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Issue 188

Get Real

Art sees itself as facing a crisis of legitimation – can this account for claims to 'authenticity' being made in shows such as documenta 14?

BY Susanne von Falkenhausen in Features | 07 JUN 17

A recurring characteristic of large-scale exhibitions in recent years has been the artwork’s status as a metaphor for whatever the curators diagnose as the world’s condition: neoliberalism, failed states, war, hunger, injustice or ecological disaster. Catherine David’s 1997 documenta X was the first to broaden that exhibition’s horizon to encompass political discussion, showing works of the recent past as antecedents for politically engaged art. It was the last documenta, I think, to successfully balance discourse and art, politics with aesthetic specificity. Since then, this equilibrium has become unbalanced. The pressure on the art system to react to political crises has, in turn, obligated curators to define the task of art increasingly in political terms. So, what are the consequences of this?

In 2002, Okwui Enwezor’s documenta 11 brought colonialism and post-colonialism into curatorial focus. Enwezor broadened his rhetoric at the 2015 Venice Biennale to encompass bold extensions of the political within art – or, more often, the reverse. In 2012, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev went so far as to title the 800-page exhibition catalogue accompanying her dOCUMENTA (13) The Book of Books: curatorial concepts presented in the manner of holy scriptures. These kinds of ‘mission statements’ are intertwined with curatorial practices in such a way as to force artists into a particular straightjacket: politics as the curator sees it. As a member of a generation that was too young to participate in the events of 1968 but was fully active during the 1970s, I have a deeply rooted distrust of anyone seeking to present their message as a form of gospel truth – especially in the field of politics. 

My scepticism proved to be well-founded during the press conference for the Athens section of documenta 14 at the city’s Megaron Concert Hall. The auditorium was packed with media people. The rising stage curtain revealed the curatorial team, artists and collaborators sitting as an impressive mass of over 100 people on a dimly lit stage. Before the director of documenta, Adam Szymczyk, took to the lectern, the assembly performed a choral work, Epicycle (1968/2017), by the avant-garde Greek composer Jani Christou, in which their collective voices uttered sounds between murmurs and cries. The result was a quasi-mythical mise-en-scène. I read it as a showcase for two claims made by the curatorial team and its director: firstly, for art as an expression of collectivity; secondly, for an affect-laden politics that sees rationality as an enemy –  a stand-in for the repressive systems of state and capitalism. I would call this ‘post-rationality’ if it didn’t make it sound too rational.

Collectivity and affect incorporate utopian moments that have been dreamed of on both the political Right and Left. They make themselves felt in Athens in the selection of works, formats, media, topics and in their display. In contrast to documenta 11, this iteration includes relatively few videos; instead, there are performances, vitrines, historical photographs, documents, objects in natural materials such as wood, straw or wool, and small-format drawings and paintings. With many works – such as Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s Archival Materials from the Sea Ranch and Driftwood City Workshops (1962–71) – the curators try to resurrect past utopias: the experimental communities of artists and hippies in the 1970s; the struggles against repression of the 1960s and ’70s. The curatorial team also selected historical photographs and objects of indigenous cultures taken from ethnographic archives (Franz Boas’s photographs from around 1900, for example). These memories of paled utopias and colonial dystopias are evoked for a predominantly young, social-media savvy public as faded documentary material locked in vitrines. Elsewhere, artists from ethnic minorities present their cultures – Joar Nango or Britta Marakatt-Labba, for example, who are both Scandinavian Sami – or the Kwakwaka’wakw carver Beau Dick, whose masks are exhibited in a large circle at EMST National Museum of Contemporary Art. Perhaps, since the artists have chosen to make and show these works, the curators think they can’t be accused of colonialism. Yet, the artist and Cherokee activist Jimmie Durham was already dismantling this exoticism at documenta 9 in 1992 with his installation Approach in Love and Fear, returning to the same theme in 2012 at dOCUMENTA (13) with History of Europe. In both works, Durham unsettled Western narratives and aesthetics of the ‘exotic’, and made the public look into a very disturbing mirror of its own projections and expectations. 

Twenty-five years ago, in the heyday of deconstruction,  the manner in which ethnicity is represented at documenta 14 in Athens might have been called – to appropriate Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s fitting formulation –  ‘a “museumized” identity, roots in aspic’.1 If such representations of ethnicity (for Spivak, ‘identity as commodity’) have been critiqued since the 1970s by Western ethnographers and ethnic minorities alike, how do we account for their return? My guess: these objects can still have religious functions, as is the case with Dick’s masks. By combining affect and authenticity, they become showcases for the exhibition’s claims. The curatorial team locates its revolutionary impetus in an anti-rationalistic gesture that substitutes the rational with the unruly, anarchic forces of affect. This, in turn, brings forth the need for a rhetoric of authenticity, which in the 1980s was already deconstructed as a projection or desire. Now, under the wing of a politics of affect, understood as an attack on the consequences of rationalism, authenticity has made a comeback and, with it, the ethnical ‘other’.

Beau Dick, 22 masks from the series ‘Atlakim’, 1990–2012, installation view, EMST National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, as part of documenta 14, 2017. Photograph: Mathias Völzke

However, it is not only at documenta that such tendencies are pronounced. A recent exhibition at Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin, ‘Spirits and Ancestors’, included ‘ethnographic art’ and ‘animistic artefacts’2 from Africa, Asia and Latin America. I wonder: is what was called ‘primitive art’ for too long – teaching the Western avant-garde around 1900 new ways of seeing – now serving as a reservoir of the spiritual for the Western world? In 1994, Hal Foster was questioning the rise of ethnography in Western art in his essay ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’3. Yet, much of his analysis still hits the mark today. Foster argues against the truth claims artists make when working in an ethnographical mode: the notion ‘that the other is dans le vrai’. Working with ‘sited communities with the best motives of political engagement and institutional transgression’, artists find ‘this work recoded by its sponsors as social outreach’.4 For Foster, in the ‘advanced art on the Left’ there is ‘the assumption that the site of artistic transformation is the site of political transformation and, more, that this site is always located elsewhere, in the field of the other’. This field of the ‘other’ – in documenta 14 it is ‘Athens’ and the ‘South’, as stated in their slogans ‘Learning from Athens’ and ‘South as a State of Mind’– is, as Foster observes, intended to be ‘the primary point of subversion of dominant culture’.5 This still holds as a sound description of curatorial position, strategy and ideology today. 

It is not only artists and curators, but also art professors and gallerists who turn artistic processes into procedures of so-called ‘artistic research’. Artistic research draws knowledge and methodology from ethnography and social sciences. It adheres to favourite concepts of recent curating: ‘process’, which replaces the art object, and ‘participation’, which merges art and artist with the social world. Both are highly romanticized concepts, in my view: laden with connotations of market resistance and subversion. The artist as ethnographer has become normative in the last 20 years, while the art system has long found ways to integrate and, further, to commission the respective processes and procedures. Finding myself confronted with such a unified front of fantasies, rhetorics, pretensions and desires for authenticity in 2017, I confess that I revised my reaction to DIS’s 2016 Berlin Biennale 9, ‘The Present in Drag’. That exhibition rigorously, to the point of cynicism, followed the web 2.0 world of digital prosumer reality and the moral ambiguity of its promises and aesthetics. In my view, it catered to a young, white, middle-class audience, but now it strikes me as more realistic than what we are seeing today: an outsourcing to the (post-)colonial other of the political, guilt, spiritual desire and collectivity that plague the Western-Northern self. 

Today, however, these prosumer aesthetics – until recently prominent under the guise of ‘post-internet’ – look aged when confronted with the brutal realities of war and the migrant crisis. But is ethnography as a curatorial and artistic practice an adequate way of communicating such realities? ‘Artists working in the ethnographic modality normally seek social interaction,’ observed the anthropologist Fiona Siegenthaler in 2013.6 She assumed that this kind of social interaction (in the terms of relational aesthetics, ‘participation’) is a good thing for art. But, still, it is a movement from the West or North to the South as ‘other’. Today, following the utopia of the 2011 Arab Spring – when activist-artist tourism went south – dystopia has become a cruel reality, and the direction of travel has reversed. The voices of those who are displaced by it from south to north have gained authority. The histories of revolution that aimed to refresh the political desires of Western-Northern youth have become the stories of the displaced, told by themselves. Western activists thus have another task: organizing spaces or platforms for such stories to be told. Yet, this is already happening on a local, grass-roots level: not only within artistic projects but in schools, workshops and neighbourhood organizations. Art is not the avant-garde in providing these spaces; on the contrary, it is the art system that feels the need to keep up with the situation. (One recent example: MoMA New York’s 2016–17 exhibition ‘Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter’.) The current crises generate such pressure that the art system feels obligated to devise strategies to legitimize itself in the public eye as a social necessity. But art should not be incarcerated by the grandiose pretensions of curatorial mission statements laying claim to the political and moral avant-garde. Such assertions may augment the self-esteem of the protagonists, but a degree of modesty may be better for everyone involved.

Hiwa K, May 1, 2009, video still. Courtesy: the artist, KOW,  Berlin, and prometeogallery di Ida Pisani,  Milan/Lucca

Hence, the intrinsically sober works in the Athens iteration of documenta 14 are all the more impressive: for instance, Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) (2017) by Hiwa K, one of the few artists included who has a personal history as a refugee, or The Syrian Who Wanted the RevolutionPart 1–7 (2011) by the Syrian film collective Abounaddara. Hiwa K is trained as a visual artist, and his work is produced for an art context. Abounaddara, on the other hand, define their work as documentary: the art system invites them ‘in’, trying to strengthen its political reach, while, in turn, hopefully increasing Abounaddara’s visibility within the global cultural field. Hiwa K’s Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) documents the artist retracing the route he took from Iraq while balancing a rod on his nose, that has motorbike mirrors attached to it that face downwards in various directions.7 Looking upwards, while walking and balancing, he observes his surroundings in moving fragments. Together with his voice-over commentary, the piece reflects on refugee narratives while revealing the expectations placed upon them by a Western public. In another video, May 1 (2009), which was not shown at documenta 14, Hiwa K effectively inverts the direction of the ethnographic gaze. The work records the artist at a 1 May demonstration in a German town, in which he shaved his head and then asked demonstrators to have their heads shaved by him – a participation with a strong sense of irony – with the aim of liberating shaved heads from neo-Nazi connotations. 

In Abounadarra’s The Syrian Who Wanted the Revolution, a survivor of Assad’s prisons slowly and painstakingly recounts his experience. Told in dry language, we hear of prisoners attempting to deal with their experiences of torture and murder through solidarity with each other. In August 2015, the collective posted a trailer online about their activities. It concludes with the description: ‘Abounaddara is a collective of anonymous filmmakers working with emergency cinema in Syria, producing films as public goods, defending the right of the nameless to a dignified image.’8 They release short videos of daily life online. It is their policy not to show scenes of bloodshed, as the mainstream media do when reporting on Syria. Instead, their films are sober statements that actually succeed in doing what Western artistic and documentary practices paternalistically call ‘giving people a voice’. The group also posts scathing analyses of Western media coverage of the war in Syria, some of which have also been released on the documenta website. In their text ‘Something Is Rotten’ (2016) the collective states that the mainstream media does not keep the public informed about the beginnings of the war in Syria in 2011: ‘Instead, they aligned themselves with social media by cobbling together a dubious information apparatus that privileged immersion at the expense of perspective, compassion to the detriment of intelligence, and spectacle in contempt of human dignity.’9 This certainly is food for thought in relation to the recent Western turn to strategies of affect, in lieu of, and disregarding, the critical potential of rational perspective. All of this has consequences for the aesthetic and ethical choices of art. 

Documenta 14 must confront the huge political expectations raised by its discursive platforms, such as the journal South as a State of Mind and the public programme, The Parliament of Bodies. On the whole, both give the impression that this large-scale exhibition format is positioned to serve as a platform for a vast reorganization of politics beyond and against existing power structures. As an ethical choice, we can only agree. But what this means for both documenta and for the practice of art remains to be seen. Art as a subsystem of society implies its permeability towards other parts of society but also a certain autonomy from it. To disavow this relative autonomy means putting the raison d’être of art itself to the test.

1 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Acting Bits/ Identity Talk’, in Critical Inquiry 18, Summer 1992, p. 798
2 https://tinyurl.com/ll8yjbe
3 Hal Foster, ‘The Artist as Ethnographer?’, in George E. Markus and Fred R. Myers (eds.), The Traffic in Culture. Refiguring Art and Anthropology, 1995, University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 302–9. First published in Jean Fisher (ed.), Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, 1994, Kala Press, London, p. 12–17
4  Ibid, p. 303
5  Ibid, p. 302
6 Fiona Siegenthaler, ‘Towards an Ethnographic Turn in Contemporary Art Scholarship’, in Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies 27 (6), 2013, pp. 737–52, abstract
7 http://www.hiwak.net/projects/mirror
8 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7WRmMcSLz4, 12 August 2015
9 http://www.documenta14.de/en/notes-and-works/9499/something-is-rotten

Main image: 'Driftwood Village - Community', 1968, documentation of an Experiments in Environment workshop organized by Anna and Lawrence Halprin at Sea Ranch, California. Courtesy: The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, by the gift of Lawrence Halprin

Susanne von Falkenhausen is an art historian and professor emerita of modern and contemporary art history, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. Publications include Kugelbau­visionen (2008) and Praktiken des Sehens im Felde der Macht (2011).