in Features | 19 SEP 07
Featured in
Issue 109

Mixed Messages


in Features | 19 SEP 07

To find a more ‘porous form of organization’ was Roger M. Buergel’s stated aim in 2004, shortly after being appointed Artistic Director of documenta 12. But in the same breath he also nonchalantly admitted to an ‘autocratic streak’.1 Autocratic but porous; curating with a strong vision while remaining open to critical advice: that, one might have thought, was what it would take to carry forward predecessors Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor’s politically and conceptually invested approaches while simultaneously allowing for the return of an aestheticism which had supposedly been purged. Buergel’s volubility seemed to promise no less than setting the dialectical swingboat of aesthetics and politics in full motion, as did his expressed interest in the methodology of exhibition display and his concise curatorial portfolio to date (a handful of small to mid-scale group exhibitions ranging in subject matter from Abstract Expressionism to Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘governmentality’). And why shouldn’t he, together with partner Ruth Noack (whom he soon took on as documenta curator), be able to dispel fears that they lacked experience with large-scale exhibitions? After all, a year before his Kassel appointment Buergel had been awarded the Menil Collection’s Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement by a jury that had included Catherine David.

I started my tour of documenta 12 in the temporary Aue Pavilion. The huge, 9,500-square-metre glass structure, dubbed the ‘Crystal Palace’ (a reference Buergel had made, yet altered to ‘Favela’ in later statements), already sounded problematic: why build a hot-house in summer only then to laboriously air-condition it in order to display the art? However, I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. Maybe great work could survive this freaky mistake of a building. No. The air in the building was humid, the light yellowish and dim, the interplay of maroon tarmac floor with grey polyester canopies and curtains made it feel all the more like a defunct indoor tennis court.

At first there were some pleasant, even exciting discoveries. Lili Dujourie’s paper collage Roman (Novel, 1976), for instance; small images torn from magazines (cigarettes and hotel keys, a man’s muscular hip, a woman’s stockinged legs and crotch) are distributed across a large white horizontal paper surface like fragmented colour-saturated memories of a soft porn melodrama. Or Bela Kolarova’s ‘Cyklu Nàdobi’ (Dishes Cycle, 1966), kaleidoscopic abstractions composed of small everyday objects (buttons, rhinestones, shells, fly-fishing lures and hairpins) fixed onto glass planes aligned on draining racks – ironically subverting a typical socialist Czech housewife’s kitchenware with Constructivist-style miniatures, two years before the Prague Spring. It was great to see Jo Spence’s collaborative photo series from the 1980s (‘Remodelling Photo History’, 1982, and ‘The Picture of Health’, 1982–6, made in collaboration with Rosy Martin, Maggie Murray and Terry Dennett) in which, with grim humour and rebellious sadness, she remade, remodelled and rejected any conventions of gender, class, beauty and health you could think of. At least in one respect documenta 12 would outshine any of its forerunners in having by far the highest proportion of female artists (roughly 50 per cent), and a healthy bias towards feminist work. This, no doubt, is a great achievement in itself. If only there weren’t so many failures obfuscating it.

By the time I had seen about three-quarters of the Aue Pavilion, I had a taste of what would become maybe the most obnoxious feature of this exhibition: formal juxtaposition. I came across a small John McCracken mandala painting entitled Tantric (1971) – a nice, frisky antidote to his austerely Minimalist sculptures. Yet Tantric was not alone; placed in vitrines directly in front of it was a set of four 19th-century Tajik bridal veils, which – with their delicate red, purple, yellow and green silk embroidery – bore a superficial, if faint, resemblance to McCracken’s painting. There was a further work lumped next to the mandala and the bridal veils: David Goldblatt’s gloomy series of black and white photographs depicting the long, gruelling bus journeys to work made each day by South African commuters (‘The Transported of KwaNdebele’, 1983), their merciless exploitation visible in the uneasy sleep and sheer exhaustion Goldblatt documents. What was this supposed to tell us about the ‘migration of form’, as Buergel had dubbed his attempts at identifying transcultural formal correspondences? That 19th-century Tajik Islamic wedding parties and 1970s West Coast dudes interested in, like, Tantric shit, man, share languages of ornamental form? This kind of grouping not only forces the exhibits into a certain curatorial agenda but also the viewers into an argument about whether or not they manage to make any sense of it. The absence of any factual information on the wall labels made the experience even more didactic – like a teacher waiting expectantly for you to give the right answer to an unintelligible question.

In this respect Buergel’s ‘porous forms of organization’ and ‘autocratic streak’ took on new, if less flattering, meaning. The exhibition is porous as an argument; full of superficial connections, often made in ignorance of actual concepts of display inherent to the works on show. The installation of Charlotte Posenenske’s work in the Fridericianum was a case in point. Attempts to find alternatives to the traditional white cube are understandable, but whether that means one has to revert to the convention that historically preceded it is debatable. The Fridericianum looked something like the home of a 1950s’ private collector: an urbane connoisseur decorating his private chambers with large watercolours featuring poems written in Gujarati (Atul Dodya, Antler Anthology I–XII, 2003), windows covered with long flowing curtains, and walls painted in tones such as vermilion red or pistachio green. What did that mean for Posenenske? Her 4 Reliefs (1967), a set of serial Minimalist sculptural forms hung in a row, was placed on just such a pistachio wall, as though the work could be used as a quasi-domestic ornament, effectively altering its colour from the original bright industrial yellow to some greenish-yellow hue. Her ‘Vierkantrohre Serie DW’ (Square Tube Series DW, 1967) – an angular cardboard tube reminiscent of a ventilation shaft – was suspended directly above the rope construction that formed part of Trisha Brown’s dance performance Floor of the Forest (1971), thus turning it into a redundant stage prop. Maybe Posenenske, who worked as a stage designer in the 1950s, stopped making art in 1968 and died in 1985, wouldn’t have minded this; and maybe Poul Gernes, who favoured making work for hospitals and community centres, wouldn’t have minded his Suggestions for a Flag for the European Community (1972–3) being hung above Ai Wei Wei’s Qing dynasty chairs, as though in a trophy-hunting aristocrat’s hallway. In any case both Posenenske and Gernes are dead and can’t complain.

Not that living artists were spared Buergel and Noack’s overbearing interventions; Mary Kelly admitted in the press conference to being uncomfortable when she was confronted with a salmon pink room in the sacrally lit Neue Galerie, where her installation ‘Love Songs’ (2007) – based on experiences of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s and featuring among other elements quotes from a younger generation of women regarding feminism, etched into the walls of a small glass house made in collaboration with Ray Barrie – was to be situated. It’s interesting to note that the curatorial team apparently thought it best not to inform her in advance that they planned to intervene in the display of her work in such a dominant manner (feminism, pink – get it?). Even more interesting, or rather perplexing, is why an artist of Kelly’s repute would let them get away with it. Of course, one could argue that the artist’s intentions should not completely govern questions of display in a group exhibition context; but simply to ignore them should not ideally be the rule either. ‘I don’t think I will continue working this way, making exhibitions and dealing with artists’, Buergel said in an interview that appeared in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit a week before documenta 12’s opening, adding that he plans to continue working in the fields of older and applied arts.2 One can sense, in this and similar statements, a thinly veiled disregard for living artists and their irritating ambition to have a say in the way their work is presented.
In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. There were tell-tale signs in the statements, press releases and facts that circulated in the run-up to the exhibition – whether it was the way Buergel handled the questions of venues, his emphatic references to the founder and first director of documenta in 1955, Arnold Bode, or the media spectacle around the participation of Spanish chef Ferran Adrià.

At the end of last year the documenta office was still issuing a watercolour sketch, painted by Buergel himself, of the Aue Pavilion. In 1955 Bode had issued watercolours of documenta 1. Bode’s exhibition, dramatically installed in the bombed ruins of the Fridericianum, was effectively a supplement to the much larger Federal Flower Garden Show, which attracted three million visitors. Buergel has interpreted the Flower Show as being ‘deeply involved in working through the Nazi trauma’ and documenta 1 as an endeavour that made it possible for people to ‘share a common space in which they could relate to each other again.’3 In other words, Buergel has argued that documenta, together with the Garden Show, reinvigorated an enlightened class of citizens after Hitler. As pioneering and well intentioned as Bode’s first documenta may have been, this appears to be a rather wilful misconception of what was actually the case. Although documenta 1 included a substantial amount of work by artists who had been ostracized by the Nazis and shown in their 1937 exhibition ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art), Bode and his co-curator Werner Haftmann nevertheless firmly ignored Constructivism, Dada and Surrealism – anything that wasn’t part of the West’s new, Cold War ‘occidental’ canon of abstraction and anything that spoke directly about the experiences of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Actual confrontation with what people did know about the Nazi atrocities simply didn’t happen until well into the 1960s. There was denial and repression in the collective memory. It seems ill considered to cite documenta 1 as the founding moment of Germany’s postwar, educated, enlightened class, and illustrate it with a Fridericianum setting reminiscent of a 1950s’ bourgeois home, while alluding to the Flower Garden Show in the form of the Aue Pavilion hot-house and two major outdoor botanical projects: Poppy Field (2007), by Sanja Ivecovic, and Terraced Rice Field (2007), by Skarin Krue-On.

In an attempt to cleverly circumvent media demand for the release of the artists’ list by revealing the first and the last name on it, the participation of culinary maestro Adrià was revealed early on together with that of artist Artur Z˘mijewski, whose daring, crude video Oni (Them, 2007), documenting a social experiment involving opposing ideological groups in Poland, was a rewarding antidote to more illustrative political pretensions in other parts of documenta. However, it only became known to the wider public at the documenta opening press conference that Adrià would participate by declaring his restaurant elBulli, near Barcelona – where he realizes his inventive molecular cooking style – a ‘documenta pavilion’. Buergel himself would randomly choose, in accordance with what he termed the ‘well-tried model of curatorial arbitrariness’, two documenta visitors and invite them to fly to Spain.4 In the press release by elBulli, all 5,000 ‘clients’ that the restaurant hosts during the 100 days of the exhibition are simply declared visitors to documenta.5 Together with the confused allusions to documenta 1, this suggests an astounding sense of diligence in sending out bullshit messages to one’s audience – the kind of behaviour people develop when successfully insulated from critical advice for periods on end.

The fundamental irony is that Buergel and Noack started out as left-field, progressive curators sympathetic to artists who are politically aware of the bluff machinations of power and class. Creating mid-size shows repeatedly exhibiting a core-group of associated German and Austrian artists – most of whom, such as Ines Doujak, Dierk Schmidt, or Andreas Siekmann, have delivered the expected issue-driven documenta works about bio-seed piracy, 19th-century German colonialism and current immigration law – they were able to translate their sensibility into a coherent form for a specialized audience, keeping each other in check in terms of not ‘giving in’ to the supposed flippancy of ‘the market’. But once faced with the demands of developing an exhibition for hundreds of thousands of visitors, they seem to have fallen back into a revisionist language of the 1950s, curating as though with their great uncles and aunts in mind, mildly shocking them in some ways (politics), while pleasing them in others (flowers and curtains). Experimentalism has become dilettantism. The mottos of documenta have similarly been devalued: ‘migration of form’ became false analogies of form, ‘Is Modernity our antiquity?’ sounds now as though asked with an antique shop in mind, and ‘Bare Life’ (Giorgio Agamben’s notion of people in a state of being barred from justice) has been replaced with carpets and culinary experiences in reactionary visions of the ‘good life’.

However, aren’t the media, as Buergel stated in the press conference, ultimately stuck in an ‘inevitable relation of rejection’ with the medium of the exhibition? There is a kernel of truth in the assertion that any large-scale exhibition will produce a barrage of reactions of the fault-finding, know-it-all variety. Yet this assertion can’t justify everything in retrospect, not least since certain large-scale exhibitions of recent years – the last Istanbul Biennial, or the Lyon Biennial of 2003, for example, and not least, to some extent, the two previous instalments of documenta – have undoubtedly shown that it is possible to do justice to contemporary art production on a grand scale. The next documenta doesn’t need to be curated by an artist (or by a car, as a photocopied fly-poster in Venice suggested, in reference to Buergel’s Saab-sponsored convertible); it just needs to be curated by someone whom artists can fully trust.

Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze.

1 ‘The Shape of Things to Come’, frieze 81, March 2004, pp. 52–3
2 Zeit Magazin, 24 July, 2007 p. 28
3 ‘The Future of the Exhibition’, Frieze Projects: Artists’ Commissions and Talks 2003–5, frieze, London, 2006, p. 196
4 Oddly, the first chosen was not a visitor but one of the artists in the exhibition, the painter Juan Davila, after Gerhard Richter had allegedly turned down the offer.