PRINT September 2007

Daniel Birnbaum

DOCUMENTA 12 IS A WEIRD THING. What, after all, is one to make of the exhibition’s wacky interior decors with heavy curtains and dark olive or bright salmon walls; of the idiosyncratic mix of contemporary work and historical material from around the globe (Persian calligraphy from the sixteenth century, an Iranian carpet from around 1800, Japanese avant-garde art of the 1950s, to cite but a few examples); or of the apparent obsession with meshes, threads, and textiles in general? And what is one to think of the organizers’ downplaying of the geographical, biographical, and cultural contexts of the works on display in favor of formal similarities and family resemblances between and among them? What, indeed, are we to make of the curators’ unwillingness to adequately theorize their exhibition, of their preferring instead to let the art speak for itself, “on its own terms”—as if art “in itself” were something given? And what, most importantly, of the abundance of patently not-so-important art, such as the profusion of dreadful paintings by Chilean-born, Melbourne-based Juan Davila (only the most egregious examples of a contemporary figurative ugliness that crops up all over this puzzling show)? Granted, it is a relief—one that should not be underestimated—to come across a large-scale international show that steers clear of the most predictable curatorial choices and abjures the tiresome hierarchies dictated by the art market. The show’s organizers, artistic director Roger M. Buergel and chief curator Ruth Noack, his wife, deserve credit for attempting to do something different. But if, in the end, the sole criteria for the alternative offered are personal—not to say private—preferences and arbitrary connections on the level of superficial visual rhymes, then precious little is gained. In fact, a great deal is lost, and one may be left with the queasy feeling of being in the hands of dilettantes.

“This is aesthetic experience in its true sense,” trumpets the brief preface to the catalogue. The art on display has been liberated from any “preordained concept”—the curators proclaim—so as to be able to “spin its own webs.” And webs there are aplenty in this show. The uniformity of the global exhibition industry can be deadening, and at first blush I found the quirky textile metaphors that recur throughout the Museum Fridericianum—typically the very heart of Documenta and no doubt the most convincing of its five principal venues this time around—quite refreshing and fun. But in the end, of course, even a show full of threads and cords can’t be tied together if its only real coherence lies in the fact that all the objects on view reflect the random enthusiasms of the curators. Sadly, at Documenta 12 these threads don’t lead you out of the maze, and no Minotaur is lingering at its center. All they do is lead you from one space to another, all the while suggesting a mysterious linkage between the works. But there isn’t any: They just happen to have been placed next to one another by Roger Buergel and his wife—and they contain fabrics.

That said, there are some amusing moments in the show, and a few really great works of art. Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress, 1956/1986—an exquisite gown made out of painted lightbulbs, first worn in a performance at the “Second Gutaï Art Exhibition,” in Tokyo in October 1956—illuminates the single most beautiful gallery in the Fridericianum. A well-known photograph from that event depicts the artist totally enveloped by bulbs and tubes, with strings of electrical cords hanging down to her feet and spilling out onto the floor, her pale face and hands alone visible. Tanaka’s work, a unique combination of performance, kinetic art, and sculpture as an extension of painting, has long been known principally by this black-and-white photo-documentation, and to see the dress in all its Technicolor radiance is an exhilarating revelation. Next to this enthralling glow, another kind of string draws the viewer’s attention deeper into the maze: Indian artist Sheela Gowda’s And . . . , 2007, a voluminous installation built of cords, needles, thread, and pigment that turns large parts of the gallery into a red drawing in three dimensions. The work may well explore the ritual powers of the red pigment in Hinduism, the political economy of India, and the gendered zones of experience associated with the umbilical cord, as the catalogue suggests, but it can surely also be appreciated solely on formal grounds as an uncommonly graceful play of curved lines in space.

Strings and threads continue to emerge in work after work, whether in delicate embroidery, like Hu Xiaoyuan’s intimate figurative needlework on silk using the artist’s own black hair (A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away, 2005), or in works that draw attention to sturdy cords and metal tubes, like Trisha Brown’s alluring installation/performance Floor of the Forest, 1970, involving a horizontal mesh of ropes inside a metal scaffolding and three dancers performing suspended in midair, or her Accumulation, 1971, in which twelve dancers perform to music of the Grateful Dead, providing one of the most memorable moments in a large exhibition full of not-always-so-remarkable meditations on bodies tied up, deformed, and linked to the environment through wires of all sorts. Hito Steyerl’s 2007 video Lovely Andrea, a case in point, documents the bizarre search for a bondage photograph of the artist taken in Tokyo some twenty years ago and creates associative links to all sorts of wires and nets, including a gigantic spiderweb woven between the Twin Towers in which a helicopter gets caught in the first Spider-Man movie (footage removed from the film after 9/11). There are a few hilarious moments when buildings and body parts, superheroes and pornographers, cinematic action and sexual desire seem to blend into one amorphous sphere of liquid imagery, but then, with the help of some vintage disco music and images of Guantánamo, things get a bit too silly, and the concentration is lost, revealing the piece to be little more than a naive collage linking everything to everything else. The catalogue calls it “a tour de force of analogies and correspondences in which the world appears just as complex and interconnected as it actually is,” but I’m unconvinced. Do pictures of Gitmo really cast any light on the lyrics of Shirley and Company’s disco hit “Shame, Shame, Shame” (with its chorus “Shame on you, if you can’t dance too”), or vice versa? Nothing much to worry about, perhaps—it’s just an inane art video with a few amusing moments. Still, Steyerl’s urge to compare anything and everything makes any kind of specificity—political or artistic—impossible. Worse, this neutralizing gaze recurs throughout an exceedingly large exhibition that celebrates the “migration of form” as a curatorial master trope. One could argue, not without reason, that the curators’ approach is an optimistic one, alive to the possibilities of an innocent eye that can enjoy the life of forms without having to worry much about the political or social environment in which a form gains real effect and accrues layered meanings. The curators’ phenomenological bracketing of objective reality makes for a world of fluid figures, in which the shape of a totalitarian monument may seem comparable to a chewing-gum bubble, say, or a piece of recent installation art. Exemplary of just such an attentive gaze at the world of appearances is the Peruvian-born Canadian artist Luis Jacob’s suite of 159 collages, Album III, 2004, which lets the viewer’s eye travel effortlessly through a cosmos of fascinating forms arranged into clusters of visual similes. Political imagery, documentary photography, and reproductions of art (which is the only way works by the likes of Joseph Beuys, Gilbert & George, Robert Gober, and Olafur Eliasson made it into this Documenta—which is to say, anonymously, and press-ganged into the service of pure gestalt) live side by side as equivalent elements in a transformational visual grammar able to generate an endless flow of similes. There are bubbles, globes, balls, and spheres; heads appear attached to bodies and cut off. Again, large numbers of strings, ropes, and meshes create a sense of linkage within the visual surge. Jacob’s is a lively, witty, at times uncanny work of compulsive visual punning, and many a pleasurable hour might be spent in the company of this artist’s keen eye. But when the logic of this visual play is elevated to a curatorial überprinciple, delicate ocular jouissance gives way to heavy-handed and tedious superficiality.

What, in the end, is the point of these morphological exercises? What exactly is the “migration of form,” the conceptual cornerstone of Buergel’s curatorial edifice? How does it operate, and what does it mean? Since the show’s organizers don’t offer much help by way of commentary, we can only scrutinize the few things they actually do say. Just like the previous installments, says Buergel in his “Migration of Form” credo (available on the Documenta website), Documenta 12 “exhibits works from a wide variety of geographic areas.” He continues:

The majority of its visitors know little or nothing about the conditions of their production. The price of ignoring those conditions is ethnocentric mystification. Art from Africa has to look “African,” art from the Arab world “Arabic.” But what is “African,” and what is “Arabic”? At the same time, however, the exhibition is above all precisely that, an exhibition, and not a means of packaging knowledge that informs us about local contexts in a more or less academic manner. For if we take that path, we reduce art to illustration.

Most of the heated critical discussions about curatorial approaches in a postcolonial world—from Jean-Hubert Martin’s “Les Magiciens de la terre” of 1989 to Okwui Enwezor’s “platforms” for Documenta 11 of 2002—have centered on the question of how to represent artistic practices from other cultures within a Western institutional framework. Buergel’s contribution to this conversation doesn’t come in the form of yet another critical reflection. Instead, he offers the exhibition itself as a medium for “aesthetic mobilization” and (of course) for the “migration of form”; here works are contextualized according to formal resemblances and affinities rather than cultural and geographic principles. Too much theory, he seems to suggest, is harmful to art. Just look, quietly, and you will understand . . .

But will you? The Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, which sits high on a hill overlooking Kassel and houses an enviable collection of Old Masters and antiquities, is Documenta 12’s farthest-flung venue (if one doesn’t count El Bulli, that is). There in the stately enfilade of painting galleries, one encounters, preferably by chance, a handful of portraits of disaffected black youth from American artist Kerry James Marshall’s series “The Lost Boys,” 1993. They hang in close proximity to a seventeenth-century oil by Dutch master Karel van Mander III featuring the dark-hued couple Hydaspes and Persinna, who according to legend gave birth to a white-hued daughter, Chariclea. What this curatorial juxtaposition is supposed to mean no one in the group of people with whom I saw this gallery could quite figure out. At times, apparently, the migration of form would seem to signify nothing. Unfortunately, that experience is repeated over and over again throughout the exhibition.

Trying to get a grasp on Buergel’s methodology, I keep thinking of art historian Aby Warburg’s final project. At the time of his death in 1929, his enigmatic “Mnemosyne Atlas” comprised some sixty wooden panels covered with black fabric on which were pinned roughly two thousand images displaying a mix of photographs of classical art, anthropological material, cosmological and astrological charts, scientific diagrams, numismatic symbolism, and maps, as well as imagery from newspapers and advertisements. Warburg, whose legendary library was ordered in accordance with “elective affinities” rather than with the alphabet or traditional subject matter, pushed his eccentric—not to say esoteric—inclinations even further in this kaleidoscopic archive, which he referred to as a “laboratory” of images. Each panel displayed material related to a subject of interest to Warburg and his group of researchers, some of their rubrics more eccentric sounding than others. On most of the panels, the material is of European or Middle Eastern origin, but on the last one, two Japanese pictures, labeled “Hara-kiri” and “Punishments and Executions,” show that, in principle, the ambition of the picture atlas was universal.

In his brief introduction, Warburg warns the reader not to fall prey to the “hedonistic aesthetes” who think that the transformation of form (Formenwechsel) can be elucidated through an investigation of the “fragrant and beautiful flowers” themselves. A real understanding of the heterogeneous flora, he insists, requires that one explore the “subterranean system of roots.” Perhaps due to its organizers’ overly optimistic belief in “art itself” (whatever that might be) and in the power of the exhibition (to do what exactly?), Documenta 12 remains fixated on the flower at the expense of investigating its roots. Or perhaps Buergel and Noack think that their exhibition-as-medium has rendered all such hermeneutical digging for roots and critical analysis superfluous because they have opened up novel interpretive spaces in which artworks can resonate in radically new and convincing ways. Yes, they are optimists, and no doubt it is their hope that the “forms” somehow speak for themselves and that works of art from distant places in time and space will shine forth without reductive explanatory texts linking them to limiting concepts such as cultural identity. And this emphasis on the migration of form, they expect, might also radically reinvigorate our relationship to the art we are all too familiar with and which we can no longer really see because it is too close. “Will the migration of form allow non-Western cultures to achieve the resonance and historicity denied to them by exhibitions that work with fixed identities?” Buergel asks in “The Migration of Form.” “And: will it be possible to take the art of our inherited Euro-American cultural arena, which we experience as so excessively familiar, and make it seem utterly alien and idiosyncratic, even unidentifiable, but for that very reason all the fresher and more radiant?” Buergel and Noack, it seems, are descendants of Friedrich Schiller (author of the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man) and the German idealistic tradition for which Art, not theory or politics, makes possible the highest form of harmonizing experience and even promises a kind of redemptive final synthesis. The curators’ program is ambitious. How brilliant, if only it had worked! Or even just become legible.

If Documenta 12 had consisted only of the Fridericianum and the Documenta Halle, the audience would at least have had a chance to glean what hypothesis Buergel’s experiment was meant to test. (In the Documenta Halle one also meets with a mix of new and old, but here the medley, perhaps less insistent, somehow works. Individual pieces seem to have been chosen on their merits rather than merely for their effectiveness in illustrating, say, the migration of form. In any event, a number of strong works that don’t obviously fit into the curators’ paradigm were on view in the Halle, including two great sculptural confections that could survive almost any context—even juxtaposition with an old Persian carpet: Cosima von Bonin’s enormous installation Relax, It’s Only a Ghost, 2006, and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s massive Phantom Truck, 2007, a full-scale replica of an Iraqi vehicle that the US claimed was a mobile biological-weapons lab and used as a post hoc justification for invasion.) The real disaster becomes evident in the other venues—the Aue Pavilion and the Neue Galerie—where the architectural infrastructure makes any kind of curatorial ambition, especially subtle formal explorations, all but impossible to read. The Aue Pavilion, which destroys a view that otherwise would instantly conjure the formal gardens in Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, is a failure in every way. Ironically, this depressing construction was originally referred to as the “Crystal Palace”—but that was before it was built. When the full scope of the problems with this temporary, largely clear-plastic structure became obvious, not even Lacaton & Vassal, the French architects who designed it, wanted their names associated with a project they claimed had been sabotaged by compromises (for instance, being forced to accommodate the exhibition of artworks inside it). From the outside it looks like a greenhouse or a giant party-rental tent, and inside it feels like the kind of place where the most awful of commercial fairs might take place. I spent many hot and humid hours within this claustrophobic structure, and still I can’t remember encountering anything that really piqued my interest. Well, Saâdane Afif’s guitar installation Black Chords Plays Lyrics, 2007, is effective even here, and Zoe Leonard’s Analogue, 1998–2007, a suite of some four hundred photographs (on film, not digital), is yet another exemplar of the migration of form and a riveting project that registers local transformations caused by global forces—but I knew her work already. And the totally forlorn painting The Celestial Teapot, 2007, which hangs somewhere near the end of the pavilion, confirms that I’ll never get the work of the brilliant German-born, Istanbul-based artist Lukas Duwenhögger.

The most pressing problem with the overall scheme is that the emphasis on the exhibition as a medium tends to make the exhibition itself more important than the individual works, turning the curators into artists of a higher order. Many works of art are sacrificed on the altar of a rigid and incomprehensible color code in the galleries, most disturbingly in the Neue Galerie. In the Fridericianum the installation still works, even if it gives the impression that the museum is trying to arrest the expansive power of the art by creating spaces that, with their designer-color walls and draped windows, feel strangely petit bourgeois. And yet the works can still breathe: Even under these circumstances, I enjoyed seeing Martha Rosler’s 1974–75 classic Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems and Eastern European conceptual works from the same period by Jiří Kovanda. In the Neue Galerie, the installation scheme just didn’t work. Poor Louise Lawler! For decades she has wittily and witheringly critiqued the contexts in which artworks are displayed, making it a cruel irony—and perhaps a karmic inevitability—that her own work should be hung next to Juan Davila’s. Very few artists seem to have demanded control over the conditions of their work’s exhibition, James Coleman being the most obvious exception. I’ve always admired his work, and perhaps there is nothing wrong per se with a multimillion-dollar production featuring a Hollywood celebrity as a cross between Oedipus and King Lear, but the sad truth—someone has to say it—is that Coleman has produced a piece of embarrassing kitsch that is presumably meant to comment on the curators’ proposition that modernity is our new antiquity. Had it been produced by Bill Viola, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Had it appeared on the French/German culture channel Arte, I would not have been taken aback—but I would have turned it off quickly nonetheless.

“The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist” was the title of a well-advertised publication some years ago. Perhaps Documenta 12 validates the admonition “Be careful what you wish for.” The show is conceived as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, there’s no question about that, and the curators respect their own intuitions and sensibilities in a manner befitting an artist. It’s not the first time this has happened. In 1972 Daniel Buren criticized Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5 for this tendency, and in 1985, at the peak of his fame, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard staged the exhibition “Les Immatériaux” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, pronouncing it a work of art. I mention “Les Immatériaux” because it is an example of a show that substitutes the display for the essay. In numerous interviews, Lyotard spelled out his ideas about the crisis of the book as an instrument for the diffusion of theoretical ideas and the necessity for a contemporary thinker to utilize other means. Thus the emergence of “the philosopher who decides that his job is to give us something to look at.” Photographs from Lyotard’s exhibition show a rather dry environment, but visitors’ accounts, like that of artist Philippe Parreno, tend to be enthusiastic: “The show itself was absolutely surprising in the curatorial choices, in the way the things and experiences were arranged,” Parreno once commented in an interview. “There was no text, and yet you moved through a narrative written implicitly. It was a wonderful reading experience.” I suppose that the viewer of Documenta 12 is meant to leave Kassel with just such joyous feelings of having “read” the curators’ elegant lines, of having followed the graceful ornamental strings, and thus of having glimpsed a world of forms still unknown to most. But as far as I know, this hasn’t happened. Nevertheless, I hear there is good news: The Friedrichsplatz is slowly turning bright red thanks to the thousands of poppies that Croatian artist Sanja Iveković planted though everyone told her they would never flourish. And the 1,001 Chinese whom Ai Weiwei invited to Kassel have returned safely to their native country, filled with beautiful memories. Myself, I return home with a profound sense of puzzlement—and of disappointment at having witnessed a missed opportunity.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.