More than a year ago, I returned from a trip to Europe with some thoughts to share on the art I saw there. As my thoughts eventually grew so long that I thought nobody would read them, I let them languish. Here they are, in a sprawl appropriate to the subject.
August 8, 2012
Yesterday I left Kassel, Germany, where I spent four long days with the largest art exhibition I have ever attended. The documenta exhibition, known to some of you, takes place every five years, and has done so since 1955, when artist Arnold Bode first decided to use the bombed out shell of Kassel’s old Fridericianum building to present an exhibition of artwork that had been banned under the National Socialists’ rule in Germany.
Now in its thirteenth incarnation, and under the directorship this year of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the project is staggering in size. It takes up at least four museums, and then spreads out into every corner of the once-booming industrial town. For many years now, the beautiful Karlsraue park has served as setting to at least some amount of outdoor work – this year the organizers spread the project to numerous other sites as well – abandoned retail stores, residences, and banks, hotel event halls, empty industrial and manufacturing spaces, the train station, a forgotten bunker deep in a hill.
A Sort of Homecoming
I spent four days on the move through this sprawling art fair, rarely stopping for even meals, including two ten-hour days from open to close. I still did not see all of the works on display, and certainly missed a good deal of performances and other events that only took place for a day. I even breezed through a few of the rooms, though I tried hard to see all the video work in its entirety.
At a time when many bemoan the “festivalization” of art through the proliferation of biennial, triennial and annual art fairs and exhibits of this scale, I suspect that documenta wields a unique and powerful sway. I say that I only suspect this event’s significance because in fact, I haven’t paid much attention to the institutions and publications of contemporary art for some years now. It’s been more than five years, maybe longer, since I spent any time in New York’s Chelsea gallery district, or paid a visit to PS.1, or even cracked open an issue of Artforum. My work and interests simply led me elsewhere – namely into academic research that I don’t often identify as art – and, like many, I grew weary of keeping up with the current trends and discourses of spaces that were geographically and economically peripheral to my personal and professional worlds.
So my visit to documenta – occasioned by a visit to Munich as a summer instructor – was something of a return home for me, and one of which I was skeptical, even reluctant. In fact, I am more than grateful to have attended. Despite myself, I was really swept away by this experience, quite moved and also re-grounded. I thought it would be good to process these experiences in writing, both as a way of sharing the visit with those who would have liked to attend, and also as a respectful response to what I took to be a very generous offering on the part of the organizers.
First, a bit more about the position from which I write. As I am employed on a nine-month contract as a University professor, I have the luxury of time in the summer to spend time on such experiences. Family has also stepped in to help with other responsibilities I left behind for the week. If my agnostic attitude toward contemporary art of late has left me something of an outsider, my experiences and even current work still situate me closer to the discussions of documenta than most. Indeed, among the many exhibiting artists this year are former classmates, friends of friends, a former graduate advisor. The path I left not long after graduate school by pursuing academic recognition in other fields or subfields (New Media, Digital Humanities, Cold War History) would have, in the best of all worlds, have led me to exhibiting at a space like documenta.
I went with almost no foreknowledge of the show; I read no reviews; I didn’t buy the “guidebook” to aid me through the galleries; I read only some of the wall-texts; I still haven’t looked at the many essays, catalogs, and curatorial statements produced by the organizers. I simply wanted to see the work, and, if possible, to let it affect me. I share all this because what I write here may repeat in obvious ways the responses of others, or even documenta’s own statements. So be it.
An Anthropologist on Mars
Before I begin, I’ll share some other information for the reader who is new not only to this exhibition but to the economies and discourses with which it is associated. You have likely heard of similar attempts at creating a group exhibition of living artists to “take the temperature” of the aesthetic or intellectual moment. For Americans, the Whitney Biennial may be more familiar, or perhaps the Biennale in Venice, Art Basel Miami, or even Grand Rapids’ Artprize. Documenta differs structurally from these in several ways.
Though documenta aims to capture the state of art, and of life, at a global scale, it makes no claim to be representative in any systematic way, and there is no opportunity for elective participation. At least this year, if not in previous years, the artists’ nation of origin is not listed on the wall placard. As far as I know, the organizers approached no state or institution requesting the submission of candidates. There is no jury; there are no prizes awarded; there is no call for submissions.
Also worth noting is that a great amount of the work included in this exhibition is brand new, created for, even commissioned by, documenta. This fact implies that documenta, at least in part, contributed financially to the construction of some very expensive and elaborate works. I assume (and hope) it means that the artists themselves received a monetary award as part of this process. (Even so, I doubt if it was enough to live on for the time it took to create some of these ambitious projects. But still, it’s worth noting that the artists in this case are likely paid to exhibit their work.)
I am not wholly sure of the source of documenta’s budget. I suspect some state or foundation money to play some part. Corporate sponsorships are at least not in as high-profile display here as they might be for an exhibition at the Tate London. Certainly the festival derives income from ticket sales and merchandise, but I suspect that much of that goes to infrastructure (security, maintenance, staff, promotion, informational materials, installation of artwork, insurance). The artworks themselves are not obviously for sale, and indeed many to most would be difficult to sell, as they are created just for one site, or are too large entirely, or are ephemeral in the form of performance or video. So where are these expensive, multi-year, high-production value artworks funded? That’s where things get interesting.
Wall placards for each work commonly list not only the artist, medium, and date in English and German, but also often indicate a co-sponsor. We see names of commercial galleries, art museums, regional public and private granting agencies. Though it isn’t obvious who owns each work (some are listed as lent by the artist), one can imagine an elaborate network of legal agreements in place here, in which documenta gets first exhibition rights, but where the gallery is free to later sell the work in some form, or where a sponsoring museum elsewhere plans to hold its own exhibit of the project at a later date.
The result is that documenta’s influence on the worlds of art can be quite instrumental. Any such periodic attempt to mount a high-profile survey of global practice for a field is likely to exert a strong influence on aesthetic, economic, and educational values. Here, that influence is amplified by the fact that many of the works displayed will literally be circulating as top-bill items for the next few years until they are perhaps purchased as part of permanent collections, or simply fade away. To create an odd analogy using a much less useful institution, imagine if Hollywood’s Oscar awards held the same sway they do now, only the Academy for Motion Pictures co-sponsored the creation of the films, premiered them at their award ceremony, and then watched them circulate through the theaters for the following year. Works gain a certain imprimatur from being displayed at documenta, though they would have not been possible without documenta in the first place.
A Prestigious Reputation for Difficulty
Another bit of context is probably necessary, given the vast number of art worlds in existence today. The organizers of documenta pass by an enormous amount of artwork that otherwise enjoys great success – that’s the nature of our pluralistic approaches to art today. So which art does Kassel typically care about? This is thankfully not too easy to answer; there are always surprises, and each Director brings her own approach. Compared to other art exhibitions however, we can at least say that documenta is typically associated with art that explicitly addresses politics, or which wrestles in some way with the traditions of the European avant-garde of the twentieth century (futurism, dada, constructivism, surrealism, expressionism). There are probably many explanations for this.
The most obvious is that documenta takes place in Germany, and began as a space of post-war reflection in the 1950s. Remember that art – or at least the suppression of art – played no small role in the rise of the Third Reich. Artists who, for diverse reasons, spent the century’s first decades trying all manner of new media, voices, and relationships to the audience – including those as beloved today as Max Beckman and those as perennially confounding as Kurt Schwitters – were labeled by the Reich as degenerate, and either driven out of the country or killed. It should come as no surprise that an exhibition originating in post-war Germany would want to welcome such views back to the museum. It is also understandable that so many artists asked to create site-specific artworks for this German exhibition might choose to address histories of violence, trauma, and struggle.
Of course this is complicated by the fact that these same avant-garde histories of art and aesthetic theory form a backbone of postmodern theory and art, and thus constitute a sort of canon for a whole industry of academic research and education. Through something much more complicated than a pushback or a “pendulum swing,” some of the most historically alienating approaches to art – Brechtian narrative incongruence, surrealist appropriation of everyday objects, abstraction, and expressionist evasion of technical competence – have, since the 1950s, assumed not only a place of aesthetic favor but of presumed intellectual superiority. Smart people, educated people, we’re often led to believe – prefer “difficult” art. In my experience, among economically mobile art students and museum-goers, it’s prestigious to prefer the sort of artwork historically featured at documenta. It’s seen as part of the metropolitan, college-educated, global experience.
This explains in part why I was a reluctant traveler to this event. I don’t begrudge the creation of intellectually interesting but essentially soulless artwork, of which there is much in the world. I do grow tired of the association of such work with a clearer view of things, and I am especially wary of work that makes claims to political efficacy while ignoring its own politics of prestige and class.
Much of the early avant garde brought a spirit of embodied experimentation and ecstatic, collective possibility that is missing in much current work that claims the legacy. I didn’t expect to find anything so lively at documenta, but I did. I also didn’t expect to see people enjoying themselves – and that I did as well.
A Clear Theme, Broadly Interpreted
There are only a few works I saw which I expect to enjoy as much on their own as I did in the context of “dOCUMENTA 13” (the exhibition’s official title). I also am not sure that the catalogs or website for the exhibition have escaped the gravitational pull of which the exhibition itself soared free. That this vast project managed to assume such coherence as a sprawling, exploratory experiment brings the whole event in line with other mass spectacles, and challenges them. Strong themes and variations pervade this project, with individual movements that resound on their own. One moves from artwork to artwork, from one room or platz to the next, and
sees connections, provocations to thought and comparison. They don’t add up (thankfully) to one overarching thesis, but rather, as a curatorial whole, manifest the same spirit which seems to tie the works together in the first place.
In other words, there does seem to be a strong theme to this exhibit – I would call it “figuring things out.” And the organizers seem to be more than merely interested in this approach. They also seek to manifest it. They’re figuring it out too.
I don’t mean to say that Documenta invites us to a work in process. The works included rarely feel unfinished; only rarely are we invited to view processes as more important than product, or even process as the product. Rather, the organizers have framed for us, and exemplified for us, a number of acts of inquiry, any carried out in unconventional ways. These inquiries produce many things, and different things for different parties, but they definitively do also produce art in the form of discrete designed experiences, film and video in short or long form, rooms full of objects.
So there is a mode here, a frame not unlike that of a university, wherein the first questions are (or at least should be) always about knowledge. The artists of documenta are a sort of faculty of various things, each inquiring into how things are. How do things get moved around on seas where there are no global shipping corporations at work? How can we change our more destructive habits of production, consumption, when we are so deeply interconnected with others who depend on those habits for their livelihood? How do we know what happened before? How did we get the stories we have of modern art’s emergence? How do we relate to images differently with the internet in our lives? What relations are possible between humans and animals, plants, and which ones are most beneficial for all involved? How did things get to be the way they are?
These are the questions that motivate the best academic researchers, and indeed, academic research is represented in this exhibition. But traditional disciplinary approaches are but a few of the tools at the artists’ disposal here, and in some cases the effects of such approaches on knowledge are exactly what the artist seeks to uncover.
Two examples of this, one an artwork and one a curatorial moment:
Whistling in the Dark
Through a series of damp dark underground passageways, we pass through old forgotten infrastructure in the side of a hill. The sound of whistling and trilling, of breath reaches us before we turn into a small dark room to see a brightly displayed video image of two beings against another dark wall. One of these beings, a middle-aged woman, plays, or tries to play, some sort of flute-like instrument. A large, vulture-like bird sits near her, oblivious to the sound, the woman, and the camera.
The sound is not musical. It is inconsistent, searching. Soon we see that this woman does not know how to play this instrument. She tries blowing in one end, then the other, across the holes and into them. She is not idle in her search however – her concentration, her sweat, her body tells us that she is working very hard, and with some degree of knowledge. She is trying things that, it seems, should work, as they might work on a different instrument. The camera makes sure we see all this, even as it also searches for the subject – is it the woman, the bird, the instrument? The strain in the player’s lungs and eyes and mouth, the careful realignment of fingers, the consideration of all options displays intention, just as the detailed cinematography and slow framing show the camera-operator’s care. The camera shows us the instrument itself, which we can see after some time appears to be quite old, and made out of bone. If we ask what kind of bone, we see a likely candidate in the image in the bird, as the bone is too long and slender to belong to any mammal.
And so, by a slow but methodical if searching process, some sort of knowledgeable person attempts to produce sounds using the bone of a creature in her company. By a similar slow, methodical if searching process, the artists knowledgeably reveal this effort, and even introduces a sort of stake by framing the musician with the bird. The bird occasionally stirs, turns – does this indicate success? Or possibly annoyance, boredom? She is not so unlike the viewers in their cave. We root for the musician, hope for a connection with the creature, but don’t know what that connection might look like. We also know that such a connection, should we see it, would also close a gap for us, and give us a reason to be watching. The process keeps looping after some time – 15, 20 minutes, maybe. The quest goes on.
A look at the wall label for this video confirms some things – the instrument in fact is the oldest musical instrument known to exist, a valuable remainder of a people and a knowledge long gone. The bone is likely that of the bird’s progenitor – a fact which also renders the bird’s species likely older than our own. The flautist is indeed an expert, a renowned ethnomusicologist who, if anyone could know, might know how to play the old thing – this is, apparently, her first time to try it, or the first time anyone has tried it. The scenario and film is of the artists’ creation, a newly commissioned piece by the duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla.
Room for Thinking
Here’s another example, if a more difficult one to fully describe.
In a large, semicircular exhibition room, set behind glass from the rest of the building, (after, if we’re lucky, a fifteen minute wait in line) we enter at the right end of the arc and follow a clear line of display cases and walls around the room, back across some other walls and cases to where we began. There are more objects and images in this room than can be easily counted – but not so many as to become a plenitude. We see traditional, if relatively recent, fired pottery in distinctive symmetrical shapes and rich glazes. There are also two bricks bearing old adhesive marks where, we are told, antennae were once attached to render the clay forms as portable radios. (Czech citizens of communist Czechoslovakia apparently carried these around as protest against the ban of portable radios.)
On the floor, a very perplexing pair of large rocks, nearly identical in color, shape and size, but different in how they are rendered. The wall placard describes one as from a quarry, the other from a river – an extremely unlikely set of twins? On another wall, a grid of digital reprints of Lee Miller photos, probably from one or two reels shot on the same day in 1955, as the photographer-journalist accompanied US forces in to liberate Berlin. Miller poses taking a bath in Hitler’s bathtub; the small carved female nude statuette behind her in the photograph is behind us in a display case, as is the more famous statue which Miller herself mimics in the image. Miller and her fellow soldiers have staged, across multiple images, an elaborate performance in the privileged domestic space of the vanquished, which itself, like so many domiciles, was already a carefully constructed collection of objects. Also on the wall, we see an image of human remains in an oven from Dachau, likely shot on the same day as the performance in Hitler’s apartment. Down the way, we see displayed the Life Magazine issue where Miller’s bathub scene ended up published.
Elsewhere in the same room, we see a case of vases and bottles, some painted, which we are told come from the collection of the late Italian painter Morandi. Their forms recall the ceramic vessels nearby, and then literally recur in some actual Morandi paintings elsewhere in the room – this something of a cameo appearance, given Morandi’s distance from Documenta’s usual twentieth century references.
We also see a collection of metronomes from Man Ray’s collection, each with a photograph of an eye fastened to the top of the pendulum. This is Lee Miller’s eye, we learn, as Miller and Ray were a couple before the war. Their relationship apparently did not end well, and thus her appearance in this sculpture, entitled “How to destroy something you love.” As the original work, according to the surrealist’s instructions, involved smashing the metronome-assemblage with a hammer, what we actually see in the case are a collection of different unsmashed versions of the piece, each created for different exhibitions, and each with a different version of Miller’s eye.
There are still other things – an artist’s typed notes about trying to resist capitalism through not making anything; a recent unedited video shot in Syria by an artist who later died in that state’s violence. Some things are incomplete, others whole and obvious. Each object seems to lead to other objects by invisible strings, could be grouped with other things in the room to different ends. There are pictures within pictures here, reflections and rhymes a poet might make, and selections no taxonomist would place together. It is a sort of Cabinet of Curiosity – but it is round like an eye, and not closed like a cabinet. It is also more authorially presented than might be such a menagerie; there is here not only a collector at work, but a thinker, an authorial sorter. Imagine, perhaps, a tumblr page constructed like a story, with an order, as well as a criterion for inclusion.
The stories of each object carry great import, and seem to promise yet more in connection with other objects in the room. Each object points to others within the room, and also to spaces without, yet sits most firmly within a sequence. Together, they present some promise of meaning through the interpretation and experience of form, shape, matter. They wait to be activated and explored by the viewer, but already bring their own relations, seemingly inherent but also plastic, changeable. None of them seem self-contained, all of them seem essentially material, and even precious.
Elsewhere in the exhibition literature we learn that the lead curator, CBB, has dubbed this room “the brain.” This makes sense. If one were to wander the many acres of exhibition from this central location, one could see this small collection as a sort of picture or index of the rest. But rather than a guide or map, it’s more of a working model, a place where objects might be carried about, re-arranged, taped on the wall for a while – moved at the scale of one body. This is notable in the context of Documenta, where not only the exhibition itself but most of the projects call to mind something much bigger than a body – an organization, a management structure, a workforce.
Art’s Knowledge Economies
Neither Allora and Calzadilla’s piece nor CBB’s “brain” were the most moving moments of documenta for me, but they are representative of the exhibition’s approach, scope, and content. In each, we see the promise of meaning revealed through art’s traditional means: form, image, composition, the organization of sensory experience. Might the contents or arrangement of Hitler’s apartment reveal something about the evil therein? Or perhaps we might learn more through observing another at work in that space. Might the right images or actions constructed in such a space repair or unmoor the evil originated there? What role and significance do ready-at-hand objects play in our everyday moral lives? What is a natural form, and how do we find ourselves as one? Who came before us, and what can we learn from their objects? What other beings do we live with on this planet, and how might we relate to them?
I see the artists of documenta, and the exhibition itself, as a collection of the fruits of asking such questions, and also as a space structured for us to explore them ourselves. That’s not to say that we’ve been invited to merely witness others’ attempts at knowledge – I see many to most of the works in this exhibition as complete in their efforts at inquiry, while the exhibition itself remains open for our own research – through walking, talking, seeing, hearing, touching, feeling…and writing.
Within the (admittedly fraught) analogy of documenta as a university, where the artist-researchers are first charged with conducting inquiries into the nature of things, our experiences as visitors to the exhibition are less those of traditional students, reconstructing and following their paths, than of sub-researchers, new to their ways of framing the questions, but probably not new to the questions themselves, nor to the materials at hand.
That may sound like a lot of work to some prospective viewers. It may also sound like a dodge to those who expect inquiries to produce clear results in the form of transferrable knowledge.
But I would argue, by way of exploring some of the critical questions here about aesthetics, knowledge, and disciplinarity, that many of the artists of documenta reach new knowledge in ways not epistemologically or even socially dissimilar from those of contemporary scientists. I would also contend that the viewer’s relation to this work has not radically changed from that of more traditional artforms. In fact, I see at this year’s documenta a return to good audience relationships from some decidedly less helpful models of late.
(I’m not sure, however, that the success of documenta is repeatable, and its there where I have some criticism of recent enthusiasm for artistic research. But I will save that for later.)
Aesthetics and Interaction
The best way to get at the aesthetics of documenta’s experience, and thus to questions of efficacy, audience, knowledge, and even beauty, is to address the exhibition as a collection of finished products, engaged in processually by the viewers. I borrow here (with some liberty) from anthropology’s engagement with art as a ritual process. Key to such an approach is that artworks gain meaning not solely through interpretation, but through ritualized or at least habitual enaction and encounter.
I also take some permission here from language used by historian WJT Mitchell, who in one video for the (poorly designed) documenta app offers his definition of “critical idolatry.” He allows that there do exist such things as idols, and even false ones, but that one must be careful about knocking them down in violence toward those under their spell. (He opts instead to test them, “sound” them, and tune them to play a new song…whatever that means. Sounds like snobbery to me, though I do respect Mitchell’s work.)
If there exist such things as idols, then we may allow, with anthropologists of religion, that even the most secularized forms of social life involve participation in discrete episodes of organized sensory experience that might be properly described as worship. One worships by submitting the body and senses to be affected from outside in unpredictable ways, as part of a process of temporary separation from self, followed by re-orientation, and re-integration into a social order.
Where pedagogical processes traditionally raise an unsure outcome (will I end up better, or won’t I?) by means of a sure process (follow these steps, repeat these exercises), worship offers a sure outcome (you will be reintegrated, that’s always how the ritual works) via an unsure process (you can’t be sure what will happen once you have opened your emotions and senses.) Worship would seem to leave one more vulnerable. Perhaps this degree of risk also contributes to its allure of authenticity, and its fearsome potential for abuse.
Anthropologist Victor Turner described many cultural forms, including those of the arts, in terms of such rituals. Though he died before anthropology turned to examine the secular as a sort of religious order, the distinctions he made between modern and pre-modern ritual transfer well, I think, to current discourses of secularism. He allows that at the scale of most modern nation-states, for example, there remain few collective rites of passage that are shared across all members of society. Instead, he seems to see an increasing fracture of such processes into endless little rituals of dis-integration and re-orientation, placing ritual and worship in the service of both more things and fewer things. Modern religious orders are more polytheist, ordered to diverse ends, and yet also tend to support one common order – that of the individual as an unquestioned organizational unit.
We might then talk about an event like documenta as containing multiple and simultaneous processes of worshipful orientation, and to disparate gods, as it were. At documenta we see rituals of engagement with art that support different and distinct, if interdependent, orders.