It’s hard not to read this show as a harbinger of the approaching Documenta XII: the co-curators Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, artistic director and curator respectively in Kassel in 2007, and their touring exhibition concept called ‘The Government’, of which Rotterdam was the final instalment, is both their most ambitious project to date and their last before Documenta.
The theoretical underpinning of this series is Michel Foucault’s idea of ‘governmentality’, which refers less to parliaments and politicians than the sum total of human social exchange, including the institutions, practices and technologies that connect people. ‘Governing’ in this sense means the creation of situations that determine the actions of others, either by fostering or limiting them, from top down and from bottom up. ‘Be What You Want But Stay Where You Are’ explores the ‘relationalities’ that spring up in the interstices between the works on display. The dynamics of power, we learn, are constantly shifting and, if properly uncovered, can be redefined, for example via aesthetic gestures. But the notion of works communicating with each other merely by virtue of being shown in the same space, as professed in this show’s concept statement, is self-evident: don’t art works, or indeed any arbitrary group of objects, always communicate when juxtaposed? Fortunately, Buergel and Noack have upped the ante somewhat by allowing the exhibition itself to morph on its way between Lüneberg, Barcelona, Vienna, Miami and Rotterdam, picking up and dropping off artists and works at every stop. ‘The Government’ also included a (now almost perfunctory) set of side projects such as lectures, screenings and workshops that recalled the ‘Platforms’ staged by Buergel’s predecessor Okwui Enwezor during the run-up to Documenta XI.
The manifestation at Witte de With (a space recently vacated by another Kassel veteran, Catherine David) specifically aims to investigate the (neo-)liberal notion of tolerance against the backdrop of the clash between Islamic ideologies and Dutch culture, though there was curiously little of that to be seen here. Its starting-point was a 17th-century group portrait (Jan Cools’ De regenten en rentmeester van het Heilige Geesthuis, 1653) of privileged Dutchmen, whose inclusion begs the question of who has been left out. By extension, this entire exhibition is conceived as an updated (and presumably corrective) group portrait.
Buergel and Noack are hardly curators known for spoon-feeding their audience, and the exhibition liberally invoked Foucault, Giorgio Agamben and Walter Benjamin, requiring a working knowledge of German and Spanish to boot. Yet many of the works on display examined only the all too familiar downside of governmentality (namely, how the powerful oppress the weak) and came across as either polemical or self-consciously impenetrable. We were presented with a haphazard and rather sad litany of victims, hapless and inert, either drowned or abducted or otherwise displaced. Matthijs de Bruijne and Javier Martínez’ Dependance Buenos Aires (2005), for example, posits the ING bank’s recent pull-out from Argentina as inherently insidious, and imagines the locals as needy of foreign aesthetic intervention for their plight to be properly addressed. Likewise, Alan Sekula’s Prayer for the Americans (1999–2004) is a plaintive and often beautiful meditation on the widespread misconception of Mark Twain as a harmless chronicler of boyhood, consisting mainly of slides that depict the portly Americans who now inhabit Twain’s dilapidated Mississippi hometown. But Sekula’s accompanying text (‘Behind the curtain, Pentagon lawyers fabricate exceptions to international law ...’) needlessly anchors these images in contemporary geopolitics and risks trivializing the piece as a castaway X-File. Indeed, too many of these relationships are distinctly unilateral, speaking only to the notional misbehaviour of the powerful and not to the reciprocal exchange that the show’s theme would imply.
Yet other works explore governmentality more broadly, and highlight its multidirectional flows of influence better. The Seamstresses of Brukman (2003), for example, by Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann, consists of eight reworked suits made by employees who eventually gained legal possession of the Buenos Aires factory they had occupied during Argentina’s economic meltdown of 2003. The texts and symbols sewn onto these clothes both present the workers’ stories and symbolize the global financial industry’s incalculable caprices. And in La Grande Galerie (The Big Gallery, 2004) Danica Dakic poses gypsies from a Kosovan refugee camp before a large image of that eponymous Louvre gallery in ruins. The family’s actual destruction is pitted against the grandiosity that museal ruins assume over time, creating a transcendent scenario that fleetingly imbues the subjects with the dignity of their stately backdrop. Even more timeless is Ines Doujak’s ‘Untitled’ (2001), a series of small photos that feature naked middle-aged women frolicking in the white cube of what seems to be a shower stall, as they float dreamlike above the more news-driven concerns that infuse the neighbouring pieces. By remaining open and curious, these images imply that an aesthetic examination of human connections needn’t be reflexively contrary.
Last year Buergel indicated in these pages a desire to shift Documenta away from today’s reigning art-fair aesthetic in favour of fewer works by fewer artists (Documenta 11, by contrast, featured more than 600 hours of video). Whether the smaller scale also signals a new keenness for the traditionally sensual remains to be seen; there certainly aren’t any paintings or cutesy drawings on display here (apart from the aforementioned Jan Cool), and computer monitors are nowhere in sight. But pieces from the 1960s and ’70s abound; in fact, all the works in Rotterdam could have been made using the technology of half a century ago. Yet Buergel and Noack demonstrate that the inclusion of these older works doesn’t have to mean a necrophiliac pining for the pre-neoliberal halcyon days of 1968. Well-worn images, too, can ably participate in the ongoing creation of new relationalities, continuously redefining themselves as history evolves around them.