Ai Weiwei, fairytale
Ai WeiweiFairytale, documenta 12, 2007.
Photo: Julia Zimmermann & documenta GmbH, courtesy of Galerie Urs Meile, Pékin & Lucerne, Fondation Leister & Fondation Erlenmyer, Switzerland

The Grand Tour, between Biennials and the Ancien Regime

Itay Sapir
In 2007, an alluring website captured the attention of art enthusiasts the world over with the announcement “Welcome to the Grand Tour of the 21st Century,” scheduled for the following summer. The Grand Tour 2007 website offered itineraries for a European art fair tour, including the 52nd Venice Biennale, Kassel’s documenta 12, the 7th edition of the decennial Skulptur Projekte de Münster, and Art Basel. The fact that these major exhibitions overlapped was a rare occurrence: given the timing with which each event recurs, this kind of tour is usually only possible every ten years (and since the Venice Biennale was ­postponed during the pandemic, is no longer possible at all). The idea of successive visits to these events was nothing new, but the title of the tour was intriguing. Beyond the literal sense, the historical reference was evocative, if not a little provocative.

The Grand Tour, after all, is a precise historical concept rooted in eighteenth-century Europe, in what is still referred to (although with increasing prudence) as the Enlightenment. It was “an initiatory journey that [permitted] young Anglo-Saxon gentlemen … to enhance their knowledge of social and political practices of the diverse nations of the Continent, while immersing themselves in classical culture in Italy.”1 1 - Pierre Chessex, “Grand Tour,” in Dictionnaire européen des Lumières, ed. Michel Delon (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1997), 599 (our translation). Where to start with deconstructing this description? Each phrase is a time bomb in today’s climate of historiographical revisionism; already in 2007 (and even more in 2017, when it was revisited in the arts press), the concept was not completely innocent.

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This article also appears in the issue 111 - Tourism

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