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Issue 109

Trans-Europe Express

Early June saw the opening of the 52nd Venice Biennale, documenta 12 and Sculpture Projects Muenster 07

BY Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith in Features | 19 SEP 07

‘How did I get here? Can you hear me outside? I cannot escape.’
Sonia Abián Rose, Das Konzentrationslager der Liebe, (The Concentration Camp of Love, 2007)

‘YES NO. Both of them are equally frightened of each other. That’s why the smart people say ‘maybe’.
Nedko Solakov, Fears, 2007

OK, so it’s a cheap shot to wrench epigrams from two arbitrarily chosen works among the thousands encountered on the long march from the 52nd Venice Biennale to documenta 12 to the fourth Sculpture Projects Muenster, in order to ventriloquize the sense of bewildering overload, spiced by the fear of premature judgement, that was a predictable result of ‘doing’ this summer’s ‘grand tour’. All three events opened within a ten-day period in early June and, despite their considerable differences, comparisons were unavoidable between these major exercises in stocktaking, which traditionally take place at two-, five-, and ten-year intervals respectively. Of course, rushing around on a tight schedule is no way to see, much less judiciously assess, such sprawling extravaganzas. Yet no amount of pious hand-wringing will alter the fact that this is precisely what a significant proportion of contemporary art’s most committed stakeholders will have done. This is a structural problem tackled in different ways by this year’s Biennale Director, Robert Storr, documenta curators Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, and Muenster impresarios Kasper König, Brigitte Franzen and Carina Plath. Crudely put, Storr’s sombre, understated Biennale gambled on the intelligence of an underestimated general public, a constituency he chooses to believe ‘would ultimately prefer to be engaged rather than enthralled’. Buergel and Noack’s determinedly anti-canonical, frequently exasperating but quietly rewarding documenta set even higher store on the patience and goodwill of viewers willing to suspend judgement until they had traversed their presentation in its entirety and considered the revisionist tale it had to tell. Muenster alone deigned to seduce, delight and entertain, while cleaving to its 30-year commitment to furthering the debate on art in public spaces.

The flagship exhibition in Venice, spread as usual over the capacious Italian Pavilion in the Giardini and the vast medieval Arsenale, was entitled ‘Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense’. While the banners under which such shows routinely set sail are rarely illuminating, the argument for the compatibility of aesthetic delectation with critical perspicacity was clearly aimed at an old bugbear of Storr’s; the neo-Puritan pleasure police of critical academe. A roomful of recent canvases in the Italian Pavilion, in which painting predominated, incidentally registered his ongoing tussle with Benjamin H.D. Buchloh for the soul of Gerhard Richter (played out over the years in various monographs, exhibitions, interviews and reviews). Close by were self-contained suites of paintings by fellow eminences Robert Ryman and Ellsworth Kelly, as well as rooms devoted to Elizabeth Murray and Susan Rothenburg. Pride of place, however, went to an array of giant Sigmar Polkes, which brooded darkly on the walls of the pavilion’s large central gallery. The pairing of two minor masters from different generations and sides of the Atlantic – Raoul de Keyser and Thomas Nozkowski – must have looked great on paper, but their adjacent rooms suffered from an unfortunate overhang and nagging intimations of pseudomorphism. The prevailing US–northern European inflection was tempered by the inclusion of the Mumbai-based Nalini Malani’s obliquely allegorical suite of ‘reverse paintings’ titled ‘Splitting the Other’ (2007) and by the more stridently global Agit-Pop of Congolese painter Chéri Samba. Even Jenny Holzer’s coruscating, large-scale text-works derived from declassified documents relating to the interrogation of detainees in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, were paintings, rendered in oil on linen. The pavilion’s roughly spiralling circuit, which opened with Nancy Spero’s fearsome maypole bedecked with screaming heads (Maypole/Take No Prisoners, 2007), came to an abrupt end in its strangest room, which housed a small selection of works by Chen Zhen, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Martin Kippenberger, José Leonilson, Fred Sandback and Philippe Thomas, all of whom are deceased. Sadly, the only other thing the occupants of this mezzanine mausoleum seemed to have in common was the even-handed inelegance with which their work had been installed.The long procession through the Arsenale began with Luca Buvoli’s ambiguous homage to the broken dreams of Italian Futurism, a multimedia whirlwind of colourful shards, reconstituted slogans and stammered manifestos, and ended with the oneiric serenity of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s model of the fictive Utopian city of Manas in northern Tibet. Between this alpha and omega – one weighed down by the mess of history as it struggled to take flight, the other holding the illusory promise of assumption into a mythic paradise – a relatively muted succession of art works reflected, in Storr’s words, ‘the difficulty of making art in troubled times.’ Documentary dispatches from a number of the world’s more contested territories, variously complicated by post-Conceptualist convention, gradually gave way to mordantly humorous takes on life lived under the constant shadow of death. Spectacle was eschewed for the most part, show-stopping exceptions being the Ghanaian El Anatsui’s dazzling metal tapestries stitched together from packaging detritus, and a large-scale, rambunctious reminder of the irrepressible energies of the late Jason Rhoades. Intermittent oases of atmospheric calm were provided in the form of enclosed viewing rooms in which the five films that constitute Yang Fudong’s newly completed Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (2003–7) were screened, although the transfer from film to DVD did no favours to the ravishing imagery of Yang’s tableaux. Arsenale highlights included Manon de Boer’s engrossingly sensual filmed portrait of Brazilian psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik set against the backdrop of São Paulo (Resonating Surfaces, 2005), the balletic viscerality of Sophie Whettnall’s short film Shadow Boxing (2004), in which a woman stands unflinching amid a dancing boxer’s flurry of pulled punches, and Francis Alÿs’ Bolero (1996–2007), a short animation, accompanied by over 500 preparatory drawings, in which the rhythms of a mundane shoeshine reflect the eddies of daily life amid the flow of globalized production.

The installation of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work in the American Pavilion, ‘Felix Gonzalez-Torres: America’, was exquisite but funereal, occluding its generosity of spirit the better to emphasize its political engagement and sense of mourning. Even the candy spill was black liquorice. Elsewhere attention focused on the neighbouring British, French and German pavilions featuring, respectively, Tracey Emin, Sophie Calle and Isa Genzken. Despite its characteristic content, Emin’s presentation ‘Borrowed Light’ favoured elegance over edginess, while Calle extended her own variety of confessionalism into the collaborative arena by inviting 100 women from different walks of life to interpret a letter from a lover who had jilted her (Take Care of Yourself, 2007). Genzken’s spirited assault on the German pavilion, Oil, included a trio of space-walking astronauts and a number of noosed ropes suspended over a Technicolor meltdown below. In their very different ways the Canadian David Altmejd and Monica Sosnowska from Poland produced compelling responses to the architecture of their respective national pavilions (The Other Side of the Looking Glass and 1:1, both 2007). At the risk of being accused of blatant chauvinism, the adjacent presentations of Ireland and Northern Ireland, by Gerard Byrne and Willie Doherty, were a joint success among the outlying ‘national pavilions’. Doherty’s film Ghost Story (2007) retained the baggage of a life lived in violent times even as it journeyed into a spectral other-world, while Byrne’s fractured restaging of scenes from a mid-1960s’ sci-fi think-tank, 1984 and Beyond (2006), presented the tomorrow’s world of yesteryear from the ironically distancing perspective of today.

For the record, this article’s opening citations were not necessarily gleaned from the most distinctly memorable works in documenta. But then documenta 12 was not about instantly memorable works of art. Nor indeed – despite a historical reach that encompassed 16th-century Persian calligraphy, 17th-century Mogul miniatures and Indian Company paintings from the 19th century – was it about memory as such. It did, however, have much to say about the memory of forms, within a context of display that embraced what the curators described as the inherent ‘formlessness’ of the ‘big exhibition’. If Venice was muted, documenta lowered the volume (not to mention the light-levels) even further, making considerable demands on the viewer’s attentiveness.

More than half the artists included overall, and two-thirds of the small US contingent, were women. Central Europe was strongly represented. The geographic spread seemed genuinely global and not confined to the usual suspects. Biennial-circuit regulars were thin on the ground and current art-market heavies were nowhere to be seen. Gerhard Richter and Agnes Martin, for instance, were represented by one painting each (Betty (1977) and River (1964)), both installed rather pointedly, as though to underline the incongruousness of the auratic art object in an exhibition that valued more highly the accumulating rewards of protracted artistic labour. The lone Martin, for instance, ushered the viewer into a succession of rooms featuring the distilled intensity of Nasreen Mohamedi’s low-key grid-drawings and photographs as well as sections of Tanaka Atsuka’s laboriously collaged mid-1950s’ Calendar. Distanced from each other by history and geography, they share common ground in their idiosyncratic responses to the diaristic impulse.
If ever an exhibition needed to be appreciated as more than the sum of its frequently slight parts, this was it. Yet hearts sank for those who began their tour in the purpose-built Aue Pavilion, a botched ‘crystal palace’ down by the old Orangerie, in which most works felt awkward and adrift. One of the few exceptions was a generous, self-contained display of Zoe Leonard’s photographic typologies, which mix the fruits of a localized daily dérive with more far-flung explorations of the byways of the global economy (Analogue (1998–2007)). The other venues were more satisfying. One of the more intriguing of documenta’s curatorial eccentricities was the decision to thread works by a core crew of disparate artists through the various venues. The proliferation of abstract works by Gerwald Rockenschaub and John McCracken (his trippy miniature mandalas as well as the more familiar space-age obelisks) functioned as inscrutable punctuation marks, whereas the differently modulated politics of race and antic sexuality exemplified respectively by the narrative figuration of Kerry James Marshall and Juan Davila had a radically different effect, momentarily sucking the viewer into their own pictorial worlds rather than propelling them on their way. A fifth artist presented in some depth was the short-lived Charlotte Posenenske, whose 1960s’ Euro-Minimalism was a revelation to many Anglophones. The incorporation of avant-garde cuisine into contemporary art’s ever-expanding field, to the extent of designating star chef Ferran Adrià’s elBulli restaurant in northern Spain an outlying ‘venue’, was a silly indulgence, whereas the short video Oni (Them, 2007), a darkly humorous study in psycho-social intolerance by Artur Žmijewski, was one of the show’s successes. A rare concession to spectacle was the grand-scale presentation of James Coleman’s latest opus, the opaque but mesmerizing 35mm film Retake with Evidence (2007), in which the magisterial ruin of a man that is Harvey Keitel shuffles slowly around a succession of stage sets, delivering in finely wrought neo-Elizabethan diction a 45-minute monologue on guilt and governance, sightlessness, oblivion and retribution. No documenta since 1987 has been deemed complete without Coleman’s presence.

After the austerity of Kassel, Muenster seemed positively festive. The general air of historical reflexivity was epitomized by the installation, 30 years after its initial conception, of Bruce Nauman’s sunken, inverted concrete pyramid Square Depression (2007) and by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s medley of greatest hits from Muenster’s past, a park full of miniature Judds, Boettis, Kabakovs and Schüttes. If her Roman de Münster (A Muenster Novel, 2007) may be described, however flippantly, as a petting zoo for sculptures, Mike Kelley’s real-life Petting Zoo (2007), centring on a sculptural rendition of Lot’s wife made of salt, was a supremely fine-tuned balance of low-comic charm and farmyard physicality, with a disconcerting undertow of Old Testament vengefulness. Elsewhere those with an ear for music could be captivated by Susan Philipsz’ haunting Offenbach duet with herself sounding across Lake Aa as traffic rumbled by, or rain thundered down, on the bridge overhead (The Lost Reflection, 2007). A sweet tooth was catered for by Pae White’s designer confections displayed in the window of a town-centre cake shop (part of my-fi, 2007); while welcome belly-laughs were provided for the war-weary by Elmgreen and Dragset’s theatre piece (Drama Queens, 2007) scripted by Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells and featuring a bickering ensemble of remote controlled icons of 20th-century sculpture, including a lugubrious Alberto Giacometti ‘Walking Man’ and a frenetic Jeff Koons Bunny, who are finally silenced by the arrival of Andy Warhol’s mute Brillo Box. Venturing in any direction out from the town centre, one inevitably passed under, even if one didn’t always spot overhead, the elusive threads of Mark Wallinger’s Zone, (2007) a five-kilometre-long circle drawn in the air, notionally passing through buildings and encompassing an equally notional community. Venture further, and one might chance on the Concrete poetry of Martin Boyce’s sequestered plaza (We are still and reflective, 2007) or choose to visit Jeremy Deller’s Speak to the Earth and It Will Tell You (2007–ongoing), a sensitive collaboration with the enthusiastic members of a suburban allotment garden association. While quite a few of the local inhabitants expressed unfeigned pride in specific icons of Sculpture Project Muenster’s past, Deller’s work clearly had an eye to the future as its full realization is slated to coincide with the next instalment in 2017.

If Muenster was genuinely crowd-pleasing and documenta genuinely thought-provoking, then it must be noted in conclusion that the keynote exhibition in Venice was, well, genuine – which is to say that it was an honest and honourable attempt to do justice to its moment, one that in many ways epitomized rather than transcended the difficulty of making art exhibitions in troubled times.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic and occasional curator who teaches at University College Dublin, Ireland.