_il manifesto, 28.6.2012, pp. 10-11 (versione italiana qui)
The entrance to Documenta 13 is devoted to the large, empty atriums of the installation by Ryan Gander, the English artist famous for his reinvention of exposition practices and his partiality to Absence; it is a polemical opener to the exhibition, challenging excessive production and the reduction of artworks to merchandise. Noteworthy initiatives hover at the edges of the visitor’s field of vision: first and foremost, this year’s Documenta is displaced, with sections being held in Kabul, Alexandria, Cairo and Banff. It proposes educational and artistic-artisanal projects. It has expanded its activities to become not merely an “event” or a container of events, but an agency of education and cultural cooperation, an agency of redistribution. This is enough to lend curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s edition a connotation of “social activism” and mutual benefit. There is a great desire for political content and the consecration of art as testimonial. The exhibition is decidedly broad and perhaps too disparate, for reasons that at times seem arbitrary. And so, we must try to select and recognize the constellation of artists who lend meaning to this Documenta. Here are at least three.
The Void, Nothingness, the Feeble Voice
Gander is the first we encounter: his installation, as already noted, is a simple alteration of the Void or of Nothingness. A persistent breeze blowing through the ground-floor exhibition halls of the Fridericianum is the only trace of his intervention. The installation’s title, which we’ll come back to, is sibylline and lends itself to multiple interpretations: “I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull).” In the Rotunda, a (brief) monographic exhibition on Giorgio Morandi awaits, unexpected and thus all the more incisive. Still lifes and a landscape, a view of the courtyard in Via Fondazza. Then, in a display case, a few pitchers used by the painter and a collection of books dedicated to the Masters of ancient and modern art, Chardin and Cézanne. These are the first books we find in the course of the exhibition; there are many others. As a complement to Morandi’s compositions we have a text by Francesco Matarrese, a conceptual artist known for his radical anti-system stance (he abandoned the profession in the early 1970s) and an interpreter of “profound refusal.” That Morandi and Matarrese should face off, or rather, dialogue with one another, in the context of the exhibition, seems revelatory: in his Challenge, Matarrese asserts that there can still be “a breath of a voice, a thread of a feeble voice” opposing the “commercial device” of art. Could we interpret Morandi as this “thread of a voice,” a testimony given at the threshold of silence and disappearance, the most plausible interweaving of aesthetics and politics? Christov-Bakargiev does just this: while distancing herself from the macho-Guevara-ist rhetoric of 1960s “activism” (which is, not unintentionally, absent, with many poveristi in the exhibition), constructs the era of her Documenta on the witness-bearing practices that artists, in her view, are electively called to interpret.
Is there a nostalgia for “good intentions,” cultural heroism, unthinkingly modernist positions? In large part, yes, we must admit. A didactic and educational tone is quite in evidence. Considered as a whole, Documenta 13 seems to function as a sort of oversimplified scholastic textbook that lists conflicts, “turning points, disasters, catastrophes and crises” from often predictable points of view, with limited or fragmentary arguments and “good guys and bad guys” on hand. Let us look again for a moment at Gander’s title: it may seem a malicious parody of art intended as a superficial manual for social use, an educational device serving the pedagogical and self-promotional needs of progressive administrations, a technique of planned and shared memory – the art work as pretext for recall and “discourse,” a simple hook. This is what Kassel effectively risks being today, with curatorial choices that insidiously call upon artists to operate on the same level as political-cultural bureaucracies. A number of skeptical, ironic or simply disjointed points of view emerge. Susan Hiller collects a hundred songs of political protest and revolution in a juke-box, almost as if to grasp the historical distance of moments of heroic social mobilization. Andrea Büttner carries out a devious investigation of the Little Sisters of Jesus, a female order established in 1936 by Magdeleine Hutin. But even Salvador Dalì turns up among the social planners, with paintings dating to the Spanish Civil War years. His presence in the exhibition may seem surprising, but it appears – albeit amid misunderstandings or distortions – to support the curator’s convictions regarding the artist as producer of historical-political allegories.
Glass knots and marble books
Hassan Kahn and Michael Rakowitz lend themselves, in several ways, to interpreting Christov-Bakargiev’s intents. The Egyptian artist combines sculpture and video in an installation that reflects on the micro-conflicts of everyday life and also yields to the logic of formal elegance: his glass Knot is striking in its metaphorical intensity. Rakowitz offers a virtuous atonement, translating into marble a few of the precious volumes destroyed in a fire at the Langravi Library of Kassel-Assia in September of 1941 (the fire was caused by British bombs). For Documenta, Rakowitz engaged craftsmen from Carrara and Kabul to sculpt travertine quarried from the hills of Bamiyan – hills famous for the giant 6th-century Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban. In the display cases accompanying the large installation are remains of volumes partially burned in the fire, and fragments of the Buddhas. And there are other instances in the exhibition where vestiges and ruins, rather than losing their status as art works as a result of their destruction, attain an enhanced symbolic meaning: not far from Morandi’s canvases, we find parts of various objects in bronze, glass, ivory and terracotta from the national museum of Beirut, which were damaged during Lebanon’s civil war.
“Public” art, historiography, memory
The American artist Geoffrey Farmer presents an installation-collage with images taken from Life magazine (from 1935 to 1985). The installation is a sort of visual contribution to the Great American Novel, and at the same time exemplifies a New Dada or Pop attitude to History: de-politicized, History is jumbled up and reduced to Citation, Personage, Face, Icon, Logo – a familiar, glossy assemblage of “Celebrities”. Does something like this happen to the many other tragic events recalled in the exhibition, adopted as pretexts, reduced to ready-mades with attitudes somewhere between the preciously nostalgic, the opportunistic and the predatory? Not always, and not necessarily (we should note the reserved elegance of Emily Jacir’s installation, Ex libris, dedicated to the thirty-some-thousand books the Israelis took from the Palestinians in 1948) – but we cannot rule it out. In the context of a discussion on public art, which Documenta has always proposed to be, there must certainly be some sort of critical reflection on the relationships between art and historiography; but it is not enough to fleetingly recall an event or to capture an imprint or an impression of an Event to meaningfully contribute to the collective process of working through Trauma or Grief.
Participating with an installation dedicated to the trial of the members of the Autonomia operaia or “April 7th” group, Rossella Biscotti has earned significant critical and institutional recognition for her work on archives and her contribution to the political and post-ethnographic focus in recent Italian art. Walking amid the cement casts of the now-defunct Rome bunker-courtroom, we can make out bars, seats, stairs. A recorded voiceover takes us back to the courtroom debate as an on-stage interpreter translates depositions and declarations into German. Processo was important in triggering a reflection on the most recent Italian art and the difficulties of authoritatively positioning oneself in historical and political terms, establishing genealogies and marking out caesuras; no doubt about that. At the same time, it must be said that the technique of the cast and monumental rhetoric of the piece seem to narcissistically crystallize Grief, dogmatically passing it down to future generations and disengaging it from expert and detached historiographic initiatives (like those that certain thirty-to-forty-year-old Italian historians have at length and commendably undertaken on the “years of lead”). An excess of formalism is of no use to processes of empowerment, be they social or generational.
In the installation Repair From Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia – one of the most-commented-on works at Documenta -, a series of gigantic wooden heads with grotesque features is arrayed on metal shelves along with colonial ethnographic and modernist primitive texts. Attia’s thesis is that “other” cultures could have been appreciated by early-20th-century aesthetes, snobs and connoisseurs only on condition that they demonstrate Ethnic Purity and Tribal Primitiveness. The social, political and economic processes of non-western communities or nations were deliberately ignored. What we might call modernist ethnographic prejudice was widely recognized and contested in post-colonial studies and postmodern ethnography; in other words, Attia’s observations hardly constitute a scoop. On the contrary, widespread awareness and long-standing modifications in tastes may be to his advantage. But his stance is not that of the modest educator. The installation is completed by photographic images of WWI wounded, disfigured by post-trauma plastic surgery interventions. Attia proposes these images of victims as exemplifications of a practice of domination that causes war and destruction and at the same time proposes to dissimulate its own harmfulness by means of plastic surgery and abusive “repairs.” The deformed heads of Repair are, in effect, powerful images of humiliation: they correspond to the photos of the wounded soldiers and participate in the redemption of an anti-aesthetic of the subaltern body. And yet, if approached from an historical point of view, they partially refute the anti-western indignation enunciated by the artist in brief writings and press releases, instead proving to be inventive remakes of early 20th-century caricatured busts (Duchamp-Villon, for example). We could legitimately contend that Attia, far from diverging from the ambivalences of modernist estheticism, practices sophisticated forms of appropriation and uses “cultural redemption” as a publicity technique. Young though he is, Attia is no outsider: his production of monumental works has garnered the attention of some of the most callous commercial galleries on the continent.
Europe, or On Guilt
Documenta was born as a pedagogic initiative in post-war Germany, in a city devastated by bombing because it was a center of the Nazi-era military industry. It was intended to operate on political and cultural planes, make a decisive contribution to the westernization of Germany and at the same time rekindle a vigorous connection with the tradition of classical German humanism. Even the openness to American abstract expressionism that characterized the earliest editions of Documenta fit into a continental reconstruction project and raised questions about Europe’s political and cultural destiny within the context of the cold war and the standoff between blocs. In the current edition of Documenta, there is no trace of a European question. In this exhibition, an archeological and elementary geo-political imagery – in many ways seemingly stuck in the 1970s – continually marks out the boundaries between Good Guys and Bad Guys, Western and the Third-World, Americans and the Vietcong, dissolving differences and consolidating stereotypes, be they laudable or not. At a time that may be the prelude to a tragic economic and political dissolution, does it make sense to consider Europe always and only a continent of Accumulation and Domination, ignoring its political-institutional vulnerability or critical-democratic cultural heritage? Failing (and this from a Documenta that intends to thrust itself into the “digital future”) to stimulate a shift that would take us beyond the Protesting of Wrongs and the routine of Denunciation? The investiture of the artist as Testifier of the Horrors of History, although scholastically Benjaminian, fails to acknowledge the degree to which artists themselves may have participated, in recent decades, in the dilapidation of a cultural heritage of Intransigence and Non-Conformism: but it is for this very reason that the interconnection of art and activism today appears to be an enormously complicated issue.
Posthumous Retrospectives and Great Modernist Outsiders
Amy Balkin offers Documenta’s most persuasive project in terms of “activism” (environmental in this case): a formal request that UNESCO recognize the atmosphere as a world heritage site/object. It is not by chance, considering the myriad aporias of contemporaneity, that some of the exhibition’s best sections are dedicated to retrospectives (often posthumous) of Modern Movement outsiders. Etel Adnan’s small oil compositions tell of an everyday practice of painting experienced as a joyous ritual and, with their predilection for broad, non-descriptive areas of color, recall the early-Twentieth-century “syntheticism” of Nabis in France and Munich’s Der Blaue Reiter, as well as De Staël. A pacifist and member of the Norwegian Communist Party in the 1930s, Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970) commented on international events of the Thirties, such as the rise of the Nazi Party and Mussolini’s war in Ethiopia, in wool and linen tapestries morphologically characterized by Klee-like mask-faces. Margaret Preston (1875-1963) and Emily Carr (1871-1945) introduce us to the Modernism of peripheral areas like 1930s and ‘40s Australia: the two painters’ vigorous recognition of native art and culture is one of the exhibition’s most touching contributions, resurfacing from a long-ago, pre-war and pre-Wall Street past. Finally, Metzger’s India ink and pastel drawings plumb the limits of a controversial and demanding period of work between European figurative tradition and American abstract expressionism. Dating to the years between 1945 and 1959-1960, rejected by the artist himself, they can once again be seen here, with a few too many concessions to fluctuations in terms of dates.
Image and word
A final consideration on the relation between art and research, of which a great deal has been said here in Kassel. Documenta often walks the borderline that separates image and word. So why cross that border from only one side of the fence? Numerous artists invited to participate practice textwork, and the curator’s aim of rewriting the history of the Italian neo-avant-garde from the visual poetry point of view clearly emerges from the exhibition. We would urge greater audacity. It seems reductive to show appreciation for border crossings that come solely from one side, maintaining unaltered the demarcation between “artists” and “critics”: for example, how should we consider Emilio Villa or Carla Lonzi (limiting ourselves to the Italian case in point), the former the author of calligrammes, and the latter of the innovative volume-collage Autoritratto, if not from the point of view of a precocious nullification of that difference? As we well know, textual acuteness and Socratic interrogation are quintessential techniques of “social sculpture”.
(translated by Theresa Davis)
_A review of Art 43 Basel 2012 is here
_A review of Made in Germany 2 is here