Documenta 13

Ana Teixeira Pinto

June 10, 2012
documenta, Kassel
June 9–September 16, 2012

Remains, residues, remnants, repairs, relics. The 13th edition of Documenta, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, inhabits a strange temporality. The exhibition includes little limestone figurines, the “Bactrian princesses,” the remnants of a civilization long gone (Central Asia, ca. 2000 B.C.); deformed artifacts from the Beirut National Museum, damaged during the Lebanese Civil War; empty chrysalides (Kristina Buch’s The Lover, 2012); a handful of bottles that appear in Giorgio Morandi’s paintings, some of which the artist also painted over; scraps taken from the site in Afghanistan where the Bamiyan Buddhas once stood, shown together with salvages from the 1941 Allied bombings, a fragment of a meteorite which hit Earth in 1954, and burnt books reconstituted in stone (Michael Rakowitz’s What Dust Will Rise, 2012); photographs of craters, or the “bomb ponds,” which resulted from the American bombardments of Cambodia during the Vietnam war (Vandy Rattana’s Takeo, 2009); a video installation juxtaposing the reconstructed Fridericianum in Kassel to the razed Dar ul-Aman palace in Kabul (Mariam Ghani’s A Brief History of Collapses, 2011–2012); the photographs of Lee Miller bathing in the Führer’s bathtub the same day he committed suicide in his Berlin bunker (Lee Miller in the Bathtub of Hitler’s Apartment in Munich, 1945, Lee Miller and David E. Scherman); a man-made crater populated by aberrant beings (Pierre Huyghe’s Untilled, 2011–2012); an enormous pile of industrial debris qua sculpture (Lara Favaretto’s Momentary Monument IV, 2012).

Obvious historical precedents to this Documenta can be found in Arte Povera, with its obsolescence of the tradition of primary structures and geometric abstraction that constituted the formal lexicon of modern art from Constructivism to Minimalism. Yet though obsessively fixated on debris, ruins, and remnants, the exhibition bears no trace of nostalgia, nor does it project an idealized version of the past. And though excessively preoccupied with objects that have fallen through the crevices of history, the exhibition avoids the structure of a historical framework. The abundant interest in craft does not signal a stand against alienation, nor a romantic sense of inwardness. Documenta is neither about animism, nor fetishism, and, notwithstanding the heavy presence of conceptual artists, the show is sensory oriented, anti-conceptual even. Probably unprecedented in both dimension and extension, the exhibition, paradoxically, signals a quaint, contracting world.

What is thus the psychology of Documenta? Upon exiting the Fridericianum, the first and last piece encountered—Ryan Gander’s gimmicky I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize (2012)—acquires an unwarranted tone, as I fantasize the light breeze of the storm Walter Benjamin describes as blowing the “angel of history,” whose gaze is fixed on the past, towards a future to which his back is turned. “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.”

Placing itself neither within cultural singularity nor within natural necessity, this Documenta neither discriminates between epochs or politics, nor does it discriminate between natural or man-made disasters. Fukushima and the Allied bombings, the war in Afghanistan and meteorite impacts are all part of the same continuous calamity. What we call history appears as an endlessly repeating feedback loop, in an enclosed space surrounded and sealed by a succession of colonial powers. It is in the interstices of such a space that the exhibition dwells—as it is in the interstices of such a space that vast swaths of the world’s population subsist, like the pre-Hispanic community around Lake Chalco in Mexico City, whose plight Maria Thereza Alves’s project addresses, or the seafarers around the Horn of Africa, trading on the margins of free-trade (CAMP’s The Boat Modes, 2009–2012).

The non-occidental “other” is, here, a co-constituted, dialectical other—like in Kader Attia’s The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012)—neither African enough, nor European enough. Caught in between cultural narratives, and in the monotone voice of the heavily sedated, this “other” tell us: “He used to believe that sacrificing animals would please the gods, [and] now he understands his actions were reprehensible” (Javier Tellez’s Artaud’s Cave, 2012).

Resistance, however, though a leitmotif of the exhibition, only appears as either personal or parochial. One finds fair-trade biological kiosks and profuse mystification of solitary defiance, but the sense of universalism present in Marxism or in the traditional left is blatantly absent. The figures of the madman, the reformatory girl, the traumatized soldier, the persecuted keep recurring but the only solace the exhibition can provide takes the form of Anger Workshops (Stuart Ringholt, 2008) amongst other therapeutic/recreational proposals, e.g. by Pedro Reyes, Paul Ryan, and Brian Jungen. In what constitutes a widespread withdrawal from the tradition of critique, hardly any artists scrutinize language and signification; though Jimmie Durham’s The History of Europe (2011) or Roman Ondák’s Observations (1995–2011) provide two keen examples to the contrary. Also, very few projects envisage the future as something other than a reiteration of the present or conceptualize alternatives, such as Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle’s Time/Bank (2009–ongoing)—which, within this context, embodies both the possibilities and the perils of a parochial economy—or Amy Balkin’s Public Smog (2004–ongoing), a legal challenge that attempts to put the earth’s atmosphere on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

If it were an animal—and the animal is definitively amongst the exhibition’s motifs— then Documenta would be best described by the oxymoron “urban wildlife,” a species neither wild nor domestic and created by the peculiar ecology of the refuse of civilization, an animal that burrows in sewers and scavenges leftovers. The exhibition creates a seamless transition between Lee Miller plundering the spoils of National Socialism (spraying herself with Eva Braun’s perfume or drying her body in an “AH” monogrammed towel) and the manifold fauna that has taken over the derelict grounds of Chernobyl and Fukushima. In a sense, we are all living amidst the ruins of Empire, in a world we neither own nor disown. And as the structures of the modern state wither, it seems that, as Nabokov put it, “the future is but the obsolete in reverse.”

This nature-culture hybrid can have dystopian, Lord of the Flies-like features—like the beehive head of Pierre Huyghe’s female statue surrounded by emaciated dogs. Yet it can also appear more benign, like Mariana Castillo Deball’s superimposition of objects encased in geological strata (Uncomfortable Objects, 2012). But maybe the key is to be found in the scientific projects, such as Alexander Tarakhovsky’s biomaterial multiplier, equating pathogens with the pre-subjective. Just as Korbinian Aigner created his strains of Korbinian apples, Tarakhovsky’s epigenetic project creates new strains of genetic expression. Whereas Hegel stated that art was no longer a proper vehicle for humanity’s comprehension of its own essence, this Documenta seems to state that humanity is no longer a proper vehicle for art’s comprehension of its own essence.

War & Conflict, Nature & Ecology
Ruins, Arte Povera, Historicity & Historiography, Craft, Accidents & Disasters, Temporality

Ana Teixeira Pinto is a cultural theorist living in Berlin.

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