Rogue-r & Me


Left: Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack onstage in Vancouver. Right: Buergel, at dinner, with Jeff Wall.

I’ve never been to Kassel, which means I’ve never been to Documenta. Not Catherine David’s in ’97. Not Okwui Enwezor’s three years ago. Documenta 12, in 2007, will be the fifty-second anniversary (while they’re referring to it as the fiftieth, I doubt anyone will dare call it “golden”) of the ice queen of contemporary art exhibitions (which began as an off-shoot of a federal garden show, the rubble of heavily bombed Kassel having been buried beneath a vast rose bed). So when I heard Roger Buergel, D12’s curator, would be speaking in Vancouver about his plans for his really big show, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I mean, Canada’s just so much closer than Germany, and I’d heard that Buergel was an advocate of some kind of localism. While a critical darling, he is nonetheless a surprising pick for the Documenta gig. He was given the first Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement in 2003, but mostly for shows that operated as none-too-subtle rebukes to the current biennialism, with breezy titles like “Governmentality. Art in conflict with the international hyper-bourgeoisie and the national petty bourgeoisie” (in 2000 at Alte Kestner Gesellschaft in Hannover). Good—or should I say, gut—times!

Lucky for me I’d guaranteed at least some fun for the trip since my tour guide in Vancouver was Jeremy Shaw, the super-talented young local artist and electronic musician (Google his moniker, CircleSquare), who recently made his US solo debut at cherrydelosreyes in Los Angeles with an eight-channel video, DMT, 2004. The work focuses on Shaw and seven of his buds tripping on the eponymous synthetic version of a hallucinogen habitually ingested by Amazonian shamans. We opted to get high before heading off to the Buergel lecture—but only on really amazing sushi.

A small crowd of Vancouver’s cultural elite, artists, and dutiful students assembled outside the entrance to the UBC Robson Square Lecture Theatre directly across from the Vancouver Art Gallery, the shindig’s host. Jeremy introduced me to Michael Turner, author of The Pornographer’s Poem and a sharp commentator on the Vancouver scene, then pointed out the dignitaries in attendance: Artists Brian Jungen and Tim Lee chatted with Turner, while Jeff Wall had a face-to-face with fellow conceptual shutterbug Roy Arden. Someone referred to them as “the Dons.” Jeff Wall as the Tony Soprano of the art world! Wasn’t this what Rosalind Krauss discovered when her Wall catalogue essay for the Pompidou “swam with the fishes” due to having made an unfavorable comparison between the Don and James Coleman? Tracey Lawrence (Shaw’s gallerist), curator Helga Pakasaar, and the chic young critic Monika Szewczyk were also caught up in the swirl. I missed meeting my favorite Vancouver artist, Steven Shearer, because he snuck in late, just as Buergel was taking the stage.

Or rather, as Buergel’s collaborator, Ruth Noack, arrived at the podium. For most of the night, the Vienna-based art historian and critic held forth about “The Government,” an interrelated series of exhibitions in major European venues that the two had cocurated and that for all its Foucauldian pedigree sounded like quite a kegger. Much dialogue with disenfranchised factory workers. Exhibitions creating “flow.” “Stalinist totalitarian perversion of modernity versus corporatist perversion of modernity.” Martha Rosler. Allan Sekula. An archive of “documentary” pictures of a 1967-68 Argentinean counterpropaganda art action, Archivo Tucumán Arte. Representative shot: A banner proclaiming “Visita Tucuman, jardin de misere!” [“Visit Tucuman, garden of misery!”]. As I said, gut times.

After about an hour and fifteen minutes of the fun, I was ready to experiment with things stronger than DMT. “Rogue-r,”—as Noack referred to him—and I will have three topics that will guide us. Not illustrated by the art selected but enabling fantasies for it.” The first a question: “Whether modernity is our antiquity?” It was one of the most provocative statements of the evening, since, as Noack stated, after postmodernity we seem to have modernity again. (Here Buergel came alive, saying a little about his controversial postulate for a “new universalism.”) “Fantasy” numero dos: “Bare Life”—life stripped of all its paraphernalia, taken down to sheer existence (a concept of Walter Benjamin via Giorgio Agamben)—to be manifested by “dance and performance,” seemingly much of it by Eastern European women. The third: “Education.” In a nutshell, it seems D12 will be a show about global citizenship as well as a meditation on community, fragmentation, and site-specificity, in part by revisiting of 1955’s Documenta 1.

The presentation concluded. There were a few questions. The last, basically: “But what about painting?” Noack assured the questioner that she and Buergel loved painting, that “Rogue-r” trained as a painter, and that he had not only exhibited but sold some of his paintings. A few muffled groans, more sighs of relief, and, finally, applause. If I had not slipped out of my chair into a slough of despond, I might have rallied to inquire about the conspicuous absence of the word (or even the concept of) pleasure and its relationship to a critique of governmentality. Buergel and Noack didn’t seem worried about the quasi-colonialist potential of the Big Show operating as a legislating, hegemonic power, however well-intentioned and locally instantiated. Certain peoples and actions are always left out of the picture, no matter how global its perspective. Noack had partially hedged on something like this, claiming that she and her quiet colleague “were not going to have a canon.” Um, okay. Maybe the Kunsthalle Fridericianum’s being kept free for flash mob protest rallies.

Shaw and I headed for a bar. I vented: “Can you imagine either one of them finding the political, aesthetic, and communitarian commentary in something like Mark Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore?” Jeremy just laughed and shook his head. Governmentalize that.

Bruce Hainley