Deep Dark Documenta
by Ruth Sacks
It is a dense, dark show. The overall curatorial attention to detail, conscientious attempts to ensure that all quotas were fulfilled and heavy-handed emphasis on the aesthetics of Modernism make Documenta 12 a serious and contemplative experience. The viewer has to wade through layers of visual and thematic interconnections and, in many cases, seemingly obscure artworks in order to walk away with a worthwhile response. This is not the exhibition to visit if you are after a bit of instant art entertainment or a glitzy slice of Grand Tour glamour. It requires lots of careful looking and thinking. And a bit of good old-fashioned generosity.
Documenta bills itself as the measure by which contemporary artmaking can be assessed. Since its inception by Arnold Bode in 1955 in a traumatised post-World-War-II Germany, the art world has descended every 5 years onto the otherwise inauspicious industrial town of Kassel. This 5-year rotation system allows for a thorough investigation into the content of the show. In the biennialized world of contemporary art in 2007, Documenta stands out from other mega-expositions for its longevity and also the fact that there has been a steady rise in visitors since its inaugural event. It is an institution in itself.
Traditionally, Documenta makes no attempt to cater to the market. An example of this can be seen in the fact that the majority of participating artists' names are only released at the press opening. Director Roger M. Buergel and curator Ruth Noack perpetuated this attitude by opening the '100 day museum' doors for press and professionals right in the middle of this year's Art 38 Basel 2007. As the Basel art fair followed hot on the heels of the 52nd Venice Biennial, there has been much speculation as to the effect this might have on the legendary Documenta numbers. Their Vernissage certainly had fewer parties than its more flashy, über exhibition competitors. Kassel itself provides a sombre backdrop, and traces of heavy bombing during the war are still visible in its architectural inconsistencies.
In the spirit of the previous two Documentas, under the direction of Catherine David in 1997 and Okwui Enwezor in 2002, the 2007 instalment maintains a strong responsibility towards giving a variety of political viewpoints a voice. This is tentatively suggested in the broad questions supplied by the curators as the central guiding points for the show, namely: 'Is Modernism our Antiquity?', 'What is bare life?' and 'What is to be done?'. The last leitmotif refers specifically to education. This is a bit ironic in light of the fact that an art education is necessary to navigate the exhibition spaces. Its embedded references and layered use of visual language are by no means easily accessible to the layman (as claimed by Buergel at the press opening). The fact that the curators raise questions right from the start sets the tone for the overall quality of this exposition. No attempt is made to categorize or provide any definitive labels for the work they have amassed.
Buergel and Noack's press release explains that the issue of the 'migration of form' became an overriding feature of the exhibition. This was clear in the parts of the exhibition that were hosted in the Neue Galerie and the Museum Fridericianum where there was a clear formal and visual linking. This was most evident in Hito Steyerl's video primarily concerning bondage in Japan on the top floor of the Fridericianum. The lower floor, which was visible at all times, presented a very different use of ropes. 70s choreographer Trisha Brown had performers in the gallery space for Floor of the Forest. The human figures rhythmically interacted with a structure of ropes and cloths for the duration of the show. The latter example, as well as pieces like Gerard Richter's Betty, a psychologically charged painting of his daughter from 1977, provide subtle surprises through their quietly powerful presence. The idea appears to be that in order to question the contemporary one must look at past influences. They are not obvious choices but this by no means detracts from the way in which they enrich the show.
Certain artists' work linked the show by being repeated in each space, and some of these choices were rather curious. Juan Davila's crude caricatures of homosexual sex (amongst other topics) neither shocked nor entertained and brought nothing to the conversation about aesthetic discourse. The continued presence of various pieces by John McCracken, however, does allow one to relax a bit. His playful manipulation of minimalist language resurface throughout the show. A particularly pleasing installation can be found in the room next to Tanaka Atsuko's Electric Dress (1954). Another constant throughout the exhibition was Ai Weiwei's chairs from the Quing Dynasty. Each of these represents the 1 001 non-English speaking visitors from China who had the (for some, rather dubious) pleasure of being selected to stay in Kassel during the exhibition. These cluster formations dotted around the exhibition spaces are both practical and quirky.
Curatorial care seems to fall apart when one gets to the middle of the Aue-Pavillion, a structure designed by Klaus Frahm for the Karlsaue meadow. As it was also referred to as the 'Crystal Palace', it would appear to make reference to the history of the first international Great Exhibition of 1851. But the effect was ruined by the inclusion of curtains (presumably an addition necessitated to protect the work). The Aue-Pavillion includes a section which was dubbed 'The African Pavillion' by those who still had Venice fresh in their minds. Artists from Africa like Guy Tillim, Romauld Hazoumé and Bill Kouélany are displayed in close proximity as is work about Africa by Dierck Schmidt, whose paintings deal with the Berlin Africa Conference of 1884/5. The huddle of combined viewpoints did little in the work's favour. Images like Tillim's sensitive photographs of a troubled Congo during the build-up to its first democratic elections (Congo Democratic, 2006) seem exoticised when they flank Hazoumé's tongue-in-cheek take on the stereotypes of African aesthetics.
Moving away from the museums to an installation at the nearby local Kulturzentrum Schlachthof, the viewer can find an intelligent and chilling video by Artur Zmijewski. Them (2007) provides documentary footage of different political groups in a workshop, dealing with the visual symbols of Poland. The tensions and underlying threat of violence make for a gripping reality show, but the presentation of the work itself seems a little too obvious. The piece is powerful enough without the rather literal tactic of being confined to a basement filled with graffiti. Out of the city and up the hill, the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe also fails to convince in terms of curatorial decision-making.
The exposition was not without a dash of glamour. Fifty visitors were selected at random to dine at Ferran Adrià's El Bulli near Roses in Spain. This lent a bit of fairytale charm to an exhibition firmly planted in the land of the Grimm Brothers. Like one of their fairy tales, there was clearly a moral here. Martha Rosler and Mary Kelley represent for the days of early Feminism. The Palestinian question was present with colour photos of the homes of dispossessed Palestinians in the Naqueb by Ahlam Shibli ( Arab-al-sbaih, 2007). Aids in Africa gets a good going over with the inclusion of Churchill Madikida ('Status', 2005). Immigrant male prostitutes are filmed by Dias & Riedweg in their video Voracidad Màxima (2003). For further good measure, Annie Pootoogook's work takes on Inuit identity issues (for example, Watching Erotic Film, 2003/4). There was even a bit of political masturbation from Yugoslavia in 1979 - Triangle provides photographic documentation of the artist Sanja Ivekovic disrupting a visit from President Tito by pretending to masturbate on her balcony. And the list goes on.
All quotas having been seen to, Documenta 12 was not entirely humourless. Nedko Solokov quietly stole a little of the limelight on the ground floor of the Neue Galerie with a series of small drawings about fear. This included such gems as: A chubby jellyfish has a fear of deep waters. Here she is: almost out on the beach trying not to touch swimming ladies with big breasts. These and other eccentrically witty stories provide a bit of reprieve from an exhibition that appears to be deeply terrified of creating any kind of politically incorrect gaff. More wry humour is to be found in the work of Mladen Stilinovic. His hut filled with now defunct symbols (both political and from the art world) is entitled The Exploitation of the Dead (1984 � 90). It manages to anchor itself within the vast floating uncertainty of the Aue-Pavillion with a visual critique that has its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek.
If one takes the time to look, there is plenty of poetry to be found in Documenta 12. This can be seen in the sensitive collage of razor blades in Béla Kolorová's Enclosed World (1969) as well as in the more well known contemporary Black Chords plays Lyrics (2007) of Saadane Afif's installation of electric guitars.
Overall, underneath the cloud of gravitas concerning politics at large, the politics of form and the role of art in general, there is some thoughtful fun and a hint of a few good jokes in Kassel this year. Where the exhibition falls flat is in its astounding lack of irony in certain places. This is particularly apparent in the inclusion of pieces such as Andreas Siekmann's centrepiece in the Fridrichsplatz lawn. The latter's childishly literal depiction of human rights issues on a rotating carousel seemed misplaced. Especially in light of the fact that Walter De la Maria's Vertical Earth Kilometer (1977) lies a few metres away, as do 2 of Beuys' oak trees (7000 Oaks, 1982), which retain some of the old art world allure from Documentas past.
Ultimately, the message was: Forget art's relationship to the market and lay off superstar spotting for a few days. Walk slowly, get a good night's sleep and do some serious thinking. Which is not necessarily such a bad thing to do every five years.
Opened: June 16
Closes: September 23