PRINT September 2007

Tom Holert

VISITING THIS YEAR’S DOCUMENTA, three weeks after it opened, I was presented with the rather daunting challenge of trying to keep an open mind. Waves of negative opinion, sniping, and relentless gossip had all but hardwired themselves into my brain, and to set aside every enraged report and bitter lament of a colleague or friend who had already seen the show in Kassel required an enormous effort.

Under such circumstances, artistic director Roger M. Buergel’s ur-modernist wish for “the gift of an unpreconceived gaze” (as he himself put it in a 2005 essay reprinted in the first of three Documenta magazines) seems particularly hopeless. Worse, Buergel’s “gaze,” so reminiscent of Roger Fry’s “innocent eye,” promotes as its objective the retrograde notion of mystical union with the work of art wholly unconstrained by the need for any (oh, so limiting) knowledge and competence. Moreover (and this accounts for a great deal of the negative buzz around Documenta 12), the curators’ ambition to strip our gaze of its preconceptions becomes almost a methodological justification of, or, rather, a smirkingly ironic apology for, their “kuratorische Willkür”— that is to say, curatorial whimsy.

That phrase was coined by Buergel and his chief curator (and wife), Ruth Noack, to emphasize the arbitrariness and subjectivity of curatorial decision making (occasionally blown up to “world making”), which emerged as one of the organizing principles of the show. As if to illustrate the peculiar continuities between the willful, the authoritarian, the snobbish, and the outright silly, Buergel announced that he would randomly handpick visitors to Documenta—provided, of course, that their appearance should “inspire” him—and send them off to the Costa Brava for a meal at Ferran Adrià’s four-star restaurant, El Bulli. The Documenta outpost up the Spanish coast from Barcelona had been spontaneously created after the Catalan chef, invited to be a contributing artist to the show, announced that he would prefer to work from home.

As I navigated Documenta’s five principal venues, it was hard to refrain from wondering about the degree of “inspiration” the curators might have experienced while selecting and installing some five hundred pieces. Signs of Buergel and Noack’s willfulness (coded as taste, refinement, preciousness, ambiguity, etc.) were ubiquitous, from the colored walls and opulent curtains that transformed the chambers of the Fridericianum and Neue Galerie into ostentatiously photogenic spaces yearning for a spread in Architectural Digest or Casa Vogue to the hundreds of spotlights leading the gaze through room after room—and sometimes through dimly lit vitrines within dimly lit rooms—a mise-en-scène suggesting that the curators trusted neither the plastic powers of the work nor the perceptual productivity of the innocent beholder.

This pervasive, oppressive mise-en-scène affected (and often harmed) the three-dimensional work—whether sculpture or architectural installations—no less than the paintings and photography. Artists like Mary Kelly and Lili Dujourie suffered significantly from the alleged exquisiteness of all-engulfing color schemes and the shape-shifting spotlights, which had the deleterious effect of fetishizing and exoticizing the work in a manner that recalls the vexatious displays of “non-European” art in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Kelly’s Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi, 2001, seemed to have lost the struggle with the enforced sublimity of the large space in the Neue Galerie where it hung. Sparsely illuminated, its walls coated with somber green paint, the gallery was, furthermore, dominated by a curved structure (containing Sheela Gowda’s superfragile installation Collateral, 2007) and ironically footnoted by Gerwald Rockenschaub’s 1991 stack of eight velour carpets. Mood-programmed by the gallery’s sacral atmospherics, the forty-nine-part series of wood-framed bits of compressed lint from a clothes dryer (with words inscribed in them, retelling the media narrative, the “ballad,” of an Albanian child who was first lost and then reunited with his parents during the conflict in Kosovo) revealed an auratic tendency that may always have been an element of Kelly’s work, but one that was probably never before exposed in such a relentless manner (unwittingly, though, I presume). In a different way and to different effect, the sculptural objects of Lili Dujourie’s Sonate, 2007, arranged on pedestals close to the floor of the Aue Pavilion, next to the silvery curtains and, again, illuminated (and reshaped) by discrete point spots, played their part in the production of a somewhat bourgeois preciousness and refinement, perfectly in keeping with Grant Watson’s catalogue entry, which enthuses about these “luxurious, visceral and black” objects as if they were fancy fashion items on display.

Somewhat ironically in Kassel, those works whose medium in itself could guarantee a certain degree of control with respect to spatiality—i.e., film and video pieces—survived the dominating presentational environment far better. Branded and often shunned as merely documentary in the wake of Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11, time-based works were, on the contrary, probably the most successful of the offerings this time around. Danica Dakić’s terrific El Dorado, 2006–2007, for instance, on display in Schloss Wilhelmshöhe and in Kassel’s Deutsches Tapetenmuseum, demonstrated the relative autonomy of video and sound within an overdetermined environment of Old Masters and curatorial aspirations. In the thirteen-and-a-half-minute video projection, refugee children stranded in Kassel performed, struck poses, and told their personal stories, performing in the Tapetenmuseum before an exoticizing backdrop of nineteenth-century panoramic wallpaper. Dakić has pointedly constructed a decorative but meaningful mise-en-scène. The collaboration between the artist and the children to whom she gave voice did not preclude the deployment of a refined cinematography of saturated color and elegant framing, whereby Dakić subtly references (and displaces) Buergel and Noack’s guiding curatorial conceit while, as Jacques Rancière would describe it, “reconstructing the relationship between places and identities, spectacles and gazes, proximities and distances.” [See Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in conversation with Rancière, “Art of the Possible,” Artforum, March 2007.]

Many of the problems that the emphasis on mise-en-scène instigated might have been anticipated simply by studying the preopening statements of Documenta 12’s artistic director. Buergel’s aforementioned essay, speciously titled “Der Ursprung” (The Origins), encapsulates the attitude that he and Noack adopted in order to pursue a certain metaphysical turn. The exhibition is rendered as an “ontological laboratory,” as the “medium” of an “ethics of coexistence.” The text recounts the story of the first Documenta, curated by Arnold Bode in 1955, with more than just a little rhetorical help from a friend, the existentialist art theoretician Werner Haftmann. (Indeed, the terminology quoted above is partly derived from Bode’s 1955 Documenta statement, which Buergel repeatedly cites in “The Origins.”) Conceived as an appendix to the national garden exhibition being staged at the time in Kassel—which, as a major military base and center of the munitions industry, had been heavily bombed during World War II, and portions of which still lay in ruins—Bode and Haftmann’s Documenta sought to rehabilitate the modernist tradition in post-Nazi Germany, and their project was underwritten by a far-reaching concept of abstract art as a visual lingua franca. In a mise-en-scène incorporating chic 1950s interior-design recipes such as the juxtaposition of rough and smooth textures, the prehistoric and the modernist—and, as a consequence, the somewhat posthistoric—Bode displayed works by mostly western European modernist painters and sculptors. Buergel is aware of the anthropological subtext of Bode’s Documenta, and he discerns its ideological role in the cold-war environment. But his own fondness for generalizations about “existence” and “being” fruitlessly carries on 1950s philosophical pretensions to attaining deeper levels of understanding and truth about humanity and the arts. Buergel has adopted these claims for his own show. He, no less than Bode, seems to believe in art as a universal language, a universal aspect of culture, and in the ability of the exhibition to forge a new subjectivity open to Otherness. Herein lies the ideological role of Documenta 12, which is to promote an “ethics of coexistence”—in a post-9/11 environment with Islam and the West specifically in mind.

Hence, Buergel and Noack chose Bode’s initial and initiating Documenta as their point of departure, as their own “origins.” In his curatorial exposé of 1955, Bode (as quoted by Buergel in “Der Ursprung”) mused on “the roots of contemporary artistic production in all major fields” in a mishmash of ontology and anthropology. Buergel took his lead from the notion of “roots” to arrive at the paradox of the “groundless basis of aesthetic experience,” on which, as he argues, a new and ideal public, driven by an “ethics of coexistence,” was formed in 1955. Buergel does not deny the exclusionary character of Bode’s Documenta, the limited, Eurocentric vision of world art that guided his predecessor. However, and somewhat contrary to the analysis of discontinuities and power/knowledge formations that one might have expected from a curator who has organized exhibitions around Foucauldian concepts like “governmentality,” Buergel was obviously ensorcelled by the existential pathos that summoned art—and a mega-event such as Documenta—to the service of humanity and “being.”

This telling move bore his signature style in that it provoked the very critical milieu it simultaneously called on for support simply by invoking the likes of Agamben, Arendt, Benjamin, Foucault, Lenin, and Rancière through the three main topics, or leitmotifs—Is modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? What is to be done?—that structured the collective Documenta 12 magazines project as well as the preparation of the exhibition itself. Buergel’s “Origins” not only relates to the beginnings of Documenta in a Germany of reeducation and reconstruction but also suggests an anthropological-existentialist common ground where historical times and geographic localities meet in trans- historical and translocal “forms.”

In an article published last April in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a German newspaper that actively supported Buergel’s endeavor (only to withdraw that editorial support once the exhibition opened), Buergel proclaimed that the “migration of form” would be one of the central organizing principles of the show. In German the term Migration is freighted with emphatic political, social, and economic connotations, not dissimilar to immigration in English. Applying “migration” to aesthetic form, however, vampirizes this particular semantic resonance while at the same time contributing to a distinct depoliticization. Even if the application of the term to aesthetic considerations may have been meant as a commentary on the impossibility of borders—physical, political, and cultural—it eventually serves a thinking in which specific descriptive terms become the stuff of ambiguous poetic effusions. Moreover, “migration” is linked by Buergel in the same Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article to another highly debatable term, integration. Whereas integration is currently one of the key concepts of immigration policy in post-9/11 Europe and an issue of great political and legal significance, Buergel displaces it, deploying it to become another knob on his armature of loose and elliptical theorizing. In the name of integration, the “communication” or “correspondence” of “forms and themes” (“migration”) is related to a process of individual “self-change” (Selbstveränderung). This semantic operation—naively? provocatively?—suggests an analogy between the (politically enforced and sometimes obstructed) integration of immigrants and the integration of forms. Hence the pedagogy of the nation-state and the pedagogy of aesthetic education become one and the same.

Buergel’s talk of correspondence and migration stressed the inherent morphologism not only of this kind of reasoning but also of the formal disposition of the works in the exhibition. Sameness and resemblance across time and space provide the “thread” between distanced “contexts.” What is the reasoning behind the juxtaposition (in one of the galleries at Schloss Wilhelmshöhe) of Karel van Mander III’s representation of Africans in a painting from the seventeenth century with Kerry James Marshall’s depictions of African-American youth in four canvases from his 1993 series “The Lost Boys”? And what exactly is to be gained by establishing formal analogies between the ruled lines in the drawings of Nasreen Mohamedi and the ruled lines in a painting by Agnes Martin, which hang side by side in the Neue Galerie?

David Hume, in the first book of his Treatise of Human Nature (1739), argues that “the repetition of like objects in like relations of succession and contiguity, discovers nothing new in any one of them” (emphasis in original). Even though one might claim that a sophisticated theory and practice of resemblance would, as Barbara Maria Stafford wrote in Visual Analogy (1999), capture “those moments of connectedness when we most vividly sense that someone is at home inside our heads,” it can be doubted that this is what the ontological pathos of this year’s Documenta is really all about.

Tom Holert is a writer based in Berlin.