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
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.
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