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RADICAL CAMOUFLAGE / JULIAN STALLABRASS

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  • Anjalika
    JULIAN STALLABRASSRADICAL CAMOUFLAGEAt Documenta 13 DOCUMENTA, HELD EVERY five years in the central German city of Kassel, is the art world s equivalent of the
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 4, 2012

      JULIAN STALLABRASS

      RADICAL CAMOUFLAGE

      At Documenta 13

      DOCUMENTA, HELD EVERY five years in the central German city of Kassel, is the art world's equivalent of the Olympics. While its scale may be rivalled by Venice, its quinquennial timetable and large budget allow curators time to develop an elaborate vision, and it has often been used to test the temperature of contemporary art production. Some previous editions have been influential in changing the direction of the art world—for instance, Catherine David's dOCUMENTA10 and Okwui Enwezor's dOCUMENTA 11 (to use the official typography) did much to push it towards documentary and a greater engagement with politics.

      The unusual situation and history of dOCUMENTA has haunted many of its editions, including the latest. Kassel is a small industrial city set in the hilly and forested countryside of north Hesse. During the Second World War it produced planes and tanks, and it is still a production centre for Germany's main battle tank—a fact that has not escaped Kassel's Occupy protesters. The city was repeatedly bombed by the RAF and extensively damaged, with thousands killed and many more made homeless. As in so many German cities, its modern centre is the product of that destruction, and its few older buildings were those considered worth restoring from ruin. dOCUMENTA, founded in 1955, was from the beginning seen as a reparation of the damage done by Nazi cultural wrecking, and its first edition showed works of classical modernism which had, of course, been condemned as `degenerate'. They were exhibited in what remains the main venue of dOCUMENTA, the Fridericianum, which then still bore the marks of war damage.

      The latest exhibition, dOCUMENTA (13), is a vastly ambitious attempt to influence the course of art and culture as a whole. Its Artistic Director, the American curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, had previously directed the 2008 Sydney Biennale. Using a frame of reference that takes in phenomenology, quantum theory, feminist thinking and psychoanalysis, she has explained that she wants to push the centre of human cultural concerns away from subject–object oppositions towards a perspective that would include the viewpoints of all entities, organic and inorganic. If matter has an intricate connection with information, at least at the quantum level, then all entities may be said to communicate and even to have will. In recounting a failed attempt to have the world's heaviest meteorite shipped across the world for display at dOCUMENTA, Christov-Bakargiev is led to ask, not just what she wanted or what the rock's custodians—the indigenous Moqoit people in Argentina—wanted, but what it wanted:

      It had travelled through vertiginous space before landing on Earth and settling. Would it have wished to go on this further journey? Does it have any rights, and if so, how can they be exercised? Can it ask to be buried again, as some of the Moqoit argue, or would it have enjoyed a short trip to an art exhibition, rather than a science or world's fair? [1]

      Thinking of this type is used to prop up a series of gestures towards radical positions: environmental, activist, participatory, anti-war, minority. In all this, it is paramount that there be no `closure', no settling and no agreement: rather a dissonant dance of beings and objects in which all perspectives are acknowledged in an `anti-logocentric' frame.

      Documenta's five-year gestation period has often involved complex intellectual engagements. Enwezor's edition, for example, had seminars dotting the globe and involving hundreds of peripatetic and local participants. These discussions produced four volumes of essays on subjects such as truth and reconciliation, the current state of democracy and the African city. [2]Christov-Bakargiev's dOCUMENTA has produced no less than 100 mini-books that have been collected into a gargantuan volume for the show itself—The Book of Books—and has staged events not only in Kassel but in Cairo, Alexandria, Banff (Alberta) and NATO-occupied Kabul. [3]As with previous dOCUMENTAs, only invited participants can judge the process by which this is brought about.

      Discrepancies

      This account will be concerned only with the final product as seen at Kassel by a regular viewer. I will look at a series of works that give some idea of the range offered at dOCUMENTA and some of its common concerns, starting with an accomplished and typical piece of `biennial art'. The subject matter of the installation and video by Rabih Mroué is contemporary and newsworthy: the relation of cameras and guns in the Syrian uprising. Why, Mroué asks in his compelling video-lecture, do people risk their lives to make photos and videos, even to the point of continuing to film while being shot at? He shows a few instances when it is clear that the person behind the camera sees the gunman turn towards them, raise his weapon and take deliberate aim. Still they keep filming as the gun is fired. Mroué makes the point that videos are also weapons, when distributed in Syria and beyond, and are essential to feeding the resistance; also that the phone camera is not used like a film camera of old but becomes a prosthesis, an extension of the eye which is continually active, even when the images produced—for instance in scanning the urban landscape for danger—are to the outside viewer a jumble of meaningless frames, piled jerkily one on another.

      In a large room next to the video-screening, Mroué displays various items that, again in typical biennial fashion, estrange the viewer from the conventions of the media and ingrained habits of looking. Some films are rendered as flipcharts, and the viewer is supposed to turn the pages at the same time as pressing a button to play the accompanying soundtrack. This is hard to get right, so a disjunction is experienced between sound and image, and also between the gravity of the footage and the flippancy of the format. Reflecting a common tension in the way that contemporary art with a documentary frame handles political issues, there is a confrontation between the partisan presentation of content and a deconstruction of the medium by which it was recorded.

      Mroué's work is shown at the Hauptbahnhof, once the city's main train station. It was used during the War to transport arms and forced labour and to deport the city's Jews. Various artists are set the task of awakening the building's ghosts. Yet any connection between the armed rebellion in Syria and the Nazi war and extermination machine—a tenuous, not to say disingenuous linkage—could apply equally to many places in Germany and across much of Eastern Europe where the War was fought. Since Mroué seals his work off from the environment, through the use of projections and spotlit objects in darkened spaces, the station provides a general and evocative frame for this piece, and no more.

      In complete contrast is a work that could not be more open to its environment and the elements: The Lover, Kristina Buch's live butterfly installation in front of the State Theatre. On a raised platform, Buch planted ideal vegetation for indigenous butterfly species, with protective nettles and thistles on the edges and a flowering centre. After researching the habitats of butterflies, she installed the pupae of 37 species to hatch and populate the flower island. She tended the garden and the butterflies throughout the hundred days of the exhibition. This is a long, careful piece of artistic labour whose outcome is cast into the sky without any guaranteed result. Before the land was flattened by industrial farming into a patchwork of monocultures, and the countryside fell eerily silent, one of the most sublime spectacles of living abundance was the swarms of butterflies that filled the air in their millions. To net specimens from such profusion, kill them and mount them was a respectable pursuit, combining scientific curiosity and aesthetic appreciation. Buch—trained as a biologist, whose scientifically inflected work is well attuned to the ethos of this dOCUMENTA—reverses the action of those collectors. Her token act of restoration brings back to the land an absurdly tiny fragment of the biological riches it once held. The viewer has no way of knowing what effect this work has had on the environment. There did seem to be a lot of butterflies, not so much around the flowering platform, but in the nearby Karlsaue Park and in the herbal-tea garden established by a group of anti-capitalist activists, ANDANDAND. Of course, they might have been there anyway.

      Buch's piece is one of several that engage in various kinds of horticulture, and this dOCUMENTAmakes extensive use of the extraordinary Karlsaue Park, laid out in the eighteenth century as a formal garden and redesigned during postwar reconstruction with more informal planting. Song Dong's work has a formal resemblance to Buch's, being another island of vegetation from which viewers are excluded. His Doing Nothing Garden is set up on a pile of building debris and biological waste. A frequent recourse for dealing with war rubble was to heap it up, spread soil over it and let things grow. As a result, strangely shaped artificial hillocks dot the parks of the war zones. During a flower festival held in 1955, the year of the first dOCUMENTA, the extensive debris from Kassel's bombing, which had been cleared and dumped in the Karlsaue, was planted over with roses. [4] Buch's work highlights an intensive, daily labour of care, undertaken for non-instrumental purposes, or purely for its own sake. Song Dong, once having set his garden up, does nothing more and lets nature take its course within the well-marked artistic frame. Behind both works lies the idea of an aimless activity that is nonetheless necessary; and despite the sunlit appearance of each garden, the futility of token action in the face of global environmental degradation casts a shadow.

      In a different register, but still concerned with waste, Lara Favaretto arranged a massive parade of scrap metal in one of the railway station's marshalling yards. She is known for making sculptural objects with a range of sophisticated art-historical references, often leavened with humour. The 400-ton pile includes parts from trucks, trains and various containers. The obvious point made here is about the colossal waste of consumerism and capitalism's `creative destruction', urgent matters in the midst of the economic crisis as objects (and employees) are junked because the relations of supply and demand have shifted. Once again—and as with many works shown in the Hauptbahnhof—the War is evoked. In this setting, it is easy to read Favaretto's vast pile of scrap not just as a knowing nod to Pop and Arte Povera, César and John Chamberlain, but as an evocation of the vast wastage of war—the ultimate act of creative destruction. This is all the more so because Favaretto has chosen to remove certain elements of particular sculptural merit, replacing them with concrete equivalents. These heavy, pale forms bring to mind Doris Salcedo's or Rachel Whiteread's memorial ghosts. Yet they also serve to evoke a parade of war memories, remote and recent, from the burning armour of the battle of Kursk, in which the tank army of the Wehrmacht was broken, to the annihilation by high-tech weaponry of the half-century-old vehicles of the Iraqi Army in 1991 and 2003.

      Also in the Hauptbahnhof, in a large dilapidated shed, hangs Haegue Yang's installation,Approaching: Choreography Engineered in Never-Past Tense, which is composed of motorized Venetian blinds that rise and fall. Christov-Bakargiev has written of her dOCUMENTA as an `un-harmonic and frenetic' dance, but the choreography here is measured and tasteful. The reflective black of the shades is finely judged to complement the greys of the train shed while the roof admits light that falls variably on the work, depending on cloud cover and time of day. The result is a contemplative episode in a space that acts as a long corridor-like transition between dark inner spaces and the outdoors. Yang has become well-known for elaborate sculptural pieces that draw on a set of abstruse and eccentric intellectual concerns to produce works which look formalist but also refer to narrative. In her gallery works, her personal concerns—themselves an exploration of complex interactions between light and shadow, materiality and insubstantial elements, abstraction and story-telling—are given full rein. [5] In her site-specific installations, they are pitched into a relationship with particular spaces and histories.

      Venetian blinds in Yang's work are meant to act as a partial barrier, screening viewers from each other, or revealing them, in a metaphor of personal relations affected by miscommunication and the demands of practical life. In the Hauptbahnhof, viewers are held at a distance from the blinds, and see them from only two of their four sides, so the effect is reduced. What is hidden and revealed is instead the fabric and light of the shed itself. The `Never-Past' of the title may refer to the traditions of past generations weighing on the brains of the living, since Yang's work is subject to a melancholic Benjaminian engagement with history and memory. Like the Favaretto, the Yang plays with the past, but does so in a way that is less prescriptive and specific. Instead, the material of the station building is set up against a modulated version of something that the artist has often made before, and the qualified victor in this clash is her personal, artistic autonomy.

      Another signal and highly popular display of artistic eccentricity is hidden deep in the Karlsaue. A map is essential to find many of the works scattered through the gardens, and certainly so for this piece: Untilled, by Pierre Huyghe. In this section of the gardens, the regulated woods and planned vistas are replaced by a dumping ground for concrete slabs and other building materials. In the midst of a series of artificial hillocks lies a sculpture of a reclining woman, her head represented by a live bees' nest. Viewers are ordered not to approach too closely. They are also asked to keep their dogs on a lead. The reason soon becomes apparent, as dogs run in and around the installation, recognizable as part of the artwork by their brightly coloured legs painted in fluorescent pink and blue. On one level, as with many of the works at dOCUMENTA, this is a piece of `relational aesthetics', one that puts people in a highly unusual situation, quite unlike the regulated spaces of work and organized leisure, to see how they will react to it and each other. On another level, and in this way it is very much like the Yang, Untilled is a response to a place, yet one that remains very much part of the artist's signature style: here of intelligent, amusing, cool and peculiar pieces of work, entertaining but also puzzling. Viewers are plunged into Huyghe-World, a quasi-surreal environment in which the borders of chance and artistic calculation are hard to gauge.

      Obligatory incoherence?

      If Huyghe gives a wilfully eccentric, attention-seeking and media-friendly performance for the dOCUMENTA, the same may be said of the curator herself. Hers is the über-art-work choreography of myriad pieces and events, and in this the figure of the curator and creator, Christov-Bakargiev as the subjective heart of dOCUMENTA, stands to the fore. In some previous biennials (including the last dOCUMENTA, curated by Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack), a strong tension was felt between political exigencies and the usual Kantian display of aesthetic temperament expected at such events. `Beautiful' works clashed incoherently with pieces about the war on terror and other dreadful and desperate political situations, leaving even expert viewers bewildered by the combination. Here, in an ambitious and overbearing theoretical frame, coherence is loudly renounced; yet at the same time everything must serve the demands of the rejection of hierarchies, resistance to `closure', scepticism about economic growth, and the granting of all non-human beings and objects their due as agents. If the biennial can no longer be coherent, it should embrace dissonance as its aesthetic, and dissolve the boundaries of art.

      So, in some particularly silly displays, science is corralled into the field of art. A distinguished innovator in quantum information, Anton Zeilinger, shows pieces of scientific equipment on old worktops, and the traditional blackboard scribbled with equations. A notice reads: `Do Not Touch. No Presentation Until To [sic] 8th of August.' (I saw this on August 3rd.) The complexities of quantum theory are gestured towards using apparatus, the use of which, lacking either demonstration or explanation, must remain mysterious to the vast majority of viewers. Much the same can be said of a display of various artefacts used in the study of epigenetics. Both fields have deep consequences for human culture: quantum theory because of its truly alien epistemological implications, which have after all been puzzled over for eighty years; and epigenetics as a fundamental revision of Darwinism, in which the environment produces heritable effects on the expression of genes. The best that can be said of the dOCUMENTAdisplays is that they may encourage further reading.

      Christov-Bakargiev's extravagant self-aggrandizing was highlighted by one artist-blogger who noted that in the first dOCUMENTA press release, images of the curator outnumbered those of art works. In essays and wall texts, themes are deeply personalized as subjective performances. This, for instance, is how the various dOCUMENTA venues are presented in a press release:

      — On stage. I am playing a role, I am a subject in the act of re-performing.

      — Under siege. I am encircled by the other, besieged by others.

      — In a state of hope, or optimism. I dream, I am the dreaming subject of anticipation.

      — On retreat. I am withdrawn, I choose to leave the others, I sleep.

      These four conditions relate to the four locations in which dOCUMENTA (13) is physically and conceptually sited—Kassel, Kabul, Alexandria/Cairo, and Banff. [6]

      Documenta's Kabul outing, apparently intended to elicit parallels with Germany's postwar reconstruction under US occupation, was a knowing act of wishful thinking. Christov-Bakargiev describes it as `choosing to act' as if the checkpoints and cement walls, the war and occupation itself, did not exist, `through acts of radical imagination and creativity'. Furthermore: `By acting as if there is no conflict—no incredible security systems, no occupation—you can actually interfere, interrupt and change reality through acts of imagination.' [7] Showing works of art, organizing cultural exchange and discussion, may have effects in the wider world, but these are unpredictable. It is possible that the cultural garnishing of an occupation that has signally failed to reconstruct the nation may serve to support oppression, and to reinforce the very divisions of hierarchy and power that the dOCUMENTA would wish away.

      The quasi-theoretical bluster of the press release seeks to conceal a number of serious contradictions at the heart of the dOCUMENTA enterprise, which will not be resolved by the sticky oil of diversity and anti-logocentrism. One of the most obvious for the ordinary visitor is its business dimension. The spirit of openness, sharing and digital gift-giving evoked in dOCUMENTA literature comes up against the high ticket prices and strict security for the great majority of venues, even those in the gardens. Tickets cost €20 a day, and €35 for a two-day pass. A season ticket, of most use to locals, is a massive €100. The concessionary prices for students, the unemployed and those on benefits are not far below these prices, excluding large numbers of viewers altogether. As a business enterprise, dOCUMENTA is closely connected to the commercial art world, and many of its artists are bankable stars. As critic Jerry Saltz pointed out, referring to one of the most prominent New York galleries, a third of Marion Goodman's stable was exhibited there. [8] What is more, scepticism about economic expansion does not extend to the dOCUMENTA itself. The budgets of the various dOCUMENTAs have shown sustained growth, with two very large leaps, one in 1992 for dOCUMENTA 9, and another in 2007 for dOCUMENTA 12 when the budget almost tripled. While substantial funding comes from German federal and Hesse state sources, dOCUMENTA also has the sponsorship of major corporations including Deutsche Bank, Finanzgruppe and Volkswagen. As with many such events, it is easiest to exhibit the work of successful commercial artists, since their wealthy galleries subsidize their showing. The marketing of dOCUMENTA-branded consumer items and the high ticket prices are consequences of the global competition between art events, as well as the overweening ambitions of curators.

      This contradiction is further exacerbated by the environmental aspects of the dOCUMENTA. The strapline, `A Sustainable Exhibition', the use of the Karlsaue and the inclusion of gardening pieces may lead the casual viewer to think of this as a `green' production. Yet, of course, the increasingly event-driven character of the art world contributes to environmental despoliation. Artists, curators, critics, gallerists and buyers are flown to venues across four continents. Objects are shipped by air and massively heavy piles of scrap metal are displaced. VIPs travel to Kassel by helicopter and private jet. Ordinary viewers travel long distances for the latest unique, but also standard, art-world mega-event. There is nothing green about any of this, and the curatorial moves to evoke environmental issues, like the green hue of the BP logo, are an insulting camouflage. Similarly, and in line with other recent art-world events, the look of political activism is drawn upon. At the ANDANDAND display, familiar utopian slogans are chalked on blackboards, flow charts show the process of collaborative political thinking, and the detritus of collective living is on show. Participation is invited, but within the framework of an event at which the default mode is the passive consumption of displays made by individuals who are held up as exceptional. An island of political radicalism and participation is set within an ocean of broadcast culture.

      In a qualified sense, an alternative model was offered by the modest scale of this year's Berlin Biennial, curated by Joanna Warsza and Artur Z˙mijewski, which was, not coincidentally, free to attend. The basic set-up was similar in that viewers were still encouraged to travel to see site-specific works, which are unique, unrepeatable and largely unreproducible: you see them in Berlin, Kassel, Venice or Gwangju—or not at all. Yet Occupy was invited to inhabit the most prominent space of the Biennial, which is quite a different move from Christov-Bakargiev's retrospective welcoming of a small Occupy group that chose to camp outside the Fridericianum. Occupy, being multiple and local, can set up cheaply anywhere: what they offer may vary from place to place, but it makes no sense to travel far to participate. Its interventions, many of which draw on the techniques and tactics of contemporary art, offer a practice of culture that is environmentally light, inclusive, participatory and anti-elitist.

      There are strains within the art world's engagement with politics that echo these ideals. As military imperialism continues, and as the myths of neoliberalism are dented by the prolonged economic crisis, the art world does respond—as it must do, since the populous lower ranks from which its few stars are drawn are notably impoverished and insecure. At dOCUMENTA, the aesthetic performance of a curator armoured with an elaborate theoretical mysticism is supposed to allow viewers to glide over the deep contradictions between art's ethos and its business model. Yet it may occur to the viewer, confronted with such incoherent diversity, that effective actions against inequality, environmental devastation, political oppression and the failures of democracy, while they may emerge from innovative means for mass political participation, will also, and very soon, need logic and closure.




      [1] `The dance was very frenetic, lively, rattling, clanging, rolling, contorted, and lasted for a long time', Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, DOCUMENTA (13): The Book of Books, Ostfildern-Ruit 2012, pp. 30–45.

      [2] These appeared as a seriesunder the title DOCUMENTA 11_Platform.

      [3] Christov-Bakargiev, The Book of Books.

      [4] See Peter Blundell Jones, `Architect and Landscape Working Together', in Jan Birksted, ed.,Relating Architecture to Landscape, London 1999, p. 182.

      [5] There is an extensive literature on Yang's work. I offered my interpretation in `Frozen Dialectics in the Work of Haegue Yang', in Haegue Yang: Wild Against Gravity, Oxford and Aspen, CO 2011, pp. 93–111.

      [6] Christov-Bakargiev, `Introduction to dOCUMENTA (13)', press release.

      [7] As quoted in Damon Wake, `dOCUMENTA (13) rolls through Kabul', The Daily Star, Lebanon, 30 June 2012; Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Golare Kiazand, `dOCUMENTA (13)', Afghan Scene 98, September 2012.

      [8] Jerry Saltz, `Eleven Things That Struck, Irked, or Awed Me at Documenta 13', Vulture, 15 June 2012.

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