explain the curatorial policy regarding the number—five—of native Taiwanese artists chosen to appear. To this she replied by curtly throwing a question of her own back at me: ‘Do you know how many Taiwanese artists were represented in the Shanghai Biennial?’ Meaning, of course, that five local representatives seemed to her quite adequate, thank you very much, and people would certainly be wrong to expect more.footnote1 Her reply took my breath away. I had no come-back at the time—not only because I did not know the answer, but also because I felt I was speaking to a foreign expert who knew her own business better than I did. In those days I enjoyed neither the funds nor the working conditions to enable me to travel long distances to biennials, as global art-world insiders apparently can. More recently, however, I have been able to fly to biennials as remote as Havana and São Paulo, as well as to most of the Asian and European events, and I find that the question of artistic representation at such international gatherings is still, after all this time, haunting me.

It may seem odd, even retrograde, to think of contemporary art practice in terms of artists’ nationality and place of birth, at a time when there is so much talk of globalization, hybridization, transnationalization, world markets and so on. Nevertheless, the question of national affiliation is critical to what the biennial (or triennial, or quinquennial) has come to stand for since the 1980s. An increasingly popular institutional structure for the staging of large-scale exhibitions—some observers refer to ‘the biennialization of the contemporary art world’—the biennial is generally understood as an international festival of contemporary art occurring once every two years.footnote2 Here the operative words are, of course, ‘international’ and ‘festival’. On the first of these depends the second: without the national diversity of its participants, there could be no real celebration or festivity. ‘International’ in this scheme of things means that artists, almost by definition, come from all four corners of the world; even events with a specific geographical focus, such as the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, cast their net far beyond their immediate backyard; they rightly see this as imperative not only for their legitimacy but also for their success.

The fact that artists from remote areas now appear centre-stage in Western events such as the Kassel Documenta or the Venice Biennale is often taken as further proof that the distinction between centre and periphery has collapsed. In his studies of global cultural flows, for example, Arjun Appadurai uses the terms ‘artscape’ and ‘ethnoscape’ to characterize the space through which uninterrupted flows of people—including artists, curators, critics—and high art criss-cross the globe, as city after city vies to establish its own biennial in order to claim membership of the international art scene.footnote3 Like other globalization theorists, Appadurai emphasizes the growing planetary interdependence and intensification of social relations. Nowhere, however, are we told in what directions such ‘flows’ flow, nor what new configurations of power relations these seemingly de-territorializing movements imply.footnote4

Hence this attempt to understand the power implications of biennials by looking more closely, and empirically, at the artists themselves—a luxury in which most theorists have too little time to indulge. I am, of course, well aware of the risks that a nation-based approach may involve, including the possibility of inviting criticism from the pro-globalization lobby in particular. I do not wish to assert that the international art scene has not undergone significant changes over the last two decades. But what ultimately is the nature of these changes, and for what reasons have they taken place? Is the much-discussed collapse of the centre and dissolution of the periphery as irrefutable as some people would have us believe? Has the global art world really become so porous, open to all artists irrespective of their origins—even if they come from what Paris or New York would consider the most marginal places?

To attempt to answer these questions on the basis of national statistics may be unexpected. But the actual numbers of artists, and the range of countries they come from, prove to be centrally embedded in the psychology of biennial organizers and feature prominently in their marketing strategies. The 2006 Singapore Biennial boasted of ‘95 artists from over 38 countries’, while at the Liverpool Biennial in 1999, ubiquitous banners proclaimed: ‘350 artists, 24 countries, 60 sites, 1 city’. In what follows, I will take a closer look at the quantitative data underpinning such ‘flat-world’ claims, by establishing not only where the artists come from, but also, in the case of those who move or emigrate, which places they choose to emigrate to—in other words, the direction of the cultural flows they personify. My purpose in examining these data was, firstly, to map out the shifts that have taken place in the focus of large-scale international exhibitions, which have gone from a marked Eurocentrism to encompass the world beyond the nato-pact countries; and secondly, to ask whether these events have become another powerful Western filter, governing the access of artists from under-resourced parts of the world to the global mainstream.

In order to provide a long-term view of these developments, I will focus here on the Kassel Documenta exhibitions, nine in all, between 1968 and 2007; examining firstly, where the artists were born; secondly, where they are currently living; and thirdly, the relation between the two.footnote5 I use typical regional categories—North America, Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceania. Europe, however, I have divided in two. For despite eu enlargement, there are still two Europes in contemporary art practice: one comprises Germany, Italy, Britain, France, Switzerland, Austria, and to a lesser degree Holland, Belgium and Spain, which supply the majority of European art figures—‘Europe A’. The remaining countries, whose artists appear only sporadically at international events, form what I call ‘Europe B’.

What conclusions, then, can we tentatively draw from this mass of statistics, which seems to belong more to sociology than to art history? The first and most obvious is that until recently, the vast majority of artists exhibited at Documenta were born in North America and Europe—well over 90 per cent in fact, reaching a record 96 per cent in 1972 (see Figure 1). Although the 1989 ‘Magiciens de la terre’ exhibition at the Pompidou Centre is generally considered the first truly international exhibition and a trend-setter for the next decade, North Americans and Europeans were still predominant at the 1992 and 1997 Documentas. The real change came with Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002, when the proportion of Western artists fell to a more respectable 60 per cent. It remained fixed at this lower level in 2007.