A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, June 15, 2007 under the heading "New Art from a Byegone Age"
Abdoulaye Konaté Gris-Gris pour Israël et la Palestine 2005
Kassel, a major center of the armaments industry during the Third Reich, was all but obliterated in World War II. It was rebuilt in a brutalist hurry, making it a somewhat charmless city. Some of its historic buildings were reconstructed, however, such as the 18th-century Fridericianum Museum, the Orangerie in the city’s main park, and the Neue Galerie, all venues of Documenta 12. Works are also on view at the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe where Thai artist Sakarin Krue-on (born 1965) has planted paddy fields on a terraced slope.
Documenta, held every five years, was itself a remarkable feature of Germany’s reconstruction. Founded in 1955 by a teacher named Arnold Bode — initially under the auspices of a federal horticultural exhibition — it was meant to reconnect Germany with international modernism and break with a dependence on national tradition. Something of the missionary zeal of its founder carried through in subsequent installments under different directors, gaining the event broad respect but also a reputation for earnestness.
Documenta 12, falling in the same art-filled summer as the Venice Biennale, the multiple art fairs at Basel, and the Sculpture Project Münster, is directed by Roger Buergel, a young (born 1962) theorist and university professor. A relative curatorial newcomer, Mr. Buergel has produced a heavily ideological, programmatic exhibition, very much in the mold of his predecessors, Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor. Strongly global in its selections, with many artists from Africa, Asia, and the Near East, the exhibition also draws heavily on forgotten political artists of the 1970s. The few sops to visual pleasure are mostly by non-canonical minimalists: John McCracken (born 1934), Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), and Charlotte Posenenske (1930-1985). With much work presented in video or documentation, or else with works chosen in long series or presented in vitrines, it is a glum, grim display in harmony with the surrounding cityscape.
One almost suspects that Posenenske appealed to the curator because, as the catalogue explains, she gave up art in 1968 for political reasons, to become a sociologist. The whole show feels like a consciousness-raising rehabilitation program for “bourgeois deviationists” too concerned with the aesthetic realm.
Simon Wachsmuth (born 1964) presented an installation, “Where we were then, Where we are now” (2007) featuring video of an Iranian dance ceremony, a black-and-white abstracted reconstruction of the famous mosaic of the Persian emperor Darius, and vitrines containing newspaper clippings about Iran’s peacefully-intended nuclear ambitions. It is a work that would have felt at home in an East German anthropology museum. “Summer Camp” (2007), a film by Yael Bartana (born 1970), shows a group of mostly middle-aged Israeli intellectuals joyously rebuilding a bulldozed Palestinian house on the West Bank, accompanied by stirring halutzik (pioneer-spirit) music from a vintage Zionist propaganda movie. Imogen Stidworthy (born 1963) has a slickly technological investigation of language phenomena literally separating signifieds and signifiers with an enclosed area for sound and different screens for close-up mouth shots of the speakers, LED streams of their words, and phonetic text projections. The presentation was actually fresh and imaginative, but the issues, like so many of the dead artists in Documenta and the didactic tone of its curator, feel like they are from a bygone age.
In the Documenta-Halle, a 1960s gallery, Mr. Buergel directly harks back to early conceptualism with a presentation of journals. Unlike Kynaston McShine’s 1969 Museum of Modern Art, New York exhibition, “Information,” where viewers were encouraged to pick up the literature, in this case the books are stuck to the table. The international spread focuses on left-wing, feminist, avant-garde, and experimental ideas in the arts, social sciences, and humanities. Elsewhere in this stark modernist building are multiple viewing stations playing video of a four-hour public reading, staged in 2005 at the Judson Memorial Church, New York, of Guantanamo Bay tribunal transcriptions. Downstairs are various works that explore political themes. Abdoulaye Konaté (born 1953) uses Mali textile traditions in a set of four wall hangings, “Gris-Gris pour Israël et la Palestine” (2005), in which Israeli flags and Palestinian keffiyeh hang in equal number but varying configurations (three to one, or alone). Nearby a forlorn-looking giraffe from Qalqilyah Zoo is the work of Peter Friedl (b.1960). The giraffe, Brownie, died during a bombardment of the West Bank town and its body was preserved by a local vet who was not expert in taxidermy, which accounts for its stuffed-toy-like gait
Although in a minority, there are some colorful, almost fun works in the Documenta, though rarely is the fun an end in itself. “Status” (2005), a multi-media installation by South African Churchill Madikida (born 1973), is — though dealing with the AIDS crisis with coffins, flowers, lit votive candles, and death masks — a rich, pungent, glowing visual treat. Romuald Hazoumé (born 1962) makes Benin “tribal” pieces by adorning various found canisters and kettles. Lu Hao (born 1969) records the development of Beijing’s Chang’an Street in two 164-foot-long scroll paintings (a traditional Chinese counterpart to Ed Ruscha’s photographic documentation of Sunset Boulevard). Lukas Duwenhögger (born 1956) presents a proposed monument to gay victims of National Socialism, a giant teapot with camp bent and limp arms for the handle and spout, mounted atop a lookout tower with elegant balustrades.
A feature of this Documenta is that selected artists appear different times in different venues. Heavily favored in this respect is Chile-born Australian painter Juan Davila (born 1946), whose brash, highly sexual, and scatalogical images take an often revisionist, defiant, angry tone towards historical events. “The Liberator Simón Bolívar” (1994), a painting on shaped cutout, presents its mounted subject in his familiar hat and uniform, only underneath he is a woman in gartered stockings making an obscene one-finger sign.
None of the bounteous feminist work in this show is as pointed as this raucous image. More typical is the collaborative piece by Mary Kelly (born 1941) and Ray Barrie, “Love Songs: Multi-Story House” (2007), in which texts by feminists around the Third World are laser-cut into acrylic panes set into a garden house placed in the middle of the gallery. Jo Spence (1934-92) documents her own breast-cancer treatment as an exploration of the social construction of identity and individuality. She and her work are, it would seem, all that Mr. Buergel wants an artist to be: dead, political, and miserable.