Roger's Neighborhood

David Velasco on Documenta 12


Left: Art Basel codirector Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, Heide Rattemeyer, MoMA curator Christian Rattemeyer, and Museum Wiesbaden director Volker Rattemeyer. Right: Documenta curator Ruth Noack with artistic director Roger M. Buergel. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)

Gossip circulates best in the provinces. So what better place to troll for tattle than at Thursday’s dinner party for two hundred largely European art-world aristocrats, hosted by Kunsthalle Basel president Peter Handschin and LISTE sponsor François Gutzwiller at a chic, vaguely rustic estate in the remote Swiss countryside? Perhaps the talk wasn’t quite juicy (or at least the real dirt was muttered in German asides), but it was certainly plentiful, as was the seemingly limitless supply of couscous and stuffed peppers replenished like clockwork by the conspicuously studly staff. Thanks to advances in communications technology, reports from informants elsewhere on the Grand Tour were nearly instantaneous, and the chorus of vibrating mobiles echoed the news that Documenta 12 was a dud. One doesn’t want to hear that the night before the nearly five-hour train ride from Basel to Kassel, but nothing could stop us now: We hadn’t flown across the big pond for the tote bags.

If you leap headfirst into the decadent fray of Venice or Basel, Documenta—with its serious (so German!) demeanor and this year’s notable dearth of private parties—is frequently approached with trepidation. “No one wants to be the Documenta scout,” noted one New York dealer. Arriving in Kassel early Friday afternoon, a day before the official opening, we were greeted with an onslaught of rain and a rather lugubrious view of the small, fusty city. Once a bastion of the Enlightenment (Documenta’s central exhibition site, the Fridericianum, was the first public European museum), and heavily reconstructed after World War II, Kassel is an uneven city, with pockets of dismal, austere buildings offset by some serious Caspar David Friedrich–worthy Landschaften.

The rain had made the outdoor public kickoff party—in the stunning Bergpark Willhelmshöhe—a bit of a mess. (Another text message: “Don’t go! Glastonbury Festival gone bad.”) So we hailed a cab and set off for our next stop: a cocktail soiree at the childhood home of MoMA associate curator Christian Rattemeyer. This was the same house in which Rattemeyer and new Art Basel codirector Cay Sophie Rabinowitz had hosted their engagement party five years ago, at the beginning of Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11, when he was communications editor for the show and she was beginning her tenure as senior US editor of Parkett. Rattemeyer warmly recalled a memory from that show that illuminated the unusual relationship Kassel natives have to art: While contemplating an installation by John Bock, an unassuming little old lady turned to him and said, “You know, Beuys did it better in ’72.”

Left: German president Horst Köhler (center) flanked by Hessian prime minister Roland Koch (right). Right: Peter Handschin, Kunsthalle Basel president and E. Gutzwiller & Cie partner, with E. Gutzwiller & Cie partner François Gutzwiller.

By this stage of the Grand Tour—the art world’s own Amazing Race—quite a few had dropped the ball, though Whitney curator Shamim Momin and Creative Time director Anne Pasternak were neck and neck for most tenacious Grand Tourist. Likewise, the Rubells and Beth Rudin DeWoody were among the few collectors to make it that far, many others having given up the ghost after scoring in Switzerland. Some were in higher spirits than others: “Beth got the Butt Plug at Basel, so she’s pretty happy,” noted one of the collector’s crew.

The Rattemeyers’ relaxed, elegant home brimmed with good art, as evidenced by the Broodthaers leaning against a wall in the living room. Christian’s mother, Heide, had prepared a buffet of hearty and delicious comestibles. After weeks spent consuming champagne, cream, and croissants, she became the momentary doting mother to the art world’s lost children—which here included artists as varied as Christian Jankowski and Gerwald Rockenschaub, dealers Stefania Bortolami and Pablo Leon de la Barra, and Royal Academy director Norman Rosenthal—rarely leaving the kitchen stove as she produced one piquant dish after another.

As we patrolled the big show the next afternoon, it seemed that everyone was in a rush. Those who had blocked off days to meander through Venice or Basel set stricter time limits for Documenta. While Rosenthal stated that he only had twenty-four hours to take everything in, P.S. 1 director Alanna Heiss, standing in the Museum Fridericianum, asked, “I only have two hours—what should I see?”

Left: Marta Kuzma, director of the Office for Contemporary Art Norway, philosopher Peter Osborne, and Walker curator Peter Eleey. Right: Artist Ai Weiwei.

Good question. At Documenta, it seemed that the best—or at least the most intriguing—pieces operated like rumors, one only hearing about them or glancing at them sidelong: Ai Weiwei’s quixotic “performance” Fairytale, in which the artist immigrated 1,001 Chinese natives into Kassel; mysterious meals at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli near Roses, Spain (fifty visitors to the show will be selected at random and shipped off for dinner at the famed eatery); and documentation and ephemera from Graciela Carnevale’s storied 1968 action in Rosario, Argentina, in which the artist took a group of gallery-goers prisoner. (Haven’t we all had that impulse?) Where the art was plainly visible, mediocrity was frequently the rule.

An initial run-through of the Fridericianum or the newly constructed Aue-Pavilion left only the vague afterimage of tortured pieces tacked desperately to partitions. A second run-through did little to repair this impression, though it did unearth a few esoteric connections: For instance, Hito Steyerl’s ludic video on Japanese bondage, Lovely Andrea, 2007—nicely juxtaposed one level above Trisha Brown’s performance/installation Floor of the Forest, 2007, in which “movers” slowly climb through clothing suspended midair—offered a compact allegory for the exhibition’s principles of education and restraint. Not far away, the ropes loosened with Sheela Gowda’s installation of unwound cord. Documenta is a show of obscure metonymies and often dimly lit aesthetic logics, and the organizers, Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, seem to privilege their own private jokes over popular pleasure or aesthetic elegance.

On opening day, Buergel was wearily dismissive of all the art-world marauders, stating that this Documenta’s guiding principle was an ineffable “translocalism” and claiming that the show was intended for a “lay audience.” This sort of kettle logic is a pretty sorry way to stave off criticism—if you don’t like it, it was never meant for you anyway. Never mind that the mythical “lay audience” never talks back: If you’re educated enough to offer an opinion, you’re no longer lay.

Left: 2008 Whitney Biennial curators Shamim M. Momin and Henriette Huldisch. Right: Artists Gerwald Rockenschaub and Monica Bonvicini.

Reflecting on the last two weeks of parties, I wondered if perhaps art-world gossip was the translocal medium par excellence. Perhaps David Hammons knows this best: His unofficial (has there ever been an “official” Hammons?) contribution to Skulptur Projekte Münster, the final stop on the Tour, was—according to artist Jeremy Deller via Walker curator Peter Eleey—the rumor that he would try to predict the weather on the opening day. The verity of the claim is largely irrelevant; indeed, the key to its Conceptual provocation is its very stonewalling of certitude. (If it’s a true “piece” indeed, and not a lark wittily conjured by Deller and crew.)

Having given up on the shows, we blundered around Kassel blindly in search of food, eventually bumping into a solitary Clarissa Dalrymple strolling through Friedrichsplatz, who confirmed that the party wagon had left town. Clarissa knows it all, so if there’s nothing on her calendar, you can basically call it a movie night. We did. She invited us along to the opening of Documenta’s film program: Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (with German subtitles). With Dalrymple to my left and Ingrid Bergman on-screen, the grim city momentarily became the chicest place around.

Left: P.S. 1 director Alanna Heiss. Right: Hammer Museum curator Ali Subotnik with Clarissa Dalrymple.

Left: Artist Johanna Billing. Right: The Kaizers Orchestra.

Left: Artists James/Ingrid Tsang and Emily Roysdon. Right: Dealer Chris D'Amelio, Dorka Keehn, dealer Lucien Terras, art historian Kristina Paulsen, and artist Shana Lutker.

Left: Andrea Viliani, curator of Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna, with dealer Pablo Leon de la Barra. Right: Kyle DeWoody.