May 2007, WM Issue #3: Documenta
By Wiebke Gronemeyer
In the days leading up to documenta12, which is just about to commence in Germany, the international communities eyes and ears are all fixated on Kassel, along with the exhibitions artistic director Roger M. Buergel and his wife (and incidentally curator for the exhibition) Ruth Noack. But there is very little action to see or hear surrounding the Fridericianum and in fact the concepts and ideas being advanced by the curators may astonish some. One is naturally inclined to ask questions surrounding the unveiling of the artist’s names and subjective areas they will focus on. But one of the more fundamental and interesting issues that come to the forefront are questions like, what kind of statements will documenta12 make about social, political and of course cultural issues? Will there be any kind of declarative and subjective affirmation, and if so, in relation to what? These basic questions and wonderings have always been relevant to the exhibition, since its inception in 1955, and have elevated its status as an authoritative worldwide seismograph of contemporary art, still continuing to question its manifestation.
Apparently, this year it’s proving to be quite difficult to find answers to these questions, which could capture the nature of any kind of expectations. Therefore, one might consider it useful to glance at the “documentary” context of previous exhibitions while creating some picturesque observation:
Initiated in 1955, documenta1 solely featured modern art from the beginning of the 20th century. The exhibition was supposed to reconcile German public life with international modernity while also confronting its own failed Enlightenment. In 1959 documenta2 already emphasized on contemporary art, focusing specifically on art after World War II. In 1964 documenta3 was designated as a “Museum of 100 days”, providing space for contemporary artists to show their art in provocative, correlative and dialectical ways while at the same time incorporating concepts of modernity trough large retrospectives. Vehement controversies surrounded documenta4 in 1968, but regardless of the simmering political and social quarrels the exhibition staged a triumphant procession of Pop Art and the other American shapes of artistic creation, hazarding the consequences of a rising tension between the contextual realities and exposed art. The inclusion of mass media dominated both documenta5 and documenta6. Social issues poignant to the 1970es were closely examined and elaborated under the scope of Questioning Reality – Pictorial worlds today and brought us closer to the social-aesthetic appreciation of art. Beuys’ installation Honigpumpe (honey pipe) caused quite a stir at the Fridericianum in 1977, questioning whether art was still succeeding in its ability to grasp the world considering the increasing social and aesthetic influence of the media. In 1982 documenta7 reverted back to the so-called roots of art: painting and sculpture. After numerous years of unsealing and expanding the notion of contemporary art there was a far more museum-like quality assigned to the idea of this universal exhibition. In 1987 the relationship between art, design, and architecture was the medium used to illuminate political issues, such as war, violence, and utopia. Therefore documenta8 became a seismograph of social and political deplorable evils. In 1992 documenta9 celebrated the symbiosis of art and life, setting the stage for the emotional expressions of a more event-orientated society. This was rejected by the art critics but hugely very commercially successful with the public. In 1997 documenta10 faced a critical confrontation with the present by exploring the historical and critical glaze on its own history, which included the recent past, and everything that remained within contemporary art and culture, introducing the concept of a Retro-Perspective. With documenta11 in 2002 the idea of a universal exhibition was literally explored with the inclusion of art from Africa, Asia and South America. Social and political questions regarding the more global world gave a visual effect on interdisciplinary and transnational matters such as the ideas of the melting pot or salad bowl.
If one now undertakes the challenge of pigeonholing documenta12 into this short, partly metaphorical genealogy, it can sound almost demure: documenta12 will be asking these types of questions, whereupon answers do not necessarily follow. It captures notions, without having to justify or even explain them. Roger M. Buergel and his wife Ruth Noack very much understand their mission at hand and that is to provide and allow the public the opportunity to observe and to perceive, to experience and discuss, and to be inspired by different creative perspectives. Three recurring Leifmotifs hover above the general notions and concepts that will be discussed about the featured art and its public; it’s no accident that they take the form of questions: First, Is modernity our antiquity? Second, what is bare life? And finally concerning education: what is to be done?
Rather than dismissing these questions as farfetched, one should consider that they have always been and still play an essential and functional role towards the understanding of documenta as an art-world institution. They apparently result from its entity: to frame and provide guidance to the public through a visual and aesthetic discourse about the notion, creation and purpose of art. In addition, the organizers enrich this manifestation by referring to the concept of education as an all-inclusive public debate (Bildung, the German term for education, also means “generation” or “constitution”, as when one speaks of generating or constituting a public sphere), which deeply belongs to the European tradition since the Enlightment.
A long educational and discursive journey is about to begin in June, curvaceous and winding on the alleys of contemporary art; also broad and long-sighted. Instead of showcasing a very focused and definitive theme the notions that are presented to us, such as that of contemporary art, come in to question. For example contemporary could encompass everything that belongs to our current interest, not only that which was created in the present or the recent past. Any contemporary matter that falls into our current interests are not only the artist’s creations but also the aesthetic perception of the viewer, which according to the opinion of Buergel and Noack should be geared towards a very fundamental visual feature, which is neither modern, nor antiqued, but rather timeless, such as shapes and forms.
What Buergel calls Migration of Forms is part of that experience; it means to combine ones sensory experiences and formal concepts regardless of any historical, geographical, or cultural limits while incorporating them into a resonating capacity, where artworks, having lost their original context, will strike new roots with the public.
Having deliberated those ideas, one might consider creating a metaphorical statement, one that attempts to not only anticipate but also literally capture docuementa12. This year, there are no pipes, through which one gathers the future, no mirrors, which dazzle, no lenses which magnify premature ideas. Let us imagine a grid that is part of a net, where the mesh links the art and Kassel, where our historic recollections and current political discourse interweave, ready for an answer on the expectations, no matter if they surprise or disappoint us.
If one applies this notion of creation, function, feature and connotation to the above concept, then one could consider the upcoming documenta as an exhibition that far exceeds it predecessors yet still maintains and pays respect to documenta’s previous manifestations.
The structured grid should be perceived as being constructed of flexible but firm mesh, the three Leitmotifs are held together by the belief in the significance of art existing in any context, such as its aesthetic experience and its mediation online. The mesh can be seen as interwoven, achieved by the use of mediators, who at an off–site location, are trained to help the visitors share their unique perceptive experiences and are free to express their doubts and concern. The netting expands and is further allowing the public to be an active part of the works. For example Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? is a social sculpture by the Brazilian artist Ricardo Basbaum, who in 2006 created twenty steel objects and toured them around several countries encouraging their temporary owners to alter them to their own liking. In doing so, the public took an active part in the creation process much like the artist himself was experiencing and perceiving it. Like a cobweb, the netting grows but still holds on to documenta’s tradition, which is deeply rooted in and around Kassel. A greenhouse was built in for the public to expand upon their thoughts and initiate various discussions, which pays a rather humorous homage to Bode’s first documenta in 1955, which took place at a nationwide horticultural show.
Whoever hits the road for Kassel this June with this metaphorical notion at the forefront of their minds might experience it in the greenhouse, next to Dmitrij Gutow’s fence of old weathered and rusty wires. Aside from any connotations one might figure that the art always yarns its own meshes, relying on its own tradition throughout the past, the present, and a foreseeable future. One might then take up the challenge to deal with the grids, nets and fences, while accepting the only but holy condition of documenta12: it’s primarily about art. One should consider accepting this challenge of dealing with the grid, net and fences prior to any knowledge, discourse, event or market place.
June 16 – September 23, 2007
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Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief