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The Exhibitions That Defined the 2000s

Is it too soon to write the history of the new millennium’s first decade? The period feels close at hand. Its eponymous generational cohort is ascendant. The computer systems many feared would malfunction at the stroke of midnight in 2000 have only entangled us further. The wars that began in the decade continue. The effects of the 2008 economic collapse still linger. And yet the aughts are just distant enough to allow us to gain some critical insight, to assess the gap between what captured attention then and what matters now.

In the pages that follow, A.i.A. editors and contributors take stock of fifteen exhibitions that helped define the era. This is not a comprehensive list of the most important shows, but a survey of those projects that embody strains of thought and modes of feeling that are decidedly ’00. This not a ranking, but an overview of the exhibitions that laid the groundwork for the art world that we experience today. Finally, this is not a chronology but a selective look at major themes.

The early 2000s can appear larger-than-life. The alignment of major biennials and recurring exhibitions on the Continent in 2007 was referred to as the “Grand Tour,” suggesting a twenty-first-century version of an aristocratic coming-of-age ritual. In retrospect, however, even these mammoth festivals were harbingers of subtle shifts. Curators and artists sought out once marginal practices—outsiders of all kinds came into the fold—to redefine what the center could be. The decade fostered a revisionist understanding of the modernist legacy, driven by feminist artists and curators from around the world.

The early 2000s can at the same time look small and parochial. Escapism was rampant: psychedelia, microutopias, and hipsterism. But the art world also saw a global expansion. This was the decade in which Chinese contemporary artists and institutions asserted themselves and artists navigating postcolonial societies came to the foreground. It is crucial to review the history of the aughts now because the most important legacy from that time may be its debates about history itself: who gets to write it, whose voices are heard, and what purposes can it serve.