Documenta On The Ropes

“Template,” (2007). Wooden doors and windows from destroyed Ming and Qing Dynasty houses, wooden base, 720 °— !200 °— 850 cm. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing–Lucerne.<

The gods weren’t smiling. Two weeks after the opening of Documenta 12, Sanja Ivekovic’s poppy field in front of the Friedricianum had exactly one crimson bloom. Sakarin Krue-On’s terraced rice paddy beneath Schloss Wilhemshohe had been washed away by a rainstorm—all 7000 square meters of it, along with its reference to Beuys’ 7000 oak saplings. And in the same storm, Ai Weiwei’s triumphal tower of Chinese windows and doors had collapsed in a heap behind the Orangerie. There it lay behind barriers and guards, an instant ruin in a muddy field, welcoming us to the brand new Aue-Pavilion, which was a forlorn maze of 63 connected Quonset-like modules. Ai Weiwei claimed to be pleased with his “productive failure,” but then, his other proposed piece, Fairytale—1001 real live Chinese citizens brought to Kassel—was reduced to 1001 carved Qing chairs, because he wasn’t permitted to bring so many people all at once. And the celebrated postmodern chef (and newly anointed artist) Ferran Adria—master of deconstructed food-forms and deceptive foams—was back at his kitchens in Catalonia: on the Grand Tour, El Bulli was an outpost of Documenta for the starving rich.

Inside the documenta-Halle, Peter Friedl’s taxidermied giraffe—a war casualty from the Palestinian Qalquiliyah Zoo, looking slightly moth-eaten—was not shown to advantage. Brownie, as the once live giraffe was named, could have been a spectacular political statement of the follies of warfare. But in a gallery stuffed with disparate artworks, including an 18th century garden carpet from Iran and a thoroughly confusing installation by Cosima von Bonin, it was impossible to tell which was which, or what was what, or whether Elmgreen and Dragset’s work (the two pairs of dropped jeans? The platform they were on?) had been swallowed by von Bonin’s grandiose installation, titled Relax, It’s Only a Ghost.

Confused? Robert Buergel and Ruth Noack, the husband and wife artistic director and curator of Documenta 12, seemed to want it that way. Their idiosyncratic Documenta had enough unknown artists from all over the world, plenty of once-neglected major artists from Eastern Europe, and—quite incredibly—more than half of the total were women. Full of political overtones and undertones, it should have been a major success. But as I said, the gods weren’t smiling on Kassel this year.

Maybe Buergel and Noack took one of their themes—the obsolescence of modernity (“Is the modern our antique?”)—a bit too far.  Maybe they took their other theme—“the migration of forms”—into the realm of the privately perverse. Maybe they just didn’t have a clue as to how to install a vast complex show so that it made visual connections as well as abstruse pedantic sense.

Or maybe it was a deliberate folie a deux. “The big exhibition has no form,” they stated in the catalogue. “People are not really well equipped to deal with radical formlessness.” Art “on its own terms” meant no names, no dates, no concepts, and no geopolitical identities. It meant an exhibition that was infuriatingly random, scattering different works by the same artists among the five major exhibition sites. It meant a catalogue that is weirdly chronological, work by work (starting with a 14th century Persian miniature with Chinese influences that was brought to Berlin from Constantinople) and often listing the same artist twice.

It wasn’t until I received an e-mail press release that I realized a pitch-black gallery beyond a rosy gel-inflected lobby (just behind the hapless giraffe) held Inigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Phantom Truck, a full-scale aluminum replica of the truck described by Colin Powell that was supposedly a mobile lab and a prime motivation for the war in Iraq. That the truck was as invisible, on a rainy day, as the biological weapons of mass destruction may have been the artist’s point, but I wasn’t the only one to have missed this piece, which should have been one of the highlights of the show.

As a matter of fact, the best reason to go to Kassel is for a stunning object lesson in how not to install a show such as this. Among the works by key artists scattered at will in different buildings (or on different floors) were Atsuko Tanaka, Lee Lozano, Mary Kelly, and Zofia Kulik (she was half of a duo called Kwiekulik in the ’70s). Kerry James Marshall’s streetwise Dailies in the Neue Galerie were far from his more familiar paintings up in the Schloss. John McCracken’s planks kept recurring, which had a certain logic once you came upon his early paintings: tantric Chevron-logo mandalas. The post-colonial asshole expressionism of Juan Davila (from Chile, living in Australia) cropped up everywhere too, sometimes depicting mysterious yellow planks like painted counterparts to McCracken’s monoliths.

“Floor of the Forest,” (1970). Installation and performance in the exhibition space. © Trisha Brown; photo Frank Schinski / documenta GmbH.

It was less easy to match Sanja Ivakovic’s unblooming poppy field to her 1979 photo-conceptualist performance classic, Triangle, in which she pretended to masturbate on a balcony while Tito marched by in a parade in the street below and a policeman on a roof saw her. The catalogue—exasperating as it was—made more sense than the show. I’m not sure if it’s a compliment or a condemnation, but it helped to know that Ivekovic’s poppy field in the Friedrichplatz—the flower of sleep, opium, and forgetting—was planted on the site of Nazi troop parades and book-burnings, and was also where, not coincidentally, Beuys planted his first oak, just as it helped to realize it also referred to Afganistan.

The Aue-Pavilion was a mess. It was impossible to tell where one artist’s work left off and the next began, and as you wandered in circles in its 10,000 square meters (wishing for some of Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs), it was impossible to care about any of them. The two major exceptions: Romuald Hazoume’s large boat made of fuel canisters, with a tropical beachscape backdrop, and Lu Hao’s wide silk scroll depicting all the buildings on both sides of Chang’an Street in Beijing (a reversal of Ed Ruscha’s classic piece). Over in the Neue Galerie, whose walls were somber tones of dark green and maroon, and whose lighting was dim, you wandered into a twilight zone of contemporary art on some parallel planet. Buergel and Noack may have confused an anti-spectacular, anti-modern stance with radical ineptness, but the awfulness of having to contemplate the deadening array—some 500 ill-installed artworks by 113 artists—was almost beyond belief. Critics called Documenta 12 “wretched,” “grim,” and “a curatorial disaster.”

But gradually, in the radical absence of form and sense, a theme began to emerge. Abdoulaye Konate’s textile paintings, balancing the Israeli flag against the Palestinian keffaya; Hu Xia Yuan’s delicate embroideries, displayed on their hoops; Ahlam Shibli’s photographs of kilims in unauthorized Bedouin homes; Zofia Kulik’s photo-carpets; an old Indian miniature, depicting a woman spinning wool. And then there was a room-size installation of crimson and magenta cords, threads, and needles by Sheela Gowda; the tangle of electrical cords in Tanaka’s “Electric Dress”; and the rope scaffolding that supported Trisha Brown’s daily dancers. The migration of forms, indeed.

Seated on a Chinese chair in the Fridricianum’s semi-circular second-floor atrium, watching Hito Steyerl’s video, Lovely Andrea, I knew I wasn’t imagining this. As the artist goes in search of an old bondage picture of herself, she explores the Japanese art of rope bondage from the martial arts to pornography, and from rope tricks and Spiderman to the captives at Guantanemo. She interviews a rope-master and some bondage girls (one of whom interprets bondage as a form of freedom). And when my gaze wandered across the atrium to the floor below, where did the sightline lead? Straight to Trisha Brown’s rope scaffold!

Once you notice the ropes, you see them everywhere: in Johanna Billings’ video of learning the ropes on a sailing trip, in Mary Kelly’s undulating ribbon of lint that told a tale of rebellion in the Balkans, in Leon Ferrari’s pink blueprint of a knotty highway overpass. They detour into the abstract in Agnes Martin’s penciled lines and Nasreen Mohamedi’s uncannily similar work, and into the utilitarian in a 19th century strip-woven wedding textile from Mali. And they culminate in Amar Kanwar’s 8-channel video, The Lightning Testimonies, which weave a layered tale of sexual violence on the Indian subcontinent; on one screen a woman weaves a blood-red tapestry that is, you suddenly realize, a complex political act of, among other things, revenge. Give ’em enough rope and you may be in for some surprises: Buergel and Noack without a single word convinced me that textiles have an intrinsic connection to power, violence, sex, and political acts.

Last and best is Danica Dakic’s El Dorado in Kassel’s German Wallpaper Museum. The three-part piece starts with an audio-work among the panoramic wallpaper, and ends in the Wilhelmshohe castle with a video piece and a group portrait. As you walk through galleries filled with exquisite panels of wallpaper—leather, velour, rococo, Chinoiserie—you are transported by the sounds of giggles, birdsong, bells, caws, sighs, twittering, heavy breathing, and laughter—an invisible orgy in a new paradise. In one room, which features military wallpaper, you hear the sounds of warfare. And when you get to the castle on the hill, the video transports you from fantasy to reality as the artist gives a guided tour of wallpaper styles while abandoned teenage refugees—who arrived in Germany unaccompanied or separated from their families—run, kick-box, fight, dance, and tell their stories. If you seek out the small print in the catalogue, you’ll discover that the artist herself came to Germany as a refugee from Sarajevo. Documenta on the ropes? It may just leave you fit to be tied.

Contributor

Kim Levin

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