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GoetheInstitute

21/06/2007

Hanno Rauterberg looks at how the Venice Biennale does battle against the Documenta in Kassel

Nobody should say that art is just ok. That it's just spectacle, a party, the plaything of the rich and famous. No, art should be the be all and end all. It fights, takes on the weighty, the bloody, torture and expulsion, war and death. Some call it the return of the political.

In recent years, art was largely just another name for money. Not much was gained at the level of content – everyone was talking about the hysterical market, the great clamour for young talent, the avarice of collectors, the astronomical prices. Not much of that has changed, but there is a growing sense of unease. And suddenly, they're back: the old, uncomfortable questions about meaning and significance. Where does art want to go? What issues should it address, what are its qualities?


Camilla Martens and Toril Goksoyr. © la Biennale di Venezia, 2007

It's the time of reflection on what matters, the time of the political artist. This summer's great stage belongs to them. And they get to play twice – at the Venice Biennale and the Documenta in Kassel, both of which have just opened.

The exhibitions are extraordinarily similar; they both turn against the omnipotence of the market, demand an art of engagement and disruption, and ask what remains of the "project of modernity"? There are even overlaps in the choice of artists. And yet the two exhibitions could hardly be more different. Downright textbook-like, Kassel and Venice show what political aesthetics may strive to be, and what harm they can do.


Yves Netzhammer. © la Biennale di Venezia, 2007

At the helm of the Biennale is Robert Storr – an acclaimed art professor in the USA who has worked for years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He directs the exhibition and that means he has to provide the overarching concept. While the pavilions of the individual countries (and this year there are 76!) can show this and that with the most delightful randomness, Storr took on a fundamental challenge: to divide the world into heroes and victims.

In the role of the hero, he sees the artists – and ridiculously, those who in the 1960s were rebelling against everything heroic in art. They loved the trivial, the modest, the parody – and now they are being honoured in a distinctly un-parodic fashion: in huge rooms with enormous formats, Polke and Richter, Ryman and Sol LeWitt.


Sigmar Polke room at the Biennale. © la Biennale di Venezia, 2007

The victims are allocated to the heroes – they are victims of the world out there. They aren't saved by the artists but at least they are put on display: the dead American soldiers from Iraq, an entire wall-sized puzzle of many little portraits; the tortured from Abu Ghraib, pasted together with the pictures of hell by the old masters; in addition, half a dozen sad, sheepish-looking women under veils. The world is at war and if not that, then at least in misery - that is the message being brayed by Robert Storr.

In fact, he would have had to show only one piece to make the point: a young boy in front of ruins playing soccer with a scull as soccer ball (picture). But although this video by Paolo Canevari is hardly to be beaten in the category of propagandistic obscenity, Storr valiantly complements it with one violent epic after the next. There's the odd laconic exception but in the end, this exhibition is a parcours of terror, as though Storr thought that this would be the only way to lend art a new relevance, to reclaim it from the claws of the buyers and sellers. The strategy seemed to bomb, at least on the opening days: having beheld the crisis art, visitors felt themselves to be world citizens – and entitled to dive into the glittering party-life with clean consciences.


Jenny Holzer. © la Biennale di Venezia, 2007

A work of art that only aims to affect – to scare, disgust, teach a political lesson – is doomed to be a kind of negative kitsch. It prescribes emotion: the observer has to be moved, disturbed. There is very little room for the observer himself in such a staging – everything is determined in advance, it's a predictable play of irritation and reaction. At worst, the observer doesn't respond at all, or yields to indifference. Who cares - the world is already overshadowed, ruined, lost.

At the beginning, it's different with this Biennale: artist Luca Buvoli is allowed once again to swear his allegiance to the proud Utopia of modernity. The entire room is whirring with colourful forms and texts, as though the world has been liberated from all pressures. But this hope for a new, redeemed society proves to be incredibly bloody – Buvoli shows that behind his stages of new beginnings, where he cites passages from the Futuristic Manifesto: eulogies to the war as a healing force, to violence as the only way into the future.


Robert Storr. © la Biennale di Venezia, 2007

For Storr, it's no coincidence that this installation stands at the opening to the Biennale. It recalls the dark abysses of the avantgarde, the crude fantasies of world joy – as though the causes of all suffering, the accusations which he then presents in his exhibition parcours, were to be found here. It's a reckoning with modernity – Storr presents it as a hopeless case.


Roger M. Buergel, Artistic Director and Ruth Noack, curator. Photo: Marianne Menke © documenta GmbH

It's quite different in Kassel: there too, there's much misery, fighting and need to be seen but the Documenta directors Roger Buergel (more) and Ruth Noack spare us the threatening fatalism of their colleagues. They even hope for some kind of renaissance. Just as the 15th century once revived the ideas and forms of antiquity, so should there be another reactivation - only that the modern is being called, with its ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity, "our antiquity."

That sounds idealistic, but it doesn't seem gushing or high-handed. The Documenta doesn't turn its art into a seminar on the enlightenment and its consequences. Rather, it wants to embody something of the modern-renaissance that it hopes for. It draws on the aesthetics of the enlightenment, on the picturesque. It presents itself as a garden.


Preparations for the Aue Pavillion. Photo: Heiko Meyer © documenta GmbH

It starts with the exhibition posters with these enormous pictures of flowers revelling in red, blue and white, as though the Documenta were the national garden show. The photos are taken from the greenhouse in Kassel, not from the exhibition, but they are indeed to bloom for the Documenta. An artist planted a large field of poppies in front of the Museum Fridericianum – that still looks like an barren field – and another wants to plant rice just beneath the Museum Wilhelmshöhe. In keeping with that, the museum shop is selling flower seeds and watering cans. The Documenta even built a massive greenhouse for art in the middle of the Aue-Park.


First poppy comes into bloom. Photo: Julia Zimmermann, © Julia Zimmermann/documenta GmbH

One shouldn't take all that too literally. It's merely a game with metaphors, an allusion to the fact that this exhibition is not so much about exhibiting artistic plants from far flung regions as about nurturing ideas, breeding curiosity and asking how we can cultivate ourselves.

Storr's Biennale could also be described as a garden: a French park, strictly regimented and sublimely clear. Documenta's ideal, by contrast, is the English garden with its unforced order, which in the 18th century incorporated something of the spirit of modernity. Many artists were enthusiastic about the aesthetic ideal of the picturesque present in these gardens, especially the artistic composition of opposites united in gentle tension. These gardens were filled with exotica of all kinds, antique temples, Gothic ruins, hermitages, Chinese pagodas. These weren't foreign bodies, but rather embedded in the rolling landscape as if they'd been there all the time. This elastic interplay between accommodation and anomaly, between the foreign and the proper, was purely aesthetic for English society - and at the same time highly political. Here the ideal was forming of a democratic society in which equality rules, and yet where the unequal also finds its place.


Ai Wei Wei © Courtesy the artist; Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing–Lucerne. Photo: Frank Schinski / documenta GmbH

So it's no accident that Documenta also has a sort of pagoda, built by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. And it's also no accident that it attempts to establish a dialectic in which the foreign is not alienated, but lets visitors marvel at an abundance of forms. This Documenta encompasses the world, not out of a guilty conscience trying to make amends for excluding Eastern European, Asian, African, and South American art. Rather it enthuses like a botanist for the fantastic variety of species and subspieces, in the present and the past. There are inlays of mother of pearl, semi-precious stones on black lacquered backgrounds, decorative calligraphies from the heyday of Safavid art, an embroidered bridal veil from Tajikistan and a huge carpet from North-West Iran made around 1800 showing, how could it be otherwise, a garden.


Ai Wei Wei's temple destroyed after a storm. Foto: Julia Zimmermann, © Julia Zimmermann / documenta gmbH

This isn't an English garden, but a strictly ordered grid of blossoming islands and straight canals in which small fish swim about. This is how one imagines paradise, everything perfectly orderly, clearly laid out, clearly structured. This carpet seems to have nothing to do with our modernity - and yet it does. Because the dream of a tidied, sorted-out world, of an architecture comprising many identical modules, pursues us until today - not necessarily as a hoped-for paradise, but as an obsession with planning.


Garden carpet; ca. 1800, anonymous artist
© Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin 2007; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Museum für Islamische Kunst;
Photo Reinhard Friedrich


Documenta shows this carpet in a building that itself is not free of this obsessiveness. Although the Documenta hall of the 1990s attempts to be as wide and bright as possible, it is not particularly well-suited for exhibitions. The works on display are of a very high quality, Buergel and Noack have stuffed it like a theatre storage depot, full of props that could decorate the most diverse plays. One such play could be a comedy of textiles, with fabric and cloths in the main role, hanging from the walls and ceilings. Like the garden carpet, they all seem a little ambivalent, half decoration, half conveyors of meaning. Hard abstract forms and soft floral motifs play off continuously against each other. Abdoulaye Konate, for example, not only covers his two carpets with many fabric tassels from his homeland Mali, but also weaves several Israeli and Palestinian flags together. This may seem like a naive image of paradise in which arch enemies come together in an order which is just as regimented as that of the Iranian rug. Or you can see it as a reflection on seeing as such: how do we recognise the symbol of a country in certain patterns, when does an ornament become a sign? And above all, how do we give our world meaning?


© Peter Friedl Courtesy the artist; International Academy of Art Palestine, Ramallah. Photo: Egbert Trogemann

In this way the comedy of textiles quickly becomes theoretical theatre, sometimes moving into the political realm. To see that, one need look no farther than the decrepit giraffe standing on twisted legs. It too can be seen as a sort of cloth artwork, a stuffed textile animal, transported to Kassel by artist Peter Friedl. In places its hair looks like a felted quilt. We look in wonder at this wobbly figure, asking how it got here in the first place. As long as we keep looking and wondering, the giraffe remains a mystery. Only when we learn of its fate is the mystery partially resolved. The animal once lived in a zoo on the West Bank. During a military skirmish it hit its head against an iron pole, fell to the ground and soon died. Since then it has been on display in a museum. At first merely an animal, it is now symbol of the war.

This giraffe is exemplary of how what we think of as natural one moment may appear as a symbol just a few moments later, how we load worldly objects with significance, and how they then become valuable, sometimes even understandable for us. Art does nothing else: it lets the inconspicuous appear conspicuous, it invites us to bestow a determination to the indeterminate.


© Inigo Manglano-Ovalle; Photo Katrin Schilling / documenta GmbH. The Radio, 2007

The artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle also plays with the question of how the insignificant can become significant, here too in a political sense. In a dark angle in the farthest corner of the Documenta hall he has set up cylinders and cuboids. In the pure geometry of what is really a finely polished abstract sculpture, we immediately recognise a truck trailer. What we don't immediately see is the history of the ascription of meaning embodied in the work, even if in this case the meaning has had world historical repercussions. The sculpture is a three-dimensional portrayal of the image that a few years ago served the USA as proof that Iraq was in possession of ABC weapons. Although the image was taken to be unambiguous, it was an illusion. Now the illusion has been made into art, as an unambiguous symbol for the astonishing power of images.

When this Documenta shows tanks, oppressed bodies and the darkness of war, it's not to make the visitors shudder with apprehension. In contrast to the Venice Biennale, it doesn't simply double what we in any case consider dreadful or evil, but seeks to investigate what that could have to do with us, with the way we interpret the world, and the role we attribute to ourselves in it.


© Tseng Yu-Chin. Who's Listening? 5, 2003-2004 Videostill

This horror is nothing distant, nothing which could be relegated to crisis hotspots of this world. Documenta shows that you don't need war images to tell of people's vulnerability, all you need is a video like that by Yu-Chin Tseng in which a mother hugs her child, pestering it with her love until the affection becomes almost violent.

So the Documenta is political in many senses: it asks what's left of the old Utopias. It asks which patterns we trust, and which forms we lend credance to. It asks how our view of the world may be broadened and whether it may be changed in the process. And even where it is unpolitical it is still political, by setting art free from interests of utilisation and explanation, seeing it as an end in itself, as ornament and decoration, a show value, simply to be seen and not to be thought.

*

The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on June 14, 2007.

Hanno Rauterberg is an editor of Die Zeit.

Translation: nb, jab.

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