Skip to content
Flash Art

If one leaves Venice annoyed, if not indignant, one goes on to find oneself disoriented in Kassel. Despite everything, a confrontation between the 52nd Venice Biennale and Documenta 12, even if it seems inevitable, is not really possible. For years the two most consolidated institutions on the international scene have been on diametrically opposed paths, with different goals and different expectations to respond to. The last edition that saw the two face to face, that of 1997, pitted a 'stylistic' confrontation between generations proposed by Germano Celant against the first lucid reflections regarding the culture of the end of the Cold War effectuated by Catherine David. Which is to say, they could not have been more distant from one another and more incompatible. 

The general impression is that the Venice Bienniale has become a typical product of Italy's conservative cultural policy, independent of whoever the director may be, and despite Robert Storr, this year, the Biennale managed to achieve truly low levels. The indiscriminate multiplication of collateral events and the vast scattering of national pavilions tend to accentuate the curatorial authority of the main project. Documenta has other goals. For the past fifteen years the aspiration of the German manifestation has been to institute itself as an alternative laboratory within the process of globalization. Documenta does not present itself as a general cultural challenge, but also a radical movement at the center of the art system, as far from mainstream movements as it is from established modes of exhibition-making. The central stake of Roger Buergel's much contested edition of Documenta is essentially a reconsideration of what constitutes 'contemporaneity.' Labeled as too political by the conservative German newspapers such as 'Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung' and too formalist by those of the left, this edition has the capacity to stir up more than one problem. The most obvious aspect of Documenta 11, curated by Okwui Enwezor, which was attacked by everyone, was the crushing predominance of the documentary. The documentary seems to be at the heart of Documenta 12 as well. The best genre for a close observation of reality and therefore for a geopolitical approach to every latitude on a global scale. In the present case, the 'document' is either the trace or an instrument of global history. In this sense, Documenta 12 comes off as an anachronistic exhibition machine which records events from the past according to a set of criteria that are not sufficiently clear. A carpet from North Eastern Iran dating to 1800, a wooden box by Ekeair Antin from 1968 in which are stored specimens on glass for a microscope of the blood of various poets; a date book by Nedko Solakov full of drawings and texts from the brief period when the artist was an informer for the Bulgarian secret service under socialism; personal and familiar objects from the Chinese artist Hu Ziaoyuan, the diary from 1970 of Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, a stuffed giraffe that Peter Friedl had transported from the zoo in Qalqilyah on Israel's West Bank; hundreds of chairs from the Qing dynasty featured in Ai Wei Wei's project ; the photographic archive of Luis Jacob; Simon Wachsmuth historical collection of maps of Persepolis - all of this documentary material that ibe absolutely did not expect to come across in an exhibition of contemporary art. But the same display also proposed glass vitrines, curtains and colored walls, a lighting system that continually varied, a proliferation of exhibition models - from an anthropological museum to international exhibition pavilions - and a contextual mise-en-scene for every single work that not even Alexander Dorner would have been able to imagine. Documenta 12 intended to reconsider and discuss the traditional format of an exhibition - from the White Cube to the perfect fusion achieved in 'Gesamtkunstwerk' - in favor of the exhibition as medium, not left to chance, but forcibly orchestrated. 

To the space designated by Documenta were added the ten thousand square meters of the Aue Pavillion according the design by the architects Lacaton and Vassal taking as their point of departure from the idea of the Cristal Palace from 1851. Gloria Kino, on the other hand, hosted Documenta's Film Program, a recourse it seems meant to justify the absence of video in the exhibition spaces. The most beautiful space in the exhibition? That of the Museum Fridericianum with raised white partitions and which housed radical art from the 70s, from the Tucuman Arde archive to the 'Bowery' by Martha Rosler, to the actions of Jiri Kovanda, from the public performance of Sanja Ivekovic to the private one of Ion Grigorescu, from the Chilean artist Lotty Rosenfeld's video to the photos of the Polish group Kwiekulik. Yes, here it is a matter again of documents, without a doubt. Documents extracted from a specific historical period, but which, in the exhibition, do not possess a linear continuity with the rest. These documents do not belong to a unifying image of history, but are rather limited to propose an experience. A kind of mix between Foucault and Benjamin is the guiding light to this risky exhibition. Its structure is full of temporal gaps, not only between various historical periods, but also between works by the same artist. One happens across abstract sculptures and pictorial mandalas by John McCracken in ten different places throughout the show, or Jurgen Stolhan's work that is constituted by three different parts in three locations, or the canvases of Kerry James Marshall like recurring counterpoint. With some work, one isn't even able to attribute a date, as in the case of the long, silk codex by Lu Hao who in 2006 adopted a traditional technique from Chinese realism in order to reproduce a patch of road in Peking. In the end, Mary Kelly's piece 'Love Songs' is one of the most emblematic of this rapport between the past and the present. But the most emblematic work is Monastyrski's, found at the entrance to the Aue Pavillion. A white partition invites the spectator to push a button but for no apparent reason because nothing happens at the moment of doing so. Only at the very end of the Pavilion, the sound of a bell issues from a second white partition, the consequence of somebody else pushing the button. OK, between the production of art and its reception there is not necessarily historical continuity. OK, a work does not have to have been produced yesterday in order to be contemporary, but why renounce a cartography of the present? Why limit one's self to a resume of the past, however charged it may be, and not bring emerging artists to the table? It'd not enough to theorize in a contemporary forum to subvert accepted notions about historical continuity, contemporary art had a subversive role to play as well. 

-Marco Scotini