Living With Disjunction: Manifesta 9 and Documenta 13
After Paris it was onward to Germany, where duty would have bade me visit the Seventh Berlin Biennale, curated by Polish artist Artur Zmijewski (with, as usual, several associate curators). But I had just a day to spend in the German capital, and a look at the Biennale website seemed to suggest that this was truly a late-model exhibition—of a sort pioneered, in a way, by Enwezor, whose Documenta had been preceded by a series of “platforms” (that is, symposia and debates) in places like Lagos, New Delhi and St. Lucia, intended as part of the research stage for the exhibition in process. The “projects” and “initiatives,” the dialogues and discussions of the Berlin Biennale seemed to have spread only across the city, not the world, but still I got the sense that I could spend my day looking for the Biennale and end up feeling like I’d missed it. Perhaps I just needed a day’s rest to steel myself for the encounter with Documenta 13.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director of this year’s model and head of its large curatorial team (referred to in the exhibition guidebook, oddly, as “agents”), says that it is “more than, and not exactly, an exhibition—it is a state of mind.” She is right, but I wonder whether it shouldn’t be at least an exhibition. Documenta is brilliantly one in parts, yet elsewhere loses its way. That Christov-Bakargiev, the former chief curator of the Castello di Rivoli near Turin, is a gifted exhibition-maker becomes clear soon enough when one enters the main building housing Documenta, the Museum Fridericianum, a reconstructed eighteenth-century edifice that was one of the first public art museums in Europe. Initially one might be confused: the rooms seem almost empty, though the wind blowing through them is what’s meant to be noticed, a work by British artist Ryan Gander. But then there’s a rotunda crowded with a multitude of small pieces—most notably, at first view, six paintings by Giorgio Morandi. This may be a bit of a surprise. Morandi, who died in 1964, is hardly a contemporary artist by most definitions, nor is he a recent rediscovery, renowned as he always has been for his hushed, exigent still lifes—as modest as they are monumental, their few recurrent flasks and vases continually rearranged like the letters of some inexhaustible pictorial code—and landscapes of the countryside around Bologna, the hometown he rarely left. On the other side of the free-standing wall on which the Morandis hang is another revenant: twenty photographs by Lee Miller, chosen from among the ones she made as a war correspondent, including images of the German death camps and those showing her bathing in the tub in Hitler’s Munich apartment. (These should be credited as a collaboration with David Scherman, however.)
That Christov-Bakargiev is showing these bodies of work as two sides of the same wall is a very powerful and unsettling proposition. She seems to be posing the fundamental question of the purpose of art and articulating it through a dilemma: To what extent can art be the result of an inner exile— ”a state of withdrawal that can disturb power relations even though one feels powerless,” as Christov-Bakargiev puts it, speaking of Morandi’s existence in Fascist Italy—and to what extent is it served by plunging into the abyss of the unspeakable violence with which we are always contemporaries? In the latter case, one acts as a witness, but a witness who is (in the words of Walter Benjamin, whom Christov-Bakargiev aptly quotes), “not richer but poorer in communicable experience.” Not surprisingly, the war exhausted Miller’s capacity as an image-maker; she continued working as a photographer for a while, but with an evident lack of interest.
Surrounding these two key groups of pieces in the rotunda is a sort of cabinet of curiosities: a selection of the actual objects that Morandi painted in his still lifes, along with books from his library (poetry, art, philosophy); Man Ray’s Object to Be Destroyed, a metronome bearing the cut-out photograph of an eye (that of Lee Miller); plus a porcelain figurine of a nude that once belonged to Hitler (and can be glimpsed in the Miller/Scherman photographs of his bathroom). This assortment keeps themes ricocheting around the room, first by challenging the ready-made distinction between art as an activity of the imagination and art as an approach to reality. The other items in the room—from the extraordinary ceramics made by Antoni Cumella in the 1950s to a pair of unidentifiable melted objects (artifacts from the National Museum of Beirut that were irreparably damaged during the Lebanese civil war)—seem to deepen the echoes that fill it.
This room of the rotunda is an ingenious exhibition in itself, a masterpiece of curating across disciplinary boundaries. At the same time, it discloses the essential problem with Documenta 13 as an exhibition of contemporary art: the belief that contemporary artists are optional. The curator has ideas about the place and function of art in contemporary life that can be more vividly articulated by exhibiting well-known historical works (here, Morandi and Miller; elsewhere in the exhibition, Julio González, Emily Carr, Charlotte Salomon and others—all in all, the central figure may be Alighiero Boetti) instead of contemporary pieces, perhaps because the latter are in certain ways more volatile, less predictable. Walking out of the Fridericianum, a prominent critic and editor remarked to me, “This exhibition is so pessimistic about contemporary art!” I don’t think it was designed as such, but I understand my friend’s reaction nonetheless: after all, so much of the art on view is from the past, and the work of the honored dead so often seems much more vital than the work of the living. Besides, the exhibition itself seems to have been conceived as an occasion for talk rather than as a unique undertaking. Congresses, seminars, lectures and the like almost seem to outnumber the artworks. It used to be, I think, that the quintessential curator was a frustrated artist. Today, the prototypical curator is a frustrated intellectual instead. An exhibition on the scale of Documenta is more than just an exhibition—but must it aspire to become the entire cultural life of a city, airlifted in for the occasion? An aspiration that overweening is bound to end in absurdity.
In any case, the show’s lack of focus was only amplified by the decision to spread a large number of works out in the extensive Karlsaue Park, mostly in small self-contained houses built for the purpose. Surely if you’re going to situate artworks in a beautiful park, you want them to relate somehow to this particular context? But once you walk into one of those little buildings, you may as well be in the white cube of a Chelsea gallery. Joan Jonas, at least, solved the problem of connecting her work to the outdoor context by making a video installation to be seen from the outside, through the building’s windows, while Pierre Huyghe and Carol Bove evaded it altogether by using very different kinds of outdoor spaces effectively. But these were among the very few memorable works in the Karlsaue.
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This seems to be a moment when art needs to take stock of itself, to reassess its position both historically—that is, in relation to the art of the past—and functionally, in the sense of reconsidering what distinguishes it from (and links it to) other cultural practices. After all, this is not some eccentric byway that Christov- Bakargiev has followed blindly; it can’t be a coincidence that this year’s Manifesta and Paris Triennale are both as steeped in anthropology and art history as Documenta. Perhaps because Documenta is the largest—and most distended—of the three exhibitions, it is also the one that seems to have no decisive sense of what contemporary art can be. And yet there are artists re-examining the nature and function of art today; some of them are even included in Documenta. One is Kader Attia, whose installation includes sculptures he commissioned from African craftsmen: he asked them to copy photographs of hideously disfigured World War I veterans, with the result that the “grotesque” anatomical distortions we admire in tribal sculpture are reframed as nearly naturalistic attempts to render an almost unbearably poignant reality. And I should mention here too, among others, the videos of William Kentridge and Wael Shawky and a typically interrogative performance piece by Tino Sehgal.
But I want to give the last word, however brief, to what for me was the most important work at Documenta 13, Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater (2012), which is performed by a company of mentally handicapped actors who are required to act—as, simply, themselves. The narrator of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time speaks of “the mixture of admiration and unease that certain cruelly realistic, painfully observed plays used once to provoke.” Today, Ibsen and Strindberg can no longer have such an effect, but this work by Bel does. It makes us rethink what we have in common, as well as what we think about difference. The performance is uncomfortable yet compelling, and unlike the naturalistic theater of the nineteenth century or the avant-garde performance of the twentieth, if there is any cruelty, it is only in the eye of the beholder. Just as Adnan suggested, it “reaches the unsaid, and leaves it unsaid.”