Return to Documenta 13

Documenta 13 was not an art-fair. It was not, on the surface, an upscale celebration of distinguished lifestyle choices.

It promised “artistic research and forms of imagination that explore commitment, matter, things, embodiment, and active living,” – a plausible assertion, considering the scope of works and personalities featured. Its curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, had highlighted the political dimension of this exhibition, going so far as to summarize her Documenta as “a great celebration of the powers of imagination reacting to critical situations.”

Qualifying the following remarks with the admission that I only saw approximately four fifths of the works being shown in Kassel over three days in late August 2013, I would nonetheless like to give a reading of this artistic and cultural event, while relating it to certain (prevailing?) currents in the art field.

My reception of Documenta 13 was complemented by two research methods that may fall outside the “norm” (not only of exhibition visiors but more broadly of “artistic research,” as well).

New List

Firstly: before traveling to Kassel, I spent an entire night looking up all the affiliations featured artists had with commercial galleries. I registered all of this information onto my newly customized “artist list,” and consulted it frequently while touring the exhibition. It served to provide some background that was absent from the official Documenta 13 “Guidebook” I had purchased.

This may strike some as a willful spoiling of the “celebration” mentioned above. I can imagine objections along the lines of: “But the Documenta is not an art fair, it is funded by German federal agencies, international institutions,” or “Do the works not speak for themselves? These details are extraneous!”

The Documenta may well justify itself institutionally in part because it is a “mass event” (or has at least been one since at least 1992), but its raison d'être has always been that of a seismograph, a panoramic “document,” of contemporary art, and this is a field where groups such as artists, students, collectors, investors, writers, curators, gallerists, educators, non-collecting aficionados, etc. have very unequal influence on outcomes.

It was Gustav Metzger who wrote in 1995: “The art world is a very tight little world. Unless he (sic.) can pass through the dealers' one-man show hoop, unless he is able or is prepared to become part of a dealer's 'stable', the living artist in England does not exist as far as the official art world is concerned.” This thought was not echoed seriously by any official participant of Documenta 13, in which Metzger himself was featured for his early drawings but, alas, otherwise muted.

The past Documenta featured artists and collectives from an unprecedented number of countries, 55, including Cambodia, Viet Nam, and Afghanistan. Yet the principal means of distribution for the work of 90% of the artists at Documenta 13 (setting, aside, obviously, the 25 exhibitors who are either deceased or not artists) was the commercial contemporary art gallery, with a strong preponderance of North American and Western European operations, at that.

In point of fact, the galleries most represented at Documenta 13 were:

10 artists: Marian Goodman Gallery, New York (an 11th artist in the stable, Kai Althoff, was invited but declined).

5 artists each: Gal. Chantal Crousel, Paris; Lisson Gallery, London; Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg/Beirut.

4 artists: gb agency, Paris.

3 artists each: Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin; Galerie Christian Nagel, Berlin/Cologne/Antwerp; Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich.

2 artists each: Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam; Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York, Galerie Michael Janssen, Berlin; Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York; kurimanzutto, Mexico; Galerie Jan Mot, Brussels; Galerie Michel Rein, Paris; Rodeo Gallery, Istambul; Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle, Munich; 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong, Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; White Cube, London.

The Returns

My second research method was to match snapshots and still-fresh experiences and discussions with the ideas put forth in Jean-Claude Moineau's 2010 book Retour du Futur, L'Art à Contre-Courant. The author taught art theory at Paris 8 University for several decades, and has delivered an insightful survey and critique of what he calls the many “returns” in art today: return of the author, return of ethics, return of modernism(s). Documenta 13 and Retour du Futur were a fortuitous match, and I will below match clusters of artworks I saw at Kassel with several of the chapters from this book. My purpose is less to challenge than to cast in a different light what Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev calls the “four main positions [on stage, under siege, in a state of hope, on retreat] corresponding to conditions in which people, in particular artists and thinkers, find themselves acting in the present” and which, so the curator, “articulated” Documenta 13.

Jean-Claude Moineau sees in the many returns he surveys in the art production (and art-theory) of the last decade so many attempts to react to unwanted effects of globalization, but that are themselves doomed to failure. A key concept in his articulation of the problem is the marxian term reification, whose expanded formulation he borrows from Lukács' History and Class Consiousness. Briefly: in reification, relations between people within capitalism aquire an autonomy (are “thingified”) that obscures their fundamental nature. Labor and its products become commodities which circulate on the market. The reification is such that it “transforms the phenomena of society and with them the way that they are perceived” (Lukács).

Return of Exhibited Humans

Whereas body-art and performance had been characterized by the artist her/himself being exhibited (often for days), there being a co-presence not between public and artwork, but between public and artist, there has recently been a surge of works in which artists exhibit other people. This observation leads Moineau to ask “if people are henceforth exhibited – just as, on another scale, entire territories along with their inhabitants – in these amusement parks that, entertainment oblige, museums have become, is it not for the satisfaction of others?” A satisfaction with its own scenography and spectacularization, and with dubious precedents in the West: victory parades, executions, and the “human zoos of the colonial era.” Equally troubling is the fact that those people “shown” in such artworks are completely foreign to the world of art, and often of the location where the exhibition is held, thereby increasing their alterity and reducing them in no small part to their physical dimension. They are not “placed” in a situation where they could have their say in their own name, but are more or less condescendingly “given” a say, a distinction made by Foucault.

Aníbal López (detail)

In a work created especially for Documenta 13, Aníbal López (who signed to protomeogalery in Milan) had a professional killer travel from Guatemala to Kassel, brought him to a stage (backlit from behind a curtain) in an auditorium, and had him answer questions from an audience (with the support of an interpreter). As can be imagined, the audience played the role expected of it, and questions were on the register of a typical talk show (“Do you ever experience remorse?”; “What was it like the first time you killed someone?”, “How did you get into this line of work?”). A video of this event ran on a monitor mounted on a pedestal in a somewhat claustrophobic passage of the Neue Galerie, while in the Guidebook text López was quoted saying the work (despite what his “guest” may say) should be understood in the broader historical context of Guatemala, marked by powerful criminal cartels and a guerrilla movement (and its repression).

Kader Attia's Documenta-commissioned work harkened to the extensive “archive” presentations of his fellow Galerie Chistian Nagel (Berlin) artists Renée Green and Mark Dion. The focus of his research, however, was the notion of “repair.” Visitors first walked past a vitrine presentation of African artifacts with “christian veneer”: a survival strategy of “repair” to sustain fallen cults within the various colonial regimes. The room then opened up on to floor-to-ceiling shelves full of, mostly French, colonial and militarist magazines (and whose pages were, incidentally, screwed together and unconsultable). At the back of the room, visitors then got an unobstructed view of a slide show featuring medical documentation of at least two dozen seriously disfigured WWI soldiers. (A war, that, as the accompanying leaflet took care to note, was also colonial in character and whose soldiers were also draftees from North Africa). The violence of the injuries was only marginally tempered by the fact that the photos were in black and white. The medical documentation showed the injured before and after surgical attempts to rebuild their faces (an obviously impossible task) and as an added twist in the artist's strategy, several sculptures of the defaced soldiers recently created by Senegal artisans (culturally recoding the “distorsions”) were also placed in the shelves preceding the slide show. They were scaled the format of monumental busts, and were lit with spotlights in the otherwise dim space.

Amar Kanwar (detail)

The works by Amar Kanwar and Maria Theresa Alvez are installations deploying several media that have in common their commitment to politically and economically disenfranchized groups engaged in struggle to prevent their already difficult situation from becoming even worse. Kanwar's sparsely lit installation The Sovereign Forest deployed videos projections, photo albums, books whose pages contained hand-made banana paper, and a grid-like arrangement on several walls of small rectangular boxes containing indigenous organic rice seeds from Eastern India. The entire space served to present and memorialize the brutal treatment (and resistance) of indigenous communities and peasants under siege by the government and corporations seeking control of agriculture and land. The aforementioned boxes were each inscribed with the name of a villager who had committed suicide. Photo albums that visitors could consult portrayed locals in resistance, for example the “lying down protests” against land acquisition by the Korean steel company POSCO.

Amar Kanwar (detail)

Maria Theresa Alvez turned her space into a large three-dimensional timeline, using a twisting and extensive scale-model/sculpture to make visible the injustices, struggles, and environmental disasters that have framed the last 120 years of Lake Chalco in Mexico City. The walls were framed by photographic portraits of committed residents under the heading “Heroes of the Lake.” The area is today plagued by polluted water and economic interests wanting to take over land for industrial development; the artist is working with locals to develop sustainable farming. The installation had the merit of calling the lie on the Museum of Mexico City, whose director sought to honor her ancestor in an exhibition on water politics: he was namely the original entrepreneur who bought the land around the lake and violently expulsed indigenous residents.

Maria Theresa Alvez (detail)

The problem with all of these art works was that, as Moineau formulates it, “the exhibited body [in art] is also the body transformed into commodity; commodified and reified.” The above works have their material finality, their authorial closure, at the moment of sale in Milan, Berlin, Paris, and New York. Deploying bodies that cannot be photographed, or not visible, as in the Tino Sehgal (Marian Goodman Gallery) Documenta contribution – which may questionably purport immateriality – does not resolve the issue in any way. Bodies reified; Art, but also commodity, and one with a very privileged clientele. An irony in the case of Alvez is that while her politics are admirably leftist in Mexico, her gallerist in Paris is known for his rightist politics, having, for example, urged artists in his stable to vote for Sarkozy. The issue raised in the work of Alvez and Kanwar is the return of ethics in both art institutions and the art-market. Not an “ethical reform” of these, obviously, but the adoption of ethics as a symbolic component.

Return of Ethics

In the May 28th issue of Newsweek one could read the following characterization of the Documenta by curator Christov-Bakargiev: “There’s nothing cynical, everybody’s acting earnestly.” A contrast indeed to the not-so distant past, when “encroachments” of ethical judgment on artworks were open (at least in Europe) to criticism, art being a sanctioned area of transgression, a cathartic escape-valve within capitalist society. In Retour du Futur Moineau surveys several recent formulations that revive Wittgenstein's “ethics and aesthetics are one.” Bernard Aspe's “One must give back to art, and to esthetics, that which they are first and foremost: hypothesis on the formation, the formulation, of the ethical element,” is one example. As early as the blairist 1990s there had been observations that many state-funded art commissions seemed designed to act as a social balm, ironing out conflicts, with the artist taking on the role of remédiateur (a French neologism of Tristan Trémeau's, combining “remedy” with “conflict-mediation”). More recently, there has been debate about whether we live in an era of a frivolous “ethics-light” (Gilles Lipovetsky), the commodified ethics of TV fundraising drives. Or are we locked (a reading of both Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou) in a consensual ethics, that stands in contrast to political antagonisms, the enduring antagonisms between social fractions? For Moineau, the current return of ethics in art is to be read as an attempt to compensate for a lack of political options.

Michael Rakowitz (detail)

A series of works in the East Wing of the Fridericianum addressed the locally-consensual issue of destruction and expropriation of cultural treasures. In What Dust Will Rise? Michael Rackowitz (Lombard-Freid Projects, New York) established material and symbolic transfers between Kassel and Bamiyan, Afghanistan, near the former location of sixth-century Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The centerpiece of his installation was a series of “stone book” depictions of items destroyed in 1941 during the allied bombing of the Fridericianum, which then housed a library. These were carved during a workshop at Bamiyan in 2012 (the project was yet another Documenta 13 commission). The exhibition Guidebook evokes “metaphoric relief” and “overcoming traumas” in connection with the installation (which also featured small samples of rubble from both the World Trade Center and the Buddhas). Mullah Mohammed Omar may very well be quoted justifying the destruction of the historic monuments, this extensive project nonetheless took safe distance from the political conflicts it sought instead to make amends for. It self-sufficiently deployed the virtues of traditional craft, tactful communication, and the autonomy of the art space as a model of reconciliation.

The conceptually blurry nature of the project was underscored by a card on the wall, printed only in German, mentioning that after the allies' second, 1943, bombing the Nazis restocked the Kassel library by plundering libraries throughout Europe – “what happened to those books?” a person standing next to me asked, “are they still in Kassel?”

Card in Michael Rakowitz space

The Fridericianum was yet again paired with another destroyed edifice in Afghanistan, the Dar ul-Aman Palace in Kabul, in the video-sound installation A Brief History of Collapses, by Mariam Ghani (Aicon Gallery, New York), which combined documentation with the artist's reflections. One floor below, Emily Jacir (Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London) showed her minutious and partially undercover documentation of books looted from Palestinian homes and institutions by Israeli authorities in 1948 (currently housed in the Jewish National Library in West Jerusalem). Christov-Bakargiev did these artists little service by exhibiting them all in close proximity, like a panorama of artists-as-cultural-conscience. They are alas a far cry from the the Guerrilla Art Action Group and its opposition to the Viet Nam War. We were left with “ethical” works of international scope embedded in the art-market while, for example, Angela Merkel's foreign policy was left unscathed. (Note: Ghani, to her credit, has created the Index of the Disappeared together with Chitra Ganesh, which chronicles post 9/11 renditions, detentions, deportations, a project absent from Kassel).

Theaster Gates (White Cube, London) is a Chicago-based artist whose commitment to “mending damage” (as the Documenta Guidebook puts it), salvaging history, and helping communities has been widely hailed. An obvious precursor to his work (though scarcely noted in the art press or gallery biographies) is George Maciunas' ambitious (and initially illegal) Fluxhouse Co-operatives Project in New York's Soho district, starting in 1966.

Theaster Gates (detail)

A run-down Kassel building was put at Gates' disposal to create a site-specific and short-term extension of his Dorchester Projects complex in Chicago. Many pertinent facts about the latter are enumerated on the website of White Cube: “The [Dorchester Project] building and, subsequently, several more in its vicinity, have become a hub for cultural activity housing a book and record library and becoming a venue for dinners (...), concerts and performances. Gates describes this project as 'real-estate art', part of a 'circular ecological system' since the renovations of the buildings are financed entirely by the sale of sculptures and artworks that were created from the materials salvaged from their interiors.”

Gates' Kassel intervention had the merit of documenting the work process of his “team” (something few other Documenta 13 projects did), dissolving the artificial barrier between between “fine art” results and the multitude of “practical/organizational” undertakings (this is a problem in some other artist-as-redevelopper projects I have seen recently). But with “ethics sucked up into reification” (Moineau), when does the artistic recycling of elements from a building and sale on the the art market effectuated to financially secure local “cultural activities” yield to the “cultural activities” as the ethical alibi that discursively optimizes the gallery praxis? And is it possible to disjunct the process, not for ethical but for political reasons, when this shift occurs?

Theaster Gates (detail)

The Kassel building “had been empty since the 1970s,” begging the question: who were its former residents and what happened to them? And what will happen to the Kassel building after Documenta 13? And back in Chicago: how can Dorchester Projects LLC (registered as a for-profit real estate agency) counteract gentrification other than by removing living spaces from the free market?

In an interview with the Suddeutsche Zeitung in May Christov-Bakargiev provided the following curatorial perspective: “I am an optimist. I see the Documenta as a laboratory where alliances can develop in dialogue.” Not surprisingly, many other projects at the Documenta seemed to share in this optimism.

Claire Pentecost (exhibition view)

Claire Pentecost (no gallery affiliation, to her credit) has countered the disinformation of the agro-food industry in a number of projects. Her work at Documenta 13 cast light on corporate landgrabbing and proposed a new currency, the soil-erg, as “sustainable alternative to the petro-dollar” (according to the Guidebook text). The soil-ergs, compost cast into disc and ingot forms, filled an exhibition room and were accompanied by framed drawings that seemed like prototypes for soil-erg “bills” (one featured the slogan “life is a verb and the actors are not all human”). The arte-povera exhibition value of the soil-ergs is inversely proportional to their practicability as currencies, as they are “heavy and fragile” and resist “circulation”. Still, it would have been interesting to allow visitors to exchange their own dollars or euros or yuans for soil-ergs. The soil-ergs were put into admirable action (by artist(s) and Kassel University students; not visitors) at an outdoor location: they stack up to form vertical beds for vegetables and sunflowers. The fact that there was no effort to test-run of the currency in Kassel, for the sake of discussion and of art mediation outside of the museum, shows that the denomination of the soil-erg as a currency is only art (a fact that leads me me to think of Cilo Meireles who, by contrast, has produced several interventions that both destabilize the status of money and of art).

The collective AND AND AND (also not gallery-affiliated) was itself convened at the impetus of Christov-Bakargiev for Documenta 13, with between six and twenty-two members aiming to, among other things, “experiment with non-capitalist life.” Like Pentecost they cooperated with students and staff of the University of Kassel, addressing issues such as food-production, soil fertility, and biodiversity, thereby running both a tea garden outside the Ottoneum building and a “solidarity economy organic food kiosk” in Karlsaue Park. Their exhibition qua open workspace on the train station grounds offered a Beuysian deployment of chalkboards which were all full of action plans, flow charts, and definitions, such as this one: “(non-capitalistic) → not for profit / for pleasure / slowness / other social relations.” What does this mean? Is the elision of the historic demand for an overthrow of capitalist ownership of the means of production a way to draw a line between “non-capitalism” and the “anti-capitalism” of Marx and Engels? And how is “for pleasure” to be understood as “non-capitalist”? Regrettably, any viewer coming upon the idea of adding a thought, comment, or question feelt immediately out-of-place in the AND AND AND room: no boards, chalk, or erasers were included for this purpose.

AND AND AND (detail)
Drinks at Documenta 13 exclusively from Dr. Oetker

Despite AND AND AND's goal of “actual inquiry into revoking inherited values and norms,” it seemed to have escaped them after their extended stay in Kassel that – to address the issue of food-production and capitalism– all gastronomy subcontractors in or around exhibition locations were contractually obliged by the Documenta to sell beverages produced by the Dr. Oetker conglomerate, whose owner, Arend Oetker is a collector of several of the artists on view in Documenta 13, active in the German conservative CDU party, and honorary chairman of the Documenta 13. It is regrettable, but symptomatic, that AND AND AND did not take this opportunity to, as Lucy Lippard once formulated the approach of activist art, “bite the hand that feeds them” (and in this case, unwitting Documenta visitors as well).

Maria Theresa Alvez (detail)

On the visual level, the problematic shift from politics to ethics at the Documenta was also amplified by a visual folk-art vernacular, reminding me and some visitors I was with of school projects. A few examples: Pentecost's drawings (similar in style to the very unpolitical but established Karen Kilimnik), Maria Theresa Alvez' bas-relief depicting an evil landowner engulfed in flames, Rakowitz' hand-scrawled vitrine legends. Do hand-fabrication and an “unintimidating” style here serve as an aesthetic marker of earnestness? A contrast to the cynical conceptualism of, say, Damian Hirst? Fortunately, several socially-critical installations I will get to in my conclusion avoid this principle of equivalency.

Beyond the panorama of works that embody an ethical stance towards global problems, Christov-Bakargiev and the Documenta seemed set to practice what they preach by doing, in a limited art-way, “good” to their ticket-paying visitors: the Karlsaue Park was peppered with convivial service-art: There, one found a clinic for “urban illnesses and stress” (Pedro Reyes), a promenade for dogs (Brian Jungen), AND AND AND's food kiosk, a rest tent (Robin Kahn & La Cooperativa Unidad Nacional Mujeres Saharauis), performance workshops that “cultivate healthy relationships” (Paul Ryan), a jukebox in the park restaurant (Susan Hiller), and an internet platform designed to help people offer and receive services via a virtual currency (Time Bank). It says much for the prestige and influence of the Documenta that artists would concede to being deployed in such a way. To manage any hard feelings they may have had, at any rate, there was an Anger Workshop (Stuart Ringholt), not far off at the Neue Galerie.

Paul Ryan (detail)
Susan Hiller jukebox in Grischäfer restaurant

That art can thoroughly ally itself with the struggles of the oppressed, far from the centers of the art-market, was to be seen at the Documenta 12, albeit from a group that disbanded several decades ago. Argentina's Rosario Group – unlike the projects I have examined in the previous two sections – followed a consequential and activist route starting, firstly, with a critical reflexion of their own field: art. Their project was a politization of art (that challenged in the process the identity of art, not just of their own, but of all art).

Return of modernism(s)

A visitor could also have been struck at how the terms “modern” and “modernist” came up frequently in the Documenta 13 exhibition panels, Guidebook, and other publications. An ongoing preoccupation of Christov-Bakargiev's, manifestly. In 2003, while working as chief curator of Castello di Rivoli in Turin, she conceived and exhibited a group show of artists “engaging with modernism and modernity round the world today” under the programmatic title The Moderns.

Is “modernism” a closed chapter, followed by postmodernism, that can be returned to? Or is modernism still ongoing, with postmodernism but a detour (or an integral part)? Or has neomodernism instead come to succeed postmodernism?

Looking back at the twentieth century, this picture is obviously not complete. Jean-Claude Moineau has found it fit to revive and rearticulate Peter Bürger's 1974 distinction between modernism and the historical avant-gardes. He thereby stresses that autonomy (key to the modernist conception of art) is never without its opposite, heteronomy. The opposition between modernism and avant-garde is manifest in their chiasmatic relation to these terms, which I have summarized in this table:

Modernist art – with its early and clear articulations in movements such as Cubism, die Blaue Reiter, École de Paris, and Abstract Expressionism – rejected social functions such as representation, education, propaganda, entertainment. By the same token it requires the protective shield of museums and galleries (art institutions) and more broadly the institution of art as a privileged sphere within bourgeois society.

The short-lived historical avant-gardes (exemplified by Berlin Dada, Soviet Constructivism and Productivism) rejected this very institution of art. “Away with art that is bright patches on the lackluster life of the man of property” (Alexander Rodchenko, Moscow, 1921). “[Communist artists must] disrupt and neutralize work by bourgeois artists” (Rote Gruppe, Berlin, 1924). They embraced an integration of art into life, into bringing about the same revolution in aesthetics and culture that marxists had brought about in society, economy, and politics (to use Georges Conio's formulation) – and fighting the tide of fascism.

The historical avant-gardes may have been defeated and momentary eclipsed, but modernism was not wholly triumphant and unchallenged in the post-war period. By the 1960s several groups once again explicitly turned against the institution of art (Fluxus, the Internationale Situationniste, Rosario Group, the Fox, King Mob).

The designation neo-avant-garde was, however, concurrently used for undertakings that were no real threat to institutions and market (Bürger used the term to describe Pop Art and the Nouveaux Réalistes; Hal Foster to describe “institutional critique”-genre and “Pictures generation” artists).

The last decade has been marked by a return to modernist references in art. Museums and writers have raised the question of a plurality of modernisms and avant-gardes, pondered whether avant-garde(s) should be considered modernism(s), finally setting the stage, Moineau writes, “for a plurality of neomodernisms.” For there has been a sober realization that, to quote the neomodernist Hal Foster, “the expanded field of postmodern art has largely imploded.”

A postmodernism faulted, by the cultural critic Frederic Jameson and the historian François Hartog, among others, with altering our sense of time, hypertrophying the present to the point that there is no longer a future to bring into being, nor a past to serve as a guide, with time even becoming immobile (Hartog). A critique of “presentism” echoed in art writing by Foster and Arnauld Pierre, the latter championing “archeomodernist” artists who counteract the postmodernism's “blind cannibalism” (in its agrregation of historical references), and “unbearable relativism.” In these two writers Moineau sees an attempt to revive modernism in a non-linear way, taking into account the impasses it led to. The result is a “new way of being modern (…) wisened up, soft modern, taking its distances from the projective and utopian dimension of modernist ideology, recycling modernist prophecies while cutting them off from their presumption to both foresee and prescribe the future.”

As in the case of modernist inspiration from “primitive” art, the neomodernist interpenetration of past, present, and future opens the floodgates for new genres of artistic production: retromodernism, archeomodernism, reenactments, replicas, the use of obsolete technologies, commemorative works, all under the aegis of a response to “presentism.” In the exhibition text for her The Moderns show, Christov-Bakargiev approvingly noted: “Today, a growing number of artists round the world are referring to modernism or using icons of modernity as narratives and fictions in their artworks.”

And so we found, nine years later at Documenta 13, the following:

Retromodernist works that redeployed artefacts and obsolete technologies from the 1950s through 1970s:

-Love Letters_1.0 by David Link (Alexander Ochs, Galleries, Berlin/Beijing) retold the story of “strange love letters” that appeared on a university computer department in the 1950s, spatializing this narrative in an array of vintage cathode ray tubes, paper-roll printouts, and an information corner furnished with current computers (tastefully disguised) and a 1960s Giroflex office chair.

David Link (exhibition view)

-Dora Garcia's local television project Die Klau Mich Show, deploying a 1970s-ish set design consisting of molded white plastic furniture, seats and tables with tulip bases, and ever-present Elvis soundtack.

-Thomas Bayrle's automaton/sound sculptures based on vintage motors and mechanical devices.

Thomas Bayrle (detail)

A softmodernist presentation of works: not in the white sepulcher of the museum but instead, according to the plan of the curator, in wooden white cube “houses,” formatted the size of art-fair booths, pastorally deployed at different locations across the eighteenth-century Karlsaue Park. (There were twice as many art in public space projects that required tickets to see them as there were that didn't).

Other modernisms: École de Paris with Julio Gonzáles; surrealism (which ceased to be an avant-garde group, at the very latest, by the late 1920s, when André Breton declared it was an art) with Maria Martins and Salvador Dalí; Norwegian modernism with Aase Texmon Rygh.

Aase Texmon Rygh (exhibition view)

Commemorative works by: curator Christov-Bakargiev (commemorating Korbinian Aigner by planting an apple tree named after him), Mark Dion (commemorating the Schildbach Xylotheque), Julie Mehretu (commemorating “revolutionary squares”), Dora Garcia (commemorating post-'68 “radicalism in society”), Sanja Ivekovic (commemorating “individuals who have resisted injustice and oppression”), Jeronimo Voss (commemorating the Paris Commune), Javier Téllez (commemorating Artaud's 1936 trip to Mexico).

Archeomodernist works that harkened back to or redeployed artefacts and technologies from past centuries:

-Toril Johannessen (Hillary Crisp Gallery, London) who installed a sculpture based on a 1700 magic lantern, enlarging the original over ten-fold. This petroleum-powered construction projected an image of the sun, creating, so the Guidebook, a “self-referential energy system.”

Original 1700 Lanterna Magica
Toril Johannessen (detail)

-Nalini Malani's “video/shadow play,” Jeronimo Voss's video integrating 19th century astronomical models and slides, Wael Shawky's videos employing 200-year-old marionettes, William Kentridge's video projection harkening to B&W silent films (complete with accordion accompaniment).

-Untitled by Pierre Huyghe (Marian Goodman Gallery), a garden area landscaped around a “classical” reclining nude sculpture whose head was obscured by a beehive. A concrete bench was tipped over, its surface matching the lavender-dyed leg of a trained Spanish greyhound which pranced about the area. Concrete blocks abutting mounds with overgrowth simulated an abandoned construction site. At one flank of this locus of “complexities” visitors were congenially guided along their way by a golden ribbon. Huyghe's description of the work underscored that “elements and spaces from different times in history lie next to each other with no chronological order or sign of origin.”

Pierre Huyghe (detail)

Is neomodernism's interpenetration of past, present, and future in fact a break with postmodernism? In Nietzsche et la Postmodernité, Daniel Charles argues that, no, postmodernism itself (both its neoconsevative and poststructuralist wings) had adopted the the Heideggerean conception of an equitemporality of the three dimension of time. To which Moineau concludes that neomodernism, in picking up the thread of modernism, must necessarily do the same with postmodernism, as well.

Pondering what this trend may actually bring about, Moineau concludes that these “neomodernisms are suited to the fashion of the time in this new period marked by a return to order.” Its proponents such as Hal Foster hope that they are in opposition, or at least in “resistance,” yet are cornered on the point that historical modernism had opposed, at least in theory, any idea of a “return,” an idea they require in order to guarantee the perennity of modernism.

So many gestures of resistance at Documenta 13 remained only that: Walid Raad's elliptic problematization of the Artist Pension Trust, the sparse utterances of critique within Garcia's TV programme (which were never followed up by the podium host), Yan Lei's gradual conversion of hundreds of his figurative paintings into monochromes (which, unlike Metzger's auto-destructive art, remain tangible, sellable, commodities once the process has been completed), Ida Applebroog's deployment of “surrealist demonstrators” in Kassel, David Lester's plan to “subvert the atmosphere of consumerism” in a department store. In these cases, reification always emerged unscathed.

Walid Raad (detail)
Ida Applebroog (detail)

Other returns: the author, beauty, staging...

The strongest assertions at Documenta 13, be they in ethicist or neomodernist registers, were those presented over and over again throughout a multiplicity of works by different artists. Few individual works and no group of works managed to clearly adopt a position separate from the themes and style-directions set by the organizers. The reason for this is that Documenta 13 presented yet another return: the return of the author, an author as curator, as meta-artist whose “work” is putting artistic positions into relation with one another. Over 100 works in this Documenta were produced as commissions – this was a record for the exhibition. It will probably be some time before one really knows how much influence was exercised when Christov-Bakargiev and her team invited artists to fulfill such commissions, a proposal with the obvious benefit of paid production costs (at least in part) versus the zero-to-no funding of several other invited artists, but with the drawback of curtailed freedom (be it formal, temporal, locational, or critical). And were any invitations to the Documenta conditional on acceptance of a commission, the artist collaboration in the curatorial message becoming a sort of “admission fee” to exhibit at the prestigious event? Michael Baldwin of Art & Language brought up the problem, if only in passing, on the Klau Mich Show (the collective was not invited to exhibit at Documenta 13): “this show, as far as I could tell, speaks very, very loudly of curatorial power— the power of curatorial procuration, so to speak. I am not entirely sure that as a consequence of that, that I quite know how to position myself in relation to a great deal of the work.”

Christov-Bakargiev may not have gone as far as “relational art” curator Éric Troncy, whose “display” approach Moineau describes as “dispatching” artistic works to even “serve as supports (be it physical or on the level of projection) for each other.” Like Troncy, however, Christov-Bakargiev juxtaposes pre-existing artworks, commissioned artworks, and objects not considered to be art: in staged arrangements within the Orangerie Astronomy and Physics Museum and the Ottoneum Natural History Museum, and in display cases within her own “exhibition within the exhibition,” baptised “The Brain,” in the Fridericianum building, an “associative space of research.”

Juxtaposition 1: paintings made by artist-autodidact Konrad Zuse, computer prototypes he developed as an engineer, and installation by artist David Link. Orangerie.
Juxtaposition 2: Vitrine containing objects destroyed in Lebanese Civil War and palette knife of painter Etel Adnan. 'The Brain'.

The Fridericianum was itself the location for a narrative deployment of preexisitng art, commissioned art, and non-art, in order to melodramatically illustrate the Documenta 13 theme of “collapse and recovery.” Visitors entered the main building of the Documenta to find exhibition spaces left empty and nearly empty (perhaps a relief for the eyes, but more a cliché of contemporary art than a surprise fifty-five years since Yves Klein's exhibition at galerie Colette Allendy). In one wing: a sparse re-presentation of works by a deceased artist at the same location fifty-three years later. In the other wing (placed in a vitrine): an apologetic letter of refusal to take part in Documenta 13 by another artist, who is on a first-name basis with the curator, and riven by “great doubt about how to continue with myself.” The two wings bridged by a breeze-as-site-specific-artwork by a third artist, with the Documenta “welcome” text by Christov-Bakargiev establishing the tone. The resulting topography was less an exhibition of different positions than an orchestration along the theme of the “fresh start.” Visitors were rewarded for optimistic resolution (“recovery”) if they went forth – through the emptiness – to the rooms full of art, while retaining a sense of apprehension from crises past (“collapse”).

Kai Altoff letter in vitrine. Fridericianum

The authorial power of the curator to put any given X into relation with any given Y also extended to people and their realms of activity: Documenta 13 included a high-water mark number of non-artists in the exhibition (14), even sometimes labeled “artists” on exhibition panels, in contradiction with their attribution in the catalogue and on the website (such was the case of biologist Kristina Buch at the Documenta Halle).

This curatorial selection was hardly an attempt to overcome art, nor did it contain any a critique of art-as-such. As mentioned above, gallery-affiliated artists were, after all, 90% of the exhibition. Moreover, not one non-artist, not even the political philosopher in the group, was in any way inclined to cast a shadow on the notion of art which is celebrated at Documenta 13. By contrast, Documenta 7 was the high-water mark for non-art-market artists at the exhibition (also the largest in participants), an obvious affront to market prerogatives on this basis – also because it only featured media which were mechanically reproducible (photography, film, publication), excluding those favorite incarnations of market fetishism: painting and sculpture.

Much like the array of mini-white cube “houses” in the Karlsaue Park, Christov-Bakargiev's deployment of one imagine-this-were-an-artist after another, at regular intervals, “softened” her underlying return to modernism. As if to say “we at Documenta are not fundamentalists of artistic self-referentiality and medium-specificity: our laboratory of artistic research gladly admits exchange students from other disciplines.”

As a Documenta exhibition panel accompanying the presentation of quantum-physicist Anton Zeilinger in the Fridericianum stressed, the admissions criteria of non-art was that most eminently conventional by standards of the museum: beauty.

Exhibition panel for Anton Zeilinger. Fridericianum

Yet clichés and platitudes on one end of the exhibition did not mean that jarring shocks were beyond the scope of this exhibition. Certain dead artists found themselves in company they would perhaps not have chosen when alive. The late Hannah Ryggen's anti-Franco tapestries are exhibited in the same building as Franco-apologist Salvador Dalí. Perished victims of the Nazi regime – Charlotte Salomon and Korbininan Aigner – were heralded in an exhibition that lists Friedrich Christian Flick on its homepage as a “friend.” The Mercedes heir had for years refused to compensate victims of Nazi slave labor camps in his family's munition factories, instead using his inheritance to go on an art-binge. Only in 2005 did he concede to pay reparations in light of the PR damage his own Flick Collection in Berlin had received.

There was no insurrection of any of the invited artists or researchers at the Documenta 13, not publicly, at least. The possibilities of “curatorial power” seemed endless while their results were depressingly familiar.

Some works that presented exceptions

To the credit of Christov-Bakargiev and the structure of the Documenta 13, certain projects at least were able to remain disentangled from the ever-recurring patterns that swallowed up many works, and to even make the cooperation with the Documenta a productive one. But perhaps the “credit” here is merely for the exceptions that prove the rule. The collaboration of Ines Shaber (no gallery affiliation) and sociologist Avery Gordon stood out on a number of counts. Their Workhouse: Room 2 thematized the Guxhagen-Breitenau complex outside of Kassel (Christov-Bakargiev urged all artists exhibiting at the documenta to visit the site). Since the twelfth century it had been a monestary, workhouse, Nazi concentration camp and labor camp... even serving as a correctional facility for young women from 1952 until 1973. Instead of drawing the visitor into the artists' own immersive environment, this work and its installation in a minimally altered chamber of commerce lobby room with large windows allowed the viewer to distractedly or concentratedly waver between the present (the street outside, where Kassel youth gather to hang out) and the past (the object of the artwork, the regimented lives of the “deviant” girls sent to the reformatory). Here, the non-art street life fully competed with the forces of art-pilgrimage. The means used were restrained, maintaining the non-ceremonial feel of the space: some fabric, a bench, photos doubling as supports for text, only natural light. A concise eight-minute audio recording of a (presumably fictional) letter by an internee to her loved-one was the only narrative element. It was a decided contrast to the extended video-installations exhibited at other locations (one of whose credits alone lasted 5mn), and one of the best “public art” contributions.

Ines Schaber and Avery Gordon (exhibition view)

In contrast to the “exhibited bodies” works mentioned above, art critic Lori Waxman made a contribution consisting entirely of her own (no assitants) offer to write art-reviews for any and all artist who “needed” one – live at that – with her desktop work process and text corrections visible on a screen above her. Unfortunately, I was not able to see this experiment underway, as she had been completley booked out for the remainder of the documenta, her booth empty, when I came in late August. The 60 wrd/min art critic apparently produced over 200 reviews, which were proudly circulated on the internet by the various beneficiaries. It is not clear if any visitors commissioned hatchet-jobs of works by famous artists. Most likely not, alas. This would have been an interesting “test” of the Documenta environment. It is also worth noting that the only extended performance-art work of the exhibition was by an art-critic.

Issa Samb (detail)

Issa Samb (no gallery affiliation) used a tree as a support for an immense (and seemingly fragile) crucifix structure, deployed with obvious iconoclastic intent, amid nets out of string, tables with weather-ruined books, a suitcase densely covered with bottle-caps and flattened out cans, and newspaper pages (also left to the elements). The result is the only work in the Karsauer Park that seemed like a hostile intruder (and the fact that it was cordoned off reinforced this impression, as if it would only all too well encourage passerby to making their own entropic contributions and expansions). Unlike the work of Huyghe, there was no pretense of “making art with natural processes.” His intervention also stood in obvious contrast with the pious work of Stephan Balkenol which dominated the plaza in front of the Fridericianum – Balkenol's work, by the way, had nothing to do with the Documenta; it was instead one of two attempts (Gregor Schneider being the other) of German art-market jockeys to free-ride the Kassel art-tourism carousel, using the church as protective shield and patron. Christov-Bakargiev got flack from the media for trying to delay the exhibition of these works, but it was well within her prerogatives to do so.

As in the case of Schaber/Avery, It is not clear to what extent Christov-Bakargiev was involved in the details of the project by Amy Balkin (no gallery affiliation), or its celestial theme. Petition for Protection of Earth's atmosphere as a Preserve for Present and Future Generations by Inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List on an Emergency Basis was exactly what its title says it is. The project realization and presentation was in the no-frills tradition of conceptual art, sparing technological gimmicks, and proved that this register can function very well with a diverse public: the whole time I was there visitors were busy filling out postcards and placing them in the assigned postal bins. The final installation also revealed the scope of positions diplomatic representatives can take relative to a project that pits the cultural and ethical against the (short term) economic: from conciliation to harshness, with only two positive responses (Albania, Afghanistan) out of several dozen.

Amy Balkin (exhibition view)

The best work by a gallery-affiliated artist was a sound installation by Susan Philipsz (Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam, and three other galleries), based on a string composition by composer and Auschwitz victim Pavel Haas. The original score of his work is lost, but Philipsz has resorted to a reconstruction by musicologists (based on recordings) to then “dissamsemble” the work and spread it along speakers at the end of a train platform at the Kassel railway station (where Jewish families had been deported in 1941 and 1942). For several days, visiting adjoining Documenta venues to the north and south of the station, I heard what sounded like sporadic, inexplicable violin chords. Next to the tracks, at the end of the platform, the puzzle was finally solved (the volume of the sound had a circumscribed radius that required visitors make a five minute walk so that they could hear it). Once there, visitors heard the chord clusters relay each other from seven different sources, seeming to resonate against the distant mountains. They were in fact audible only to those who made the walk, according to the daily schedule, remaining perceptibly faint or beyond-range for passerby a few hundred yards away.

A Documenta for 2012?

In 2003, Christov-Bakargiev wrote for her The Moderns exhibition that “the digital world is internationalist, as were the modernists.” It was therefore striking, given the infatuation with older technologies at Documenta 13, that internet art (the great bugaboo of NYC gallerists in the 1990s, perceived as it was as a threat to the art-commodity) was absent. There was not one project that was online and not otherwise materialized in Kassel. This was a contrast to Documenta 10, which featured several internet projects, and a room to consult them. Video art, for its part, found itself presented auratically in custom-made booths, and, in one case, and entire cinema built to replicate a cave. While there may have been several magazines or posters offered “for free,” no video or audio artists wagered to offer DVD-R versions of her or his work at self-production price (or even inexpensively). Not as part of the Documenta series of editions, either. (Not even at “high” prices!).

Relating again to the digital world, it is striking that the issues of internet privacy, copyright, and profiling techniques – issues that played such a role in Polish, German, US politics in 2012 – found no echo in any of the works exhibited. Social “techniques” for therapy and relaxation were instead played out as artworks as if we were still in the 1970s, before scholars and activists had questioned such approaches. With regard to internet surveillance, the only point where Documenta 13 intersected with the issue is the text box on the official website that warned its users that cookies were being used to monitor their use of it!

View from Documenta 13 website

The increasing rift between rich and poor under capitalist regimes of accumulation was elided: class-conflict may trigger strife in faraway countries; it is seemingly absent however from those cities where the top international art galleries of the Documenta are located.

If the Documenta is to in fact document current art practices, and the social (or epistemological, or historical) limits these test, it would be useful to at least incorporate this now-thirty-year old checklist formulated by Lucy Lippard in her essay Rejecting Retrochic.

Think about:

1/ “where an artwork goes next”

2/ “for whom it is meant to mean what”

3/ “for what it will be used.”

Skirting these questions amounts to a fig-leaf that can only reinforce the tendency away from a “research” deserving of the name, and toward an art that is integrated into lifestyle commerce, tourism (including its flourishing “commemoration” sector), and real-estate development. The Documenta selection committee, after Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack's “Is Modernism our Antiquity?” of Documenta 12, apparently gave Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev license to once again historically privilege modernism to the detriment of the avant-garde. This hard line can be read as a seismograph less of art than of the class-interest of the curator/administrators from large institutions who exclusively make up this committee, to the detriment of art critics, educators, theorists... or artists. Documenta 13 employed the rhetorical stance of the middle-ground: it was neither as naïve as programmatic modernism was, nor as cynical as as postmodernism. From modernism it revived “progress” – demoted from a self-definitional requirement to a mere decorative motif – and adopted postmodernism's accommodation to social hierarchies. Under the alibi of protecting bodiversity, cultural diversity, the environment, of championing sustainability, cultural heritage, “commitment,” politics, micro-histories, Documenta 13 harmonized itself with Order: that of markets, of businessmen and heirs labeling themselves philanthropists, corporate cultural sponsors, the domestic policy and foreign policy (in, for example, Afghanistan) of the CDU German government.In so doing it bulldozed the politicized re-questioning of art – by artists and non-artists – of the past 100 years.

References

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Kathrin Sauerlander (Eds.), Documenta 13 / The Guidebook, Ostfildern, 2012

Jean-Claude Moineau, Retour du Futur. L'art à Contre-Courant, Alfortville, 2010

Gustav Metzger, Damaged Nature, Auto-Destructive Art, London, 1996

Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, Cambridge, 1972

Hal Foster, Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes), London, 2002

Lucy Lippard,"Rejecting Retrochic," Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change, New York, 1984

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