Art, or rather its context, is becoming more loquacious. It’s gotten to the point where art isn’t supposed to exist until the public is told why it exists, what it means, whose interests it serves. Curators now prefer staging discussions of art to presenting works. The run-up to this year’s Documenta, the most prestigious of the great recurrent international art exhibitions, included the publication of no fewer than 100 booklets over a period of two years, with contributions by economists, anthropologists, art historians and experts of every other stripe, while each of the hundred days of the exhibition is accompanied by several lectures, conferences or readings. And yet there’s another viewpoint. “Poetry reaches the unsaid, and leaves it unsaid,” according to Etel Adnan, the Beirut-born, California-based poet and abstract painter who is among the 180 or so participants in Documenta, which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, a great place for the unsaid. Maybe the town had its charm 200 years ago, when the Brothers Grimm were collecting folk tales there; but having been flattened by Allied bombs in World War II, it’s now as nondescript as some provincial town turned inside out by utilitarian postwar planning and architecture.
Kassel was hardly the most humdrum place I visited in search of art this summer. My pilgrimage began in Genk, Belgium, a Flemish village that was undistinguished until 1901, when coal was discovered there. It industrialized rapidly, drawing immigrants from throughout Europe; the mines have since gone dormant, but Genk remains a gritty industrial town. This year, it is hosting Manifesta 9, the latest edition of the roving European biennial of contemporary art that originated in Rotterdam in 1996 and last materialized in 2010 in Murcia, Spain. The name Manifesta is self-evidently a homage of sorts to Documenta, but by reputation—this was my first Manifesta—the biennial is a far leaner, younger, more experimental enterprise. Its peripatetic spirit seems to be an expression of the rootlessness of the globalized, interconnected “knowledge economy” that, at least until the crash of 2008, seemed promising to so many.
Manifesta 9—curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina with Katerina Gregos and Dawn Ades, and on view through September 30—only half lives up to this reputation. Subtitled “The Deep of the Modern,” it pursues with a seriousness greater than any show I’ve seen the idea that an exhibition should engage the history of its locale. To this end, it is articulated in three parts, all of them situated within a vast mine works on the city’s outskirts. The first section concerns the history of coal mining and the life and culture of miners. It includes pieces by brand-name modernists who made work documenting the mining life, such as the filmmaker Joris Ivens, but consists mainly of artifacts (generally not so different from the ones found in the small mining museum housed in the same building) that illuminate both the general history of coal mining in Europe and the specific history of mining in Genk. Then comes an art-historical section on images of coal mining in modern art and the use of coal as an art material, beginning with Marcel Duchamp (his installation at the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme consisted of 1,200 coal sacks suspended from the ceiling over a stove) and including artists of the 1960s and ’70s such as Marcel Broodthaers, Jannis Kounellis, Robert Smithson and Christian Boltanski.
Only by passing through these two sections can one ascend to the upper floors, where contemporary works are on view. Most of them concern not coal or mining alone but broader social and economic issues— globalization, industrialization, deindustrialization—that mesh with those raised in the historical section. There are well-known works that fit tightly in this context: for example, Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of the new industrial landscape of Guangdong province in China, or the film version of Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave (2001; co-directed with Mike Figgis), a re-enactment of a clash between British police and striking miners in 1984. But the emphasis on subject matter as the main criterion has the predictable effect of reducing artworks to illustrations of a curatorial concept. One piece that left a deeper impression was Sounds From Beneath, a video by Mikhail Karikis and Uriel Orlow, who worked with a choir of former miners to re-create the sounds heard while working deep underground. The sounds are unearthly, haunting, and yet, as these men render them, unquestionably musical; the profoundly dignified faces of the miners singing amid the desolate landscape of a mine speaks to an entire culture that has been lost with the idling of the mines. This sensitive collaboration is, as Gregos puts it, “a salvaging of memory, an ode, a tribute, and a requiem all at once.”
But such moments are rare in Manifesta 9. Sounds From Beneath couldn’t have been made without the artistry of the choristers, men who don’t claim the title of artists. Isn’t it odd how sometimes the artistry of nonartists can surpass that of artists? This exhibition made that particularly clear to me, because some of the most remarkable works were in neither the contemporary nor the art-historical section but rather in the “heritage” portion of the show. I’m thinking of the embroideries made by coal miners’ wives, on loan from the Museum van de Mijnwerkerswoning (Museum of the Miner’s House) in Eisden, Belgium. There’s a hardheaded, almost Brechtian wisdom to some of the stitched sayings (not only in Dutch but in Spanish, Italian, Polish and any number of other languages, for Europe’s workers were nomadic by necessity long before the knowledge economy made it glamorous): “We can’t live from love alone,” reads one. “We need food on the table.” The makers of these pieces coordinated color and material, text and imagery, in ways that contemporary conceptual artists—admirers of Alighiero Boetti’s embroideries, for example—might envy. If only the embroideries had been exhibited as artworks among other artworks, instead of being isolated as artifacts. Such compartmentalization is typical of Manifesta 9. Although ostensibly an exhibition that mirrors its context, its isolation within a single hulking structure far from the center of town guarantees that visitors from elsewhere experience little if anything of its contemporary context in present-day Genk.
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There was no risk of being isolated at my next stop: Paris, where the third edition of La Triennale is on view at the Palais de Tokyo through August 26. Organized by Okwui Enwezor (a veteran of the biennials of Johannesburg and Gwangju, not to mention Documenta 11) together with a team of four younger curators, it’s been given the subtitle “Intense Proximity.” The exhibition concerns the links between art and anthropology, and “the preponderance of ethnographic poetics in the work of contemporary artists.” It includes ethnographic photography by the likes of Marcel Griaule and Claude Lévi-Strauss and images of African sculpture made in 1935 by the young Walker Evans, alongside a wide range of contemporary works whose relation to the overall theme is sometimes evident (as in the contributions of, say, Georges Adéagbo, Eugenio Dittborn or Trinh T. Minh-ha) and sometimes enigmatic. This ambiguity is the strength of the exhibition: creating an atmosphere in which the border between art and ethnography becomes porous without demanding of each work that it illustrate this permeability. Rather, as Enwezor writes, the “salient question is how to live with disjunction.”
What is perhaps most surprising, and will likely remain most memorable for me, about this Triennale is its inclusion of a broad range of works by a few senior artists from Eastern Europe, most of them hardly known in the West: Ivan Kozaric, born in Croatia in 1921; Geta Bratescu, from Romania, born in 1926; and Ewa Partum, born in Poland in 1945. They are three very different artists, but united in their ability to work with modest means and delicate gestures yet great speculative reach. Even at its most abstract, their work breathes an air of mischief; the experimentalism is not systematic but mercurial. What might be said of Partum’s forcefully feminist works is as true of the more abstract pieces by Kozaric and Bratescu; even when they seem blunt, there’s an underlying irony and introversion—the route toward their targets is more devious than might at first be apparent. And so it is with many of the younger artists working today in formerly Communist countries, for instance the remarkable Dominik Lang, a Czech sculptor who also made a strong impression at the last Venice Biennale a year ago, or Bojan Fajfric, a Serbian video artist. At La Triennale both are showing works that reflect ruefully on the lives of their fathers.
Yet as thoughtful and exploratory as Enwezor’s Triennale is, it’s not an entirely successful exhibition. The problem? As is so often the case with big exhibitions, somewhere along the way its organizers lost a sense of scale. With more than 150 artists included, the roster of this Triennale should have been reduced by at least a third to maintain a keen sense of structure, not to mention a consistent level of quality. Apparently the Palais de Tokyo is proud of how its recent renovation has greatly expanded its available square footage by making its basement usable. But the basement still feels and smells like a basement, and I couldn’t shake the suspicion that almost everything installed in it was a didactic afterthought to the rest of the show.
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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.”