in Opinion | 12 SEP 07
Featured in
Issue 109

Think for a Minute

The demands of blockbuster exhibitions and the space for critical reflection

in Opinion | 12 SEP 07

However relentless the art world you choose to belong to may seem, and whether or not you recently descended into your own version of Bruce Nauman’s sunken Square Depression (2007) from Sculpture Projects Muenster 07, you may have had a quiet moment to reflect on the 52nd Venice Biennale, documenta 12 and Muenster and catch your breath before the daunting new season of exhibitions and biennials interspersed with international art fairs begins. Poised now at a perhaps illusory moment of fleeting calm, it seems right to me here not to use the voice of privileged fatigue, disingenuous cynicism or niggling doubt, nor to show broad-brush ingratitude for all the ambitious endeavours and ideas – good, bad and ugly – just experienced. Rather, I’ll simply mention something modest that I thought was engaging in the midst of it all.

One of the welcome surprises – who doesn’t like being caught off-guard by the unknown or unexpected? – among the enormous amount on offer was the curated group show ‘Low-Budget Monuments’ in the Romanian Pavilion at Venice. Featuring Cristi Pogacean’s bird house (Obelisk, 2007), Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor’s pierced cement bags (Dust, 2005–7) and Victor Man’s fur padding between the letters on the pavilion’s façade (Monument to Victor Man, 2006), the show was manageably scaled and conceptually pointed, and suffered from none of the glaring faults of being overblown, attention-seeking, pretentious, retrograde or unduly conservative. It didn’t punish, bore or misjudge its demanding audience, and its expectations weren’t out of whack. The theme of the show – the reconsideration of the monument(al) – was a great idea in the context of the massive Biennale and of Venice, which, as Wolfgang Tillmans remarked to me as we leaned over a crooked marble railing, is the ultimate city of vanitas. It is this quality, incidentally, which makes this showy, crumbling and rotting shrine to yesterday’s trade, wealth and power a perfect site for contemporary art.

Apparently an unprecedented number of art worlds or spheres of activity are growing faster than bubbles blooming out of a fast-filling hot bath, connecting and colliding, inflating and, some worry, threatening to burst. Against this backdrop, even before the first screw was put into a wall, there were plenty of raised expectations and much potential for disappointment attached to Robert Storr’s Venice exhibition ‘Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind’ and Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack’s documenta. This was probably because, apart from the major art fairs, they are some of the few events that are historically charged with the responsibility of making critical sense of art now and setting agendas for the near future. Perhaps that unofficial mandate has always been unrealistic, but it’s the only thing that explains the enormous effort these shows demand from participants and audience alike. This time these exhibitions, which otherwise had little in common in terms of premiss and actual content, tried in vain to slow everyone down while insisting on expressing curatorial independence or even visibly recoiling from ‘the contemporary’.

Both mega-exhibitions also wanted to appeal, albeit in entirely different ways and for the most part with entirely different art and entirely different understandings of the power and history of display (although both ‘solutions’ had major problems), to the idea of quality viewing and the aesthetic experience of the viewer: in theory not a bad thing, surely. By now, however, while acknowledging that peer assessment is always the most brutal and mob-like, it’s unavoidable to note that both exhibitions at best failed to engage and at worst incited critical loathing from some of the busiest and most discerning segments of the contemporary art audience. Documenta 12 turned out to be an autocratic, idiosyncratic proposition in which darkness, coloured walls and spotlights at times created a kind of purgatory for art. What was meant to be a ‘Crystal Palace’ turned into a folly where things just looked displaced and the fascinating potential of the ideas of locating politics in aesthetics and the migration of form unravelled. But respite could be found in a cellar of a community youth centre, in the form of Artur Zmijewski’s video Oni (Them, 2007), a gripping study of entrenched belief, symbols and senseless escalation of disagreement. Taken as a critical study of what happens when dogmatic opinions confront each other, it echoed the furious opinion-making that took place at the opening of the exhibition.

Ironically, if the ‘preview audience’ seemed quick to judge and generally ungrateful for these exhibitions, it was probably because there has never ever, ever been a plusher or rosier time for them – a fact reinforced by an apparently vibrant, antithetical Art Basel. Whether these events represent an upward curve that will be subject to sharp correction or a hitherto unparalleled paradigm shift, there is a growing sense that people feel the strain, whether they like to admit it or not. The current conditions of production and dissemination reward the tough and ambitious while discouraging or excluding the sensitive and thoughtful, the difficult, the dissenting, the un-categorizable, the not easily reducible and the demanding. Perhaps the task is to start radically differentiating – to expand the space of critical reception and not to be deluded by your own or others’ apparent successes. There is a lot more art out there, but who wants to invest the time and thought to make it meaningful?