Art for art’s sake

A rare align­ment of the art world’s most re­spected events is tak­ing place in Europe. re­ports on the most sig­nif­i­cant of them

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - El­iz­a­beth Ann Macgregor

Doc­u­menta Kas­sel, Ger­many. Un­til Septem­ber 23.

LAST week, the pro­vin­cial Ger­man town of Kas­sel was over­run by art lovers and 2500 mem­bers of the press, many foot­sore af­ter the Venice Bi­en­nale and the an­nual Basel Art Fair, yet ea­ger for the latest man­i­fes­ta­tion of Doc­u­menta. Founded in 1955, Doc­u­menta is closely linked with the his­tory of post- war Ger­many. Kas­sel, a lead­ing ar­ma­ments pro­ducer, was se­verely bombed by the Al­lies dur­ing World War II: Doc­u­menta be­gan as part of the process of re­gen­er­a­tion, along­side a gar­den fes­ti­val.

The ex­hi­bi­tion was in­tended to pro­mote the kind of work that had been cen­sored by the Nazis as ‘‘ de­gen­er­ate art’’ and to re­store pub­lic con­fi­dence in the art of the first half of the 20th cen­tury. It was also a ri­poste to the re­stric­tions on art in the com­mu­nist bloc: Kas­sel is near the for­mer East Ger­man border. The first ex­hi­bi­tion was an un­ex­pected suc­cess with the pub­lic and Doc­u­menta has been staged ev­ery five years ever since, each time with a dif­fer­ent cu­ra­tor.

The scale and scope of Doc­u­menta make it ar­guably the most sig­nif­i­cant plat­form for con­tem­po­rary art in the world and the an­nounce­ment of each cu­ra­tor is ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated. For Doc­u­menta 12 this year, Roger Buergel and his part­ner Ruth Noack were some­thing of a sur­prise choice: their pre­vi­ous cu­ra­to­rial prac­tice was highly re­garded but not as widely known as that of their pre­de­ces­sors.

Rather than a clearly de­fined theme, they put for­ward three philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions as or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ples. Is moder­nity our an­tiq­uity? What is bare life? What is to be done? This last ques­tion is in many ways the most sig­nif­i­cant.

It is clear from the ex­hi­bi­tion that the over­rid­ing ob­jec­tive is still ed­u­ca­tional: how to make an ex­hi­bi­tion first and fore­most for the peo­ple of Kas­sel, and how to cre­ate a con­text in which peo­ple can come to an un­der­stand­ing of con­tem­po­rary art in all its com­plex­ity. This con­cern for the au­di­ence, es­pe­cially those who don’t be­long to the art world, is a hall­mark of Buergel and Noack’s cu­ra­to­rial approach. A pre­vi­ous ex­hi­bi­tion of theirs, Things We Don’t Un­der­stand, was an at­tempt on a smaller scale to look at the ways in which the viewer ap­proaches art to­day.

One of the first things they did in Kas­sel was to es­tab­lish an ad­vi­sory group of lo­cal peo­ple who were not art pro­fes­sion­als, who were in­volved in dis­cus­sions about the show from the out­set. A team of ed­u­ca­tors is lead­ing groups and a se­ries of ‘‘ palm groves’’ has been in­stalled: groups of chairs where vis­i­tors can take time out to sit and con­tem­plate or hold group dis­cus­sions.

The vis­i­tors’ guide is light­weight and de­signed to be car­ried through the ex­hi­bi­tion. There are no wall texts: the em­pha­sis is on en­cour­ag­ing a di­rect re­sponse to each work.

Whether this strat­egy suc­ceeds in its goal of fo­cus­ing vis­i­tors pri­mar­ily on the art is an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion for visit­ing cu­ra­tors and mu­seum direc­tors, who are deal­ing in their own in­sti­tu­tions with the de­mand for in­stant in­for­ma­tion in this age of im­me­di­ate com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Buergel and Noack chose to con­cen­trate the ex­hi­bi­tion in five main sites, se­lect­ing and plac­ing work in re­sponse to the na­ture of each build­ing. They have put a wel­come em­pha­sis on show­ing bod­ies of work rather than one- off pieces.

The work of sev­eral key artists is shown in dif­fer­ent sites and th­ese key­note artists ex­em­plify dif­fer­ent strands within the show that weave, in­ter­sect and some­times clash across the five build­ings. There are strik­ing con­trasts, for ex­am­ple, be­tween the com­plex fig­u­ra­tive paint­ings of Chilean- born Aus­tralian Juan Dav­ila that tackle a range of is­sues, ques­tion­ing his­tory and the con­struc­tion of cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal and sex­ual iden­tity, and the for­mal aes­theti­cism of Amer­i­can min­i­mal­ist John McCracken; be­tween the del­i­cacy of the ex­quis­ite draw­ings and pho­to­graphs of Nas­reen Mo­hamedi, who was born in Pak­istan and died in In­dia in 1990, and the strik­ing use of pared- down in­dus­trial ma­te­ri­als in the sculp­tures of Char­lotte Posenske.

A sat­is­fy­ing as­pect of this Doc­u­menta is the in­clu­sion of smaller works, draw­ings and col­lages in par­tic­u­lar. In the Schloss Wil­helmshohe, with its mag­nif­i­cent his­tor­i­cal col­lec­tion of Rem­brandts and Vandykes, some con­tem­po­rary works are placed among the his­tor­i­cal col­lec­tions, oth­ers in a sep­a­rate space.

The ear­li­est works are far from con­tem­po­rary: 14th to 16th- cen­tury draw­ings and paint­ings brought back to Ger­many from Per­sia, China and the Ot­toman Em­pire. In­deed, his­tor­i­cal pieces are in­ter­spersed through­out the venues, to make a point about forms mi­grat­ing across ge­og­ra­phy and time.

In the cen­tre­piece room of the schloss, the minia­tures and draw­ings share not so much di­rect for­mal ref­er­ences as an aes­thetic, re­flected in the in­ti­macy and in­ten­sity of the con­tem­po­rary works on pa­per: the draw­ings and books of Shooshie Su­laiman, for ex­am­ple, and the col­lages of Lili Du­jourie. This room is framed by two videos that in­volve col­lab­o­ra­tion, that of Mauri­cio Dias and Wal­ter Ried­weg with a group of young Brazil­ians in the funk cul­ture of the fave­las of Rio and Dan­ica Da­kic’s work with teenage refugees in Ger­many.

In the 19th- cen­tury Neue Gallery, the fam­ily draw­ings of Inuit artist An­nie Pootoo­gook and the fear draw­ings of Nedko So­lakov are as im­pres­sive as any of the main in­stal­la­tions. The Neue Gallery also houses two works about his­tor­i­cal fem­i­nist events by US con­cep­tual artist Mary Kelly and a dra­matic in­stal­la­tion ad­dress­ing the is­sue of AIDS in South Africa by Churchill Madikida, both of which trans­form per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence into an evoca­tive and mov­ing me­mo­rial.

The ma­jes­tic drama of a James Cole­man video with its 40- odd minute so­lil­o­quy by Har­vey Kei­tel con­trasts with a quiet yet grip­ping re­flec­tion by Amar Kan­war on the ex­pe­ri­ences of women and the af­ter­math of trauma and suf­fer­ing. This last work high­lights an im­por­tant as­pect of the ex­hi­bi­tion: its hu­man­ity and lack of cyn­i­cism. It is a global ex­hi­bi­tion that speaks pow­er­fully about the lo­cal.

The most con­tentious build­ing is the one for the 21st cen­tury, a tem­po­rary struc­ture mod­elled on green­house tech­nol­ogy. This is far from the neu­tral white box ex­pected of the mod­ern art mu­seum, but each work is given gen­er­ous space, and the vis­tas cre­ated be­tween works give vis­i­tors the space to pause, re­flect and dis­cuss. Sim­ryn Gill’s Throw­back is here, shift­ing the mean­ing of forms and ma­te­ri­als by re- cre­at­ing, in trop­i­cal and other nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, the parts of a Tata truck des­tined for the scrap heap in In­dia. So is a com­ment by Dmitry Gu­tov on life in the ur­ban land­scape: he has con­structed fences from

dis­carded ma­te­ri­als and in­cor­po­rated snip­pets of lit­er­ary texts.

In the same venue, Ro­muald Ha­zoume’s pow­er­ful in­stal­la­tions of painted can­is­ters made into masks and a large boat call into ques­tion Euro­pean as­sump­tions about Africa; Ge­orge Osodi’s por­trays life in coastal Nige­ria; and Lu Hao’s metic­u­lous doc­u­men­ta­tion of Chang’an Av­enue, which bi­sects Bei­jing, draws at­ten­tion to the de­struc­tion of that city.

All demon­strate the sub­tle yet ef­fec­tive in­cor­po­ra­tion of pol­i­tics into the ex­hi­bi­tion.

Paint­ing is well rep­re­sented here, too, with Lee Lozano’s sen­sual min­i­mal­ism and Mon­ica Baer’s ghostly ap­pari­tions.

Out­side, Ai Weiwei’s sculp­ture of parts of de­stroyed tem­ples fused into a sin­gle struc­ture ap­pears ready to en­counter his other work,

in which 1001 Chi­nese cit­i­zens from all walks of life have been in­vited to Kas­sel in five stages, an ap­pro­pri­ate sym­bol of the kind of

Oil Rich Niger Delta

Fairy­tale, en­coun­ters that will take place through­out Doc­u­menta, en­coun­ters where lan­guage may not be known in com­mon yet there is the pos­si­bil­ity of di­a­logue.

Art makes ex­pe­ri­ences of spe­cial kind pos­si­ble,’’ Buergel has said. One may talk about th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences, but one can also demon­strate them vis­ually; in other words, show them. Here the medium of the ex­hi­bi­tion can be­come the ba­sis of a new way of show­ing, a new way of see­ing.’’

This new way of is not framed by mar­ket val­ues or cul­tural iden­tity, or by de­fin­i­tive di­dac­tic state­ments. Yet it re­turns to the orig­i­nal propo­si­tion of Doc­u­menta as an ed­uca­tive tool for a wide pub­lic. The re­sponse of the au­di­ence af­ter the pro­fes­sional preview days will be the true test of Doc­u­menta 12’ s suc­cess.

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see­ing

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a

En­cour­ag­ing a di­rect re­sponse: Clock­wise from top left, Chi­nese artist Ai Weiwei in front of his in­stal­la­tion Tem­plate; large- scale pho­to­graphs by Amer­i­can artist Al­lan Sekula; Sta­tus by South African Churchill Madikida; and Aus­trian artist Peter Friedl’s pre­served and stuffed gi­raffe, The Zoo Life

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