There were so many burning issues we were told about at length, so many buzzing wires in the curator-spun network of references and associations – a mind map traced by the artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in a catalogue with a presumptuous title: The Book of Books (2012). But what effect does all of this – a curatorial worldview where everything has to do with everything else – have on the art? I tried to find my way into this year’s documenta after being stuffed full of discourse: both the curator’s offerings and press reports. And? No burning. No buzzing. No sign of the urgency that was so prominent in the initial reviews. Had the excitement of the opening evaporated? Was it the rain? Or was it a personal problem since obvious messages always inspire my insubordination?
Artistic research is the key weapon in Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorial arsenal, and perhaps this tactic explains my muted reaction to dOCUMENTA (13). Many of the works on show – mainly by artists of younger generations – reflect this model, which has become standard fare at art academies over the last decade and which is used to adorn the prose of interdisciplinarity, globally networked project applications, planned joint endeavours and descriptions for degree courses. But what does this trend have to do with my lukewarm response to the exhibition in Kassel? Two things come to mind. Firstly, artistic research has brought forth its own rules of presentation – it is a genre in the true sense – and these rules shaped the exhibition. Secondly, research needs topics; it is extremely dependent upon discourse. Christov-Bakargiev seems to have steered the participating artists through a specific discursive path: they were taken to Breitenau near Kassel, a former monastery that was used as a correctional facility and a concentration camp. The artists’ attention was also drawn to the historical parallels between Kassel and Kabul – war, destruction, totalitarian regimes, rebuilding of a civil society. And from there, it was only a small leap to the destruction of the ecosystem. This discursive channelling created a thematic flood inundating the exhibition as a whole.
But let’s return to the rules of presentation. Research is presented via documents, proofs, visual and auditory evidence. These rules have an impact on artistic form: simply showing is not enough – extra explanations and commentary are always needed. The eye-catching centrepiece of such a presentation tends to be a video which offers some variation or other on the documentary format. Then there are accompanying photographs, drawings, diagrams, texts, archives, ‘authentic’ objects, reconstructions. This pattern emerges from the dOCUMENTA (13) sites in Kassel – a multitude of installations that are not really installations, since their relationship to the surrounding space is of secondary importance. Installations become mini-exhibitions, often with didactic overkill. The space merely provides the walls on and against which to spread out the material in question.
Rabih Mroué’s ‘non-academic’ video lecture The Pixelated Revolution (2012) – a precise visual and linguistic media analysis of found footage from Youtube which shows the moment when the person filming a sniper with a mobile phone is being shot at by the sniper – might be considered as a perfect example of successful artistic research. But Mroué has filled an additional room with variations on the same theme: a video with a stumbling figure against a blood-red background, several flip books with shooting scenes, accompanied by the corresponding sounds of gun shots. The hard-hitting duplication of shot and reverse shot – in the murders and in their documentation – is weakened by these rhetorically dramatized echos in the other parts of the installation.
A certain monotony sets in as you wander from one such mini-exhibition to the next. And this monotony intensifies when you are faced with the works in the Karlsaue Park, which have been set up in quaint little houses and cabins, hidden like Easter eggs behind trees, some of them sponsored by a manufacturer of prefabricated homes. The only task of these dwellings is to provide wall space and shelter from the rain for video works and their accessories, but the structures come dangerously close to the petty bourgeois aesthetic of home improvement.
The structuring principle of the mini-exhibitions – by Claire Pentecost, Amar Kanwar, Mario Garcia Torres and Michael Rakowitz, to name but a few – is additive. In most cases, the same thing is shown and explained in different media, presumably with the hope that the amassed knowledge will make a greater impression. Faced with such assemblages, I wonder if gathering knowledge – which is often cited as a way to justify artistic research – is a suitable category for productive artistic activity, especially when knowledge is reduced to information. Such a practice strikes me as deficient in both aesthetic and intellectual terms, and, quite frankly, as rather complacent, for all the manifest zeal and effort that goes into such works. The production costs are high; the artists must travel, collect material and make films; but they often seem to run out of breath before achieving artistic transformation or distillation. Instead, we are presented with a sometimes naive trust in the evidence of what is being shown. And when the art works are based on homework assigned by the curator – as is the case of Clemens von Wedemeyer’s re-enactment triptych of films Muster / Rushes (Model, 2012) about the history of Breitenau – then very little remains of artistic autonomy or independence. And that’s a worrying sign of curatorial megalomania.
Walid Raad occupies a special position within this panorama. Raad has long relied on artistic research, but with a key difference: the way fact and fiction infect each other in his work. His presentations create such a persuasive sense of actuality that you might assume they deal exclusively with a study of the real. His lecture performance Scratching on Things I Could Disavow (2008–ongoing) offers a rare moment of something burning and buzzing: the artist’s incredible, politically engaged intelligence, paired with a cruel and sorrowful sense of humour. In sarcastic tones, Raad tells the story of the Artist Pension Trust, underpinning his account with an investigative diagram while casually making fun of his chosen genre of artistic research. Done with mock amazement, his video and lecture on the explosion of art collecting and museum building in Dubai feels somehow both sad and malicious. And his story of the failed plan for an exhibition by his Atlas Group project at Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut in 2008 became a parable about an event that did not live up to its original concept. All that remains of the project was a minutely detailed 1:100 scale model of the exhibition: one work among others that could be seen in Beirut and now in Kassel.
Some artists – especially those who belong to an older generation and went to art school before the paradigm of artistic research emerged as a dominant, promising strategy – remained unimpressed by the curatorial guidelines on discourse and format. Consider Jimmie Durham’s The History of Europe (2011), a concise and compelling parody of the research genre. In one vitrine, Durham shows two small objects: a stone, allegedly a Paleolithic tool, and a dysfunctional, never-fired bullet from World War II; in another, neighbouring vitrine, he has placed three pages of text printed in large type with a very cheeky and very brief history of Europe. For I SEE BY YOUR FINGERNAILS THAT YOU ARE MY BROTHER (1969–2011), Ida Applebroog has plastered a room with enlargements of rather blunt sketches and notes from her diaries while leaving copies for visitors to take home with them. For Here & There (2012), Anna Maria Maiolino has eerily but very tidily stuffed the cosy gardener’s house on the edge of the Karlsaue Park full of pottery sausages, penises, donuts and similarly lewd forms from the realms of cuisine and the sexually uncanny. These artists paid no heed to the curator’s contextual prescriptions.
Speaking of context: the genre of artistic research seems to have resurrected the old avant-garde dream of dissolving the fine line between art and life – as a dissolution of art in context. The additive structure of this genre favours such a dissolution by blurring the lines between art work and context in both formal and structural terms. But the genre also favours the power of the curator, since she calculates these additive structures into the grand sum total of what Irit Rogoff has called a ‘curatorial episteme’. In this spirit, Christov-Bakargiev’s cabinet of curiosities embodying this episteme – The Brain (and yes, that really was its official title) – sits in the rotunda of the Fridericianum, like a spider in its web, as the centre of the whole exhibition, inviting the visitors to spin associative threads from there to the farthest-flung corners of the huts spread throughout the Karlsaue Park. Big sister is watching you watching.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell