The combined effect of Venice/Basel/documenta/Muenster made the early summer an Olympiad of opinion-making. Every discussion was of what one ‘thought about’ an artist’s work or a curator’s venture. By the time I hit Kassel I felt punch-drunk with opinions. Learning of the four venues containing over 150 artists organized by the curatorial duo of Roger M. Buergel (listed in all the official materials as the ‘Artistic Director’) and Ruth Noack (‘Curator’) provoked equal measures of anticipation and fatigue. On procuring my catalogue I finally encountered the list of artists in the exhibition and found that, for better or worse, I had not heard of at least half of them. If nothing else, I thought, I might ‘learn something’. Walking in the Fridericianum – the flagship venue of documenta – I almost felt relieved; how could I be expected to form opinions about work I didn’t know?
Of course, the province of the reviewer is ultimately to generate opinions. And so I feel compelled to say that there is some very interesting work in documenta 12, and, with all due equivocation, there is some quite mediocre work as well. I could (and should?) offer lists of names and descriptions of works, adding my tally to the emerging consensus, the budding file and folders in curatorial and collector’s offices on both sides of the Atlantic. But as I started to write this review on 21 June, the first day of summer, from my desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my days in Kassel on 14 and 15 June were already fading from view. This in itself feels like an indictment (for instance, I have quite vivid memories of the work in documenta 11). In the end the art did not carry the day; it did not commit itself to memory; it failed to spark the fundamental engine of aesthetic experience – curiosity. If this feels harsh, it is – but it was not all the art’s fault. Louise Lawler, whose works are included in the exhibition, taught us long ago that context is all, that the meaning of art is dependent on the strategies of display and distribution within which its finds itself. The legacy of institutional critique is such that none of us takes for granted any more the where and how of what we see. The museum, the gallery, the auction house, the living-rooms of the wealthy have all been parsed and appraised by Lawler’s pictures in ways that show us the unconscious aims at work in each instance – desires and ideologies that both shape and produce the ever more contingent meanings we glean from art objects.
The largest context for documenta is its own history. Hence it was impossible for me not to compare this edition with the only other one I have seen: documenta 11. The differences between the two are striking. Documenta 12 is organized by a husband-and-wife team, whose veiled division of labour produced an exhibition shrouded in secrecy, as they refused to reveal the names of the artists in their exhibition until the opening day. Despite my initial sense of interest about a list of names I did not recognize, I was soon troubled by what it meant not to let people know who would be in the show. Its most pronounced effect, for me, was that I was not prepared to see it. In the introduction to the catalogue the curators write that their ambition was to create an exhibition ‘where art communicates itself and on its own terms. This is aesthetic experience in its true sense.’ This is a High-Modernist, Kantian-derived understanding of the nature of art worthy of Clement Greenberg. Is this why the seemingly noble gesture of including so many under-represented artists ultimately fell flat, undermined by the complete lack of explanatory labels in the galleries? Indeed, not even the artists’ countries of origin were included on the basic wall label. Are we really to believe – in the age of Lawler (not to mention Wikipedia) – that to have absolutely no context, other than the ‘compare and contrast’ exercise offered by the curators, is ‘aesthetic experience in the true sense’?
And what of this curatorial ‘compare and contrast’? True to a basic Wölfflinian art history lecture, viewers were treated to an exhibition, half of whose works were largely abstract in ways that evoked Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois’ rubric of the formless. These works frequently possessed a kind of lyrical beauty, even as they worked with banal materials such as gum, rope or wood. The other half of the works were largely dependent on the linguistic turn of Conceptual art and the return of narrative and the figure largely made possible by video. These works tended to read as ‘political’ – inasmuch as they often contained images of an explicitly political nature, depicting the seemingly bottomless mendacity of the people in power and the horror they create for others. Buergel and Noack installed the exhibition in such a way that one volleyed back and forth between these two types of work repeatedly, as the curators did not give artists discrete spaces but rather interspersed their works throughout the four venues. Within the logic of ‘compare and contrast’ – formal/political – we were to ‘understand’ that the formal works are also ‘political’; by operating as ‘formless’ they are challenges to Modernist notions of wholeness, purity and contemplation. So too, the ‘political’ works were offered as having been born of aesthetic choices that remove them from the world of documentary and place them firmly within the province of art.
At first it was interesting to encounter the work of the same artist – Juan Davila, Kerry James Marshall, John McCracken or Gerwald Rockenschaub, for instance – in different juxtapositions, but ultimately the repetition of this curatorial gesture became ruthless and far overshadowed any sense of play between individual works of art. Furthermore, this game was played out in archly designed spaces. The curators ordered the walls to be painted green and salmon, had the floors carpeted and, in room after darkened room, melodramatically spot-lit objects, all in an attempt (one presumes) to outrun the logic of the white cube (too bad for all the artists who actually use the white cube as a ground from which to work their own resistance). What context, following Lawler, are we to imagine the salmon wall provides? Is not the white cube – and, importantly, the critique of it – useful precisely because it functions simultaneously as the shared and contested ground for both artists and viewers?
For Bois and Krauss the formless is an operation that produces a rupture in Modernism’s taxonomies; it is a move toward the visceral and the low, it is de-sublimation in the name of a down and dirty attack on Enlightenment reason. It is intensely heterogeneous and as such defies binary logic and (false) dualities. At first I felt that perhaps what Buergel and Noack intended was to have their curatorial work act in the name of the formless, that their refusal of white walls, explanatory texts and even a minimal gesture towards public knowledge (much less consensus) around the checklist was to perform the operation of the formless on the exhibition itself. But this is emphatically not the end-result. Indeed, I came to see the organizing principle of the exhibition as somewhat sinister. For I found myself asking what model of the social was being put forward by Buergel and Noack? If interpretations of art works can be said to smuggle in models of subjectivity (an altogether common argument in recent art history), then can we see these large-scale global exhibitions as suggesting models of the social, or even ethical, dimensions of life? (They are, or are not, organized hierarchically, to tell a homogeneous or heterogeneous story, to put forward narratives of nation states or global capital – or both.)
In bringing together a diverse team of curators to help organize documenta 11, Okwui Enwezor suggested implicitly and explicitly that the logic of the single author was not tenable. This team subsequently scheduled several ‘platforms’ around the world for discussion and debate, not only offering a democratic model of exhibition making but creating a wildly heterogeneous exhibition – filled with internal contradictions – that was a model for democracy itself. Documenta 11 believed in the mad proliferation of dialogue, the promulgation of discursivity and, in doing so, it attempted to make the form and function of the big exhibition as transparent as humanly possible. If the show offered a model of the social, it did so by suggesting that democracy should be viewed as a site of continual contestation and dissent rather then communality and consensus.
Documenta 12 offered us the insular logic of the couple, secretive and withdrawn from the pressures of transparency, talking in code with one another as opposed to generating the more open speech necessary for public dialogue. In essence, Buergel and Noack forsook the public dimension of the exercise and ultimately produced a profoundly undemocratic exhibition. Their refusal to share information resulted in an audience trapped within the hubris of their experiment in pure experience, an experience the terms of which were reached through neither debate nor consensus. The egotism of this grand gesture feels all too commensurate with the arrogance of our current political moment. I am reminded that here in the US, at least, the language of pure experience has always been the province of those who believe in faith-based initiatives.
Helen Molesworth is the Maisie K. and James R. Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art at the Harvard University Art Museums