Allan Sekula, Prayer for the Americans (1), 1999–2004, 1 of 39 color transparencies, dimensions variable.

Allan Sekula, Prayer for the Americans (1), 1999–2004, 1 of 39 color transparencies, dimensions variable.

“How Do We Want to Be Governed?”

Miami Art Central

It’s been more than a year since the announcement of Roger M. Buergel’s appointment as director of Documenta 12, yet many of the questions that first accompanied the emergence of this little-known curator from Lüneburg, Germany, on the international stage remain: Is Buergel a logical successor to Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor? Will he offer, as art historian Sabeth Buchmann wondered in these pages last February, “less political discourse in exchange for art with a capital A”? A recent visit to Buergel’s “How Do We Want to Be Governed? (Figure and Ground)” (cocurated with Ruth Noack) at Miami Art Central offered one possible answer to the latter question, which eludes all easy dichotomies: Documenta 12 will in all likelihood remain steeped in political theory while including art with a capital A—and yet audiences may well still be left feeling cold.

“How Do We Want to Be Governed?” was the third installment in a five-part project, “Die Regierung” (The Government), which began in 2003 at the Kunstraum of the Universität Lüneburg. The show in Miami was arduous, visually unengaging, ambitious in scope, and moderate in size, filling MAC’s two floors with works by twenty-eight far-flung artists, ranging from the familiar (Eleanor Antin, James Coleman, Francesca Woodman) to the obscure (Ibon Aranberri, Ines Doujak, Florian Pumhösl). Like Buergel’s larger curatorial approach, this exhibition was informed by Foucault’s concept of gouvernementalité, which envisions social order less as the product of repressive powers imposed from on high than as a supervisory “relationship of the self to itself” and as everyday practices through which “free individuals” interact to define both themselves and the limits of the social.

The show and its catalogue were notably programmatic and argued for a conception of art as the visual embodiment of the “relationality of being—and that includes political being.” According to this idea, art’s value resides in its potential not only to tell it like it is but also to imagine the way things could be. Broad-minded—yet not promiscuous—in his taste for critical theory and political philosophy, Buergel ranges in his allegiances from Walter Benjamin to Guy Debord, from Foucault to Leo Bersani to Giorgio Agamben. The resulting mix of theory is the solvent with which Buergel seeks to dissolve the boundary between aesthetics and politics.

What might such art look like, and what would it do? Sonia Abián and Carlos Piergari’s clunky, handcrafted boxes on pedestals, Aparatobarrio (Neighborhood Apparatus), 2004, are decorated with fanciful figurative paintings and contain drawers of different sizes that offer the curious visitor a variety of texts and images. They describe aspects of everyday life and culture in a liminal quarter of Posadas, a provincial capital in northern Argentina where residents lead a precarious semi-legal existence. Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann’s Die Arbeiterinnen von Brukman (The Seamstresses of Brukman), 2003, comprises eight détourned men’s suits, each bristling with buttons, mismatched designer labels, and embroidery, that together can only allude to their intended subject: the economic crisis that beset Argentina beginning in 2001 and its relation to the global economy; the abandonment of the Brukman clothing factory in Buenos Aires by its owners and its subsequent occupation by workers.

Buergel’s aesthetic sensibility also accommodates affecting models for the inscription of historical memory, such as Martha Rosler’s Unknown Secrets (The Secrets of the Rosenbergs), 1988, or Allan Sekula’s Prayer for the Americans (1), 1999–2004. Along with sculptural and textual components, Rosler’s installation includes a painting dominated by an enlarged snapshot of Ethel Rosenberg in a sundress drying dishes in her kitchen—a pathetic picture around which orbits an array of newspaper and advertising images describing the broader political and social context of her execution. Sekula’s slide show is a subtly layered, suitably acerbic, post-9/11 elegy that documents the artist’s pilgrimage to the hometown of Mark Twain—America’s “original anti-imperialist,” according to Sekula’s statement, “conveniently mis-remembered as a ‘humorist’ and chronicler of lost boyhood.”

Buergel’s attraction to the writings of Agamben centers on the Italian political philosopher’s reconceptualization of “gesture” as means without ends, as communication of pure communicability. In his catalogue essay, Buergel identifies gesture with, among other mediums, dance: how movement can embody pure possibility and concrete materiality and produce meanings suggesting the “founding act of ethical relationality.” In Miami, gesture assumed poetic dimensions in Danica Dakic´’s elegant short video Tauber Tanz (Deaf Dance), 2003, in which sixteen Düsseldorf-residing Bosnian immigrants, wearing a nonsensical assortment of opera costumes from antiquity to the recent past, perform a circular tap dance that originated in the Glamoc region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Preserving without petrifying a displaced folk tradition, their dance is accompanied only by the sound of tap shoes and the dance leader’s voice. The presence of this engaging work in Miami suggests the tantalizing possibility that in future projects Buergel will supplement what is bound to be an abundance of work in film and video with dance and performance.

Most of the standouts at MAC were older projects, among them Oyvind Fahlström’s Mao-Hope March, 1966. This 16 mm film documents a crowd of cheerful New Yorkers whom the artist enlisted to march down what looks like Fifth Avenue with large placards bearing photographic likenesses of Bob Hope and Mao Tse-tung. The voice-over narration consists of interviews by WBAI radio personality Bob Fass, who asks passersby what they make of this scene; in a possible homage to Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s soon-to-be classic ethnographic film, Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer; 1961), Fass also inquires, “Are you happy?”

Less amiable but no less noteworthy was an “extract” of photographs and texts documenting actions by about forty Argentine artists who collaborated on the real-time, geographically dispersed endeavor, Tucumán Arde (Tucumán Is Burning)—the name by which the collective is also known. In 1968, TA artists distanced themselves from art with a capital A in favor of cultural activism. One project involved researching the socioeconomic conditions in Tucumán province in order to generate a counterdiscourse that would expose as lies the propaganda issued by General Juan Carlos Onganía’s dictatorship. Other members demonstrated their contempt for art’s elite audience. The Miami show includes photographic documentation of an evening in November 1968 when artists attending the packed opening of an exhibition by TA member Graciela Carnevale left the event and locked the gallery door behind them, forcing patrons inside to smash windows in order to exit.

Small black-and-white photographs from Francesca Woodman’s series, “Space2, Providence, RI,” 1975–78, which show a cropped female figure in a sun-dappled interior, were curiously dispersed throughout the show. But given the programmatic nature of this text-heavy exhibition and Buergel’s abiding interest in mutually determining social interaction (which he refers to with the unfortunate academic neologism “relationality”), one reads Woodman’s delicate, troubling pictures primarily in terms of the tense standoff between photographer or viewer and model. But one might also interpret them as a product of the curators’ tendency to valorize the everyday in all its particularity, perhaps even the individual’s need to retreat from the field of intersubjectivity to the solitary refuge of the domestic interior. Attending to the micro-technologies of power embedded in such seemingly trivial though symbolically charged details of daily life is a laudable, if familiar, corrective to the historic disregard on both the left and right for the individual details of lived experience.

“How Do We Want to Be Governed?” offered a number of occasionally explicit but more often vague suggestions about how artists can function in a resistant capacity when confronted by governments that, like ours, abuse civil rights and condemn citizens to a state of perpetual war. Still less did it provide an inspiring vision of how artists and intellectuals might carve out spaces of exception in the spectacular system that has, in Agamben’s words, “extended its dominion over the whole planet,” without, in the process, reducing artistic and political interventions to the status of empty gestures.

David Deitcher is a New York–based writer and critic.