Reenchanted, Object-Oriented, Documenta 13

September 2012

Reenchanted, Object-Oriented Essay PDF Download (includes responses from Nicolas Bourriaud and Fionn Meade)

Reenchanted, Object-Oriented

Part of the built-in fascination of Documenta is betrayed by its unofficial name, “the museum of 100 days,” prompting novel forms like “100 days - 100 guests” at Documenta X (1997, curated by Catherine David), which hosted a then unprecedented 100 talks during the exhibition, or the 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts “notebook” publications that led up to Documenta 13, organized under the auspice of artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The existing notebooks, commissioned essays, and conversations of the series indicated both a speculative and spectral register. Invested in scientific, biological, and natural potentialities, d13 (as it was abbreviated) also took a backward look at historical traumas and cosmological outlooks, ranging across methodologies, continents, and eras. The hic et nunc of politically overt topicality was largely absent, replaced with a posthumanist terminology implanted as signposts rather than arguments. The terrain mapped out belied a structural duality integral to the exhibition’s reputation as the pinnacle of temporary exhibitions, namely that it is engineered to deliver a founding vision each time out rather than an incisive exhibition.

Intellectual, grand, and expected to outmaneuver the art market, the visionary task of documenta regularly overshadows the specific artworks and projects presented. There are forceful artist commissions, co-conspirators (d13 used the term “agents” for its impressive curatorial team), extended anticipation, heightened compression, and the essential drama of the location, genesis, and lineage of documenta as a distinctly post-war German invention. The exhibition is supposed to offer a frame that is globally informed and politically attuned while delivering a spectacle with enough magnetic pull and hyperbolic sensitivity to be seen as forecasting our cultural condition. It is this expectation for it to historicize the moment that has lead to proclamations like Roger M. Buergel’s (director of documenta 12) that it is the most important exhibition in the world. Built to be a bold prognosis, the foundational spin of d13 was tied to a speculative turn away from understanding the world according to human thinking and linguistic reason. De-emphasizing textual and political critique in favor of a materiality that is by turns re-enchanted, object-oriented, and phenomenal, d13 embraced “precarity” and “openness” to generate “space as the region of the possible,” ostensibly separate from the dynamics of nationality, power, and reductive argumentation.

Engaging Kassel’s site-specificity to produce a “a polylogue with other places,” comprised d13’s initiative and informed its stated themes of “Siege, Hope, Retreat, and Stage.” Taking the “Arab Spring” as inspiration, “Hope,” consisted of a month-long series of talks prompting exchange between Egypt and Kassel. Likewise, being “under siege” meant funding artist commissions based on visits to Afghanistan. A tactic not unrelated to the de-occidentalized “platforms” of Okwui Enwezor’s documenta 11, the dialog with Afghanistan included a separate exhibition as well as workshops in Kabul, while “Retreat” became an invitational gathering at The Banff Center in Alberta, Canada allowing reflections on central questions that arose during the five-year process as well as the exploration of “new spaces of openness, freedom, and possibility.” That said, only the Afghanistan-specific commissions on view in Kassel were made available to a visitor, leaving the “Stage” in Kassel to manifest d13’s themes.

In a gesture indebted to pre-Enlightenment studiolos and Kunstkammers, the central node of the stage at d13 was wittily titled “The Brain.” Housed in the rotunda of the Fridericianum, this proto-museological assortment included touchstone artworks and artifacts. From the breathtaking precision and beauty of Bactrian Princess figurines from second century B.C. in Central Asia, to video footage shot in Tahrir Square, Cairo by the deceased artist Ahmed Basiony, to Surrealist Lee Miller’s 1945 photographs posing in Hitler’s apartment and bathtub as an embedded photo journalist, the evidentiary claims of “The Brain” were all indirect portraits of trauma. Offsetting this were ruminative models and sleight-of-hand simulacra of natural forms, including different stone replica sculptures by artists Giuseppe Penone and Sam Durant, as well as hypothetical models of brain patterns and non-Euclidean mental space by artists Judith Barry and Gianfranco Baruchello, respectively. The original vases that served as models for Giorgio Morandi’s WWII-era paintings emblematically stood alongside a few examples of the works themselves. Densely layered and composite, the multiplicity of museological frames found here was re-iterated throughout the larger exhibition, revealing a demonstrative, unchecked trove-like penchant for discovery.

Ecologically minded projects occupied the natural history setting of the Ottoneum—including earnest works by Amar Kanwar, Mark Dion, and Maria Theresa Alves—while elsewhere in the exhibition scientific displays by some of today’s leading theorists also played a prominent role—including somewhat hagiographic nods to quantum physicist Anton Zeilenger and epigeneticist Alexander Tarakhovsky as well as overlooked visionaries like pomologist and Holocaust survivor Korbinian Aigner and computer pioneer Konrad Zuse. The museological rhythm extended to an overly literal zoological tribute to theorist Donna Haraway constructed by artist Tue Greenfort, as well as to the ethnographic framing of Kader Attia’s installation, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occident, 2012. In the latter, African fetish objects mended with patchwork-like scars and visible stitches instead of authenticating or restorative conventions, were combined with a projection of archival photographs detailing the surgical repair of maimed soldiers during World War I. Resulting in a compelling though forced juxtaposition, Attia’s re-assembly adopts a strident yet provisional empiricism that also plagued works by Goshka Macuga and Franics Alÿs. The most persuasive project to engage the expedition-like “Under Siege” frame was Michael Rakowitz’s archeologically-minded installation What Dust Will Rise? (A cosmology toward a project for dOCUMENTA13, Kassel/Kabul), 2012. Working in the archeological area of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, where sixth-century Bamiyan Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, Rakowitz presented a series of books carved from Bamiyan stone that reference lost volumes from the Fridericianum’s library (bombed in 1941) as well as other sacred texts. Identified by hand-written labels inked directly onto glass cases, Rakowitz’s wunderkammer manages a weird stratification, moving past connotations of reparation into ongoing collaborative, political, and material antagonisms.

Many artists showing in buildings off the main sites in Kassel provided highlights less encumbered by the exhibition’s themes; one such example included the brilliant pairing of Theaster Gates’ 12 Ballads for the Huguenot House, 2012, a buoyant and rousing blues inhabitation of a dilapidated bourgeois hotel left vacant since the 1970s, next to Tino Seghal’s shadow-drenched ensemble choreography of the Beach Boy’s Good Vibrations. Both projects gained through contrasting styles that shared adroit performative skill. Similarly, large-scale installations by Walid Raad, Trisha Donnelly, and Gerard Byrne stood out in more autonomous settings, as did the critically ambitious AND AND AND daily initiative of discursive artist-run workshops. Ostensibly an expansion of the “place” of the exhibition into associations with sculpture parks and haunted monuments, the bucolic setting of Karlsraue Park became a kind of post-capitalist forest, acknowledging ecological, psychological, and economic crises, it remained enigmatic and yielding. Housed in temporary shed-like structures throughout the park, a lot of works were compromised by tight prefab confines—moving image works in particular. Projects which clung to existing structures faired better, including playful and succinct projects by Anna Maria Maiolino, Thea Djordjadze, and Natascha Sadr Haghighian, as well as the much-hyped sci-fi scenography of Pierre Huyghe’s poisoned landscape in the composting area of the park. Along with indelible projects by Andrea Büttner, Doug Ashford, Rabih Mroué, Joan Jonas, and Wael Shawky, among others, those projects largely removed from the exhibition’s fourfold position gave ample testament to the acumen of the curatorial team’s awareness of excellent artists, whereas the consolidation and hierarchical layout of “The Brain” revealed the foundational impulse of documenta as an authorial vision remained essentially unmoved.

--Fionn Meade

Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated